A road trip from Windorah to Birdsville reveals unexpected animal encounters, an intriguing ghost town and miles and miles (and miles) of dusty, red landscapes.
I’m definitely not in Melbourne anymore. Staring out the window of our 4WD, I see a wedge-tailed eagle peck at some roadkill left lying on the roadside. In the distance, dead trees stand like skeletons with their arms outstretched. And in every direction, ochre plains meet the cloudless blue sky.
Trading the traffic, white noise and gleaming skyscrapers of the big smoke for the wide-open roads, starry skies and silence of Outback Queensland, I’m on the road from Quilpie to Windorah with my final destination of Birdsville another full day’s drive away.
While not exactly easy to get to, there are many reasons to be in this remote, flyblown part of Australia. There are road trippers on epic journeys around the country, adventurers keen on taking on the Simpson Desert’s dunes and big-rig drivers doing supply runs to frontier towns. Me? I’m heading to Birdsville with a group of scientists who plan to complete fieldwork in the Munga-Thirri National Park.
Sure, we could save time, skip it all and fly straight into Birdsville Airport, but where’s the fun in that?
Welcome to Windorah
Home to a local population of about 80 or so people, Windorah is found in the heart of Channel Country. Whether coming in from Longreach or Charleville, this tiny town is a welcome sight. After dodging groups of kamikaze emus that streak across the road, running perilously close to our vehicle, we reach Windorah just in time for a sundowner.
Making a beeline for the pub, we’re not disappointed by the Western Star Hotel. What we find is a pub that distils the very essence of Outback Queensland. With a corrugated iron roof, wood-panelled walls, friendly bartender, well-used dartboard and wraparound veranda, the Western Star Hotel is an instant classic. Sitting on the verandah with an ice-cold beer while a flock of galahs chatter and screech in the distance, I think to myself, ‘It doesn’t get much more Queensland than this.’
In Australia, the smaller the town, the bigger the characters, and Windorah is no exception. Staying at Cooper Cabins, we meet owners and long term residents ‘Chumpy’ and Di who treat us to home-cooked rissoles and answer all our burning questions.
Who lives in that tiny, rundown shack at the edge of town? An old, camera-shy drover who loves to have a chat. Is the solar farm we passed on the way in worth a look? The jury’s out on whether the solar project generates enough power but it sure catches the eye of tourists.
Opened in 2009, the Windorah Solar Farm may not be open to the public for tours but that hasn’t stopped visitors from turning up to admire the gleaming solar dishes reflecting in the bright Queensland sun. The sight of five solar dishes set against a backdrop of red earth below and blue sky above is a photographer’s dream, and in a one-horse town a welcome oddity to check out the next morning before we continue the journey.
Hitting the road again with Birdsville in sight, another outback oddity awaits. After a long drive of about six hours with nothing much on the way except for wide-open spaces and the odd kangaroo or herd of feral cattle, we’re glad to see Betoota in all its glory.
Betoota (population: zero, officially) is one of those places that I suspected wasn’t actually a real place. Found just off the Birdsville Developmental Road, Betoota is an essential stopping point for anyone driving from Windorah to Birdsville. Stretching our legs, we take photos of the striking Dreamtime Serpent artwork found on a nearby hill off the highway.
Then we come to the towns one and only building, the Betoota Hotel. When the pub’s owner, a Polish immigrant named Sigmund (Ziggy) Remienko, passed away in 2004, the building fell into disrepair. Luckily, a Brisbane-based smash repairer took on the challenge of restoring it with a team of ten or so mates. Now the Betoota Hotel is well on its way to welcoming a new crop of visitors passing through the once famed ghost town.
After an hour wandering around Betoota, not another soul comes through the town, but that may be about to change.
Recently gaining further notoriety thanks to online satirical newspaper The Betoota Advocate, the ghost town’s mythical status has now been cemented among a new generation of Australians thanks to the power of the internet.
Word on the street is that Betoota’s star is once again on the rise, thanks to a new owner’s plan to resurrect the pub and get XXXX flowing through the beer taps once again. True to Australian form, you just can’t keep a good pub down.
Birdsville or bust
Just under 170 kilometres away, Birdsville is the Holy Grail so many road trippers quest for. Rattling along sealed and unsealed roads to get there from Windorah, others arrive from all directions to see the little but legendary town.
Groups of weary drivers come in from South Australia via the famous Birdsville Track and tour buses make their way from up north using the Eyre Developmental Road. Birdsville’s unique desert-flanked location and rich history as one of Australia’s most remote townships ensures its popularity with all types of travellers.
The young and old, the well heeled and the rough-around-the edges — all come together in Birdsville. By day, the Birdsville Bakery is the place to be. From a curried camel pie to a lemon-myrtle tart, elements of the Outback are ever present.
In the afternoon, Birdsville Hotel is a hotspot for a lazy beer. With mobile phones frowned upon in the front bar (get caught and you’ll have to drop a coin into the Royal Flying Doctor Service tin), I sit on the verandah with a tinnie of Queensland’s finest, watching light aircraft land at the airstrip opposite the pub.
Inside, tourists laugh over pub grub and wine in the dining room, drivers talk about tackling Big Red and a group of elderly patrons have a singalong around the piano just like travellers would have done back in 1884 when the hotel opened. Where else in the world would you find such an eclectic bunch of people under one roof? Only in Birdsville, of course.’