National Geographic : 1986 Jan
were drovers, working in saddles, "walking the cattle to market," as they say. "Those days are all over now," Dick Ford said. "All over," echoed Northeast, who, at 71, is the elder of the two by nine years. Beleaguered by the sight and sound of each other, Dick Ford and George North east fall into an embrace of new life when a stranger walks into the hotel. And so they listen through the day for the sound of an approaching car or truck. There is a connection here, no doubt, with the bushwhacking of formality in the remote regions of Queensland-the rush to set up a rapport before the stranger moves on, before the chance is lost. Thus Ford drew deep and full from his well of solitude and splashed the words on an American William he right away called Bill. "I met a lady from Cincinnati," he said. "I was in the war. George there drinks his beer from a bottle, but I have to use a glass be cause of some problems I have with breath ing. Why don't you look at my pictures in the envelope on the table. Cincinnati? Could have been Cleveland she was from. Any way, she stopped here and we had a yak." That's the way it went on my visit to Betoota Hotel, a visit I would not have a chance to repeat during my stay in Queens land. Months later word came that George Northeast had died and that Dick Ford was mourning the passing of his friend. In Birdsville, too, there are Queensland ers waiting to give of their goodwill. One of them is Raymond "Taffy" Nicholls, a lean, sinewy man with a smile like a rent in can vas. For seven years he was the keeper of the pub at the Birdsville Hotel, an establish ment sitting at the end of an old cattle trail on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Now his time is spent building a house and tending to his collection of Aboriginal artifacts. With the noonday sun at his face, he tugged his hat until a screen of shade fell across his eyes, and said, "This is just a small cow town now, but in ten years it will be something." In the meantime Birdsville remains one of the most isolated settlements in Queens land. Once a year thousands of persons fly and drive there for the Birdsville horse races, but when that is over-when 50,000 cans of beer have been drained-Taffy Queensland,BroadShoulder of Australia Nicholls and the other 100 permanent resi dents pool their strength and go back to liv ing with the dust and withering heat. The water they use comes up from a well 4,000 feet deep at a temperature of 99°C, and so they are joyful when the rains come. It has been that way for many years, and yet there are stirrings of change in Birdsville Two-thirds of the town of Betoota Hotel,former cattle drover George Northeastand his chum inside, hotel publican Ziegmund Remienko, wait for a new face to drift into town. Not all is monotony in this way station between Windorahand Birdsville. Thursdays, the mail comes.