Sam to the rescue – not once, but twice!

We love a good piece of bush poetry, especially when it’s about the Birdsville Roadhouse’s Sam Barnes! He’s more or less Birdsville born and bred and, although he’s a boilermaker by trade, he can often be found around our workshop putting his impressive mechanic skills to use.

He’s also a terrific driver so is often sent on vehicle recovery missions, rescuing stranded travellers who are grateful for his quick response and bushman know-how to get them out of a fix. Clearly, we think Sam is awesome (although ‘we’ are his parents and girlfriend…). But, when he received these wonderfully written poems in the mail, we realised that our customers love him too!

They were trav’lin’ through the outback,

Down Diamantina way,

When they happ’ed upon a small town

And there they spent a day.

 

The people were quite friendly

When at the Birdsville Pub they called,

So they settled in for two nights –

Soon the locals were appalled.

 

They headed for the ‘crossing’

In spite of recent rain,

“Pajeros can go anywhere,

We’ll prove that right again.”

 

So down the bumpy, sandy tracks

These ‘city slickers’ wander,

Until they hit a soggy patch

And then were they a goner!

 

They revved the engine, spun the wheels,

In four-wheel-drive they sat

And soon they found, for Sam they soon

Became another stat.

 

A quick phone call and quick response,

Soon found them Sam at hand.

Behind his smile amusement lurked –

MORE tourists in wet sand.

 

He brought a rope but needed two –

Another soon to hand –

He checked the hitch then gave a tug,

Pajero on dry land.

 

Then Sam he headed back to work,

The tourists back to town.

They called into the Roadhouse,

Then took off to look around.

They liked young Sam, the tow-truck man –

He did a cheerful job.

Whate’er he’s paid, they’d tell his boss,

“He’s worth each flamin’ bob.”

 

And… the next instalment…

 

‘Big Red’ – now here’s another tale;

It happened just this way –

They bought a pass so they might go

That self-same fateful day.

 

Petrol to get them there and back,

They’d water – they weren’t fools!

Sunhats and glasses and such things,

They knew the outback rules.

 

They travelled down the gravel road

Until a detour’s seen –

There’s water where, one hundred years,

No water has been there.

 

So 13ks around the pool,

‘Long sandy tracks they wander,

Until at Big Red’s base they be –

The top is way up yonder.

 

In four-wheel-drive, with engine revved,

They whizz right to the top,

A glance around, turn engine off,

And out of it they pop.

 

The scenery is engaging,

They look in great delight.

Photos taken, back into car,

But something ain’t quite right.

 

They can’t reverse, forward must go,

So down the other side.

They turn around and face Big Red,

Now for the upward ride.

 

The engine revs and up they head –

Just halfway up the slope.

Back down they go to gather speed –

Two-thirds, but still no hope.

 

They needed to reach Birdsville,

Neil said that he’d go back.

And so through water three-foot deep

And up the gravel track.

 

Neil had about a 5k trek

Until he hailed a truckie,

Who wired through to Birdsville

(which did prove rather lucky).

 

While Neil was gone, King tried again,

Going way, way back –

He got three-quarters up this time,

Which was a worthwhile crack.

 

Then back came Sam, the tow-truck man,

Collecting Neil enroute.

King saw the dust come down the track

And cheered “Whako! You Beaut!”

 

Relief at seeing Neil climb out

One tow-truck cabin door,

While Sam climbed out the other side,

Was huge – that is for sure.

 

Sam released air from the tyres,

Reversed back down the hill,

Then up he came without a care,

Car bending to his will.

 

With smile upon his happy face

At showing up these oldies,

To Birdsville once again he drove –

Suspect to have some coldies.

 

Again the oldies hit the road

With ne’er a further worry,

Back to the Birdsville Roadhouse,

Where no one’s in a hurry.

 

While driving on a sandy beach,

These oldies know the drill –

You let air out of tyres,

WHY NOT ON SANDY HILL?!?!

 

Yes, they liked young Sam the tow-truck man;

He was a cheerful kid.

But, behind his pleasant, smiling face,

Amusement surely hid.

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.  

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.”

 

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.

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.

Easter Update: Birdsville News

For sale at the Birdsville Roadhouse – yum!

As easter approaches the fridges fill with easter eggs, the smell of fresh hot cross buns wafts from the Birdsville Bakery and the freezer is raided for prawns, oysters and fish. This year, as easter is smack bang in the middle of Queensland school holidays, the long weekend also means that we’ll be busy with travelers coming through town on their holidays. This week has already been very busy with people traveling through Queensland and many of them are crossing the Simpson Desert. 

The Birdsville Bakery opens tomorrow!

The Birdsville Bakery will be opening tomorrow and we’re all very excited to see what will be on the menu this year. I’ve heard that my favourite finger buns are being replaced with jam scrolls, though. The scrolls are almost as delicious so I think I can live with that. Dusty is also making Hot Cross Buns for the weekend. Until he opens tomorrow, we’ll be selling them at the roadhouse. We also have a range of easter eggs in stock if the easter bunny needs to visit your camp on Sunday! The Bakery will be open for breakfast and lunch everyday, starting tomorrow, and dinner on selected nights. Dusty’s ‘Birdsville Fried Chicken’ will be launched tomorrow night, too!

Fresh Hot Cross Buns for sale!

An increasing amount of vehicles are traveling through the Simpson Desert and we sold out of Birdsville 4×4 Club sand flags yesterday. But, they’re back in stock due to popular demand. We’ve had reports that the desert tracks are in good condition and there’s lots of animals and flowers around to make the journey even more rewarding. 

Flowers in the desert. Photo: Kelly Theobald

This week we’ve had warmer than average April temperatures in Birdsville. We’re glad that summer is hanging around a little bit longer as the dry heat is much nicer than the freezing winter nights! Luckily it’s not too hot though – the mercury briefly reached 39.5 degrees yesterday but the nights are mild and comfortable. 

Pelicans at Cuttaburra Crossing. Photo: Kelly Theobald

The warm weather is also increasing the number of pelicans in the area. If you’re traveling between Birdsville and Bedourie, you might have noticed the flocks of pelicans at the Eyre Creek Cuttaburra Crossing. Pelicans love the warm temperatures of inland Australia and after rain they flock to large expanses of water like Lake Eyre and the permanent waterhole at Cuttaburra Crossing. They’re also likely to breed around this time of year, but we haven’t seen any nesting pelicans ourselves, yet. If you want to see the pelicans, make sure you check to road conditions before you travel. At the time of writing, the Bedourie-Birdsville road is restricted to high-clearance vehicles as water is covering the road at the Cuttaburra Crossing. Drive with caution through the water – at least you’ll have lots of time to take photos! 

Just in time for easter, the Birdsville Hotel has released a new menu. So far we’ve tried the South Australian rump steak and the lip-smacking proscuitto-wrapped Kangaroo fillets served with macadamias and berries. Make sure you try both the Hotel and the Bakery menus while you’re in town to experience the best of Birdsville’s culinary delights. 

Two Beetles side by side. Sam and Kelly are on the right.

On Monday, a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle arrived in Birdsville. A young couple from Belgium purchased the car in Perth and have been traveling around Australia for a few months. They’re about to start a job in Richmond, central Queesnland, and passed through Birdsville on their way there. You may know that the Birdsville Roadhouse’s Sam and Kelly recently bought a 1964 Volkwagen Beetle and will be driving it across the Simpson Desert later in the year. It’s not often there’s two Beetles here, so it was good to get a photo of them together.