The magic of storytelling lies in its ability to simultaneously educate and inspire you; to pull you into another’s world and then spin you around to see how their life relates to yours.
When Michelle Reynolds, great granddaughter of pastoralist Steve Reynolds, tells the story of Skytrek Willow Springs Station, a Nature Tourism certified working sheep station 21km north east of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, it’s easy to see all the elements of a great tale of endurance and adaptability.
Once a large family business in Merino Wool, Skytrek diversified into tourism when Michelle’s parents Brendan and Carmel joined her grandparents, Kevin and Margaret, as partners in the farm. With long-term environmental and economic sustainability of the farm as their prime motivation, they could not have imagined the many benefits that this sideways step would bring.
A humble but modern recently constructed shearer’s quarters that was only being used by farm workers for up to two weeks of the year was easily converted into accommodation for visitors, and Skytrek’s prime location near Wilpena Pound meant that their first venture into the tourism industry was relatively easy.
Tourism thrived in the region and despite the many hurdles they faced – a collapse in wool prices, high interest rates, droughts, floods and bushfires, just to name a few – the Reynolds family resolutely continued expanding the tourism side of their business. Soon, other existing buildings were converted to additional accommodation for travellers: the former Jackeroo’s Cottage became a self-contained cabin with two bedrooms, and the building which once housed School of the Air classes became a quaint holiday home perfect for couples and young families.
But the Reynolds family didn’t stop there: in 1994, Brendan and Carmel opened a 70km 4WD track which catapulted Skytrek from a station with some visitor accommodation to a destination for 4WD enthusiasts from all over Australia. Soon, the success of the 4WD track meant the family had to set up extra facilities for people to camp, and an increased workload meant that they had to bring on additional staff.
By the time Michelle came back to take over the tourism part of the business in 2011, her parents had diversified into yet another direction by starting a waste management business together with neighbouring properties. This business service today services many other parts of the region including Advanced Ecotourism and Climate Action Business certified Rawnsley Park Station, Advanced Ecotourism and ROC certified Wilpena Pound Resort and others.
The tourism side of Skytrek, which is by now a stand-alone enterprise, meanwhile employs two permanent staff and two additional casual employees throughout the main tourism season.
Although the Reynolds have diversified their work significantly since the station’s early days as a sheep farm, Michelle says that pastoralism is still a major focus of the station.
“Despite the drought, wool growing is still a major focus,” she says. “We’ve destocked to just a bare minimum of breeding ewes, under a quarter of our normal carrying capacity for the station. However, we remain confident it will bounce back in time – unfortunately tourism can’t make it rain.”
Whilst tourism can’t bring rain, it can bring visitors to the region who in turn provide jobs and income for local residents (not only stations but local cafes, petrol stations and stores benefit when people visit the region). Tourists also bring seasonal income which can help through periods of drought or downturn, and perhaps most importantly, they can provide real mental health benefits for rural landowners.
“The opportunity to see the area through someone else’s eyes is uplifting and reminds us how beautiful the landscape can be even at its harshest,” says Michelle.
“Sometimes just that short conversation with a visitor can completely change your day.”
Interestingly, whilst the drought provides an ongoing uphill battle for the Reynolds in terms of their pastoral side of their business, it’s not something which has put off Skytrek’s visitors. In fact, Michelle notes, guests are coming to realise that you “don’t need wildflowers or running water to make the Flinders Ranges beautiful.”
“Visitors to the region aren’t just looking for a resort to relax anymore,” she explains.
“People want to be educated, they want to learn about the different lifestyles and find out new and exciting things. We regularly get questions from our guests about life out here – how does the station work? What are the daily activities? How do the stock survive in such difficult times? This is bringing more meaning to their everyday lives back at home. They are appreciating where their clothes are from, how the meals got on their plates, etc. Additionally, we find people are being more respectful around water usage and their environmental impact.”
It’s this storytelling aspect that is key to the visitor experience at Skytrek, and which can really leave a lasting impact on visitors.
“Tourism gives you the ability to socialise and be proud of something,” Michelle says. “Your product may put a smile on someone’s face and leave them with an unforgettable memory that they may still be talking about 20 years later. It’s an adventure that imprints on their minds, [something] that they may continue to tell their children about for the rest of their lives.
“That is something we can be proud of through this difficult drought.’
[Header image credit: Skytrek Willow Springs Station]