A day at the Birdsville Roadhouse

Big Red, Simpson Desert

We get a glimpse into life at the Birdsville Roadhouse on the edge of the Simpson Desert.

As the sun rises over the Birdsville billabong, a chorus of birds greets the morning. An orange glow envelops the town and movement begins to stir the dust on the ground. Birdsville, with a population of 100, is nestled in the south-western corner of Queensland, on the edge of the Simpson Desert and is miles from anywhere.

Travellers with 4WDs creep slowly through the streets as they seek fuel and snacks. It’s 194 kilometres to the nearest town and travellers like to hit the road early.

Their first port of call is the Birdsville Roadhouse, the large building that dominates the sparsely built-up town. Owners Bronwynne and Peter Barnes and their staff are chatting over cups of steaming tea, discussing the coming day.

They greet the travellers with cheerful g’days and Bronwynne answers questions about road conditions, fuel and mechanical repairs. She’s in charge of the shop and spends her days ordering stock, managing the accounts and sharing her extensive knowledge of the local area with travellers.

Peter Barnes (Barnes’y) is the town’s only mechanic. He and Bronwynne have lived in the area since the early 1980s. He’s faced all kinds of mechanical problems and is able to fix almost anything, at least temporarily to get a traveller out of immediate trouble. Barnes'y, Birdsville RoadhouseThe stream of customers ebbs and flows throughout the day. There’s a group of motorbike riders who are planning on tackling the Simpson Desert. Do they need a national parks pass? Do we sell motorbike tyres? (Yes and yes.)

Then there’s a family who have just arrived in town. Are there any other shops? (Not really.) Where’s the best place to camp? (Beside the river or in the caravan park.) The family is taking one year to travel around Australia and they’re staying in Birdsville for a couple of days so the young children can catch up on schoolwork. They’re friendly customers who are willing to chat.

Birdsville RoadhouseIt’s time for another cuppa. The workshop has been busy so the girls in the shop deliver mugs of milky coffee out to Barnes’y and his son, Sam. Sam is a boilermaker who spends most of his time fixing machinery, trailers and helping Barnes’y with the mechanical work. Today he’s made a set of hydraulic loading ramps for a council truck and a sign for a bar at the rodeo yards.

Barnes’y has spent the morning fixing a bent chassis on an over-packed dual-cab ute. He says it’s a common problem because people tend to overload their cars when they’re camping. He has wealth of knowledge about travelling in the outback, driving on outback roads and crossing the Simpson Desert. His advice is second-to-none and has saved many a traveller from breaking down in what is quite literally the middle of nowhere.

He gives sound, honest advice because he’s the one who will have to recover cars when something goes wrong, like the bent chassis. As the Birdsville RACQ contractor, he’s responsible for recovering vehicles up to 300 kilometres away, including in the rough, desolate Simpson Desert.

A group of 4WDs pull up at the bowsers. They buy sand flags to attach to their aerials (a requirement of desert driving) and ask Sam about the best tracks through the dunes. Sam likes the French Line – the most direct route with the steepest sand dunes. But, he warns, let your tyre pressures down. The girls in the shop sell them cold drinks and a t-shirt each.

The most popular t-shirt says ‘London, Paris, New York, Birdsville, Rome’ with Birdsville in bold font. Lots of people comment that there wouldn’t be many people who have been to all of those places.

Birdsville Roadhouse signA manager from a nearby station arrives. He needs a car serviced and a grocery order filled for when the next truck delivery arrives. That will be in a week – the truck from Adelaide only arrives once a fortnight carrying the whole town’s supplies. The truck travels 1200 kilometres to reach us, 500 of which is on dirt roads, dropping supplies at stations along the way.

The phone is constantly ringing – people call asking for directions, road conditions, to book their cars in for a service, to check the availability of stock, to find out what the weather is like, to arrange delivery of the grocery order to the trucking yard in Adelaide, to find someone who is supposed to be in town, to see if we have a certain size tyre in stock and to see what time the shop closes.

Later in the afternoon, it’s RACQ headquarters on the phone. They’ve had a call from someone who is bogged near ‘Big Red’, the 40-metre-high sand dune about 50 kilometres out of Birdsville. Barnes’y has an ex-German army MAN truck that he uses to rescue vehicles in the Simpson Desert. But, since this 4WD is only bogged, he hopes he can tow it out with just a land cruiser ute – the MAN is very expensive to run and is usually only used as a last resort.

Simpson Track, Simpson DesertHe heads off well before sunset but hopes to get back before it’s dark. Luckily, it doesn’t take him long. He let the 4WD’s tyre pressures down substantially and drove it out of the bog. The owners are grateful and surprised that tyre pressure can make such a difference in the desert sand.

In the shop, the girls are selling the last of the roast chickens. Kathy is a former lab technician who moved to Birdsville three years ago and loved it so much that she stayed. Similarly, Kelly was a journalism student who moved to Birdsville on a whim for a brief break before starting a post-graduate course. She too loved the outback life so much that she deferred her course. Although Birdsville has a very transient population, there are many people who have stayed on after their initial planned time-period. They all say that the lifestyle is addictive.

A late stream of customers file through the shop, most looking for fuel as well as vegetables and meat to cook for dinner. They’ve just arrived in town and enjoy discussing their day’s journey with the girls. Birdsville attracts people from everywhere and for every reason, so the girls are always enthralled by the stories.

As the sun sinks closer to the horizon, the last customer waves goodbye and the doors are locked. The noisy workshop doors are wound down and the girls begin to count the till, talking about events on the upcoming weekend. Friday night will be a busy night at the pub because a local nurse will be playing the guitar and singing, and on Saturday the Birdsville Bakery are hosting a pizza night. Their pizzas are amazing.

It’s been an average day – a lot has happened, a lot of interesting people were met and their company enjoyed. There’s a lot to love about life in one of Australia’s most remote and fascinating towns.

Check out the Birdsville Roadhouse blog for more stories of life in this remote town.

  • John

    Thank you for the photos, shows people what they can expect to see.