Betoota Hotel, Queensland: An unexpected outback adventure

Jennifer Johnston — 7 December 2023
What does one do when you’re stranded in the middle of Australia’s desert for two days?

Betoota is 166km east of Birdsville and 220km west of Windorah. It sits on a vast gibber plain, an unforgiving desert surface covered in loose rock fragments. In the late 1800s Betoota had three hotels, a store and post office. It was a changeover station for coach company, Cobb & Co. In an era when cattle were big business, drovers moved cattle across the country along stock routes. When they crossed the border into South Australia customs agents at Betoota collected a toll from the drovers.

Fast forward to 2023, the road signs on the entrance and exit of the ‘ghost’ town declare Betoota’s official population as zero. Someone has affixed a temporary sign below with a sloppily painted number ‘five’. Likely erected by one of the seasonal staff who stay in the only building that remains: The Betoota Hotel.

Sigmund (Ziggy) Remienko, a Polish immigrant and grader driver purchased the pub in 1957. Anyone passing to or from Birdsville could call in for a cold beer or fill up with petrol. That’s if Ziggy felt in the mood to fill up. He owned the hotel for 40 years until ill health forced him to give up the pub in 1997. He left the rundown pub to a couple to ‘look after’ with the proviso it was never to be sold or reopened; Ziggy passed away in 2004, having been the sole resident in Betoota for 51 years. When Robert Haken, a smash repairer from Logan in Brisbane, stopped by the boarded-up building, he watched graffiti artists add ‘colour’ to the hotel’s whitewashed sandstone walls. Appalled at the neglected state of the pub, Haken convinced the owners to sell and in 2017, he became the owner of an old pub in the middle of nowhere. After two years of renovating and fighting with the local council, which was reticent to grant him the relevant licenses, the hotel finally opened on 20 July 2020 — smack bang in the middle of COVID-19 lockdowns.



Stranded in Betoota

I was enroute to Birdsville with three friends to attend the 2023 Birdsville Big Red Bash — touted as the most remote festival in the world. Unseasonal rains fell the Monday morning we left Windorah. After driving 220km along the mostly unsealed road, slipping and sliding across channel crossings that had morphed into treacherous waterways, we arrived at the Betoota Hotel to be told we could go no further. The police closed the road to Birdsville that morning after a caravan had flipped over. We joined a large group of Big Red Bashers … all stranded at the Betoota Pub. 

Betoota was Australia’s smallest town until Cooladdi, 89km southwest of Charleville gazumped it. Apart from the five staff, Robbo, Julie, Ray, Trish and Sauce who stay for the season (late March to mid-December), there’s also a handful of volunteers. For two nights we stranded Big Red Bashers swelled Betoota’s population above 100. Our group had no desire to pitch tents in the sludgy mud, so we were very happy when Trish offered beds in the shearer’s quarters ($20 a night). Beneath corrugated iron sheets on the hotel’s lean-to veranda, we slept on beds that were a farmer-worthy creation of a foam mattress atop fencing wire stretched around a steel frame. 

Betoota has no mobile service. The staff received weather updates via radio. To pass the time we played board games, read magazines, sat around chatting and drinking. Sauce took us for a drive to a nearby jump up. We climbed to the peak and were rewarded with a 360-degree outlook across those vast gibber plains. In the evenings the volunteers served a two-course dinner for 60 people who paid $35 per person. I never expected to dine so fabulously in the middle of nowhere.

Stranded at the Betoota Hotel was akin to being on a deserted island — except this was no island, it was outback Australia. And yes, we did make it to Big Red Bash, albeit a couple of days late. 

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Tags

Betoota Hotel Queensland Birdsville Big Red Bash Windorah Ghost town Outback Queensland Sigmund (Ziggy) Remienko

Photographer

Jennifer Johnston