From sheep station to outback luxury

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By Melissa Keogh

The diversification of Rawnsley Park Station in the Flinders Ranges from an outback sheep grazing property to a tourist hotspot is still paying off for its owners Julie and Tony Smith.

The pair are this year celebrating 50 years of tourism at the station and tipping their hats to half-a-century of showcasing the South Australian outback to thousands of visitors.

The award-winning eco-tourism site in the Far North town of Hawker overlooks the southern side of Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre of mountain ranges.

Settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851, the property was used for grazing until 1968 when the first shearer’s quarters come tourist accommodation cabin was built.

The eco villas are located in secluded spots overlooking stunning scenery.

Rawnsley’s current owner Tony Smith was 10 years old when his father and mother, Clem and Alison Smith, made the move to branch out into tourism as a sideline to their farm operations.

They also introduced sheep shearing demonstrations enjoyed by tourists staying at the nearby Wilpena Pound Resort.

Rawnsley Park Station today attracts about 25,000 visitors a year who stay in a range of accommodation offerings including luxury eco-villas, a 1950s homestead, holiday units and a caravan park.

Tony says tourism makes up about 90% of his business, and sheep grazing 10% as about 1200 Merino-Dohne sheep are still run on the station.

He says while autumn and spring are still peak periods, visitor numbers are starting to flatten out more evenly throughout the year.

“If you look back 30-40 years ago we had these really defined peaks of autumn and spring whereas now it’s starting to flatten out a bit and we are getting amore year-round visitation,” Tony says.

“It’s great for the business, it’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last 30 years.”

Over the past 15 years Tony and Julie have invested in Rawnsley Park Station by increasing accommodation offerings to cater for more kinds of tourists.

“If you go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s most of the visitors (to the Flinders Ranges) would have been campers and nature lovers who pretty much roughed it,” Tony says.

“It was probably the Prairie Hotel that changed it, they were the ones who started to provide really good quality dining experience that got people’s attention.”

Four eco villas were built in 2006, with another four added in 2009. The energy-neutral villas are located in secluded spots offering views of Wilpena Pound and surrounding ranges.

In 2010 the Smiths opened up the 1950s-built homestead to visitors, who enjoy stunning views of the Chace Range and Wilpena Pound.

The Rawnsley Park Station homestead.

At the foot of the Rawnsley Buff are self-contained units, of which the Smiths have recently added six more, built by Yorke Peninsula-based Country Living Homes.

A caravan park is also on site, featuring cabins, a bunkhouse, powered camping sites, camp facilities, and a souvenir and supplies shop.

Rawnsley visitors can dine in the authentic Woolshed Restaurant dishing up meals cooked from local produce, including the station’s own lamb.

Visitors can also embark on guided walks through the Flinders Ranges, 4WD tours, helicopter and scenic flights and mountain biking adventures.

Is there a better way to appreciate the South Australian outback than with a glass of bubbles at sunset?

While the 4WD tours and some of the bushwalking are led by Tony, separate tourism operators run the other experiences, ensuring a shared approach to success. Sheep shearing demonstrations are also run during the school holidays.

As Rawnsley Park Station continues its 50th year of tourism, a special anniversary book has been published.

Pastoralism to Tourism: A History of Rawnsley Park Station, authored by former senior journalist at The Advertiser, Kym Tilbrook, who is friend of the Smiths and runs the station’s multi-day walks.

Tony remembers the days of growing up on the station, his childhood playground one of SA’s greatest natural beauties.

“Growing up here was carefree, but like a lot of country kids we didn’t really get to the city too often,” he says.

“We had a party line for telephones with four subscribers on the one set of wires, we had a dirt road to Hawker where we went maybe once a week for sport on a Saturday.

“The rest of the time we spent on the farm and made the most of it.”

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