26 May 2020

Wilderness tour operators struggle back from the brink

| Sharon Kelley
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Jenny and Arthur Robb from Kiah Wilderness Tours standing on balcony overlooking bushland.

The owners and operators of Kiah Wilderness Tours, Jenny and Arthur Robb. Photo: Supplied.

Tourism industry operators have been hard hit by bushfires, floods and COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, and owner-operators of Kiah Wilderness Tours, Jenny and Arthur Robb, are no exception.

Kiah Wilderness Tours is an eco-kayaking attraction located 11km south of Eden. Jenny and Arthur are looking at new ways of rebuilding their business after suffering devastating losses during the past few months.

“Initially, it was very hard for us at our stage of life,” says Jenny. “We were more traumatised than we thought.

“It seemed too much to have to rebuild at our age, but we were determined to stay afloat. As we have progressed with the rebuild and looked at collaborating locally on new projects, we are starting to enjoy life again.”

Kiah Wilderness Tours offers a variety of kayaking tours and has a campground on the popular 65-acre property Light to Light Camps, where they take visitors on one to three day wilderness hiking and camping experiences through Ben Boyd National Park.

When the summer bushfires were heading towards their Kiah home and business, the Robbs made the quick decision to move their kayaks somewhere protected to safeguard their livelihood. Without the kayaks, they have no business.

Moving four kayaks at a time to the old fishermen’s co-op building on the Eden wharf took time. Once they had rescued the kayaks and other essential equipment, they filled their car with personal treasures.

The bushfire swept through their property, burning the campgrounds, their garden, garage and the shed where the kayaks were normally stored. The fire had come within one metre of their home, close enough to crack a window but leaving the house otherwise undamaged.

Bushfire damage

Despite the devastation, the Robbs are still in business, offering walking and kayaking tours.

Ben Boyd National Park was burnt extensively in the bushfires, as was the Light to Light walking track, which NSW National Parks advises will not reopen until 2022.

“We were reeling with the realisation we had completely lost that business because we couldn’t run tours for another two years,” says Jenny. They refunded a substantial amount of money for bookings from February through to October 2020.

As a sole trader, Jenny was able to apply for JobKeeper and receive payments through that initiative. The business was insured, but not enough to rebuild sheds to the scale they had before the fire.

“Shutdown and isolation gave us the time to review what we had at home and how we could build on that,” she says. “We have top quality camping gear so are looking at offering a ‘glamping’ experience on the property. We will operate walking tours closer to home and we still have our kayaking tours.

“We are also talking to other local small business owners with the idea of collaborating on other experiences we can offer clients, such as mussel cooking classes, and Pilates and yoga classes.

“We are keen to see this region offered as a year-round destination as there are some exciting developments in train, such as a mountain bike trail initiative, the restoration of Hotel Australasia and, of course, all the opportunities at the [Eden] wharf into the future.”

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