Famously, Australians can take a joke against themselves. From the country that brought you bananas in pyjamas and men in cork hats, I submit a regatta without water as a fine addition to their list of cultural icons.

What is Henley-on-Todd?

It’s an annual boat race along the Todd River in Alice Springs, and is named after the Henley-on-Thames Regatta.

Roll back a few decades and I was a backpacker on my first solo trip. I visited Australia because my grandmother was born there, and while in Adelaide I had tea with a doughty elderly lady who had known my great-grandmother. She was delighted to give me a small sepia photo of Gwendoline. She also suggested I visit Alice Springs, the desert oasis in the Australian outback. I took her advice, and suffered the coldest night of my life on the overnight train.

What is unusual about this boat race?

Alice Springs is close to the centre of Australia, and the Todd River rarely has water in it. The race is along the dry river bed using boats of all sorts with no bottom. People run along inside the boats in a mad dash to the line.

My visit coincided with a food and wine festival (fun) and a day in the town’s dry riverbed watching a ‘regatta’ called Henleyon- Todd. At the time I wasn’t a rower. I had only ever sat in pleasure craft and had no idea that the future path of my life would entail a lot of rowing. But hey, drinking cold lager and picking up a frame boat and running down a gravel riverbed round an oil drum and back seemed like a fun way to spend the day. They even gave me a participant’s certificate.

I returned to Henley-on-Todd on a dusty August day this year and found the atmosphere and genuine Australian enthusiasm for life as evident as I remembered. This time I was part of the VIP tent, and although my rowing knowledge has expanded in the intervening years, it did not serve me any better when it came to successfully navigating the racing schedule.

From the High Street parade down the Todd Mall to the welcome from the Aboriginal people, the Arrernte, and the fancy dress bring-your-own-boat contest, the day was a rainbow display of Australian good humour. The events programme had expanded somewhat since my first attendance, and I was able to see pickup- your-boat-andrun events such as the ‘maxi yacht’ of 10 people, the ‘rowing fours’ and the ‘kayak race’, before moving onto the ‘surf-boardon- rails’ events, including a surf rescue and Oxford tubs events.

Inventiveness matters at this regatta, and watching your fellow humans suffering or humiliating themselves is part of the ritual.

Inventiveness matters at this regatta, and watching your fellow humans suffering or humiliating themselves is part of the ritual. I had never seen human hamster wheels before, a budgie smuggler sprint (look it up) or sand shoveling, and my favourite – the water skis: four people using just one pair of skis.

My family was included in the event because it was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line – the first electrical communication between Australia and the outside world. Morse code messages could now reach the colony from New York, London or Singapore in hours instead of the lengthy wait for letters sent by sea. My ancestor Charles Todd was in charge of the project and his wife, Alice, is memorialised in the name of the oasis around which the town grew up.

On the day, I did manage to compete, and even met someone who is also a sculler – she spotted my carefully selected kangaroo rowsuit and said, “You’re wearing a zootie!” to which I replied, “You’re a rower!” I now claim the title of probably being the only person in the world to have attended both Henley and Henley-on-Todd in the same year … I just need Royal Canadian Henley to complete my hat trick of events.


Rebecca Caroe