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The solo Aussie outback cop

AUSTRALIA: Being the only policeman in an area the size of Britain might be daunting for some, but not for Senior Constable Stephan Pursell.


Sunday 23 September 2018, 02:30PM

Australian police Snr Cst Stephan Pursell watching traffic approaching from South Australia at the remote Queensland border outside Birdsville. Photo: Saeed Khan / AFP

Australian police Snr Cst Stephan Pursell watching traffic approaching from South Australia at the remote Queensland border outside Birdsville. Photo: Saeed Khan / AFP

The easy-going 53-year-old runs a modest police station in the equally modest town of Birdsville, making him the law across a vast swathe of outback Australia.

In this isolated, arid, ferrous-red-and-orange moonscape fringing the Simpson Desert, dust, pesky flies, feral camels, wild dogs and deadly snakes are your main companions.

Pursell acknowledges that his patch – which takes four days to drive across – is “quite big”. But he relishes the challenge.

“This (job) came up and I thought, ‘what an iconic location in Australia’, he said, “so I put an application in.”

He got the gig, and so two years ago hauled himself and his wife Sharon away from Queensland’s gleaming surf, 1,600 kilometres to the east, and into this sandy cauldron.

It is not a place for everyone. Daytime temperatures can soar above 40 degrees Celsius and strong winds can whip up dust storms that blot out the sun and turn the skies dark.

“You’ve got to experience it to enjoy it. It’s an amazing place,” said Pursell, who became an internet sensation last year after shots of him frying an egg in the withering heat on the bonnet of his Toyota Land Cruiser went viral.

Birdsville itself is home to just over 100 people. There’s one hotel that doubles as the watering hole. A roadhouse allows people to stock up on fuel and life-saving essentials. But the highlight may be a bakery selling curried camel pies.

The tiny township is a relief from the barren landscape. Surrounding Birdsville are endless sandy plains and rolling dunes that merge into the distant horizon, a nothingness that’s both mesmerising and isolating.

So what’s the workload like?

“Crime’s not an issue,” Pursell admits, adding that much of his job is that of a first responder.

“The type of jobs that we do is mainly just making sure that people get here safely, get home safely. Breakdowns, medical issues, accidents – we’ve got to be ready to respond to those sorts of things.”

The most common type of accident is vehicles rolling over, but the station has also had to deal with a pilot whose plane lost a wheel in the air after colliding with a pelican.

Because he has to monitor an area of 240,000 square kilometres – where you can go for hours or days before someone passes – the involvement of the local community is essential.

A nurse, mechanic, Aboriginal ranger or community members may join him on rescue missions.

Police officers at other stations hundreds of kilometres away also work with Pursell and nearby cattle stations to track travellers as they pass through.

Twice a year the pace picks up a bit, for the century-old Birdsville horse races, which are known across Australia, and for the Big Red Bash music festival.

Both annual events attract more than 6,000 tourists who travel for up to several days in four-wheel drives or in small planes from across the vast continent.

Pursell’s predecessor, Snr Cst Neale McShane, who retired in 2015 after a decade in Birdsville, says there was “never a dull moment”.

Each rescue of a stranded or injured traveller requires an epic drive across long dirt roads or countless sand dunes in the Land Cruiser for hours and sometimes days.

Sometimes what is required is a helicopter big enough to carry a police officer, a nurse and a stretcher, so a call is put out for any aircraft in the vicinity that can help out.

La Boucherie

The Royal Flying Doctor Service also plays a crucial role, ferrying patients in remote regions to the nearest hospitals.

In 2009, during a desperate search for helicopters to rescue an injured motorcyclist stuck on a sand dune, an army Chinook – possibly the only one to ever land at Birdsville – touched down at the airport, looking to refuel. The man was quickly rescued and made a full recovery.

There are definite upsides to the job, McShane said. “When you are out sleeping in the desert looking up at the stars, and they (feel) so close you can touch them.”

But in a small, remote community, talking about sensitive personal issues can be difficult, he says.

And the job is non-stop, with calls coming in at any time of the day on any day of the week, each of them possibly involving someone you know well who is in peril or has died.

Perhaps surprisingly, one problem the policemen don’t complain about is loneliness.

Pursell realised more people were popping into his station to talk to him after he was described in the local media as having the loneliest job in the country.

“People came in just to have a chat, because they thought I was lonely,” he says.

“We’ve have never felt isolated or lonely out here. It’s a great little town.”

Meanwhile, the 134-year-old Birdsville Hotel – the sole watering hole for the town – is on the market for the first time in decades and attracting local and international interest.

Having a drink at the Birdsville has become a must-do for the tourists who make the trek to the town for its centuries-old annual horse race and music festival.

Owner David Brook – whose family has lived in Birdsville since the late 1880s – said the property agents told him there had been “interest from afar” by people wanting to invest in or manage the pub, which is more than 600 kilometres from the nearest big town.

For Brook, who bought the pub in 1979, and whose grandmother owned the hotel between 1920-46, the pub’s isolation is its chief selling point.

“When you explain to them that you can have a (race) meeting and get 6,000 and have a music festival... and get 9,000 for the weekend in a town where there’s only one pub, you can work out that it’s not a bad business,” he said.

The pub, with its sandstone walls, dusty cowboy hats hanging from the ceiling and country music blasting from speakers, is being marketed as ‘a true Aussie icon’ where ‘everyone wants to say they’ve had a beer’.

The tavern has 27 guest rooms, and includes an aviation fuel supply business with small planes and helicopters carrying tourists taking off and landing just across the road.

While other pubs around Australia have modernised and added gambling machines to boost income, Brook has kept the decor simple and focused on offering good service and food.

More recently, Birdsville has been boosted by the Big Red Bash, a three-day music festival held annually since 2013 and known as the ‘most remote concert on the planet’.

“I hope that it can be kept as just a modest, good business,” Brook said. “An investor who is prepared to spend money and make sure that it provides good service, sometimes at the expense – a little bit – of profit.

“You can have a big, shiny (pub) in the city that makes a lot of money, or you can have something special out here that you’re proud to own.”

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