Staying on outback stations: Remote airstrips get busy as farm accommodation booms

They're the winged nomads, affluent greying retirees who represent the new FIFO holidaymakers, utilising remote outback airstrips normally reserved for crop-dusters and, heaven forbid, the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

It's this increasingly lucrative, largely pandemic-induced fly-in fly-out holiday market that graziers Angie and Mike Armstrong, owners of the 140-year old Callubri Station, near Nyngan in central NSW, are targeting with their new luxury homestead stay venture.

"One positive from the COVID restrictions enforced has been the window of opportunity for rural Australia to showcase its homegrown beauty," says Angie Armstrong, a self-displaced Melburnian who met Mike on a holiday in Scotland.

The Armstrongs are recipients of a $150,000 grant, part of a special NSW government regional tourism fund. The couple received the funds to help them develop a luxury station-stay experience to service the growing enthusiasm for outback travel while at the same time allowing the couple to diversify a financially fickle farming enterprise.

"Farming folk are particularly resilient and innovative people but we need to develop alternative income streams to support our businesses and communities during drought and changing weather systems, particularly in the marginal areas that our station is situated in," she said.

The venture, launched in January, also receives travellers arriving by road. The Armstrongs are now building their own airstrip to cope with demand, meanwhile using runways at a neighbouring property 20 kilometres away, and at the town of Tottenham, a half-an-hour's drive from Callubri Station, so guests can land.

The accommodation on the Armstrongs' 11,500 hectare spread consists of luxury "Sky Suites", with all the mod-cons of a city boutique hotel, fashioned from double-storey prefabricated shipping containers. There's even a 12-metre mineral lap pool available to guests.

Meals are prepared by the energetic Angie Armstrong who also runs The Cocky's Wife, an outback catering business. However, the whole luxurious experience doesn't come cheap with a minimum two-night, all inclusive stay in the luxurious Sky Suites costing $1490 per night twin share.

Elsewhere Liz Murray, runs a more budget-minded tourist venture at her family property Trilby Station at Louth, 160 kilometres north-west of Cobar in the far west of NSW. It boasts its own airstrip.

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"We've seen a surge in expensive, all-inclusive 'flight-seeing', air tours designed to lure the well-to-do, normally international traveller," she says. "We're pretty much run off our feet these days."

Trilby Station's eclectic accommodation consists of converted shearers' quarters, luxury cabins and idyllic campsites beside the Darling River, which flows through the property with the latter starting at a mere $25 per night including the use of canoes, yabby nets and swimming pool.

Liz Murray's brother, Phil Hines, operates the travel company Outback by Air, with business partner, Glenn McGrath, the former champion test cricket bowler. 

Of course, the boom in outback tourism isn't confined to the air. At Cobar in far western NSW, the junction of two popular routes for grey nomads, caravan parks are booked out with vans overflowing onto side streets.

"Masses" of traditional grey nomads are Victorians, says Liz Murray, who are waiting out the latest COVID-19 outbreaks and permission to push on into Queensland.

These travellers are also proving to be a handy workforce at a time of widespread staff shortages. In exchange for a few hours' volunteer work, Mrs Murray provides them with provisions, power, diesel and "a little cash to see them on their way".

"Our clientele has definitely changed to include more middle-aged seemingly wealthy couples who usually travel internationally," says Mrs Murray. "They're kitted out with brand new, large off-road Lexus or Sahara vehicles.

"So many aren't game to leave the state in case of snap border closures and are therefore spending longer here, often up to a week, just meandering around NSW."

Back at Callubri Station, 342 kilometres south-east of Trilby Station, Angie Armstrong, a former IT consultant, feels that outback stays are building a kind of tourism air and road bridge between city and bush Australians.

"Having grown up in Melbourne I am passionate about working towards a better shared understanding between urban and rural communities and sharing truly authentic family farm experiences," she says.

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