Narnu Farm on Hindmarsh Island has won two national tourism awards, and last month won its seventh state award while being inducted to the South Australian Tourism Hall of Fame. Owner and managing director Sarah Hirsch tells us the secret.
Some may remember Roy Rogers moseying out to the Double R Bar Ranch on his Palomino horse named Trigger singing Happy Trails with Dale Evans. It was ripping feel-good television from 1951-57 that warmed American hearts and those across the Pacific.
The crew at Narnu Farm on Hindmarsh Island certainly aren’t in your cowboy mode, but according to managing director Sarah Hirsch the feeling they get from looking at the faces on the mums and dads and their young children as they ride into the sunset and toast a marshmallow for the first time bears that same emotion.
It’s largely why this place has won two national tourism awards – 2008 and in February this year – and at the recent South Australian Tourism Awards was judged the best standard accommodation for the seventh time and entered the SA Tourism Hall of Fame. Sarah, and her husband, Joel, who own Narnu Farm with her parents, Kay and Vin Keneally, will now represent SA again at the national awards in Sydney on February 8.
Sarah is often asked the secret to the success of their farm. After all, taking a pony for a walk and feeding the lambs is hardly innovative. And better than all the theme parks and adventure islands in Queensland – again? Definitely, according to the judges.
Look beyond the usual tourism gimmicks and you discover Narnu Farm is so different because the very concept is not driven by money alone, but that sheer look at any one of the 15 or so families staying at once having an amazingly good bonding session.
Narnu Farm was first developed by Don and Maxine Maxwell in 1979, and Sarah and Joel, who met while doing an eco-tourism degree at Flinders University, took it over 10 years ago. Some couples meet and buy a house before they marry; these guys bought a tired farm.
“It’s been a hard slog,” Sarah said. “We worked huge days getting the place how we wanted to, every day for many years. Joel works here part-time doing marketing now because he also has an art business working with metal in Goolwa (Obscure Studio).
“This isn’t the place to make heaps of money, if that’s what you’re looking for in life. It’s more about your lifestyle; enjoying what you do. You spend so much of your life working so you have to enjoy what you do.
“We do school camps during the week, and family accommodation on weekends and school holidays. It is just a unique formula that seems to work. It’s about getting outside and being on the farm.
“Much of the weekend visits are all about reconnecting with family and friends. They come down here and the kids get to do all the activities while the parents enjoy watching them.
Quite often they come here as family-friend groups and they all get to catch up while the kids are off playing in a safe environment… it is so satisfying for all of us here. You feel that you are helping people enjoy life.
“With the school camps, a lot of the kids are city-based and they just don’t get opportunities to get out on the farm. They plough with a Clydesdale and ride a horse, feed animals, attend a blacksmith demonstration and make butter; all the country things. It’s also about teaching children how life used to be.
“I guess it’s one of those special places that you remember when you get older. Joel came here on a Year 3 camp, and I worked here during the holidays when I was at uni.”
As much as Sarah is acknowledged for her dedication to Narnu Farm, she insists that the staff of 12 are the real heroes. The task of servicing and maintaining seven cottages and the bunk-houses, plus the catering, is full-on. Besides, Sarah also tends to her three-year-old son, Oscar.
Sarah said some families come here every year and she watches the kids grow up. “I see them put gum boots on for the first time and jump in puddles,” she said. “It’s basic stuff, and they love it. The backyards are getting smaller in the city and they come here for the space; to play cricket and kick a ball with their family.
“A lot of those kids have now grown up and are travelling the world, yet now and again they call in and say hello. I think that’s nice, and just typical of this place.
“I guess the most heartening times are when we have a Camp Quality group (children’s cancer support organisation), and another time it might be someone with Muscular Dystrophy. We get them on a horse, and it is a most rewarding experience for everyone.
“We have kids from the school for visually impaired with 80 per cent of them legally blind, and they do almost everything, even if it’s just sitting on a horse; they are incredible. It shows you this place is for everyone; and how it can be inspiring.
“Behind these special moments are the horses themselves, who just seem to know; they share an amazing bond with all of the children.
“I guess a lot of people love their job, but what makes mine special is seeing families go off on a Sunday night. Life is probably not easy for some, and to see them go home happy just makes you feel good inside.
“It’s just what we do; it’s not about the awards and certainly not about the money. There is no real secret to Narnu Farm; it is simply about getting back to the basics in life; having fun, especially as a family.”