Trouble in the Oasis: The Royal Hotel Bedourie

Previously: Rodeo in the Oasis Bedourie, Queensland It’s 6pm on another desert evening and I’m floating. The artesian water suspends me effortlessly as I watch the sunset. Every so often I make sure I move just in case a passersby thinks a rescue is required. I’m in the town where the sands of the Simpson desert in the West meet the gibber plains in the East. This is Bedourie, and I’m at the free swimming pool and spa. The water is bored from the Great Artesian Basin and reaches the spa at about 40c – the pool, about 28c. It’s the high mineral content of the artesian water that allows you to float like you’re in sea water.
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Grasping onto familiarity

Two weeks have passed since the rodeo and the town is quiet again. A Hilux towing a caravan pulls into the camping area beside the pool complex. They unhitch the van and make themselves at home before walking across the road to the pub. I’ve been in town for about 3 weeks now, from what was meant to be a 5 day visit. The feeling of needing to move on is there, but the desire to stay is greater. Something is keeping me here. But what is it? When you’re constantly on the move sometimes you find yourself grasping onto familiarity. In the little town of Bedourie I had found just that. It was working on my laptop during the day and swimming laps in the afternoon. It was washing my clothes every week at the roadhouse laundrette while chatting to the backpackers and doing my grocery shopping in their little supermarket. It was going somewhere and people knowing my name – and in a town as small as Bedourie that doesn’t take too long. I’ll probably head off in a few days, I say to myself as I get out of the pool.

Van style home cooking

The roadhouse sits at the Northern end of town. The fresh produce that’s flown in every week for the supermarket is surprisingly good considering how remote we are. All the meat is frozen but the prices are reasonable and you know it’s fresh. Returning to the van I try to figure out what to cook for dinner with the ingredients I bought earlier in the afternoon. One of my favourites is pork stir-fry with broccoli and rice noodles. I slowly cook the spare ribs in my skillet until the fat renders out as an expectant little cat circles my leg expecting a succulent morsel. When they’re crispy and sticky I know they’re ready to slice up before adding the broccoli and sauces. I keep it simple; fresh garlic, a splash of fish sauce, honey, and chilli sauce. I cook the noodles in the same pan for ease of washing up, tilting the pan and letting them soak up the liquid. But not tonight. I’m meeting friends at the pub and I want a quick meal. I throw some corn chips in the skillet with grated cheese. With the lid on, the cheese melts as I make guacamole which I pad out with sour cream. It’s ready in 15 minutes.

Have another beer mate

There are two places to drink in this town: the roadhouse, and the pub. The locals usually choose the roadhouse for it’s cheaper beer. You see, when you consume as much of it as some people in this town, the cost is important. I walk into the pub. I prefer it over the roadhouse. It’s authentic; If by authentic, you mean derelict. The single story rendered mud brick building was built in 1886 and hasn’t had much done to it since; a few walls removed to make the bar bigger, a jukebox by the pool table, and a TV up in the corner blaring out the weeks rugby. Scribbled on the wall once painted white is the signature of country music star, John Williamson. In the corner lies Whiskey, the publicans dog. The poor thing must be 15 years old; very arthritic, and very overweight. I take a seat at the bar next to Taman and say hi to Laura as she gets me a beer. She’s joined by the new girl, Mia, a german backpacker. It’s a quiet night, but it often is. Mia tells me they only sold 4 beers during the day. I ask again if they have a cook, No, no cook yet. But we might have found someone. They joke that I should take the job and I may have entertained the thought for just a moment. The 6 or so patrons lined up along the bar stare up at the TV silently as the Broncos beat the Sharks in the last quarter. Two nights ago at the roadhouse the mood was very different. To say this town has a drinking problem would be unfair. Fairer would be to say that the whole outback has a drinking problem. Bedourie just happens to be a prime example. I was sat at the bar finishing the huge T-bone steak that endowed the plate before me. The tourists had finished their meals, leaving about 10 rowdy locals and a few station workers in the bar area. For most, their presence in the bar means one thing: drink to get drunk. And that they do. Along the bar top lay piles of notes and coins. The respective owner may be sitting in front of them, or elsewhere, such as outside by the fire pit. The bar staff, comprised of young backpackers and Aussies from the coast, know what each person drinks and will get you another drink at the motion of a hand or as they see you approach the bar. They take a note or coins from your pile and return the change. It’s an efficient system. There’s no risk of someone stealing your money simply because if anyone does something wrong in this town, the town will rally against them. Often, you will get to the bar to find that someone has already shouted you a beer. As I see it, the practice of shouting beers and buying rounds serves two purposes. Firstly, it is an offer of friendship and test of trust, cemented by the gesture being reciprocated. Secondly, it’s surefire ticket to getting drunk and pushing your alcoholism onto others, and that’s the sole reason you’re here, right? Well, I tried to avoid the system. And it’s generally met with disdain by those already indoctrinated and well versed in Australian drinking culture. With my coins safely in my pocket, I sat at the bar. I looked across and Clay, a local shire council worker, was ordering his usual; two tequila shots and a beer chaser. In the time I was there I lost track of how many times he came up to the bar and ordered this. By 10pm he was cut off from ordering any more, no longer recognised me, and has no recollection of the decent conversation we had 2 hours earlier. Another local suggested that I’m not drinking my beer fast enough and said he’ll shout me another. I’m just enjoying this one thanks, I said as he huffed. At the end of the bar an older gentleman, visibly intoxicated, has just been cut off. You are a C**T, you know that?, he said as he waved his fist at the backpacker barman who was just coming to terms with what he will endure over his stay out here. What is remarkable is not the level of intoxication that these people can endure, it’s their ability to do it again the next day; indiscriminate of race or age. Come midnight, last drinks had been called and any ill-will or sour words had floated away, as did the patrons, into the desert night. But this isn’t a story about the roadhouse. It’s a story about the Royal Hotel Bedourie. The pub. The game has finished and Laura turns off the TV. The rugby watchers finish their beers and leave. Shortly before, Nathan and Hayley arrived from the Roadhouse. It’s a quiet night for them too and they closed the bar early. At the bar under the TV sits Damian, who months ago took up residence in the pub’s motel. At the other end sits Jim with his guitar, the publican since 1971, giving us renditions of country songs. The stammer in his voice becomes a tremolo as he sings. He tells me that years ago he had a splitting headache. It lasted 12 days of excruciating pain at which point he woke up to find that it had disappeared but was left with a stutter. I didn’t ask if he went to a doctor about it, when you’re 500km from the nearest hospital I suspect not. There’s a new girl in town, Rebecca, who is on contract with the shire council. She teaches us how to play Kelly Pool. Each player is given a random number between 1 and 15. Turns are taken and if your number is sunk, you are out of the game. It’s a really fun game to play with a group of people, the perfect mix of skill and luck. Laura gets me another beer and writes it down on my tab. I reflect on the time I’ve spent in this town and the group of people I’m now sharing a drink with. Banded together as outsiders in a foreign land. How did we all end up here in the middle of nowhere? That I cannot answer but I do know one thing. Each of us has taken a chance on ourselves. Each of us has altered our life path from the ordinary to something a little different. On that note I figure that this is the perfect end to my time here. I think I’m leaving tomorrow, I say to everyone as Laura closes the bar. But they all knew something I didn’t.

Reasons to leave

Light streams through the front of the van. Willow, not content with the desert morning temperature, has pulled down the curtain that covers the windscreen allowing the van to heat up. She’s now curled up in her basket. I made it for her over a year ago and it’s held up well. The fact that she sleeps in it is a compliment in itself. It’s 9am. Though I only had 4 beers last night, the dry desert air makes it feel like it was a few more. My phone vibrates. It’s Laura, You forgot to pay your tab last night! Please come in and pay it. Today is the day, I thought. The van is packed. Willow is fed and cuddled. The highway awaits us. There was just one matter to fix up before leaving town. I sheepishly enter the pub. Laura is behind the bar and smiles as she takes my card to settle my account. Am I really ready to leave? I considered. I remembered something Steph said to me on one of our weekly phone calls, Stop trying to find reasons to leave. Across the road I see Jacob, another shire staff member, mowing the lawns outside the visitor centre. Then Taman walks past on his way to work. Another caravan rolls into town. Laura hands me back my card. Did that guy get back to you … about the cooking job? I ask. No, Not yet. So, you still need a cook? Yes, but he’s meant to be letting us know today. I, I think I want to the job.

Not fine dining..

At this point you might be wondering how long I have worked in the hospitality industry. You might even be wondering where I received my cooking accreditations from, or even how I managed to complete such study during my ten year career in IT. I ask, in this instance, that you judge not a chef on the extent of his knowledge but by the breadth of his enthusiasm. And when you’re a thousand kilometers into the outback, that is all that counts. It’s simple. Meals come with veggies, mash and chips, or salad and chips. Everything else comes out of the fryer. Everything’s frozen, everything’s microwaved. This isn’t fine dining. Veggies, mash AND chips? Don’t ask too many questions. Jim has been doing it this way for decades. Jim isn’t here on my first day. He had taken the 500km drive up to Mt Isa to take a very sick Whiskey to the vet leaving Mia and Laura to look after the place for a couple of days. Oh and Damian. Damian had acquired in the months of his residence here an almost complete knowledge of the workings of the pub and motel, though Jim did not trust him nor the amount he drank to actually offer him a job. Jim’s loss really. Regardless, Damian was there for me and answered my questions about the finer points of kitchen operations. The pub kitchen was his kitchen as well, as was the bar his living room. The kitchen was filthy. Dust and cobwebs hang from the ceiling fan under which the work bench lay. In one of the small refrigerators a large tray of sausages had fouled. Untied shopping bags of meat sat in the walk-in fridge next to the ‘fresh’ produce. In the freezers not a single item was dated or labelled. It was every horror you would imagine a country pub kitchen to be. I got to work cleaning the fly marks and grime off the walls and chucking out what I could get away with. Jim, what is this mince doing? I asked a few days later after he had returned. Cut off the bad bits and put it in the freezer, it’s fine as pet food. This I made sure I labelled. Though my proficiency in home cookery was solid, I questioned whether I was capable of running a commercial kitchen, albeit small kitchen. I told myself one thing. Cooking is timing, and it is timing that I have. And as the orders started coming in any self doubt I had in myself was cast away amidst the flurry of each nightly service. Two t-bones medium rare. One fish and chips, two small rumps, and a large pork chops. One rissoles. Two large rumps, one t-bone, two fisherman’s basket, two rissoles, and a fish and chips. Either Laura or Mia worked the bar while I worked the kitchen and together we became the perfect team.

Whiskey’s last drink

Outside the kitchen window one of Jim’s mates is in a small excavator digging a trench next to the fence line. The pile of red desert sand sits next to the ditch until the next morning when Jim returns from Mount Isa. Whiskey had used up his years, and used them well some would say. Jim was distraught. The man of few words became a man of even fewer. The dog was his late mother, Jean Smith’s, whose history in this town spans well over half a century. Jean left home at 17 to find work, hitching rides from her home at Ooroowilannie Station, South Australia with the outback mailmen to find work in Queensland. After working with her sister at Davenport Station she landed a job at the Birdsville hotel, before coming to Bedourie where she married and raised 5 sons. The mud hut across the road was their home, and where the boys received their education. Hard to imagine looking at the building now. With her husband they ran the Royal Bedourie Hotel until 1971 when their eldest son Jim took over. We could all see what that dog meant to him. It was a link to the past. One of the few he had left in this lonely old town. Laura came up with an idea. She found a nice photo of Whiskey which I digitalised so we could print out, put in a frame and give to Jim.

The pub with nearly no beer

Jim left this morning with Laura in the road train. One of the last of a fleet of trucks that he operated up and down the Eyre Development Road a few decades ago. He kept one to get much needed supplies from the city out to the pub and also make a bit of extra cash hauling. The 2800km return trip to the big smoke is never wasted. On this occasion a load of camels are being taken down destined for a butcher out of Adelaide. He told me of his last trip where they nearly got bogged and had to unload all the camels into a paddock where they waited for the road to dry out. The mostly unsealed highways and a road train straight out of the 1960’s make for a slow-going trip, not to mention they mostly move at night – it’s easier than getting the right paperwork for transporting livestock. Jim was never big on paperwork, it seems. This came across in his runnings of the pub. Jim, am I able to get a payslip? He huffed and mumbled, but one was never produced. It’s 10am and I’m in the kitchen slicing up a slab of fillet steak. Without Laura here, Mia is working the 14 hour shift from now till close. I offer to step in whenever she needs it but she is happy to take the hours. Moments before Jim and Laura set off I realised that we had been left with no instructions. I find Jim by the truck rolling up his swag. What’s the plan for the next week? There’s only two of us. Oh, umm, write down your hours I guess. He seemed a bit taken aback that I asked. I realised that he is used to renting his staff by the week and certainly not used to them piping up about their potential exploitation. $470 per week; includes room and food. A decrepit trailer at the back of the motel whose availability of electricity could only be described as whimsical. It’s dawning on me how outlandish the situation is. A cook with 6 days experience in the industry and a 19-year-old backpacker left to look after a motel/bar/restaurant for a whole week. Only in the outback, I say to myself. But we make it work. The meals are cooked, the kitchen is cleaned, the beers served, and the customers are happy. I’m nearly done slicing up the steaks when I see Willow sneak into the kitchen. Willow! Get out of here! I cry as I shoo her back out the door. I feel bad so I take a juicy scrap of fillet steak and put it in her bowl near the van.

Where the old are young again..

In between the lunch and dinner services I have a few hours to myself. Some days I drive to the race course to take photos of Willow. I stand on the edge of this desert town with the Simpson before me like some uncrossable sea. The ripples of a tide or the passing of a storm carved into the land as dunes. But some do cross it, loading up their 4x4s with supplies and equipment for the trip across its rough outback tracks. For those who have lived on the shore of this sea of sand their roots run deep, but then there are those who have washed up upon it. Those who one day started driving West and found themselves here, all out of driving, and may dream of that verdant coastline in the East one last time before they are consumed by the sandstorms. Laying themselves down like the gibber stones to be weathered by the grit that passes over them. It’s where the old are young again and young never grow up, says one of the stones in the roadhouse bar. They forget why they even came out here, the foreboding palette of brown and yellow of the desert landscape now a friend to their loneliness and only quelled by their alcoholism. It was late in the afternoon and even the ants were casting long shadows. We drove back to the pub.

I wouldn’t have thought..

The following passage contains explicit language. Some might say Jim has a short fuse. Others would say he has no fuse at all. The road train pulls up laden with beer and supplies after their week long trip. I walk over as Laura hands me the packs of Venetian biscuits I had asked for. Though they were long gone, the stench of camel was thick in the air as Jim unloads boxes that have been sitting in their shit. We pull down a large icebox and he drags it into the kitchen. You know what’s in here? .. It’s a sheep. And here I was thinking that he might have asked how the past week had been. I had now worked 14 days in a row. Mia was glad of their return as it meant she could have a day off, her first in weeks. I hand Jim a note with my hours on it and ask about how much tax he is taking out having not yet seen a payslip. I’m not paying that, he exclaimed as my heart sank. How can I work here if you’re not going to pay me? I reply. In that one moment I realise this situation could run one of two courses. Jim’s refusal to pay me my extra hours meant I could either suck it up, or be fired for standing my ground. Jim is trembling as he tells me I didn’t work those hours and irate as I press him to check the security cameras. I decide at this point it best to extinguish the situation and avoid any further coronary distress by talking about it later. The afternoon passes and Laura cooks us zucchini fritters which we eat at the bar as Jim seems to ignore my presence. I catch Laura after in the kitchen. Jim wants you out.  This is it. A milestone in every person’s life, perhaps. A moment to always remember. The very first time I have ever been fired from a job. The river had already run its course. I walk back into the bar. Jim, can you tell me what’s going on? You’re out. I’ve paid you now it’s time to leave. What do you mean you’ve paid me? I follow Jim to the kitchen where upon the table is a printout of a transaction receipt. I wouldn’t have thought that a fucking bastard brought up in Australia would be such a fucking cockhead. There’s your money, now it’s time to fuck off.  The words rang in my ears, almost comedic. But I was astounded. I stood there trying to process the situation. Why would he pay me if he thought I was cheating him on my extra hours? Why would he pay me, then fire me? What was clear was that I had pushed him too far. I had questioned him, and that conflict was too much for this man to handle. I asked about my tax, and the declaration form I was yet to sign. The only thing I need to clarify is that it’s time for you to fuck off. Don’t make me call Kirk. I wasn’t going to let Jim wake up Kirk, the local policeman, for this sorry situation. And so I left. I pack up my stuff, round up Willow, and drive to the roadhouse, announcing my ill-fated termination to the room upon my entry. I relay the night’s events to my friends and revel in the fact that I kept my cool in such a tense situation. But they are not surprised. Jim does this every couple of months, don’t take it to heart. Do you need any money? Have you got a place to stay? The generosity of these people of whom I didn’t even know 2 months ago was overwhelming. I politely but gratefully refuse their offers except for the drinks that come my way. I am fortunate. Wherever I am I have my campervan home, my security, and my cat. Laura and Mia arrive. We share a drink and debrief as I am consoled. Things work differently in the outback. The laws of the coast don’t always reach across these desert plains. Legal pay rates and employee rights are a grey area this far West. When the elected councillors are the very ones running these businesses you can guarantee the Shire will bury their heads in the sand and the backpackers will be left to take it for what it is. What is clear though is that the publican will always call last drinks on those who question him.

On a dark desert highway

Two weeks have passed since the rise and fall of my cheffing career, and after 3 months in the outback I start dreaming of that verdant coast again. That feeling of needing to move on finally surpasses the need to stay, and I know it’s time. Laura tells me Jim is on a trip down to Adelaide in the road train which means it’s safe for me at the pub. And so we all spend another night together in this little town. The strangers in a strange land, the backpackers, the coast kids, and the blow-ins. Those who wouldn’t dare call this place home. We sit and drink, we play kelly pool, and at some point someone hands me Jim’s guitar where a rendition of Hotel California transpires, with a few changes of course. There I sit, holding the guitar or the man who fired me just weeks before.
Welcome to the Royal Hotel Bedourie. Such a lovely place (such a lovely place), such a lovely face. Plenty of room at the Royal Hotel Bedourie. Any time of year (any time of year) you can find it here.
The song about the dark side of the American (Australian?) Dream. An examination of excess and self-indulgence – as we sit in the desert with nothing but each other. A few nights later we all head out by the river to my favourite campsite where we light a fire, 8 or so of us. Laura sneaks some sausages and fillet steak out of the pub freezer and we cook it on the skillet over the coals. As we talk into the night about the absurdity of it all, Willow sniffs around at our guests and occupies a camp chair whenever someone leaves it for too long. Such is the way of a cat! Are you angry at Jim? Someone asks. No. This town is bigger than its publican. The pub existed long before him and will do so long after him. Mia is leaving tomorrow and so am I. All of us reflect on our time in this little town as the shooting stars fly overhead. It’s now late and we all say our goodbyes. I look up and the southern cross looks so strange this far North, almost foreign, the way it points almost horizontally. The next day I pack away the camp chairs and put out the fire. But not before noticing the footprints around it and wondering how long they will stay impressed upon this desert sand. I turn the ignition and the engine hesitates for a moment before starting. Willow has snuggled into a good spot under the blankets and will be fast asleep by the time I turn onto the highway. I roll through town as if the last two months are unravelling before me, past the desert sands under the muddied blue sky, the pub filled with so many new memories, and the friends I’m leaving behind.

* * *

Next: The Lost Highway Wow! That was a long one. For those of you who made it to the end, I thank you and hope you’ll check back later on our next adventure. Remember, if you want to be the first to know when we post new articles you can sign up to our mailing list in the side bar or below.
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