The customer leans on the bar, a grin on his face and a wistful glint in his eye. “You know, I’ve often fancied running a pub in the outback myself,” he says. “I imagine it’s a wonderful lifestyle …”
Courtney Ellis nods sagely. “Yes, it is,” he agrees. “Wonderful.”
But there’s a tiredness in his voice that only the keenest of onlookers would be able to detect. For Ellis, the new owner of the most iconic outback pub in Australia, The Birdsville Hotel on the edge of the Simpson Desert, is living nothing like the dream his patron so fondly imagines.
He’s actually been up since 5.30 this morning in order to catch the best dawn light to take photographs of the Birdsville bakery for the hotel’s website, and spent the rest of the morning running around town to pick up eggs and tomatoes for the 35 breakfasts they were serving after supplies ran low.
After that was a mountain of paperwork, gallons of coffee to be made with the newly installed coffee machine, the orders to be placed for the next two weeks’ food and drink from Adelaide, a meeting about regional tourism and organising the repainting of the motel’s doors.
Then he helped unload fresh food supplies from the twice-weekly Rex plane that were put on at one of its previous stops in Quilpie, served up meals and drinks to a 12-vehicle, 60-person convoy that arrived unexpectedly mid-afternoon and, at 4pm, hitched a trailer to his truck, took some rubbish to the tip and drove 30 kilometres out of town to pick up firewood for the hotel’s fireplace and firepit, and sawed it down to size.
“Yes, the life probably isn’t what most people picture when they think of their fantasy of running a pub in the outback,” Ellis, 41, says. “It is hard work, but it all depends on your personality and what you call work. You can’t treat it all as work, as then you really could go mad!
“But if, instead, you look at it with a sense of energy and fun, then it really is fun. I absolutely love it. You’re meeting different people coming through all the time, hearing their stories, talking about what a great place Birdsville is, and it’s all so rewarding. I thoroughly enjoy it.”
Ellis bought The Birdsville Hotel in November 2019 for around $6 million in its first sale in 40 years after it had been on and off the market for the previous three years.
He already knew it well. As the entrepreneur who, with his brother Andre 20 years ago, co-founded the travel company Outback Spirit Tours, he’d visited many times in the past 15 years and fell in love with it early on.
He’s far from the only one. A beautiful honeyed sandstone pub dating from 1884, it’s a glorious presence in a remote town in the Diamantina Shire in Central West Queensland, bordering South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Sitting 1600 kilometres west of Brisbane and 1200 kilometres north of Adelaide, the hotel has come to be an enduring symbol of the outback.
While in the past it’s played a major role in the exploration and settlement of some of Australia’s most remote desert country, today it’s just the same – a fine watering hole and rest stop for the intrepid Australians who drive or fly in every year, also wanting to explore some of the most isolated communities, and landmarks, on the continent.
Many of them arrive for Birdsville’s two major events each year, the legendary Birdsville Races which sees the town’s population swell from just 100 to 7000, and the Big Red Bash, an outdoor concert held on massive sand dunes just outside the town which draws both huge crowds and huge stars.
When the news broke that the hotel had been sold, many locals feared overseas investors might have bought it, and would come in and change everything they loved about it. But when Ellis and his pilot wife Talia, 35, were revealed as the new owners, they were welcomed.
“We always knew we wanted to keep the hotel much as it’s always been, but with a few changes here and there,” Ellis said.
“We’ve updated the rooms with new bedding and soft furnishings to give the accommodation side of things a bit of a lift. We’ve also installed a new commercial coffee machine and replaced all the motel exterior doors with a desert red colour.
“We’ve always really liked the feel of the historic old watering hole so when the opportunity came about to buy the business, we didn’t need to think much about it. It felt right, so we thought, ‘Let’s just do it!’
“The kids love coming up to Birdsville and the hotel as well, and also share a love for the remote outback.
“For years we’ve always done an outback trip with the kids out this way, with the Kimberley Kamper, a million swags and a couple of drums of fuel on the back. We stop off and visit friends as we trek around, and we always have a ball, camping out under the stars and cooking on camp fires – it’s great fun and it teaches the kids a lot about the country we live in.”
One of the previous owners, Jo Fort, the promoter of The Outback Loop road trip along the Strzelecki Track in far north South Australia and the Birdsville Track in Queensland, is thrilled about the next stage in the hotel’s life.
“I knew it was going to be in good hands and the place is going to be well looked-after,” said Fort, who owned it along with husband Kim and friends David and Nell Brook, who run the company OBE Beef producing organic beef. “The new owners have a vision which is always important and we’re now passing the baton to the next generation.
“They’ll be smarter and quicker and more nimble and they’ll doubtless do it better than us, while we’ll always have the memories of the good times and friends we made there.”
Ben Fullagar, 39, visited The Birdsville Hotel seven years ago, three months into his intended several-year-long trip around Australia. He never left. He’s been the general manager of the hotel now since 2013, and is happy to stay on under the new owners.
“I’m passionate about outback tourism and Birdsville had been on my bucket list and then got into my blood,” said Fullagar, originally from Kiama on the NSW south coast, who’d been having a break from his mining career. “The hotel was looking for someone to help out over the races period, and I just stayed.
“I knew Courtney and Talia prior to the sale and I thought they were the right fit. They’re now putting their own spin on the accommodation we offer and introducing some different services, which is great, but at the same time not impacting on the heritage of the building. So this is a very exciting time, and Birdsville is at a really good point.”
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on tourism to Birdsville, and the races and Big Bash events this year were both cancelled. The hotel is employing only about 40 per cent of the staff it usually has, and the 28-room motel complex attached to the hotel, usually completely booked out during the main May to October tourist season, is much quieter.
But the motel has grown busier, and came close to being full on a few nights in June, with bookings through July and August picking up too.
“We’re just taking each week as it comes,” said Talia Ellis, who’s spent most of her working career in remote outback regions, including South Australia’s William Creek, just south of Lake Eyre. “The town is nowhere near as busy as it usually is, but it’s kind of nice in a couple of ways.
“Economically speaking, it’s not ideal but a common comment made to staff by travellers is how happy they are that they’ve actually been able to stay as previously it’s always been so hard to book in.”
Courtney Ellis last year sold Outback Spirit to Adelaide-based Journey Beyond, which also owns the Ghan and Indian Pacific train expeditions, and that gave him the cash and the time for the pub.
The Ellises mostly live on their broad acre crop and merino sheep farm in the small NSW Riverina town of Berrigan, 120 kilometres west of Albury, but now intend to buy a second home in Birdsville so they can commute – with Talia piloting their plane – between the two.
Their younger children, Harry, 12, Sierra, two and a half, and Jonty, nearly one, usually travel with them, while the older ones, Alexandra, 16, and Sophie, 14, will probably come less often.
As well as running the hotel, they’ve also taken on the town’s much-loved bakery which had closed after the death at the end of 2018 of the resident baker and owner “Dusty” Miller, famous for his camel pies.
The pandemic has delayed plans but with the new coffee machine intended for the bakery now in the hotel, another one’s been ordered for the shop. “It’s another dimension to the town,” said Ellis, who’s now advertising for a baker.
The life of a publican in such a remote place as Birdsville can be tough, but it’s also very varied.
One of the hardest tasks is ordering the right amount of fresh fruit and vegetables when, because of the pandemic, the delivery truck now only comes once a fortnight and no one knows, from day to day, how many visitors there’ll be.
There’s no nearby supermarket to duck out to for stocking up at the last minute, but the supplier in Quilpie does help fill the occasional gaps with the Rex flights.
“They’re doing brilliantly,” said Colin Passfield, 52, who’s the chef at the hotel, barman and also the aviation refueller for the town. “They’ve both worked in remote areas so they know what it’s like.
“It’s always hard to judge, and even more so now. Yesterday, for example, we had eight people in for lunch, and today we’ve got 40. But everyone in Australia knows Birdsville, and everyone wants to visit.”
The locals are thrilled by the new arrivals, too. Indigenous elder Don Rowlands has been part of the Birdsville scene for 70-odd years and has worked for Queensland Parks and Wildlife for 26 years. As a kid, he has fond memories of The Birdsville Hotel.
“Across from the pub, there used to be an old set of stockyards and when the drovers came to town they’d drive their cattle down the main street, put them in the yard, tie their horses up at the front of the pub and go in for a drink,” he said.
“We as kids would be always running waiting for them to drop a penny or a shilling or two bob on the ground. We’d always be trying to look through the window and seeing what a good time they were having inside, and thinking we wished we could be in there too.”
His time did eventually come, however, and as a huge surprise. One night in 1967, when he was 16 or 17, he was standing outside the pub and the relieving copper came out and asked him what he was doing there, and why didn’t he come in?
“I’m not allowed,” Rowlands replied, as Aboriginal people weren’t allowed in pubs back then.
The policeman shook his head. “I’m in charge here so you come in,” he ordered.
These days, Rowlands thinks that might make him the longest-running patron at the pub. “It is the focal point of the town,” he said. “It is the place to go to meet your mates, settle old arguments and just have a good time. The pub’s always been really good for keeping the community bubbling and in good spirits.”
That kind of story of The Birdsville Hotel’s inclusiveness warms Courtney Ellis’ heart. “I love hearing that about the past,” he said. “Hopefully in the future, one day my kids might be interested in taking on the iconic old hotel down the track. The previous owners’ 40 years is certainly a milestone to beat, but we’re going to try!
“And while this is a lot of work, I love the lifestyle. I love sitting chatting to the people who come by, asking them where they’re from and where they’re going. I’d encourage anyone else ever thinking of taking on an outback or country pub to give it a go.”
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