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