Cairns Characters: Pie man Billy Richardson
BILLY Richardson sits on a foldout chair beside his Bushman's Pies van on the Captain Cook Highway at Aeroglen.
He’s blanketed within the shade of a canvas roof, but a broad-brimmed hat remains tugged low over his forehead as an insurance policy against any crafty UV rays.
It’s a noisy morning. The baritone rumblings of semitrailer engines bore into eardrums while cars and trucks swoosh past like frames of a never-ending slideshow.
Billy isn’t distracted by the racket. His eyes and mind are entwined within the plotlines of a Jeffrey Archer novel until a devil-red Commodore pulls up in front of his van.
The passenger window buzzes down and Billy accepts the invitation. The 57-year-old is out of his chair fast, like someone fired the starting gun for the Olympic final of customer service.
He pokes his bearded and bespectacled face into the cabin, exchanges a friendly greeting with the driver before retreating to the back of his van to pluck a pie from the oven.
Money is traded along with mutual thank-yous. Billy expertly deals out the customer’s change from his coin dispenser before the driver leaves with his teeth sunk into his mid-morning snack.
Then Billy sits down. He returns to the bookmarked page of his novel until his next customer arrives.
He doesn’t have to wait long. An effeminate hatchback pulls up and then a dirt-speckled truck. Vehicles are queuing like they’re at a McDonald's drive-through.
Billy is standing more than he’s sitting. Some drivers park behind his van and saunter over for a chat between orders.
A tourist from Thailand asks Billy to pose in a photo with him. It’s not an unusual request, says Billy. Some overseas visitors have never seen a pie van before. For them, it’s as quirky as any supersized banana or prawn.
Billy loves to be busy. He cherishes those days when seconds blur into minutes and hours evaporate like morning dew.
He remembers the quiet times. It was tough when he first came to Cairns from his then base in Mareeba after buying his pie van.
He may as well have been a smelly hitchhiker for all the attention motorists paid him in those first 18 months. But Billy didn’t move. This was his spot and he knew it. He had faith in what he was doing.
His pie van eventually became a familiar appendage on the highway and drivers began stopping as if to reward his persistence.
Billy’s customer base grew, even though he never advertised. Instead, he relied on word of mouth to exalt the qualities of his pies and personality.
It worked. Those sound bites of praise injected into thousands of conversations staked a claim for the location he’s occupied for the past 11 years.
Billy’s become a living landmark. He’s as recognisable as the giant Captain Cook statue that lords over Cairns North. His presence on the highway is almost comforting, like a reassurance that chaos hasn’t completely consumed the world.
Billy has only missed three days of work while he’s operated the pie van. Monsoonal downpours and homicidal heatwaves can’t bully him from the roadside. Only a cyclone or flood can force Billy to surrender his slab of bitumen to the elements. Even then, it’s only because his customers are staying inside.
Billy savours his interactions with people. He marvels at how hundreds of three-minute conversations can accumulate into a friendship.
He couldn’t stand living in one of the southern capitals. He finds city people impersonal. They’re reluctant to open themselves, preferring to quarantine their personalities within a husk of indifference when they meet a stranger.
But Billy isn’t afraid to travel and see new places. He’s been around Australia. He grew up in Herberton before leaving in his 20s to explore the rugged edges of the continent.
He met unforgettable characters on the Nullarbor, the Flinders Ranges and The Ghan before it became a five-star travel experience.
Billy toiled on construction sites in South Australia and Western Australia during his time away, helping connect and suburbanise the country. He misses the camaraderie of the work gangs and the unifying bond of sweat and a shared purpose, but he enjoys his lifestyle now.
The Far North is home for Billy. It’s like his soul is tethered to the region.
He doesn’t want to be anywhere else. The weather and the people keep him here.
Billy wouldn’t trade it for a promise of paradise. He’s already found his Eden in the shade of a pie van.
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Pie-conic: Billy Richardson and his van are fixtures on the Captain Cook Highway. Picture: MARC McCORMACK @Instagram