When Peter Barnes moved to Birdsville in the '80s, the isolated outback town was a far cry from the 4x4 mecca it is today. Now, as he contemplates retirment, Barnes’y looks back over a life well lived in the bush.
This article about Peter Barnes was originally published in the April 2014 issue of 4x4 Australia.
As a young mechanic, Peter Barnes and his wife Bronwynne loaded up their HiLux, said goodbye to their hometown of Millicent in South Australia and ventured up the Birdsville Track to a job they planned to stay in only until they earned enough cash to move back home. Little did they know they were about to embark on a journey that would not come to a close until more than 30 years later.
They were heading into cattle country to work on a station owned by local pastoralist and Birdsville native, David Brook. David soon realised the value of the innovative mechanic and the young couple moved into town so Barnes’y (as he likes to spell his nickname) could work as a travelling mechanic servicing all of David’s stations.
Back then, Birdsville was a tiny dust-blown town on the edge of the largely unexplored Simpson Desert. It was only the very adventurous traveller who dared to attempt a desert crossing or a Birdsville Track trip, so it was rare that Peter had to fix a traveller’s vehicle or change a tyre by hand using just tyre levers and a hammer.
When he wasn’t working on station equipment, the curious Barnes’y would cruise into the desert in his Suzuki; lone trips that taught him the secrets of the Simpson, a place where people mysteriously disappeared in those days.
“I’d be the only one out there; the only one, perhaps, who had ever been in some of those places,” he said.
“I just loved driving around out there. I didn’t have a UHF or a sat phone — it was just me and the desert.”
It was from this era that the stories of Birdsville and the Simpson are the most remarkable. Barnes’y tells dramatic yet true stories of criminals on the run and cars inexplicably abandoned. He tells of coming across two foreign travellers close to death as they stumbled away from their broken-down car looking for water in the middle of summer.
In 1989, before the Diamantina Bridge was built, floods cut Birdsville off from all road traffic, including the supply trucks. As a joke, and also as a last-ditch transport effort, Barnes’y built the ‘Birdsville Booze Bus’, a Suzuki floating on empty 44-gallon drums and powered by an outboard motor. In it, he carted many loads of precious XXXX cargo across the swollen river.
Around the same time, the Barnes family’s daily driver was a Valiant Charger, a true Australian muscle car. The photo of him jumping the Charger over the lip of ‘Big Red’ — a 40-metre-high sand dune — still hangs in the main bar of the Birdsville Hotel today. Barnes is one of few drivers to have been photographed in a two-wheel drive at the top of the dune, which some 4WDs still struggle to climb.
Bronwynne worked in the Birdsville general store. She generally served only station ringers and Birdsville locals, but learnt to overcome the challenges of running a retail business in the outback in the days before air-conditioning and refrigerated road trains became common. It was invaluable experience for what was to come.
By the end of the 1980s, 4WDs were becoming more affordable, capable and viable vehicle options for the average family. The availability of more 4WDs meant that more Australians were taking to the road to explore their country. Birdsville suddenly went from being ‘the back of beyond’ to a feasible holiday destination.
To cope with the influx of travellers, Peter, a passionate Suzuki fan, put an LJ80 on the roof of his shed to make him easier to find. He installed the first tyre-changing machine in Birdsville, which is still in use today, and travellers loved his brand of dry, outback humour.
T-shirts bearing the slogans “Barnes’y patched me bus up” and “We may be rough but at least we’re expensive” are still treasured souvenirs for many early recreational outback travellers.
Bronwynne’s tiny general store and Peter’s simple back-street shed were now too small to cope with the growing number of travellers. In 1991, Barnes’y took a year off to build what is now the Birdsville Roadhouse, a business that he and Bronwynne have built up over the past couple of decades to be Birdsville’s one-stop-shop for everything from mechanical repairs to groceries, souvenirs and camping equipment.
Barnes’y also raced in several Australian Safaris and became the face of Ford’s Courier ute, gracing Australian television screens with his trademark humour. The Ford connection also saw him partner one of Australia’s motorsport legends in a Falcon ute.
“Dick Johnson wanted to race off-road,” he said. “Ford called me up and asked if he could race in my ute, so I ended up navigating for him at Finke. That ute still races, too.”
In the early 1990s, Barnes’y met a group of young Germans travelling around Australia in a monster of a 4WD truck, one of only three in Australia at the time. He decided that he had to have one and sourced an ex-German Army MAN truck, converted it to right-hand drive and installed a motorhome on the back, painted by Birdsville artist Wolfgang John.
Taking a hiatus from the business, Peter, Bronwynne and son Sam, then aged 10, embarked on a round-Australia trip.
“When we crossed the desert, we went as far as Eyre Creek on the first day and camped there with some mates,” Barnes’y said. “We got a flat tyre at Eyre Creek and did the rest of the desert without a spare. We were pretty lucky we didn’t get stuck.”
A year and many kilometres later, they parked the motorhome in the Australian Transport Museum and moved to Papua New Guinea for a while before returning to manage another Brook-owned cattle station, Murnpeowie on the Strzelecki Track.
They have fond memories of their six years on ‘Mumpy’, including the construction of a 4WD buggy designed for mustering on rough terrain, and the time they carted a wild donkey home in the passenger seat.
They also recall their resurgence in offroad racing. Peter had dabbled in it since he was a teen and was keen to get his son involved.
The Krakka Koldee Racing Team hit the offroad tracks in a 1300cc Suzuki-powered dune buggy, winning their class in the Finke Desert Race, the Australian Off Road Championship and the South Australian Championship.
These days, the Suzuki has been replaced by a 3.5-litre Nissan 350Z-powered Pro Lite buggy driven by Sam, but this year, 10 years after their buggy revival, Barnes’y is contemplating getting the old girl out for one last competitive spin.
After more travelling, Peter and Bronwynne were convinced to move back to Birdsville in 2008 to once again take the reins of the Roadhouse. The business has grown exponentially over the ensuing five years and the conversion of their treasured MAN to a tilt-tray truck has made Barnes’y an essential outback rescue service.
He’s rescued countless stranded travellers from the depths of the Simpson Desert and spent many sleepless nights rushing to the rescue of travellers in need.
“I rescued one bloke who was pretty grateful for a ride in the truck,” Barnes’y said. “He kept saying that he was glad he broke down because otherwise he never would’ve got a ride.”
The ‘monster’ truck has been a welcome sight for many travellers in trouble, whether it’s a quick, flawless rescue or a long nightmare.
“I had to go about 40 kilometres into the desert to bring out an F250,” he said. “It wouldn’t fit on the tray, so I had to tow it out of the desert over a heap of sand dunes with the truck — it was the only thing that could tow it. It took us nine hours to travel 40 kilometres.”
These days, as more families flock to the Simpson Desert in search of one of Australia’s last frontiers, Barnes’y provides a mantle of safety to those who attempt the sometimes dangerous desert crossing. Whether he’s called on or not, his very existence is reassurance enough.
Peter may be the one at the wheel of the MAN and under the broken 4WDs in the workshop, but Bronwynne, the kind and strong woman beside him, is an equally essential member of the famous outback team.
By its very nature, Birdsville is always evolving and changing, but without Bronwynne and Barnes’y, Birdsville would be a very different place. When they move on, many wonder if there’s anyone out there who could take their place.
“It’s a great job,” Pete said. “It’s led me on some great adventures, I’ve met some amazing people and every day is as good as the last. I’ve had the time of my life.”
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