"Naringal," named after the Aboriginal tribe which once lived by its winding river, is one of Australia's oldest sheep stations, a 5,200-acre property in northern Victoria running 9,000 sheep, 400 beef cattle and, nowadays, 3,000 tourists a year. Established in 1841, a pioneer in Australian sheep farming. It is one of only eight properties in Victoria still owned by the founding family. Today Bill Rowe, whose great grandfather established "Narginal," is a pioneer in the new rural business - farm tourism.
Bed and breakfast accommodation for tourists at farm houses in Europe and the British Isles, and "dude" ranching and farm vacations in the United States are well-established parts of the countries' tourist industry. But farm tourism is relatively new in Australia.
Over the past three or four years, several hundred properties across the country have started offering farm holidays in homesteads, cottages and sheep snearers' quarters. The type of holiday ranges from day visits to full package holidays with everything, including transport to and from the property.
From the relatively small, lush farms of the south to the million-acre sheep and cattle stations of the inland and north - where light aircraft are used to spot the animals at shearing or sale time - the motivation for the new industry is the same: cash income to supplement falling prices for traditional agricultural products.
A well-established property like "Naringal" offers gracious living in the 20-room homestead with its five acres of formal landscaped gardens, including tennis court and swimming pool. Some overseas guests are met at the internatioal airport in Melbourne, 100 miles away. Others arrive by chartered light aircraft from Sydney, 700 miles away, landing on the property's airstrip.
In addition to the usual farm activities such as riding horses and watching the sheep being sheared, "Naringal" offers tours to the Grampian Mountains and to fishing villages on the coast at Apollo Bay, wine tasting at the Great Western vineyard and visits to extinct volcanoes with their crater lakes. As its color brochure says, "All this, including chauffeur-driven limousine, are available when you stay at Narginal."
In general, however, farm holidays in Australia are fairly humble affairs: accommodation in the family homestead sharing bathrooms and meals with the farmer, or self-catering holidays in cottages that used to house farm managers and workers before economics made their employment impossible. Shearers' quarters, which were used only a few weeks a year, are now in regular service as dormitory-style accommodation for schoolchildren. Cottages sleeping six or seven people with everything but linen and food provided cost about $60-$100(Australian) a week (10 percent more in U.S. dollars). Shearers' quarters are cheaper.
It is perhaps surprising that farm tourism has taken so long to develop in Australia because, contrary to the commonly held belief of the rest of the world that most Australians are sheep farmers, in fact less than 2 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture. The rest are city dwellers who get just as much of a thrill out of farm holidays as city dwellers anywhere. Host farms not only give them a taste of rural life - guests are often encouraged to help with farm work - but serve as a cheap base camp for exploring locality.
People from the tropical or semitropical parts of Australia may wish to stay on a farm in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains so that their children can see snow for the first time. Others seeking the sun will go north to Queensland and inland to the "Outback." Box Vale station in the far west of New South Wales, for example, offers endless sunshine in addition to opal and gold fossicking camel riding (camels run wild in the Australian interior) and visits to Aboriginal cave paintings and carvings.
A river running through a property is a bonus for guests as it offers opportunities to fish for trout (artificially bred and released into Australian waters), swimming and panning for gold.
The open spaces and distances for which Australia is famous can be just as much a culture shock for city-dwelling Australians as for overseas visitors.
Rosemary Hart, president of the Host Farms Association, said: "It's funny. People drive for six hours and more than 300 miles to get away from the city and then become uneasy when television and radio reception is mixed. They are startled if we ask them to leave a note about their planned itinerary if they are going for a drive. They don't realize that if they broke down it might be a day or so before another car came along."
The New South Wales Government Travel Centre, which advises the city dweller how to cope with the country, says among other things: "Ask about the water supply before you fill the bath, as water may be scarce."
Japanese and American tourists were the main overseas visitors to Australian farms last year, but as the industry expands, facilities improve and publicity increases, tourists from all over the world are booking farm holidays.