Coronavirus restrictions turn outback Birdsville Track into ‘COVID highway’ | Ralph-Lauren

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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.

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.

The Birdsville Hotel in far south-west Queensland
Birdsville Hotel in far south-west Queensland is usually quiet at this time of year, but has been bustling lately.(ABC Western Queensland: Maddelin McCosker)

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.

A woman sits on a bench outside a grand old outback pub that reads "Birdsville Hotel - established 1884".
Lyn Gray and Dick Campbell added 15 hours to their journey to avoid going through NSW.(Supplied: Dick Campbell)

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.

A woman stands next to a mud-covered 4WD in the outback in front of a huge Indigenous serpent mural on a sand dune.
Charlotte Kato says she’s “very happy” she and her husband drove the Birdsville Track to avoid NSW.(Supplied: Charlotte Kato)

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.”

A big red sand dune in the outback under a bright blue sky dotted with white clouds.
The Birdsville Track should only be driven in a 4WD with fuel, food, water and a satellite phone on board.(Supplied: Charlotte Kato)

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.



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