IN DEPTH

Wollombi businesses out of the fires and moving back onto the tourist map

CONFRONTING SCENE: A bushfire, as seen from the property of Wollombi restaurateur Bruno Giagu, during December. Picture: Courtesy, Bruno Giagu
CONFRONTING SCENE: A bushfire, as seen from the property of Wollombi restaurateur Bruno Giagu, during December. Picture: Courtesy, Bruno Giagu

ACCLAIMED Australian film director Phillip Noyce has been thinking a lot about conflict and survival, preparing for a movie about the legendary Rats of Tobruk in World War II.

But lately Mr Noyce has also been keeping an eye on battles raging much closer in time and distance, as the nation confronts bushfires, including around his beloved Wollombi Valley.

"It's so surreal, because what people have been going through is like seeing something out of a disaster movie, but it's not a movie; it's real," Mr Noyce said from Los Angeles, where he was working on a television project.

He may be half a world away, but Phillip Noyce has felt the impact of the bushfires creeping close to his life and heart. The family has a vineyard near Wollombi, where the Noyces put down roots more than half a century ago. While the fires didn't reach their property, the smoke and the merciless heat in drought conditions have left their mark on the vines.

"It's doubtful we can pick at all this year," said Michael Noyce, Phillip's brother.

When the fires advanced through the rugged landscape around Wollombi in December, residents feared their historic village would be devoured.

"It was only the weather that saved Wollombi," said David Allwood, who operates a tourist accommodation business, Somewhere Unique, with his partner Murray Groves. "It was that close. We really thought at one stage we were gone."

The village was spared, but the flames still scorched the soul of the village and dried up its lifeblood. The tourists stayed away in what is one of the busiest times of the year for the area.

"Without tourism, there isn't Wollombi," said David Allwood.

PLANNING: Wollombi vineyard owner Sylvana Sturevska talks with tourist accommodation proprietor David Allwood. Picture: Scott Bevan

PLANNING: Wollombi vineyard owner Sylvana Sturevska talks with tourist accommodation proprietor David Allwood. Picture: Scott Bevan

"We're pretty much tourist-driven," said Kylie Gemmell, the president of the Wollombi Valley Chamber of Commerce. She said about 90 per cent of the chamber's 80 members were involved in tourism, so many had been struggling through summer.

"It will take a few years for people to regain the money they've lost in this period," Ms Gemmell said.

Along the valleys and around the village are stories of trade lost.

Lieneka Cranch and her husband Simon Cranch run Mystwood Retreats, a popular wedding venue and provider of accommodation for couples, just to the south of Wollombi.

"We've been here 12 years now, and this has been our first super quiet December/January," said Mrs Cranch. "It's 100 per cent put down to the fires."

In December, as the flames neared, Mystwood Retreats' owners had to cancel four weddings and help the couples find alternative venues. Also, between Christmas and the first week of January, the business usually has about 20 couples booked in; for the same time this season, there was just one couple staying.

"Everyone has been too scared," Lieneka Cranch said. "Even though it's safe, people have been cancelling their holiday bookings. It's been shocking."

Lieneka Cranch estimated the business had lost tens of thousands of dollars.

Mystwood Retreats hosted its first wedding for 2020 last weekend.

"We had 30 phone calls from guests asking, 'Is it safe?'," she said. "Nearly a month on now, and people are still worried."

QUIET: The main street of Wollombi, waiting for the tourists to return. Picture: Scott Bevan

QUIET: The main street of Wollombi, waiting for the tourists to return. Picture: Scott Bevan

Amid the trees just to the east of Wollombi are the two self-contained retreats at Somewhere Unique. Usually, the cabins are fully booked on weekends and 60 per cent occupied during the week. But not this holiday season.

"For the first time ever, we had no one in over New Year's Eve," said David Allwood.

The two cabins offer expansive views. But in December those windows provided a perspective of an impending disaster, with the distant ridgelines aflame.

"The bookings dropped off entirely," Mr Allwood said, explaining there were only "a handful" made for November and December. "But then in December, when the fires actually hit here, that's when we had to start cancelling guests as well."

"Our income for December and probably January will be less than half, year-on-year," said Murray Groves.

Those losses have rippled through the community, with many people relying on the "gig economy". For instance, David Allwood and Murray Groves explained, with no guests, there was little or no work for those who did cleaning, tour guiding, or provided massages.

"For those people, it's been very traumatic," Mr Allwood said.

The historic village of Wollombi is trying to entice back tourists. Picture: Scott Bevan

The historic village of Wollombi is trying to entice back tourists. Picture: Scott Bevan

During the holidays, Wollombi's main street is often thick with tourists, as they drop into the tavern for a drink or have meals in the restaurants and cafes. But in December, only a sense of foreboding and thick smoke were about. The roads were closed and no one, but a few locals, was about.

Bruno Giagu owns Panino Caffe Restaurant. He estimated he was down about $30,000 for December. In one fell swoop, he had to cancel a booking for about 100 diners and shut the restaurant, when fires were threatening his home on the fringe of the village.

"I called the client and said, 'I'm sorry I can't be cooking and fighting a fire'," Mr Giagu recalled, also telling the Sydney-based customer, "I don't think you can have guests here, because they'll suffocate. There's smoke everywhere."

Next door is the Noyce Brothers Wine's cellar door.

Brothers Phillip and Michael Noyce. Picture: Supplied

Brothers Phillip and Michael Noyce. Picture: Supplied

"We basically had no 'walk in' visitors for most of December," said Michael Noyce. Upstairs is accommodation in Grays Inn, but for a month, "it was a succession of refunds, refunds, refunds".

Cath Patterson, from the Wollombi General Store, said during December and early January, she would normally have two or three casual staff to help out. But this season, only she had worked.

However, she had noticed the tourists were returning. Trade was steady around Tuesday lunch time in her business, in the wake of a busy weekend - largely thanks to the Elton John concerts at Pokolbin.

"We want him to be here all the time!," Cath Patterson said.

Cath Patterson, of the Wollombi General Store. Picture: Scott Bevan

Cath Patterson, of the Wollombi General Store. Picture: Scott Bevan

In the absence of a rock superstar, the locals are trying to get the message out that Wollombi is back in business. The "Visit Wollombi" website say the traders are "looking forward to welcoming visitors back".

Local businesses are also boosting their online presence. During the week, David Allwood visited a neighbour, Sylvana Sturevska, from Wollombi Wines, to help her reach more potential customers via social media.

In December, just as she and her partner David Prendergast were gearing up to promote their wines, they had to evacuate the property.

"In terms of financial impact, we weren't able to sell any wine, and we're just getting that advertising started again," said Sylvana Sturevska.

The couple bought the vineyard just a year ago. They are investing in a tourism-related future, renovating and expanding accommodation on their property. But first they, and their vines, have to survive summer.

"The [Congewai] creek's really low, and we're trying to keep the creek for animals," Ms Sturevska said, explaining there were kangaroos, wombats, and wild deer on the property. "We're trying to not take the water, so we're irrigating the vineyard for two hours a week, to keep the vineyard alive."

David Allwood and Murray Groves, who operate the tourist accommodation business, Somewhere Unique. Picture: Scott Bevan

David Allwood and Murray Groves, who operate the tourist accommodation business, Somewhere Unique. Picture: Scott Bevan

In looking for a positive from the fires, David Allwood said the village was focusing on promoting itself. In the past, he said, there was sometimes an attitude of, "The visitors come and everyone's happy, and it's all good".

"But I think that complacency has gone," he said. "The community is really going all out."

For the Australia Day long weekend a range of events is planned, from an outdoor cinema in the Grays Inn garden to markets on the Monday.

Although the fire season isn't over, the businesses see the long weekend as a major opportunity to put Wollombi back on the tourist map.

However, some businesses say the village wasn't helped by a few online maps showing roads to Wollombi as closed, after they had been reopened.

David Allwood said it was vital to bring back the visitors, "and quickly, because there's so many people whose livehiloods are in question at the moment".

"I think we will recover quickly," Kylie Gemmell said. "We just need to be front of mind as a destination."

Just as he had done in the past, Phillip Noyce said when he was back in Australia, he would look at hosting a film night in the village, perhaps screening two of his early movies, That's Showbiz and Backroads, which had scenes filmed in Wollombi and featured locals as extras.

Yet the director of such hits as Patriot Games, Salt, and Rabbit-Proof Fence knows that Wollombi is quite capable of creating its own happy ending after a drama-filled and tragic summer.

"Given the willpower of the locals, they'll bounce back," Phillip Noyce said.

"They're very resilient. And it's a very creative community. They're always coming up with ways to attract people, and to entertain people."

Michael Noyce in Wollombi in 2017. Picture: Simone De Peak

Michael Noyce in Wollombi in 2017. Picture: Simone De Peak

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This story Wollombi traders rise from ashes first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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