Sully – an old friend, a great character.

Every year since 1954, Ron O’Sullivan, or Sully as most people know him, has been a familiar sight at the Birdsville Anzac day parade. He’s missed only one year. Back then, he says, the Anzac day services were held in the old hospital grounds. “They had no memorial or anything in those days,” Sully remembers.

“I first came out to this country 1948. I was a dozer driver when they were building an airstrip at Leigh Creek,” he told us. “They lent us a car and we came up the Birdsville Track. It was a tough drive in those days. Then I didn’t come out again until Anzac day 1954.”

Originally from Richmond, in Melbourne, Sully left school in the fourth grade and ran away from home when he was ten years old to “go bush”. “I had a stepfather and I didn’t like him,” he said. “I was the worry of my mum’s life. She’d say: ‘he was a bastard of a kid – he was always running away from home to go to the bush’.”

He was only 16 years old when he enlisted in the army in 1939 at the beginning of World War Two. He was in the 2/9th Battalion. “I took the name off the side of a truck I’d seen. The enlisting officer turns around and says: ‘What’s yer name?’ I said it was Vaughan because the truck was Vaughan Transport. He said: ‘How do you spell it?’ and I couldn’t spell it. He said: ‘couldn’t you have picked an easier name?’” 

Sully has strong connections with the Birdsville area. “When I enlisted at the recruiting office in Brisbane, there was a heap of fellas there. Lots of them were stockman, mostly at the Kidman stations, and I said: ‘after the war, I’ll come out’, but they were all killed. So I first came out at Anzac day for them,” he said.

Sully was a Prisoner of War in Germany and Austria during the war and made eight attempts to escape.

After the war, Sully worked at Brambles Industrial Services, becoming a manager of over 200 staff for 15 years. A mate from the army who had a cattle station once asked him what he would do when he retired. “I said: ‘I’m going to buy a small cattle property with a big house on a hill with a big verandah and then I’m going to watch all my stock making money for me while I’m sitting there of an evening having a beer’,” he said.

He eventually bought a property and named it Muncoonie after the Muncoonie Lakes on Adria Downs, north west of Birdsville. “I called old Bill Brook up and asked if he’d mind if I called my place Muncoonie,” Sully said.

“My wife was an animal lover, like myself, and every animal had a name. There was Charley, Eddie, and Muriel… We couldn’t sell them. We ended up with a lot of bloody pets!”

Sully says that he mainly keeps coming out to Birdsville because of the people here. “I like coming out here because people are friendly and you get to know them. I’ve made lots of friends,” he says. “I can remember them all, like old Maudie Naylor. They reckon she was 114 – I don’t know if she was. She went blind in the end and she used to sit outside the pub before it burnt in ‘79. You had to go up to her and she felt your face. She’d say, ‘oh, it’s Sully’. She’s up in the cemetery now. All the original people are up there in the cemetery.”

He says that Birdsville has changed a little over the years that he’s been coming. “It’s gotten bigger and there were no telephones on when I first started coming,” he remembers. “They didn’t get the phone on here until the late ‘70s. When they did, there was only one phone and everyone had to line up to use it.”

“When the caravan park was first set up there was only two fiberglass buildings that were the showers and there were no trees at all,” he says of the caravan park that he has always camped at. “My wife would stay a week or a fortnight and then fly out. Now that I’m retired I stay ‘til I feel like going home, though. My wife passed away five years ago so I do the same thing here that I do at home, except mow the lawn.”

Sully’s experiences of Birdsville are varied – he’s also travelled extensively around the region. “I’ve met Prime Ministers here, two Governor Generals, Malcolm Fraser and his wife Tammy…  We used to do a lot of desert crossings, just for something to do,” he says. “In those early days there was nothing at Mt Dare. It was just a big cattle property – there was no hotel.”

“We used to go to Dalhousie and Finke, we did Walker’s Crossing [alternate route between Birdsville and Innaminkca, currently closed] a few times before Walker died and they named the track after him. There was usually just two of us in one car, me and a mate – I had Toyotas and Land Rovers. I love the desert and I’ve never got into trouble in the desert, even in the drought and the heat – it’s common sense. If you do get into strife, don’t panic.”

A day in the life: Birdsville Roadhouse

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.

Four-wheel-drives creep slowly through the streets as their occupants 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.

You can read more of ‘A Day At The Birdsville Roadhouse’ on the Explore Australia blog, which this was written for. The blog provides plenty of other fascinating insights into Australian travel and destinations!

“The Birdsville Track is no big challenge!”

As I write, I’m looking at the Krakka Koldee Racing Buggy on the dyno, a mechanism that tests horsepower and health of vehicles. We’re waiting for it to be tested to gauge the success of its rewiring in Brisbane, which explains the absence of blog posts over the past week, sorry!

However, before we left Birdsville, we had the pleasure of meeting a group of three cyclists who are tackling a south-north journey of Australia to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. John Jagoe, 70, Maree Smith, 55, and Murray Suckling, 73, were disappointed with the condition of the Birdsville Track. They expected it to be a much harder, rougher ride!

“The Birdsville Track was far better than we imagined. We thought it would be a challenging ride but there was only a little bit of soft sand and loose gravel, which is difficult on a bike,” Murray told us when we spoke to him in Birdsville.

Their journey is 2200 kilometres long, stretching between the Great Australian Bight and the Gulf of Carpentaria, passing through the Flinders Ranges. Since they left Port Augusta two and a half weeks ago, they said that their best stop was definitely Birdsville.

“Birdsville is far more modern than we expected,” Murray said. “It’s a very friendly community and we’ve stayed here a lot longer than we planned to.”

When the group heard that the Birdsville Social Club was holding their annual Bronco Branding, Rodeo and Camp Draft weekend, they decided to stay and watch. They also attended Sandra’s stargazing session and were amazed by the desert night sky. “This is our fifth day in Birdsville now and we’re still not ready to leave,” Murray said.

The group mentioned that they were also very impressed with facilities at Clayton Station, a farm stay and camping area north of Marree on the Birdsville Track and the staff at the Mungerannie Hotel, just over 300 kilometres south of Birdsville. “Clayton Station camping area had flush toilets in the middle of nowhere!” Maree marvelled. “When we left Mungerannie, we were about 20 kilomtres out and they caught up with us and gave us a box of apples.”

Four years ago, the trio successfully completed a 6100-kilometre east west crossing of Australia from Byron Bay to Steep Point, passing Innamincka and Uluru. This journey took three months and eventually raised over $17,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

It’s travellers like John, Maree and Murray that make living in Birdsville so rewarding. They’re inspiring, fascinating people that we get to know over a few days and who are able to experience the best of outback life in Birdsville.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is an exceptional cause to support and we thank the people who do. With the closest doctor 700 kilometres away, it’s the RFDS who we call for emergency assistance and who fly in for a fortnightly GP practice.

Birdsville local Jenna Brook is about to embark on a challenging 440-kilometre Simpson Desert Walk to raise money for the RFDS. She has already singlehandedly raised over $14,000. If you would like to donate to the walk, you can head to her website, which also documents her walk preparations. If you would like to donate to John, Maree and Murray’s ride, they ask that you contact the RFDS directly or give them a donation if you see them during their journey.

From all in Birdsville, thank you for supporting a cause that is incredibly important for the survival of remote communities.

Desert Rescue with the MAN

The radio crackled in the cab of the truck as we bumped over the sandy track. The morning was bright and fresh and sunlight sparkled on the rippling water ahead. Sandwiches were neatly packed in a bag at my feet – it was going to be a long drive into the great Simpson Desert.

The previous night, Barnes’y had received a callout to a four-wheel-drive that had broke down past Eyre Creek, about 90 kilometres into the desert from Birdsville. He’d packed and fuelled the truck, I’d tagged along, and we were heading to the rescue in the Birdsville Roadhouse’s ex German army MAN truck.

The huge, ominous-looking truck gets lots of attention from visitors when it’s parked outside the workshop. ‘Mad Max-like’, more than a few people have said. At three metres tall, two and a half metres wide and with tyres that are over one metre high, it’s intimidating in comparison to the four-wheel-drives it towers over.

Built in 1979 as a supply truck for the German army, it’s had an interesting life. Barnes’y acquired the truck in 1995 as a left-hand-drive and converted it before building a mobile home on the back with the intention of travelling around Australia. It was painted by Birdsville artist Wolfgang John and was a sight to be seen on the outback roads when they set off in 1996.

When the Barnes’ moved overseas for a stint, the truck was displayed in the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs until they reclaimed it on their return, setting off the museum’s fire alarms with their exhaust fumes when they fired the truck up. When they moved back to Birdsville in 2009 the truck came with them and Barnes’y had it converted into the tilt-tray top that’s now used for desert rescues.

With a V8, 265 horsepower air-cooled Deutz engine, 45 centimetres of ground clearance, constant four-wheel-drive, and the use of a lock-up torque converter ahead of the clutch, it’s perfect for the rough terrain and sand dunes of the Simpson. On flat ground, it can hit a maximum of 85 kilometres per hour. Last year, the MAN came in handy when the Barnes’ were at the Finke Desert Race and volunteered themselves as the recovery team.

When we reached the first of the desert’s sand dunes, Barnes’y explained that it would take twenty minutes to let down the tyres, and an hour to pump them up again. So, he climbed the first dune without worrying about the tyres. It was lucky he did – our stranded motorists who were supposed to be 90 kilometres away were on the track between the dune we’d just climbed and the next one. They’d miscalculated their position.

Nevertheless, their four-wheel drive was loaded, we all climbed in and Barnes’y took us back to Birdsville. Since our return wasn’t anticipated until late in the afternoon, everyone was surprised to see the truck roll into the yard before midday. It was an easy rescue and, since Bronwynne had made the packed lunch, a picnic on the bank of the Diamantina River ensued.

If you’d like to read more about Barnes’y’s truck, check out Outback Magazine’s 2011 article or get hold of a copy of the February 2011 issue of Truckin’ Life.

*There’s one more day to vote for The Galah Session in the Best Australian Blogs competition, so head here to vote.

Birdsville Bronco Branding and Campdraft

Clouds of dust rise from the ground as the group of cattle move restlessly around the yard. A voice over the loudspeaker announces the name of the next team and a group of people emerges from the crowd, ropes at the ready. One, wearing spurs, mounts a horse and begins circling the yard, searching for an unmarked beast to ‘brand’ with paint.

Welcome to Birdsville’s annual Bronco Branding competition. Teams compete to be the quickest to brand the required number of cattle using the traditional method of branding in the bush.

Before the invention of the calf cradle, stockmen were required to brand calves in the open. They held the mob together while a catcher, often the head stockman, rode into the group on his horse and roped an unbranded calf, pulling it to the bronco ramp. It would then be secured to the ground, branded and ear-clipped and released into the mob within a minute.

This process was used on most large stations until the late sixties. However, it all but disappeared until the mid-80s, when fore-thinking traditionalists launched a competitive form of the practice so the skills didn’t disappear. Today, events are held throughout the country with a number of variations designed to increase competitiveness, spectator entertainment and recognition of tradition.

In Birdsville, Bronco Branding is one of the years’ biggest and most anticipated events. This year, the weekend’s program also includes a day of Campdrafting, a similarly traditional and unique competition inspired by Australian bush skills of the past. A selection of events that demonstrate the competitors’ handling of cattle, campdrafting is a test of dexterity, riding and rope work that enthralls audiences.

However, when the sun falls below the horizon and floodlights illuminate the arena, it’s the coloured gates in the yard that attract the crowd’s attention. It’s rodeo time and the announcer is looking for entrants. With a number of events held over the course of the evening, the rodeo brings more of a western tang to the weekend.

With an arm in the air, cowboys and girls ride bucking bulls and bullocks while kids ride poddies, gleaming triumphant. The crowd watches on, leaning on the fence, cheering and filming. 

Later, country music blares from the speakers and floodlights illuminate the clouds of dust rising from the open space of ground where people of all ages are dancing, can of XXXX in hand. Everyone is jubilant, tired and quite a few are nursing swelling bruises – the rodeo has just finished and now it’s time to celebrate.

This year’s Bronco Branding weekend is almost here and already we’re waiting with anticipation. Beginning with an auction on the evening of Friday 11th May, the Campdraft will be held on Saturday 12th May, followed by the rodeo that evening. Bronco branding will take place on Sunday 13th May.

With a total prize pool of over $17,000, as well as trophies and ribbons, it’s sure to be a weekend of exhilarating competition and an educational look into the history of Australian agriculture.

Let us know if you would like more information about the events or if you are interested in sponsoring the weekend.

Don’t forget that voting is still open for the Best Australian Blogs Competition that we’re nominated for. Help us get Birdsville on the map!

R.I.P Walter B. Barnes

It is with extreme sadness that The Birdsville Roadhouse reports that Mr Walter B. Barnes has passed away after a long battle with a mysterious illness/injury. He was almost 8 years old. Wally’s health had been been deteriorating since mid January despite the best efforts of everyone around him. Long time family friend and awesome vet, Keith Newby, flew to Birdsville on Monday afternoon to assess Wally’s condition. Keith operated and removed his front left leg in a last ditch effort to save Wal’s life but sadly he didn’t make it through the night. He was buried on Tuesday morning. Walter will be sorely missed around town as he was often referred to as the ‘Unofficial Mayor of Birdsville’. Amongst all his unofficial duties he also found time to hold down at least two full-time jobs at the Roadhouse as both the ‘Customer Relations Officer’ and 24-hour security guard. Wal was easily the hardest working employee the Roadhouse has ever been blessed with and I doubt if he will ever be replaced. Keep an eye on this space over the next few days as we add photos and memories of Wal.

Introducing Krakka Koldee Racing

Many of you will be aware that the Birdsville Roadhouse is associated with the Krakka Koldee off-road racing team. Barnes’y and Sam are working hard to get their new Nissan 350z-powered pro-lite buggy ready for the Finke Desert Race in June.

If you’re not familiar with the world of off-road racing, it’s a thrilling sport that combines the best of motorsport and rally with four-wheel-drive terrain. For many four-wheel-drive enthusiasts that visit Birdsville, seeing the buggies in the workshop is a source of fascination. They’re mean-looking, powerful machines that can conquer almost any type of track.

The Finke Desert Race, a two-day event where buggies (and motorbikes) race from Alice Springs to the small township of Finke, is the most renowned off-road race in Australia. It joins the ranks of Mexico’s Baja 1000 as one of the world’s most famous off-road races.

Competitors can race a number of different types of buggies ranging from two-seater ‘sportsman’ buggies with up to 1300cc motors to ‘pro’ buggies with up to 6000cc motors to ‘trophy trucks‘ with up to 6000cc motors. Most buggies are built with their engines in the back of the vehicle, but trophy trucks have the engine in the front. There is also a separate class for standard four-wheel-drives.

Off-road racing became prominent in Australia in the late 60s. ‘Buggy Clubs’, or off-road racing clubs, sprung up around the country with increasing amounts of people building buggies or adapting Volkwagen Beetles to suit driving on sand and rough tracks. In the late 70s, Barnes’y bought his first buggy for $50 and joined the Millicent Sand Buggy Club. Since then, he has upgraded through five buggies, and introduced his son, Sam, to the sport. 

Sam began navigating for Barnes’y in 2004 at the Sunraysia 500 in Mildura. Together, and with Bronwynne for support, they’ve travelled to compete in many races around the country. With Barnes’y at the wheel and Sam in the navigators’ seat, they won their class at the Finke Desert Race twice. When Sam started driving, in 2007, he successfully completed many races, culminating in winning his class at the 2009 Finke Desert Race.

Although off-road racing buggies were originally derived from Volkswagen Beetles, a lot has changed over the four decades since the sport’s inception in Australia. Buggies have become bigger, tougher and a hell of a lot heavier. Sam says that this has made both positive and negative impacts on the sport. When once it was possible for a DIY buggy builder or mechanic to participate in the sport with some success, it’s now too expensive for the every-day person to race competitively. However, for the spectators, bigger, tougher buggies means more spectacular jumps, drifts and stunts in races.

The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport supports the Australian Off-road Championship, which began in 1981. It’s comprised of four or five races each year and the winners are calculated on a points-based system over the year. Last years’ overall winner was Dave Fellows, of Peter Kittle Motorsports. But, each class of buggies also has their own winner. Barnes’y and Sam were the ‘sportsman’ class winners numerous times before upgrading to the ‘pro-lite’ class in which they’re yet to race.

After replacing the engine in their new pro-lite buggy, Barnes’y and Sam couldn’t get it running smoothly again. When driving, the buggy was misfiring at 6300-6750 revs. It was a mystery problem that couldn’t be googled. They tried every possible mechanical solution including replacing sensors, looking for fuel problems, upgrading to shielded wires, testing the exhaust gas breakdown and changing Motec computer programs, all to no avail. 

The buggy is currently being rewired by a specialist in Brisbane and we should be hearing more news about it shortly. Hopefully, the wiring will have fixed the mystery problem and Sam can take it for a few runs near Birdsville to get a feel for the driver’s seat before heading off to Finke in June. Wish him luck! 

Both Barnes’y and Sam would like to thank their sponsors; Jaycar ElectronicsPhillip’s Foote Restaurant, Birdsville Roadhouse, Teagle Excavations, Millicent Tyre Power and the Outback Loop, for their generous support and patience while developing the new buggy.

*There’s just two weeks left to vote for The Galah Session in the Best Australian Blogs 2012 competition. Click here if you would like to vote for us and help put Birdsville and the Krakka Koldee Racing Team on the map!

And the polls are open…

Voting has opened for the Best Australian Blog Awards, which we’re nominated for! It’s a fantastic initiative of the Sydney Writers’ Centre to promote the active Australian blogosphere. As we’re such a new blog (less than a month old!) and we’re blogging from a remote area, we need your help to get Birdsville on the map. Let’s promote our beautiful outback by blogging about it and sharing our news. Click on the button below to vote for us in the People’s Choice Awards. All entered blogs are listed in alphabetical order – we’re under ‘T’. That’s ‘t’ for thank you for voting! 

We’re nominated for the Best Australian Blog Awards 2012!

Hello lovely followers! Just a quick note to let you know that people’s choice voting opens tomorrow at 5pm for the Best Australian Blog Awards 2012 run by the Sydney Wrtiers’ Centre. We’ve just been nominated and as we’re such a new blog, we need your support! Help us get Birdsville on the map by voting. We’ll tweet and facebook the voting form as soon as it’s available so you can all help us promote our beautiful outback!

First woman to run across the Simpson Desert!

Jane Trumper, three kilometres from Birdsville. Photo: Kelly Theobald

Over the past week we’d heard incredulous whispers from travellers that had emerged from the Simpson Desert. Was there really a woman running across the desert? Many of our customers had seen her as they passed her in their four-wheel-drives. They spoke of a small woman with huge determination. Her name is Jane Trumper. She is a 51-year-old mother of three and the first woman ever to run across the Simpson Desert.

On Tuesday afternoon we got word that she would be reaching Birdsville in a matter of minutes. Kelly and Sam went out to meet her as she reached the cattle yards on the outskirts of town. She pumped her arms in the air when she saw them in Onslo, asked how far it was to town and if the pub had a glass of cold white wine waiting for her.

They followed her as she jogged the last two kilometres to the Birdsville Hotel, preceded by the Birdsville Policeman, Neale, with his lights flashing. The pub was buzzing with people as they waited to welcome the amazing woman.

After running 664 kilomtres and climbing over 1200 sand dunes, she was still strong enough to jokingly turn around and start running back. But, as the crowd cheered and photos were taken, the enormity of the feat hit us all.

And why hadn’t we heard about her crossing sooner? Jane’s friend Suse said that Jane didn’t want to publicise the trip too much before they set out, just in case they didn’t make it. They didn’t want any extra pressure.

Jane Trumper (right) and friend Suse as they run into Birdsville. Photo: Kelly Theobald

When we spoke to Jane today, she was busy fielding calls from the ABC, AAP, and other major media outlets, including Mt Isa’s North West Star. However, she said that the media attention was surprising. “I’m proud that I did it, but I don’t understand why I’m getting so much attention,” she told Kelly. “I didn’t do it for this! I hardly even consider myself a runner.”

What she did do it for is Bear Cottage, a children’s hospice in Sydney, where her medical student daughter volunteers. “I had to pick something that’s close to my heart,” she said. “I have three healthy kids – I think that anyone’s who’s got a sick kid is going through a hell of a lot more than running 664 kilometres across a desert. They go through this emotional drain every day. If I can do it for ten days, it’s not that hard.”

What was hard was finding a support crew. She placed an ad on the VKS Radio website but in mid-February still only had one vehicle interested. Luckily, she found another vehicle and her American friend, Suse, also decided to join her, running a few kilometres every day. Neither Jane nor Suse had ever met the four members of their support crew. Luckily, it worked out for the best. “The support crew were absolutely awesome,” she says. “They’d only drive five kilometres ahead of me and they’d have cold water and cold drinks ready. Whatever I wanted was right there. They were incredibly patient. I’ve never had anybody do so much for me. Suse set up my tent for me every night and Gary would take it down every morning. Really, I was pretty pampered!”

Jane (left) cheers as she reaches the Birdsville Hotel. Photo: Kelly Theobald

When she set out though, the region was experiencing uncharacteristic April heat. Jane was beginning to question the task ahead of her. “The temperature was 45 degrees on the day I started, April fools day. That was the biggest downer. I thought: ‘what the hell have I started and how the hell am I going to do another nine days if it stays like this?’ It was stinking hot. I drank about 15 litres of fluid that day,” she says. “I was expecting the terrain because I’d been here before so it was the heat, more than anything, that got to me.”

Luckily, it soon cooled and she was able to finish the run with only a few encounters with wildlife. “Emus were chasing me yesterday, which was kind of fun. I’m hoping there are some good photos,” she says. “They were coming up to the road and having a good look but they never got really close because I had a car with me. We had dingoes at our campsite a few nights ago, though”.

Jane after the run with Neale, the Birdsville cop. Photo: Kelly Theobald

Amazingly, Jane feels absolutely fine after her epic run. In fact, she’s ready to do it all again. “I could easily have gone out there today and done another 66 kilometre day. I feel just the way I did on day two.”

Well, Jane. We’re very proud of you and it’s a pleasure to have you in Birdsville for the few days that you’re here. Good luck with your marathon on Sunday (yes, this Sunday!) and we encourage all of our readers to donate to your cause! You can do so here.

If you would like to know more about Jane and her running, including the Simpson Desert crossing, head to her blog.

Jane and her support crew celebrate outside the Birdsville Hotel. Photo: Kelly Theobald

Jane would like to thank her sponsors Hoka One One footwear, Skirt Sports, InJinji and Northside Runners.