Birdsville is an iconic central Australian town perched on the edge of the Simpson Desert. There is not much there, but it does have a rather famous pub.
The pub is a single story stone and corrugated iron building with wide shady verandahs. Inside there is a collection of outback paraphernalia, items commemorating the tough men who work this semi desert. The walls are crowded, not with the carefully selected trinkets city traps use to keep tourists entertained but with local notices and items gleaned over the years. The ceiling is covered with the upside down and unwashed Akubras of deceased stockmen, and there are hundreds of them. This is not so much that stockmen die frequently, but that the hats have been collected here for so many years. This is as real as an outback pub can get.
The dining room serves steak and chips and you can have the steak how you like it so long as how you like it is the same as how the locals like it. Salad? Well, phone ahead. The supply truck comes once every two weeks and can do special orders.
At the bar expect to see laconic outback men drinking cold beer through their bushy beards. The talk, if there is any, is dry. Their beaten 4WD’s parked in the street are as much the real deal as the men are, men who wear their Akubra indoors because to take it off, well, look up at the ceiling to know why.
We drove to Birdsville via the Strzelecki Track, to Innamincka, then along a single sand track public access way south of the Coongie Lakes to join the Birdsville Track for the last two hundred kilometres. It was late in the day, a warm and thirsty bonerattlin day, and we drove straight to the pub. A beer, we said to each other.
Imagine then how we felt when we pushed open the swing doors to find the bar full of kids. Not, youthful-jackaroo-learning-the-ropes type kids. Actual kids, school children. Primary school children. Playing pool and laughing and running and doing exactly what anybody in a pub like the Birdsville should not be doing.
We took our beer outside to join the men, who were from Sydney and wearing RM Williams and telling tales of 4WD derring–do on a sandhill out of town called Big Red. It is reputed to be the biggest sandhill on the Simpson Desert, first of over 1200 sandhills. Only those with the know can get up it and the evening was full of their stories, of ‘if onlys’, of those who had to reverse ingloriously all the way down after stalling part way up, of the crowd below cheering the heroes as they roared by, low range screaming in a cloud of dust as they went in for the next attempt. The beer and warm night and the laughter and tall tales seduced us.
This is what real men do. Tomorrow we would go out to Big Red to conquer that thing.
Words Martin Chambers, photographs by Mike Collister, Martin Chambers and “Hat Wall” courtesy of the Birdsville Hotel.
Martin lives in Perth and writes full time. His latest novel ‘How I became the Mr Big of People Smuggling’ was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford award and was published in June 2014 by Fremantle Press. The judges said the book gave the uncanny feeling that it could all be true.