Australia’s best-known pub, The Birdsville Hotel, is selling for the first time in 40 years to an Australian who has pioneered travel through the outback.
After being on and off the market for the past three years, there were fears that the iconic sandstone 1884 pub on the edge of the Simpson Desert might be bought by overseas interests.
But now the buyer, who’s paying about $6 million for the Queensland property, has been revealed as businessman Courtney Ellis, best-known as the entrepreneur who, with his brother Andre 20 years ago, co-founded the travel company Outback Spirit Tours.
“My wife and I are thrilled to be buying the Birdsville Hotel,” said Mr Ellis, 41. “It’s something we’ve been talking about doing for a long, long time.
“We’ve been going there for about 15 years now, and know it very well. We love the feel and character of the place and are keen to build on that. We hope to get all the paperwork done, and the sale finalised, by January 21.”
The Birdsville Hotel, 1600 kilometres west of Brisbane and 1200 kilometres north of Adelaide, is a symbol of the outback and in the past has played a big role in the exploration and settlement of some of Australia’s most remote desert country.
Today, it’s the centre of two major events each year, which draw huge Australian and international crowds: the legendary Birdsville Races, and the Big Red Bash, an outdoor concert held on massive sand dunes just outside the town.
The award-winning pub was being sold along with its motel accommodation of 27 guest units, workers’ quarters, two detached residences and industrial land, on a 6580-square-metre block. There is also an aviation fuel supply business run from the hotel, close to the town’s airport.
Mr Ellis and his wife Talia, 34, plan to keep the pub running very much along the same lines as it operates now, with perhaps only a few tweaks to the accommodation. They’re hoping to buy a house in Birdsville soon so they can live close to the property, and use their own plane to travel to their other home in Albury, in southern NSW.
Ms Ellis is chief pilot at Spirit Aviation and was earlier chief pilot at Wrightsair, based at William Creek on the Oodnadatta Track, so flew regularly to Birdsville. Mr Ellis also knows the town well after expanding his Outback Spirit Tours from an outfit with a single 14-seat 4WD to one with a fleet of 40 all-terrain vehicles, conducting 25 adventure tours, and owning a number of luxury remote wilderness camps and lodges.
In October 2019 he sold the company to Journey Beyond, a national travel company which also owns The Ghan, Indian Pacific and Great Southern, as well as Cruise Whitsundays, Rottnest Express, Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, Darwin Harbour Cruises, Horizontal Falls, Eureka Skydeck Melbourne, and Eureka 89. As a result, he was looking for a new venture.
“His was a very well-known outfit and he and his wife are really connected to the area, so it’s a very good result,” said agent Guy Bennett, of Knight Frank Adelaide, who sold the pub. “There was quite a bit of interest internationally from potential overseas buyers, as well as a few household names locally.
“But we’re very pleased it’s now gone to someone who had an outback tourism business, and who knows the outback so well.”
The current owners David and Nell Brook, who run cattle properties in the area and the company OBE Beef, producing some of the best organic beef in the country, have had the pub since 1979, together with friends Kim and Jo Fort. Mr Brook’s grandmother bought the hotel almost 100 years ago in 1920, and kept ownership until the 1940s.
Jo Fort, who’s been very involved with running the pub, says she’s delighted about the buyers. “For me, it’s a dream come true,” she said. “They understand tourism and tourist operations, and understand the outback and what the pub is and the culture of the outback.
“They’re moving forward for all the right reasons and that’s what you want when you’ve invested your life into a place. You want to make sure you pass it on to someone who’ll possibly do it even better than you.”
Businessman Dick Smith who once bought the hotel in 1979 for $62,000, only for it to burn down the next day so it reverted to its previous owners and was then bought by the Brooks and Forts, had thought about putting in an offer, along with his mate John Singleton.
In the end, however, the expressions of interest campaign was won by the Ellises.
“After selling the company, we wanted to do something a bit different and slow down a fraction,” said Mr Ellis. “We get the outback as it’s been my business for 20 years, and we won’t change things.
“Our focus will still be on making the experience satisfying for people who make the long trek out to Birdsville and I’m looking forward to talking to people and hearing about where they’ve come from and where they’re going. The Birdsville Hotel is a significant drawcard, and we’re very respectful of that long, and proud, tradition.”
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