An outback ghost town is about to lose its title as Australia’s smallest town when it undergoes a population ‘explosion’.
Betoota in far western Queensland is the town where no-one wants to live, with an official population of zero and only one building – the Betoota Hotel.
Its single resident, the reclusive pub owner Simon Remienko, died in 2004 after running the joint for more than 40 years, and the dusty town has been empty since.
It was officially Australia’s smallest town – and also the smallest in the world – by population size and building count.
However in coming weeks, the town on a desert plain in channel country is expected to welcome fresh blood when the pub’s optimistic new owner moves in with his family and staff.
The remote ghost town will undergo a revival of sorts, with between five and 10 new locals living and working in the historic Betoota Pub.
New owner Robbo Haken, a smash repairer from Brisbane, has spent the past year restoring the 1880s building of sandstone walls and hardwood floors and is only weeks away from completion.
It hasn’t been an easy task. Betoota is isolated to the extreme: 170 kilometres east of Birdsville, and a 17-hour drive west of Brisbane. Its location saw all of Mr Haken’s business partners drop out of the project.
But determined to fulfil his dream, Mr Haken pursued the expensive and difficult task of updating a building in remote Queensland, where tradies and materials are impossible to source.
“I’m the last man standing,” Mr Haken said, who has suffered a huge cost blow-out with this project as well as crises including the death of his father in a rally car accident.
“We’ve had quite a few setbacks but we only have two weeks’ work to complete and then we’re hoping to get council approvals signed off.”
The town of Betoota is probably best known these days for the satirical newspaper named after it, The Betoota Advocate, whose writers live in Sydney.
A few times a year it comes alive for outback events like the Betoota races and Simpson Desert Carnival, and it’s also an out-of-the-way watering hole and camping detour stopover for desert travellers.
The town was established in 1885 as a customs post to collect tolls from farmers along stock routes between Queensland to South Australia.
It was also a Cobb and Co stopover where drivers would change horses. In 1895 underwent some growth when the building of rabbit-proof fence brought workers out west, resulting in a new police station, grocery store, courthouse and the hotel.
The dawn of federation in 1901 negated the need for an interstate customs post and over the following decades the population dwindled and services were closed down.
In 1953 the hotel was bought for 3500 pounds by Polish immigrant Simon Remienko who became the sole property owner in town, growing more and more reclusive until he eventually closed down the hotel in 1997.
At his death in 2004, the hotel was left to friends from whom Mr Haken and his business partners bought it.
“It was virtually gifted to us, luckily, because with the amount of money we have spent on it, it wouldn’t have been a viable project,” he said.
“It has been a massive job. We had no idea how big a job it was going to be to transform this hotel so we could legally open.
“It’s my fault I didn’t do my homework. It’s the same rules as if you were building a hotel in Queen Street.”
Diamantina Shire Council mayor Geoff Morton said the council wanted the pub to succeed but he was skeptical about its chances.
“Building a hotel out here would have to cost at least twice – if not three to four times – what it would cost in Brisbane,” Councillor Morton said.
“You also have to provide your own power and water because there isn’t any. The Innamincka Hotel generates its own power and the diesel costs them about $170,000 to $180,000 alone.
“That’s a lot of stubbies before you make a profit.”
Cr Morton said Betoota had remained a ghost town for so long because of the high start-up costs and because there was “no call for any residents”.
He said the hotel was a 16-kilometre detour off the main drag to get a cold beer.
“We are very keen to get it going; it would be a great boon for the shire,” Cr Morton said.
“I wish them every success.”
Mr Haken said he was looking forward to packing in Brisbane life and settling on the western frontier where there were few people or services and no phone reception.
“The best thing about the town is there are no mobile phones out here,” he said.
“Everybody has to sit down and talk to each other and it’s amazing to see people not staring at their phones.
“I’m very excited. I can’t wait for it to happen. We’ve had so many hiccups but I’m on the home straight now.”