The Henley Royal Regatta, perhaps the most famous boat race in the world, takes place each year along a particularly straight segment of the River Thames at Henley-on-Thames, England. It’s a huge sporting event featuring world-class competition. It’s also a primary attraction in the summer social season.
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The regatta revels in superlatives: huge crowds of spectators; several days of exciting races; upwards of two hundred individual competitions. International athletes of Olympics quality rowing for glory upon the waters of the Thames. The Grand Challenge Cup is the greatest prize of all and it has been awarded to the winner of the men’s eights since 1839.
That’s all the focus I’m going to place on the Henley Royal Regatta. I’m only interested in it tangentially. It helps one understand the context of my primary interest. The important point here is that the regatta on the River Thames is a prestigious event, remarkable both for its level of sporting competition and its placement in high-society.
Let’s jump to the middle the Australian Outback, to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. It’s dry, it’s remote and it doesn’t attract boatloads of Olympians searching for racing glory. I’m pretty sure that English high-society doesn’t include this on their annual circuit of social events either, although I’m certain it’s still a perfectly fine place and will survive nonetheless. How should a town respond to this situation? By mocking it of course, which definitely earns a Twelve Mile Circle seal of approval. In that spirit, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta came into being in 1962 and has been repeated every year thereafter for half a century.
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Alice Springs substitutes for Henley-on-Thames and the Todd River replaces the River Thames. The Todd River? Most of the time it’s a dry riverbed. The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology describes it as a 50 kilometre stream that receives 260 milimetres (about 10 inches) of rain each year. Most of that water falls in spurts however, so the Todd may rage briefly but it’s usually dry like it appears in this satellite image.
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People in Alice Springs have adjusted to an intermittent flood plain within their midst. Notice the causeway on Wills Terrace. It looks fairly ridiculous in this Street View image: an odd elevated walkway crossing an open field. This simply indicates that the Street View car drove by when the Todd River wasn’t living up to its name, which is most of the time. The walkway takes on a more utilitarian purpose when the basin fills and the river surges to life, flowing swiftly across the roadway. From there it drains to the Hale River and eventually into Lake Eyre which has its own unique perspective on wet and dry cycles.
The Henley-on-Todd Regatta does not rely upon water, in fact that would be a detriment. Vaguely boat-shaped objects with open bottoms race down the riverbed on human feet. There are fifteen racing categories including surf rescue, sand skis, bath tub derby and battle boat spectacular ("3 battle boats, powered by four wheel drives, churn through the sand bristling with flour mortars and high powered water cannons"). As many as 500 people compete. It sounds like something I’d enjoy if I ever got a chance to attend.
This tongue-in-cheek regatta has become "The Territory’s longest running iconic event." It’s everything that the more-famous Henley Royal Regatta is not: casual; inclusive; and irreverent. One is more likely to see vikings and pirates milling about the crowd than stuffy dress codes.
The only thing that can ruin a Henley-on-Todd Regatta is water. The 1993 event had to be canceled when the Todd River unexpectedly ran wet.
Referring back to my recent article on Pinwheel: The folks at Pinwheel were kind enough to give me several more invitations. Please let me know if you’d like one. I have a bunch.