Outback hotelier Jo Fort is forging new inroads on well-worn bush tracks.
It’s 3am and another Birdsville Races is done and dusted. Last drinks were called hours ago in the Birdsville Hotel’s front bar, and general manager Jo Fort is the final worker to clock off.
She gently pats the wall as she switches off the lights inside the 135-year-old building. “I like to thank the old girl, because if it wasn’t for her …”
Her words drift away like desert sand as she recalls the rush of emotion that engulfed the darkness in the aftermath of Australia’s most iconic outback horse race. “It could have been fatigue, but I’m sure it was just love and respect,” she smiles.
For nearly four decades Jo and her husband Kym have kept the food and beer flowing for the thousands of colourful revellers who land at the Birdsville Races like a flock of raucous galahs. “Nobody is ever quite clear about the crowd numbers; but we cater for at least 5000,” Jo says. “Everyone has either driven a long way, flown a long way, or walked a long way to watch a horserace on a dusty claypan, and once they arrive, they all have a story to tell about the adventure they enjoyed along the way.”
It’s the Melbourne Cup of the outback, and while it doesn’t stop the nation it certainly gives the nation something to talk about. The Birdsville Hotel watches over the spectacle like a wise old dame who doesn’t miss much, her solid stone walls concealing the commotion within. “It’s exciting, but at the same time I can feel quite anxious beforehand because of the expectations,” Jo says. “A lot of people have the races and hotel on their bucket list, so we have a lot to live up to. But once I’m in race mode, I’m hyped up, I’m on, and I want to get it right.”
And then afterwards, as the town population instantly plummets to 100 or so, there’s that overwhelming sense of relief. “It’s a strange feeling; similar to jetlag, and it’s difficult to return to what you were doing before,” she says.
So, instead, she starts gearing up for the next one!
Jo has always been a doer. Born in the bush, her two younger brothers still run the family cattle property west of Gloucester, NSW. Jo was a studious high achiever, and was sent off to boarding school at 11. She’s rather frank about the cold, convent-style regime, but says it taught her resilience. “I think it made me tough and brave,” she reflects.
After training as a nurse at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, she bought a one-way ticket to Athens and toured the Greek isles before hitchhiking to the UK. “It was the 1980s rite of passage and when I returned to Australia at 25, Sydney no longer cut it,” she says.
Birdsville needed nurses, and seemed far more exciting. Jo arrived in the summer of 1981, petite as a Polly Pocket doll, with her country girl pearls and R.M. Williams boots. Adelaide builder Kym Fort was waiting on the dusty landing strip ready to help unload the plane. “And that literally changed my life forever,” Jo smiles.
Two years earlier, Kym had bought the Birdsville Hotel with a syndicate of Adelaide businessmen who snapped up the local landmark after it was gutted by fire. In 1980, he bought the others out in partnership with local station owners David and Nell Brook, and they set about slowly returning some grandeur to the ‘old girl’.
“There was never a master plan – think of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; one job is finished and then you turn around and start again from the beginning,” Jo says. “It’s either before races or after races – that’s how we talk. If the problem is big, we say we will deal with it after the races!”
Playing a role in the hotel restoration was the last thing that Jo imagined when she accepted a dinner invitation from David’s wife, Nell, shortly after arriving in town. “My memories of that night are crystal clear, for Kym was also at the dinner and we have been together ever since – it was a match made in Birdsville,” she says.
Jo found two loves that summer: her soulmate and the outback. Her photo albums bulge with precious memories of nursing and partying during those early halcyon days. “I’ve always really liked the locals – especially the Aboriginal people,” she says. “The women took me to their fishing holes and their special places, and they would join me in the old hospital kitchen for cups of tea. We had a great connection.”
In late 1983, Jo moved down to Adelaide to specialise in midwifery and neonatal care. Kym kept a foot firmly in both camps, juggling city construction jobs with countless trips up and down the Outback Highway as he continued to improve the hotel. “He doesn’t talk much, but I’m so proud of him and what he has achieved,” Jo says.
When hospitality – and love – eventually won out over nursing, Jo’s life took a similar path, and the pair still comfortably flits back and forth between the bush and their beachside bolthole. “I live a double life, and I feel very privileged to be able to slip between the two worlds – the only difference is that in Birdsville I’m wearing RMs and in town I’m wearing boots with heels,” Jo says. “Before we had internet in Birdsville, it would have been impossible to work remotely, but our staff are gold and I’m very connected to them. Even though it’s a cliché, sometimes you need to work on your business, not in it. There’s nothing like living by the beach to bring this clarity.”
The Fort-Brook partnership added the Innamincka Pub to their portfolio in 1999 after it patiently won Kym over during rest stops on the 1000-kilometre drive between bases. There will only ever be one Birdsville, but Innamincka is Birdsville’s little sister. “In Birdsville, we have the majesty of the old hotel sitting as the mothership, at the gateway to the Simpson Desert, and Innamincka is a 1970s-style building perched on a gibber rock ridge overlooking Cooper Creek,” Jo says. “You don’t realise that this most magnificent unspoilt outback waterway is there until you explore, and then you find a wonderland of birdlife and river red gums. The beauty of it is remarkable, and there’s just something about sipping a Coopers Ale on the Cooper that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Both watering holes have collected a swag of tourism awards. Most notably, the Innamincka Hotel has won four Culture, History and Heritage awards in a row from the SA Tourism Commission, along with several gongs for its restaurant and catering services. The Birdsville Hotel has a proud place in Outback Queensland Tourism’s Hall of Fame and the Queensland Business Leaders’ Hall of Fame.
David Brook says Jo has played a critical role in this success by helping to transform both venues. “She’s small with a big heart and has a real passion for the job, but she was also a very compassionate nurse and I think she has brought a caring, feminine touch to the premises while keeping them true to their original, natural outback setting,” he says. “People might see outback pubs as brash and boozy, but they also have a family side to them. Jo’s a bush girl, so she knows what bush businesses need.”
David floated the idea of developing an Outback Loop linking Innamincka to Birdsville and beyond many years ago as a means of connecting the two venues and encouraging visitors to explore. “Visitors won’t get the outback in their blood if they just come overnight; they really need to hang around for a bit, have a beer, strike up a conversation with people and get to know one another – that’s what outback pubs are about,” he says.
His daughter Karen and Kym’s adult son Brett have also had input into the Loop, and Jo has recently been ramping up the branding so that it becomes firmly entrenched as part of Australia’s bush equivalent of the ‘Big Lap’ – a great outback adventure taking in the two stock routes that opened the Channel Country to the south.
“Pubs are a part of our vernacular, and these two serve as living monuments to Australian pioneering history, but there is also so much to see along the Birdsville and Strzelecki tracks, and even though you’re driving along in your comfortable air-conditioned cars, you still get a great sense of history,” Jo says. “When we stop for smoko, I often think about the early stockmen and their wives, and also what it would have been like for the Aboriginal people who walked out of the desert to trade and who had lived beautiful lives in paradise – I think about the first peoples a lot.”
But it’s also about the landscape: the heat, the dust, the smell of the earth, and the sheer vastness of it all. “There’s something about the way the wind blows, and once you’re out in that desert space I think you can really reconnect with yourself,” Jo says. “You’re not distracted by your phone or anything else – the only distraction is the beauty of it, and I think that’s what people get when they ‘do’ the Outback Loop. By being there, they realise how big and powerful this country is, and acknowledge they are only a very small part of a large space. It’s raw and it’s tough and sometimes you hate it in the same breath that you say you love it.”
And for Jo that romance will never die, despite travelling this road more times than she can remember.
“When we last drove out of Birdsville, the biggest, roundest, orangest old moon was dropping over the dune. Further on, down the inside track, up came the sun on the other side. A gentle, beautiful outback dawn that reminded me of why I do this,” she says. “I’ve had some of my best times and some of my hardest times in that desert space, but it has absolutely shaped me into the person that I am now.”
Story courtesy of R.M.Williams OUTBACK Great Australians Magazine.
Story: Gretel Sneath. Photos: John Kruger & Sharon Chapman.