ROBERT “Dusty” Miller became famous for baking hot pies in one of Australia’s hottest places – Birdsville.
At the age of 56, he moved from Adelaide and opened the Outback town’s first bakery. The most unlikely business brought Dusty national attention , not just for his pies, but for spinning his part in the slender fabric of Outback communities and the yarns that go with them.
He had made other big calls through his lifetime. Born to Merridy and Bob, he joined the Royal Australian Navy at the age of 16, training as a radar technician. His service included a tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
After nine years in the Navy, he returned to Adelaide to work in car electronics before establishing his own business installing and servicing automatic woodworking machinery for 20 years.
At 55, arthritis forced Dusty to reconsider his plans. He felt too young to retire but his superannuation was worth less than the money he had invested in it.
So he decided on a radical change in lifestyle. He built a mobile catering rig which was a familiar sight at country shows and other major events.
One of them was the Birdsville Races, the Melbourne Cup of the Outback.
Dusty liked what he saw. Birdsville, just over the South Australian border in Queensland , is the stuff of legend, with its fabled hotel where everyone who is anyone has had a beer.
His first attempts to build his bakery was met with disbelief from locals.
But soon the bakery took shape, strategically placed within “staggering” distance of the Birdsville pub and handy to the airfield and racecourse.
Until Dusty’s arrival, bread and pies had arrived frozen via the long road trip from Quilpie in Queensland.
He happily admitted to no cooking experience, but had a foodie’s delight in baking bread and making pies, with a penchant for adopting the local delicacies of kangaroo, camel and rabbit meat.
He learnt on the job and by the time of the 2004 Birdsville Races his half-finished establishment – furnished with packing crates for chairs – turned out 3000 pies over the weekend.
Dusty became an integral part of his community, the source of classic Outback tales.
In 2005, Birdsville local Willie Harris, a bush-born Yawarrawarrka and Yandruwandha man, turned 96. Dusty staged the birthday party and invited all the locals.
And then there was the time an Arab visitor and his retinue called in at the bakery. They were so taken by the camel pies that they bought the lot. In 2012, pet camel and tourist favourite Noodles was found shot and decapitated on Durrie station, 100km from the town.
Dusty had fed Noodles whenever he wandered into Birdsville. He offered a $2000 reward but the culprit was never found. After a few dismal years Dusty’s bakery began to make money and he persuaded wife Teresa to come up from Adelaide to join him.
With tens of thousands of tourists and visitors coming through the town in the cooler months and all of them ready to pay a premium for a sumptuous pie, Dusty’s reputation continued to grow. Of course, the greatest profits came during the Birdsville Races. Dusty’s record for the race days was more than 12,000 pies. In 2016, he had 15,000 pies ready to go before rain curtailed the event.
The couple would close the business for summer, although Dusty and his middle son, Adrian, would run the town’s remarkable geothermal power plant, keeping its reliance on expensive diesel generators to a minimum.
In 2017, approaching 70, Dusty called it a day. His unlikely business venture was sold for $1.2 million to fourwheel-drive tourist operator Martin Josselyn.