It began – and continues – cautiously as a joke at the expense of the original British settlers and the formal atmosphere of the British river races which continue today. Every year in the spring, around September, the town holds a mock regatta which large numbers of locals and tourists attend. Food and drink are sold at stalls, "no fishing" signs are put up, and the celebration takes all day. It is the only dry river regatta in the world; thus, it is the only regatta ever cancelled because of wet weather and there was actually water in the river. This happened in 1993, when the event was cancelled for the year due to flooding. However, the Alice Springs Hash House Harriers and Katherine Hash House Harriers running groups put their boat entry into the water and completed the course under protest of the track officials. This was televised by ABC and shown around Australia on the nightly news.
"Boats" are made from metal frames and hung with banners and advertisements, and teams of "rowers" run their boats in races through the hot sand. Races are also held in washtubs, human-sized hamster wheels and at the final event, modified trucks decked out as boats are driven by teams armed with flour bombs and water cannon. Many bystanders end up as casualties of the final battle. Traditional teams include Pirates and Vikings, complete with costumes. Who wins the final battle can be difficult to determine; even the announcers occasionally get a blast.
Reg Smith at the Alice Springs Meteorological Bureau proposed an actual regatta along the lines of the famous Henley Royal Regatta (at Henley-on-Thames, thus the name of the regatta) in 1962. The idea was taken up by the Rotary club of Alice Springs, and despite the fact that the town was 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) from the nearest large body of water this was never seen as a problem.
Watching seemingly sane people race in bottomless "eights", "Oxford tubs", "bath tubs" and yachts through the deep coarse sand of the Todd River is a unique spectacle amongst world sporting events and attracts many local and international participants.
The Henley-On-Todd Regatta is run entirely on a volunteer basis by three Rotary Clubs based in 'the Alice'.
The Todd River was named by surveyor W. W. Mills after Lady Alice Todd (née Alice Gillam Bell), wife of Sir Charles Todd, Postmaster General of South Australia and driving force for the Australian Overland Telegraph Line from Port Augusta to Darwin. The river is usually dry, but prone to flooding during the wet season. The Alice Springs were discovered in 1871 during the construction of this line.
- Brian Johnston (5 November 2016). Archive on 4 - Down Your Way. Alice Springs. Event occurs at 16:28.
- Herrick, Robert (11 August 2014). "Yellow submarine to make a splash at Henley-on-Todd dry river bed regatta". ABC. Retrieved 7 February 2017.