30 October 2020

After 26 years, it's time to pick the blueberries

| Edwina Mason
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Chris and Robyn Jones on Norfolk Island.

Chris and Robyn Jones enjoying a much-deserved holiday on Norfolk Island. Photo: Supplied.

Norfolk Island is about as far away from Tumbarumba as you can get, but that’s where you’ll find Chris and Robyn Jones.

Their eight-day holiday marks the end of an era for the couple as they closed the doors on the Tumbarumba Motel and Elms Restaurant for the final time last month.

The motel and restaurant’s closing was a teary affair, as evidenced by a choked-up Robyn as she speaks to Region Media.

And it is understandable because this is a story of a couple who built a business from scratch. In fact, under the foundations of the enterprise you will likely find finger marks in the soil they had to clear before construction started 26 years and seven months ago.

Or you’ll find the marks of their children, the youngest, Lauren, of who went to work with her electrician dad each morning and by day’s end, Chris was scraping milk arrowroot biscuits and juice out of his hair.

Tumbarumba-raised Robyn says she and Chris had been living and working in Wollongong when Robyn’s parents, James and Patsy Crozier, called with an idea.

Build a motel and they will come.

James and Patsy had talked about this for years.

“Mum and dad had a timber harvesting business and they knew that Tumba would only ever take off as a destination point if there was a really decent restaurant, and elegant and sophisticated accommodation,” explains Robyn.

With Robyn’s food and hospitality background and Chris’s wide range of tradie skills, between them the two couples bought a “run down and shoddy joint” which was the town’s only motel and caravan park, built in 1962.

Handwritten ledgers are all that remain of that original building.

“We started building in 1995 and it took us almost five years to get it completed,” says Robyn. “We went from 11 rooms to 31, plus an 80-seat restaurant and conference room, plus a private residence.

“One apprentice in Tumbarumba did his whole apprenticeship on that one job.”

But the notion of anyone travelling to stay in Tumbarumba was somewhat foreign to anyone who lived in the town.

When the Jones’s opened their doors, it was to a population sprinkled with detractors who thought it was ‘far too posh’ for Tumbarumba.

“Mum and dad always told us to stay true to the cause: ‘Remember you are building this to bring people to the town,’” says Robyn.

And come people did, from Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra; the spirited many who were keen for a mountain adventure in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains.

“Within 10 years, another motel popped up, then a range of bed-and-breakfast spots, the caravan park grew and wineries became more prominent,” says Robyn.

“I’m not saying we were responsible for that, but it certainly did attract more people and gave others more confidence to start investing in the hospitality industry.”

Fronted by the huge glass-facade restaurant, this three-acre spot on the hillside overlooking the tree-filled town also became the place where memories were made – wine tastings, community events, weddings, parties, birthdays – and it became the centrepiece of local celebration and the family was part of the fabric of the town.

“One fellow had his 70th and 80th birthday at Elms and I told him when he got to 90, it’s on the house,” laughs Robyn.

You can even ask Robyn what dishes the locals like, down to one who likes his steak burnt, with chips and tomato sauce.

Uncountable numbers passed through the motel doors, but Robyn says nothing could compare with the visitors they hosted in January 2020 as bushfires threatened Tumbarumba, forcing a full evacuation.

“We had planned to leave, but we got back to the motel and all these volunteer firefighters were there looking to book in, saying, ‘You can’t leave, we’ve got nowhere to go,’” she says.

Without power, phone, water, staff or food, they stayed.

“The conditions were horrendous,” says Robyn. “But in saying that, there were the most beautiful moments with those firies who were under such duress. They were our inspiration in pulling through.”

Leaving has been tough.

“It’s been difficult to separate ourselves,” says Robyn. “It was a very big decision – we love it, we adore it, it’s like our babies we are leaving.

“Chris did make a point when he said, ‘For 27 years, we’ve been looking after everyone else but now it’s time to look after ourselves,’”

And, after Norfolk Island, time will be spent picking blueberries alongside sister-in-law Molly Crozier and living on Robyn’s grandparents’ farm, ‘Tyrone’, at Willigobung.

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