Wanted: landlord for pub at far end of 500-mile desert road

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The Independent Online

For more than 100 years, the Birdsville Hotel has been an icon of the Australian outback and a rest stop for travellers crossing the forbidding desert interior.

Now the hotel, one of the world's remotest pubs, is up for sale, and its most loyal customers - the 100 residents of the town of Birdsville - are worried about its future. If it closes its doors, their nearest watering hole will be more than 124 miles away.

The pub, built in 1884, is located in far western Queensland, on the fringe of the Simpson Desert, in an area known as the "dead heart" of the outback. Brisbane and Adelaide are both 932 miles away. But for the past 27 years, Jo Fort, who part-owns the vintage hotel, has been welcoming visitors to this lonely spot.

Now she has had her fill of the isolation, not to mention the heat. The temperature in Birdsville nudged 49C the other day and Mrs Fort, a former nurse who fell in love with the pub while on her own tour of the outback, is selling up. She and her husband, Kym, a builder whom she met in Birdsville, will move back to Adelaide. She said yesterday that despite the pub's remoteness and the minuscule local population, it was "a great business" - in fact, too good. "Sometimes I almost tear my hair out, thinking all roads lead to Birdsville, and on any given night there can be 300 to 400 people in the hotel," she said. A great number considering the local population in Diamantina Shire is marginally more than 300, according to the 2001 census.

The picturesque pub, with its whitewashed stone verandas, is situated at the northern end of the notorious Birdsville Track, which stretches for more than 300 miles from Marree in South Australia through the Strzelecki and Sturt's Stony deserts, before ending at Birdsville.

Most people travel there by four-wheel-drive, carrying their own water, fuel, supplies, and spare parts, in case of an emergency in a desert region that covers an area larger than France. Some arrive by private plane, especially during September when the population of Birdsville swells by thousands for the annual spring races, one of the most popular events on the outback calendar. The pub's 27 motel rooms are always booked well in advance, and more than 50 temporary employees are taken on, compared with the regular complement of six staff.

Expressions of interest are being sought in the pub, which has not had a price tag put on it. Mrs Fort said: "There's a few million dollars in bricks and mortar here, and that's not counting the blood, sweat and tears."

Explaining her decision to quit the outback, she said: "Sometimes you've got to know when enough's enough. You just have to know when you've done your bit. It's extremes - the heat, the cold, the distance. Nothing ever happens in half-measures here. You don't just live in Birdsville - it takes over your life."

She said that, among local people "there's a little bit of anxiety because it's their pub, their image, their icon, and a lot of [them] have grown up with us".