Drought tourism: 'Not a hand out, but a helping hand'
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Drought tourism: 'Not a hand out, but a helping hand'

There were no Joe Blows, amenities, generators or loud parties at an isolated campsite on a dry hilly farm at Limekilns outside Bathurst this weekend. Just a pretty creek bubbling up from a spring, wombats, goats and kangaroos – and the prospect of some hard work and an understanding of the impact of the drought.

That's what the Starling and Thwaite families of Hornsby requested when they rented two camp sites on Danial and Claire Beech's 350-acre superfine merino and cattle property using a website called YouCamp.

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The families brought 13mms of rain with them, every drop gratefully received by the Beeches who hadn't received decent rain since 2015, and the offer to help any way they could.

Before leaving Sydney, John Thwaite was asked what he expected. "It's not what we want to get out of it," he replied. "It is what we can put into it," he said. "Can we do something that will help [with the drought] at the same time as teaching the kids that food on the table doesn't just come from the supermarket?"

After hearing news reports of farmers who'd been without income for six years and urgently needed cash to buy feed for their stock, Lisa Thwaite emailed YouCamp – a site that matches campers with spots on private properties – asking to stay at a farm in driving distance from Sydney where the group of eight could camp, generate income for the property and provide practical help.

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Limekilns' Claire Beech said the income from the booking – about $300 for eight people for three nights – didn't seem like much to outsiders. But it would pay for about half a tonne of cattle pellets, enough to feed some cattle for about five weeks. Because of insurance issues, the families couldn't do anything risky, such as use machinery, but they could bring in the Angus cattle and merino sheep for tagging and vaccinations.

"Farmers don't necessarily want a hand-out," said Ms Beech, who runs the farm and three children while her husband Danial works as a plumber to help keep the farm going. "I can't speak for everyone, but they're proud people, they work hard. This is a tangible way of doing something else that is bringing money on to the farm."

Cameron Thwaite, 9, and Holly Starling, 10, watch cows after they been tagged and treated.

Cameron Thwaite, 9, and Holly Starling, 10, watch cows after they been tagged and treated.

Photo: David Porter

Even more important, she said, was communicating to city dwellers the reality of life on the land.

By mid-morning Saturday, the Sydney families had tagged and recorded the weight of more than 40 Angus beef cattle, including a cow who was still trailing placenta from delivering a wobbly calf that morning. Cattle had bucked and moaned, resisting vaccinations and an extra nutritional supplement to offset the poor-quality feed in the paddocks.

Noses ran and fingers froze in the cold.

"That's where your Angus beef comes from," Craig Starling told his daughters, Chloe and Holly.

"There is a lot of grunt work," said Jenny Starling who spent the morning recording each animal's weight and tag number. "I can see why farmers complain about the grants having so much paperwork. They're out here doing this sort of work, and they don't have time to do paperwork on top of that. You think of your own home, there's always work, and then you multiply that on a farm with jobs like fencing, and raising children."

When the families go camping, devices are put away and the four children often play for hours in any creek, oblivious to the cold: "It's a different form of live streaming," said Ms Thwaite.

John and Lisa Thwaite, left, and Jenny Starling set up camp on the the Beech family farm on Friday afternoon.

John and Lisa Thwaite, left, and Jenny Starling set up camp on the the Beech family farm on Friday afternoon.

Photo: David Porter

The co founder of YouCamp, James Woodford said rural people had been "locked out of the sharing economy". Since starting the site in 2013, about 1000 private properties – including 600 that were active at any one time – had listed camping spots, shearing sheds and other places to stay.

Mr Woodford said they had been surprised by the number of farms looking to supplement their incomes by offering camping spots. And an equally large number of people were interested in camping on these properties.

"There's a real appetite not just to go away, but to have an experience," he said. "They'll pay good money to get up at 4.30am to see farmers milk cows."

In contrast to the usual camping spots and caravan parks, most of his site's customers didn't want toilet blocks and easy access. "The fewer amenities the better," said Mr Woodford, a former Fairfax journalist.

A farmer out west offered free stays for children because his children did school of the air and rarely saw other kids their age. Some offered farm produce, a chance to yarn with a farmer over an open fire, or a lesson on how to use a camp oven to cook a roast, make some damper or make some billy tea.

Other property owners offered complete isolation and seclusion, which is attractive to naturists who ditch their clothes as soon as they arrive.

When Mr Beech put Limekilns on YouCamp about six months ago, he was sceptical anyone would want to come. All they were offering was two camp sites situated "on a lovely spot on the creek in the bush without any facilities". Campers must bring everything, including their own water.

But the response had been "phenomenal" with eight bookings over winter.

"They like it here because it is so quiet," said Mr Beech. "There's no one about, they're sick of going to the National Parks and to caravan parks where you have a thousand other Joe Blows, generators going, music blaring. You go down the back there and when the wind stops, you'll hear a pin drop, you'll hear the kangaroos bouncing through the bush of a nighttime," he said.

Similar to Airbnb and Uber, customers rate each site. Limekilns was rated as an "excellent little spot for those who want to escape ... 4wd access only to campsite (no joke)".