Betoota. Population: Zero

Days were long, roads were dusty and work was thirsty for the influx of outback settlers in the late 1800s. The outback was thriving as our fledgling nation relied upon produce from the outback to feed the hoards of people migrating to a wide brown land of promise.

When English settlers landed in 1788, they brought with them six head of cattle. By 1800, there were over 1000 and by 1850, there were almost 2,000,000. Settlers had discovered that hardy cattle could thrive on the vast plains of northern Australia and exploration expeditions of inland Australia delved into the outback to find even more suitable land.

By the late 1800s, a prosperous pastoral industry meant that cattle were transported from the remote stations of outback Australia to the bustling capital cities where demand was highest. However, each state was still a separate colony with its own army, government and even train line sizes. Therefore, until federation, taxes had to be paid at state border crossings and a number of towns sprung up around the country where drovers had to stop to pay their tolls at customs.

Photo taken in Betoota between 1912 and 1951: National Library of Australia

One such town was Birdsville and another, just 170 kilometres east of Birdsville, was Betoota. Both towns were first surveyed in 1887. While Birdsville boasted three pubs, a cordial factory and a population of over 300, there were only ever three streets in Betoota that were named, despite it being almost as large.

Although slightly smaller in size and notoriety, Betoota was a Cobb & Co change station where coach drivers changed their horses during long journeys – and journeys in this region were always long. In 1895, the building of a rabbit-proof fence attracted rowdy workers to the town so a policeman was stationed in Betoota for the first time. However, in 1928, an inspection found that no one had been taken into custody for more than five years so the police station and courthouse were closed.

After federation, there was no need for toll officers or towns to support them and the last horse-drawn Cobb & Co coach service ran in 1924.

Once-thriving outback towns crumbled as their populations dwindled, people seeking employment where employment existed. It was only a few necessary businesses that remained for the sole purpose of entertaining and servicing pastoral workers. It wasn’t until the 1980s that an increase in tourism encouraged the growth of infrastructure and population that towns like Birdsville enjoy today. However, with Birdsville and Windorah so close to Betoota, it suffered more than most towns.

Despite this, a polish immigrant called Sigmund (Simon/Ziggy) Remienko bought the Betoota Hotel in 1953. He had saved up the £3500 to buy the hotel by working as a grader driver in nearby Boulia. He lived in and managed the hotel until his retirement in 1997, when he closed the hotel doors, but continued to live there as Betoota’s sole resident until his death in 2004.

Betoota Hotel, 1980

Until 1997, the Betoota Hotel was a welcome rest stop and fuel supplier for outback travellers, despite the reclusive Mr Remienko not always being very welcoming. Now, the dusty hotel stands alone on a deserted street traversing a vast gibber plain and traffic is directed past the town on a newly graded bypass.

However, Australia’s smallest town still boasts a racetrack, race club and a well-maintained airstrip. On the last weekend of August each year, the Betoota Races attracts crowds from all over the country as they head to the famous Birdsville Races, held on the following weekend. They camp at the Betoota racetrack where there are amenities, food and merchandise stalls and live entertainment.

People from nearby stations work tirelessly to promote the unique event and fundraise throughout the year in order to hold them. It’s one of our favourite events on the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival calendar and is a fantastic opportunity to experience outback racing without the crowds of city people.

Even if you’re not planning a trip coinciding with the races, Betoota is still worth a stop, although these days you’ll have to bring your own supplies. You can gaze at the deserted hotel and marvel at its longevity – it was built in the late 1880s – and enjoy the peace and quiet that Simon Remienko cherished. “People came here to have weddings, big parties, all sorts of reasons,” he once told a journalist. “It’s a good place.”

The Birdsville Community celebrating ‘Christmas in July’  to raise money for the Betoota Race Club


Bound for Birdsville

Griselda Sprigg and her children try to escape the heat.

When Griselda Sprigg was asked, incredulously, why she should want to cross the Simpson Desert she replied: “All these blokes have done it – why shouldn’t I?” This was in 1962, as she and her family were planning the first motorized crossing of the barren, dune-laden Simpson Desert that covers 176,500 square kilometres of central Australia.

Prior to their trip, the desert had been traversed by surveyors, settlers and land prospectors – but only crossed twice. Of course, the Wangkangurru people, the traditional owners of the land, were the first to travel the Simpson. They lived on desert animals and made wells for water as they roamed the dunes – descendents of the tribe still live in the Birdsville area today.

In 1936, Ted Colson became the first white man to actually cross the desert. With Peter Ains, his aboriginal friend and guide, and five camels, he crossed from his homestead near Dalhousie to Birdsville and back in 36 days. A monument opposite the Birdsville Hotel recognizes their achievement.

Cecil Madigan’s crossing followed in 1939. It was he who, a decade earlier, had named the desert the Simpson after a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide called Alfred Simpson who had provided the funds for a grateful Madigan to survey the region. Until then it was called the Arunta Desert. Madigan returned to cross the desert in 1939 with the intention of surveying its least-known areas and was again funded by Simpson.

However, it was the gutsy Griselda Sprigg, her geologist husband Reg and their two children, Marg and Doug, who first crossed the desert in a motorized vehicle. They spurred the beginning of a four-wheel-driving challenge that now brings thousands of travellers to Birdsville each year.

Doug, Reg and Griselda Sprigg

Griselda was a young Scottish lass who met Reg (won him in a bet, as she says) while he was in Scotland for a conference. Their romance lasted for two years via correspondence after he returned to Australia. Eventually, he proposed over the phone and Griselda immigrated to Australia.

She slowly grew accustomed to the Adelaide heat. But, when Reg was assigned to months of work in the arid South Australian outback shortly after their marriage, Griselda, not wanting to live without her new husband, insisted on joining him. Her adaptation to life in a caravan, the dust, heat and flies of the outback is admirable and led to a life of remote outback travel, even after the birth of her two children.

The Sprigg children at the original Poeppel’s Corner post.

While Reg founded Geosurveyors of Australia and Santos and discovered some of the most ancient fossils known to man, Griselda was by his side. “I would try to be inventive,” she said of her limited pantry while crossing the Simpson Desert. “But there are only so many ways you can cook spam.”

Her book, Dune is a Four-Letter Word, is an entertaining, honest reflection of her life in the outback contemplating red back spiders on the loo and learning bush mechanics on the Birdsville Track (“we limped into Mungerannie, me walking beside the Land Rover, sprinkling talcum powder every time I sensed a puff of burning rubber,”). A large part of the book documents their Simpson Desert journey, which is being recreated in Birdsville this week as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.

For those contemplating the desert crossing today, it’s a very different experience. Reading about Griselda’s quest for a toilet at the township of Finke (“Why in heaven’s name were men made to pee standing up?”), her battle with spinifex (“Marg was at the time trying to remove spinifex spines from my derriere… I wondered once again what could possibly have possessed me to trade those cool Scottish climes for a desert dune,”) and combating an overheating car on a rough track (“The track got worse and so did my already frazzled mood. Every few miles I had to slide under the car to remove clumps of grass,”) is enough to make any four-wheel-drive enthusiast feel lucky for the now heavily traversed Simpson tracks, roof-top tents and battery-powered car fridges.

The Simpson Desert today.

You can buy Dune is a Four-Letter Word here.  

Keep the Flying Doctor in the Air

In the 1950s, Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies described the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) as “perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.”

In Birdsville, we know that these words are still true. When the closest doctor is 700 kilometres away, we rely on the RFDS for a fortnightly clinic day and to quickly provide medical care in emergencies. Without them, it would be difficult to survive in the outback.

It was a minister of the Presbyterian Church who conceived the idea of the RFDS. The Rev John Flynn, or ‘Flynn of the Inland’, had lived in the outback for much of his life and had witnessed the struggle and hardship of the outback folk. He began setting up hospitals in the outback and in 1912 established the Australian Inland Mission.

Photo courtesy RFDS

It wasn’t until 1928, and after ten years of campaigning, that the first RFDS flight took off from Cloncurry. In that first year, the RFDS flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients. A couple of years later, the invention of the pedal radio made it possible for people living in remote areas to contact the RFDS in times of emergency.

The introduction of transistor receivers led to the establishment of the ‘Galah Sessions’ that were held throughout the day so that nurses at the Australian Inland Mission Hospitals could contact remote stations and put them in touch with a doctor. Rev Flynn’s vision of a ‘mantle of safety’ over the outback was now a reality.

These days, telephones have made contact much easier but the RFDS is still necessary for people living in remote communities with no doctor. Both residents and travelers of the outback can have peace of mind that if there’s a medical emergency, an RFDS plane will evacuate them to the closest hospital, usually several hundred kilometers away.

Photo courtesy National Library of Australia

However, keeping RFDS planes flying is expensive business. Luckily, there are hoards of generous people who are willing to donate their time and money to support the lifeline of the outback.

For example, the Birdsville Races are held in September each year to raise money for the service and there’s always an RFDS donation tin at the bar of the Birdsville Hotel and Birdsville Roadhouse.

Just last week, Birdsville local Jenna Brook completed a 435-kilometre ‘Long Walk Home’ across the Simpson Desert, which raised $30,000 for the service. She publicized and trained for the walk for nine months before embarking on the journey and is still receiving donations that she is passing on to the RFDS.

Jenna is an inspirational young woman who brought the RFDS to the attention of people all over the world and is helping keep Rev Flynn’s dream alive. According to the RFDS website, Flynn once said, “If you start something worthwhile, nothing can stop it.” This hero of the outback is honoured on the Australian $20 note. 

Thanks to the RFDS website for the fantastic information and historical facts. 

The outback from an eagle’s view…

Although Lou Oldfield only moved to Birdsville in 2009, her immense passion for the channel country suggests that love for the area has quickly seeped into her blood. This passion is perhaps what has made her own company, Central Eagle Aviation, so successful.

During her first year in Birdsville, Lou was the sole pilot offering scenic flights from Birdsville, flying for Australasian Jet. When she met her now-husband Clayton Oldfield, the manager of Pandie Pandie Station on the Birdsville Track, Lou realised that she would be staying in Birdsville for a lot longer than intended.

With a long family history of involvement in Aviation, it was only natural that Lou should buy her own aircraft and start Central Eagle Aviation, named after a British aviation company founded by her grandfather in the 1940s.

Lou says that the best part about running her own company is showing travelers the land from the air. “I always hope that they enjoy it and see the country as I do,” she says. “Flying really allows you to see the world from a completely different perspective. This area is absolutely spectacular from the air, particularly at the right time of day when a lovely light crosses the dunes. It’s out of this world!”

Central Eagle Aviation provides a number of flight options including the Simpson Desert, Lake Eyre, the Birdsville Track and the remote settlement of Innamincka. Every flight reveals secrets about the outback that aren’t shared with the people on the ground.

“You can see things that you would never know existed on the ground,” says Lou. “For example, you can drive the entire Birdsville Track and you’d never know that you are paralleling the most amazing river systems. You never really see the water on the ground even though it’s only a few sand dunes away.

Lou is adamant that Birdsville is the best starting point for a flight to Lake Eyre, the spectacular salt lake in central South Australia. “You can appreciate how the rivers come down through the channel country and just how far the water that goes into Lake Eyre travels,” she says. “It gives you a far better appreciation of the landscape than just seeing the Lake alone. Also, the channel country is always full of birdlife, wild flowers and animals.”

Like so many people, Lou has fallen in love with the Birdsville area and now lives happily on the 1.6 million-acre Pandie Pandie Station. She brings this unique perspective to her flights and can genuinely explain what outback life is really like.

While she raises her young twin boys, she has enlisted the help of pilots who are enveloped in the Pandie Pandie lifestyle and who share the same passion for the outback as Lou. “It works well with the station,” she says. “They are part of the team here, too, which gives them an increased knowledge and understanding of the country, vegetation, weather, birdlife, cattle industry and history.”