In central Australia there are these things called road trains. The world’s largest and heaviest road-legal vehicles, many are over 50 metres (165 ft) long and weigh around 200 tonnes.
Every few years, different outback towns compete for the ‘longest road train’ world record. I was in Winton, outback Queensland when the record was set once more in the mid-nineties, when a truck towed 34 trailers. To achieve this record the truck only has to travel 100 metres, but that’s no easy feat.
By 2006, a 70 year-old guy in another Queensland town had obliterated the standing world record, when in an unmodified Mack truck he towed 112 trailers. The road train was just short of a mile long and weighed 1,300 tonnes (2.9 million pounds). Everything has to be planned meticulously for these attempts because the load gets heavier as each trailer grips the last. By the time the truck grips the final few trailers, the transmission is burning, tires are smoking and the front of the truck is slamming up and down on the road. Each of these attempts costs a few hundred thousand dollars because that single, 100-metre drive basically destroys a brand new truck.
All of this is just for show of course, but the standard road-legal 200-tonne road trains are still big, intimidating vehicles, and quite scary to overtake (doing 90 mph it can still take around a minute to get around one and you have to fight the wheel, as the draft generated by the weight of the truck drags your much smaller vehicle toward the side of it).
Anyway, in 1995 I was on my way to do some work in an outback town called Birdsville. It was a 700km dirt road commute to this job, and with about 160km left to go I decided to stop for a beer in Betoota, which at the time was world’s smallest town. The “town” (I’ve seen it on some world maps) consisted of the Betoota Hotel… and its 85 year-old proprietor, a Polish immigrant known locally as Ziggy.
The old man was a legendary character in those parts. His pub was the front room of his house (the only structure on the 400km stretch of dirt road between Windorah and Birdsville in the far west of Queensland – 1430km from Brisbane, the state capital). The Bar of his hotel comfortably seated about four people. This small building, the two fuel bowsers out the front and some rusty junk out the back comprised his town. The town of Betoota.
Ziggy was well known for his fiery temper. If he didn’t like the look of you (which apparently was most of the time) he would refuse to open his door. He was also known to be armed, and was not unacquainted with the western Queensland police, who were occasionally called out to Betoota after altercations between the old man and the ill-prepared outback travelers who dared stop in his town. Rumours were rife about his past during WWII, and whenever some brave (or idiotic) person asked him about this he would generally change the subject or pretend not to understand the question. It was said he used to take down sign posts around his district, and that if (when) tourists complained about his fuel prices he would give them false directions, sending them to an uncertain fate, into the even more remote South Australian desert.
I knew none of this when I first stepped through the open door of the Betoota hotel in 1995. A grumpy looking old man looked me up and down and stared at my dreadlocks for an extended moment. He looked through his front window at my vehicle, which was a big turbo-diesel 4WD, marked as belonging to the Queensland government. The old man shrugged his shoulders, silently pointed to a bar stool and placed a cold bottle of beer on the bar in front of it. I nodded in appreciation, sat down, drank my beer, then nodded again toward the fridge for another.
Ziggy started asking me questions, mainly about why a city boy like myself with such stupid long hair would be in a place like this. I told him I lived in the local area (only 550km to the East, in Longreach) and that I liked it here in the outback. The old guy started chatting while I had another couple of beers, and I learned that he’d left Poland during WWII and had been in the Queensland outback ever since. Perhaps it was due to his self-imposed exile that he still retained a thick Polish accent, and I only caught every third or fourth word he said. I nodded and smiled and had another beer while he chatted away. Ziggy didn’t smoke or drink.
A police car pulled up outside the pub, which was the last thing I expected (on that road it was usual to encounter another vehicle every hour or so, and usually these were trucks delivering supplies to the outback communities). I grabbed my car-keys off the bar and put them in my pocket, which I knew was completely pointless. The cop swaggered into the bar and said hi to Ziggy and then to me. He asked if the vehicle outside was mine (as if I’d walked here through the desert?), then before waiting for my reply he sat down beside me and instructed me to hand over my keys.
The cop introduced himself, ordered himself a beer and asked me how many I’d had. I lied and said two. He nodded at Ziggy, and another beer was placed in front of me.
“There’s a road train coming”, said the policeman. “It’ll be here any moment”.
Suddenly spritely, the old barkeeper sprang from his chair to the front door, closing it just as the 200 tonne monster rumbled slowly by. A moment later the bar went dark, the windows painted brown in a fine mist of dust. The policeman sitting beside me asked me to tell him about myself, in much the same manner that Ziggy had earlier, and told me to relax because I wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. This did not make me feel relaxed.
The dust had cleared when we finished our beers and the policeman motioned to me that it was my shout. I bought another two beers (Ziggy again declined), wondering when, if ever, I would be returned the keys to the brand new vehicle parked outside, that wasn’t mine. The three of us chatted a while. The cop bought the next round, and I the next. After finishing our drinks the officer looked intently at his watch for slightly longer than needed to figure out the time… he nodded thoughtfully to himself, and handed me my keys.
“You should be alright now. Drive safely – there’s no need to rush,” he said.
I was a young man at the time, and the eight or so beers I had at the bar that afternoon had put me in a bit of a state. I shook hands with the police officer, then with Ziggy, and tried to look sober as I weaved out of the little bar room toward my vehicle, fumbling with my keys, which I dropped… twice. I wish I could remember the name of that cop. He was a good guy.
He told me as I left that he had needed to keep me at the bar because he didn’t trust me not to try to overtake the road train (which was travelling at about 40km/h – I probably would have tried). The thing is, if you’re crazy enough to try overtaking a road train on a dirt road there’s fair chance you will be driving completely blind (see photos above). This is less than ideal even in areas as remote as this.
Remembering the police officer’s advice, I did take it quite easy during the final hundred miles of my journey that afternoon. I happened to catch up with the road train, exactly at the town limit of Birdsville, my destination, where after 700km the dust settled and I finally felt the smoothness of a sealed road. That cop had known precicely what he was doing, and had calculated the timing of my journey to the exact minute.
That evening I had a few more beers at the famous Birdsville pub. I told the locals my story and was surprised at their reaction. They were impressed, and said Ziggy must have liked me a lot. I prefer to think I caught the old man on one of his good days. I was fortunate enough to work out there in far western Queensland a few more times though, and each time I would stop in to have a beer or three and say hi to Ziggy. The old guy was always nice to me.
A bit later, in 1998, hundreds of people travelled from hundreds of miles in all directions, for the last call at the Betoota hotel. Ziggy was feeling tired and had decided to call it a day. He closed his pub for the final time, and left it – with its half-full, dusty bottles on the shelves, just as it always had been.
Simon Remienko died not long after, aged 89, at a nursing home in Charleville, South-west Queensland. He remains an Aussie outback legend.