Most Christmas Eve’s Vicki and I watch Carols by Candlelight, on TV, from the Myer Music Bowl. This always brings back memories of our first trip to Birdsville about twenty years ago. Whilst we were living at Canungra we decided to visit Birdsville for Christmas, this was before we knew how hot it got there at that time of the year! Craig and Pauline agreed to look after our property at Canungra and off we set.
At Windorah it was so hot that we had to go across the road to the pub (no great hardship) whilst the garage owner turned on sprinklers to cool the petrol pumps and tank otherwise air locks prevented the fuel being pumped. That is one of the reasons I now wouldn’t have anything other than a diesel vehicle for outback use. Anyway after fuelling up at the pub and garage we set off for Betoota.
It was dark by the time we got near Betoota and as anyone who has been in the outback knows, when you are several hundred kilometres away from any town and therefore light source the nights can be very dark especially when there is no moon. We had planned to camp at a billabong about twenty kilometres east of Betoota however we had no luck finding this place but we could see a light in the west that we presumed to be the Betoota Hotel so we set off to investigate.
Entering the hotel we found a small party under way, about 6 people in all. It transpired that the manager and his family from Mt Leonard station had come into town to spend Christmas Eve with Simon the hotel owner and were watching Carols by Candlelight from the Myer Music Bowl via satellite. When they got over their surprise at seeing travellers at such a remote spot on Christmas Eve they invited us to join them. We had a very pleasant evening with them all.
The Betoota Hotel, almost certainly the most isolated hotel in Australia, was built in the late 1880s and is the last remaining building in town. The hotel operated until 1997 when Sigmund (Simon) Remienko retired at 82 years of age. He was 25 when he migrated to Australia from Poland and was dispatched to the dusty town of Boulia, north of Betoota, where he got a job as a grader driver. He set up his own contracting business, working long hours to save £3500 to buy the hotel in 1953. Owning the hotel for 47 years, Simon was Betoota’s sole resident until ill health forced him to move. Simon passed away in 2004.
Simon was one of the outback’s true characters and there are many stories about his time as the Betoota publican. One concerns the time he went for supplies and was marooned by flood water for six weeks with little food but a pallet of beer, and he was a teetotaller! It was our good fortune to meet Simon, if only for an evening.
We then continued onto Birdsville and became the only travellers in town for Christmas Day, in fact most of the residents had left to escape the heat. Whilst we now visit Birdsville in the cooler months this first visit was special as it was before the influx of a large number of tourists and we saw Birdsville as it used to be when it was just part of a stock route. In fact it was pretty much the same as it appeared in the classic 1954 film the Back of Beyond, the story of the Birdsville mail man Tom Kruse.
On the return from Birdsville we saw a car coming in the distance and pulled over for a chat as it was the only other car we had seen that day. It was the Birdsville policeman returning from a party at a station. He asked me if I had a rifle and in those days I used to carry one. He reckoned there was good money to be had just up the road as he had passed quiet a few dingos and at that time the bounty was $20 a scalp. Nowadays travellers no longer stop to talk, most have the air conditioning on, the windows wound up and just speed past with hardly an acknowledgement.
For this, our first trip west we didn’t even have a four wheel drive and we only carried one spare wheel. Now when we head out west we have our diesel 4×4 with all manner of spares and tools and with a minimum of 2 spare wheels.
So you can see why we reminisce when we watch Carols by Candlelight.