G-strings and Desert Rescues: What It’s Like To Run An Outback Roadhouse

The Birdsville Roadhouse has been run by Peter and Bronwynne Barnes for the past 10 years. Photo: Supplied Robbie Dare will never forget the day a man pushing a shopping trolley appeared, like a …

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Feb 15 2017
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The Birdsville Roadhouse has been run by Peter and Bronwynne Barnes for the past 10 years. Photo: Supplied

Robbie Dare will never forget the day a man pushing a shopping trolley appeared, like a mirage, outside his premises.

Such a sight might be an everyday one in the big smoke, but when you’re in the far reaches of the Simpson Desert the scene is a bit more surreal.

Dare, who runs the Bedourie Roadhouse, is one of a dedicated bunch for whom running an outback roadhouse is long hours, hard work but also a job that can be enormous fun.

Peter ‘Barnsey’ Barnes, of the Birdsville Roadhouse, 200 kilometres away in the same Diamantina Shire – at the crossroads of the Simpson, Sturt’s Stony Desert and the Channel Country – is another. He says how delighted people are to see him in their hour of need.

Peter Barnes, who runs the Birdsville Roadhouse, is often called on to help stranded motorists. Photo: Hugh Brown

“We end up doing a lot of desert rescues here,” he says. “It’s part of the job and I have a big old ex-army truck for doing them.

”A big task is trying to calm people down when they think they’ll never get out, but we always manage. One time it took three nights though, when someone broke the diff in their Pajero and they had to fly the parts from Adelaide to Alice Springs and then I had to drive all the way there to pick them up …”

At the Condamine Roadhouse, 333 kilometres north-west of Brisbane (population 426), Ros Day also recalls the characters she constantly meets.

“One day we had a Japanese man on a pushbike ride past, wearing just a G-string,” she says. “At first, we thought he was naked.

“A couple of the farmers who were on the forecourt did a real doubletake. It was in the middle of the day, and pretty hot, and he had a bedroll on the back of the seat, but we thought he was mad!”

And if you’re talking hot, there’s nowhere hotter in Australia than Marble Bar in the north west of Western Australia, which in 1923-4 set a world record for 160 consecutive days of 37.8 degrees or above. During the summer, temperatures over 45 degrees are common and for about six months of every year, the maximum temperature exceeds that of the normal human body.

The Condamine Roadhouse, about 330 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Photo: Supplied

Those at the Marble Bar Roadhouse know that only too well; early last year they were featured in a TV commercial featuring the English cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff sweating in the red Pilbara dust before reaching them to buy a life-saving Lipton Iced Tea.

Roadhouse owner Annmarie Kiernan had other regular visitors too, including representatives from the Korean car company Hyundai, who came every year in the height of the blistering summer to road-test their vehicles in the most hostile conditions they could imagine.

“I used to feel really sorry for the poor buggers,” she says. “Some would last just one day and then go, while some of them were pretty good and stuck it out. I always used to recommend Hyundais to people after seeing what they went through and put their cars through!”

Outback roadhouse owners and operators are pretty special people, but often about 10 years at the helm is their limit. At the moment, the Bedourie, Condamine and Marble Bar roadhouses have all been put up for sale, while the one at Birdsville is set to go on the market this year.

“This will be my last year, bugger it!” says Barnes, 62, who runs Birdsville roadhouse – it has a mechanics’ workshop, store and fuel – with his wife Bronwynne, 52, after working on one of the owner’s outback cattle properties. “I was asked to look after it for a couple of weeks … and that was 10 years ago!

“You do meet interesting people to have a yarn with and I think often they’re flabbergasted that someone is out here. They have all different situations and problems, and you get up each morning and never have any idea what that day is going to bring.”

The Barneses now plan to spend more time at their farm on the Queensland coast but still run a hardware shop some of the time back in Birdsville. No price has yet been set for the property.

The Bedourie Roadhouse, however, comprising the roadhouse, 22 rooms, bar, licensed restaurant and a shop, is for sale through John Tully of City and Country Realty for about $2.5 million.

The bar of the Bedourie Roadhouse. The property is for sale for $2.5m. Photo: Supplied

“You get a lot of tourism there, just 200 kilometres north of Birdsville and there’s plenty of opportunities to expand,” Mr Tully says.

Owner Robbie Dare, 61, who’s also served as the mayor of the Diamantina Shire, worked at the local shop from 1988 and built the roadhouse himself in 1993. He says running it isn’t rocket science, but it can be long hours – with opening times from 7am to midnight seven days a week – and, in a town that can get cut off by floods, you have to be organised.

In 1995, for example, floods saw the Georgina River/Eyre Creek swell to 80 kilometres wide, making the roads impassable for three months. Fuel for the town’s diesel-run generator was flown in, while provisions had to be brought across the river in a boat, with five trips for every truckload.

Dare plans, after selling, to get into racehorses. “But I will always miss the life,” he says. “It has been fun. One day we even had a man came through who had a folding bed on his back so whenever he wanted a lie down, he could just pull a strap, the bed unfolded and he’d fall back on to the mattress. You do meet some characters!”

Former Darwin animal health lab technician Ros Day has been at the Condamine Roadhouse for 14 years after dropping in on holiday for lunch, hearing it was for sale, and buying it. It has taken a toll, however. Her relationship broke up three years ago after all the long hours working with no time off, and she’s now put it up for sale through Shane Kennett, of LJ Hooker Toowoomba, for $700,000.

It includes a three-bedroom home and staff accommodation, as well as fuel, dining area and a takeaway, on 2300 square metres of land.

“It would be great for a family,” says Day, 47, who’s now looking forward to getting a regular nine-to-five job. “You do need someone else to bounce things off.

”But I have loved it. We have drovers come through town, with 300 to 400 head of cattle to cross the river. That’s magic!”

The Marble Bar Roadhouse, with an annual turnover of $1.5 million, is also on the market for $390,000, through Rick Hockey of Hedland First National. It has accommodation for the owner and staff, fuel, groceries, a café, a newsagency and a Post Office.

The Marble Bar Roadhouse, where temperatures can soar into the high 30s for months at a time. Photo: Supplied

Annmarie Kiernan, 48, has lived in Marble Bar all her life and bought the property from her parents 11 years ago, but now wants a change, and to start another business in town doing massage.

“I still have passion, but want to put it into something else,” she says. “It is an interesting life, though. We get a lot of geologists through here who are fascinated by our rocks – they’re red in the core which is meant to be like the red on Mars.

“One bought all our big green bins, filled them with rocks and mailed them all back to his country. We get people from all over the world here, all sorts of weird and wonderful characters.”

This article was originally posted by Commercial Real Estate.

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