The outback Queensland town of Birdsville is usually dead at the height of summer.
Sitting on the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert and with an average maximum temperature of 40.7 degrees Celsius in January, it rarely sees tourists at this time of year.
- Tourists avoiding NSW due to COVID-19 restrictions have travelled in droves through Birdsville in outback Queensland
- Birdsville is usually quiet in summer due to soaring temperatures
- Authorities hold safety concerns for ill-prepared travellers driving along unsealed roads
But coronavirus border restrictions transformed it into a bustling travel stop over the holiday period, as many motorists making their way from Queensland to other states rerouted their road trips to avoid driving through New South Wales.
Birdsville Hotel’s general manager Ben Fullagar said it was an unusual sight.
As travellers take a long detour down the Birdsville Track into South Australia, the unexpected influx has brought with it an unseasonal financial boon.
“This is my eighth summer in Birdsville [and] I don’t recall having a single motel room [booked] for a night between Christmas and New Year,” Mr Fullagar said.
“It’s a big difference and we absolutely welcome it as far as finances go and sales for the hotel, because 2020 was a very ordinary year for everybody.”
Mr Fullagar said if it were not for border restrictions, the town would not be so busy.
“What we have noted is a very small amount of visitors just doing the regional tourism thing, [as] opposed to people who are almost desperate to get home,” he said.
Travellers complete ‘COVID circumnavigation of NSW’
Victorian couple Dick Campbell and Lyn Gray were making their way home from holidays in Atherton in Far North Queensland when Victoria closed its border to NSW on New Year’s Day.
They had to completely reroute their trip to go through SA via the Birdsville Track — a feat Mr Campbell estimated added on 15 hours of driving.
“We really had no choice.”
At Marree on the Birdsville Track in SA, Mr Campbell said he learned many other travellers also had to make last-minute alternative arrangements.
“[The petrol station attendant] said: ‘We’ve had a few people in here doing this. Our fuel sales are up on what they normally are at this time of year because of the amount of people trying to get around NSW’,” he said.
Charlotte Kato and Taichi Kato chose to traverse the Birdsville Track in early January so the couple could spend time in states that had declared NSW a hotspot.
“Going via NSW would’ve been quicker and easier, but we didn’t want COVID trouble or to wait for hours at the borders,” Ms Kato said.
Now in SA, she said the drive through outback Queensland had been a highlight of their trip.
Despite facing 50-degree heat and huge days of driving, Mr Campbell said the detour gave him an authentic outback experience.
“In summer they’re not touristy.
“I found going through central-western Queensland at that time of year and the Birdsville Track a little bit of an adventure really and probably something I’ll never do again.”
Safety concerns for ill-prepared travellers
Police have raised safety concerns about the number of unprepared motorists attempting the outback rat run in ill-equipped vehicles, such as sedans.
“A lot of people are under the belief that it is a sealed road all the way out from Brisbane down to Adelaide, but far from it,” said Birdsville’s officer-in-charge Stephan Pursell.
“People think they can just drive out, refuel and keep driving, but the challenges are certainly there and you can be out there for a couple of days before someone comes past.”
Senior Constable Pursell said recent rain had caused a campervan to get stuck on the track for about a week and he was aware of at least one rollover further down the track in SA.
“This time of year our temperatures can sneak up into the 50s [and] you’re without communications,” he said.