It's a rainy summer Friday in Gloucester. Showers pass through intermittently, but they are no bother to the line-up waiting for pies at Hebby's on Church Street downtown, or the crowd in Roadies, the bar-cum-cafe down the street, even though the wait for a lunch-time meal is 30 minutes.
The town feels busy, with spurts of vans and four-wheel-drives hauling camping trailers coming in and out of the back roads on the west side of Gloucester.
Everything is green, green, green and the rivers are running high. The Barrington River, in fact, is so high there has not been any kayaking on the river for a couple of weeks.
Our campground is a lot busier since the first of June when regional travel was allowed to open up again. That's definitely covid."Naomi Kilby, Barrington Outdoor Adventures
It's a far cry from January 2020, when drought brought everything to a halt, including the rivers. Water was being trucked into Gloucester as the town supply of river water was dry.
The Bucketts Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to the town of Gloucester, the craggy, rocky ridgeline is so picturesque - and close - you're not sure it's real. Beyond the Bucketts, the Barrington Tops provide an even more dramatic range of tree-covered mountains. Besides the 76,000-hectare Gondwana World Heritage area Barrington Tops National Park, and surrounding smaller national parks and state conservation areas, there are numerous private properties with spectacular views and natural resources.
Whatever your attraction to nature is - kayaks, bushwalks, birdwatching, or just watching sunsets - this is paradise.
And in the last year, it's been rediscovered by NSW visitors, thanks in part to a new marketing and branding program that has married with the Manning Valley and Great Lakes area under the banner of Barrington Coast.
Naomi Kilby is the managing director of Barrington Outdoor Adventure Centre, which operates The Steps campground on the Barrington River and runs mountain biking, self-guided paddling, rafting and whitewater kayak tours. She says, "I think there are a lot of people who traditionally would have gone overseas to seek an adventure, that are now looking for a similar experience within the state."
Naomi and her husband Brian are long-time adventure operators in the area. Their whitewater kayak touring business may be the only one of its kind in Australia. Until COVID hit, they also operated outdoor education camps for students.
But the efforts they have put into The Steps of Girrba campground have paid off. It has mountain bike trails and they are developing more walking trails and an additional amenities block.
Under perfect conditions, they also take kayakers six kilometres upstream and either let them run themselves or guide them back down over two or more hours through the "drop pool" run of the Barrington River. While the river was too high for safe kayaking in early January, the campground has continued to do a brisk business.
"Our campground is a lot busier since the first of June when regional travel was allowed to open up again," Naomi says. "That's definitely COVID."
Back in town, Jules Kitchener, co-owner with Shelley Faull of The Common cafe on Church Street, takes a breather as she and her workmates start cleaning up and getting ready to close for the day.
Kitchener and Faull opened the cafe three months ago, and built the business from scratch. Kitchener has lived in Gloucester for five years and she and her partner have three young children. She says it's always been "a bit of a pipe dream" to open a cafe.
She's giving it her best shot, serving top brand Single O coffee and offering a range of gourmet toasties made on site. "We get a delivery from Bob & Petes [well-known Sydney pastry maker] for our cabinet," she says. "We offer sourdough, fruitloaf and muffins, and banana bread, all made locally by Batter & Dough."
And the business has been crazy busy since day one. "We are getting more and more talented people moving here," she says. "I think it's fabulous."
Isha Chowhan is the owner-manager of the Barrington General Store, one of the last stops for petrol, groceries and takeaway food before heading into the national park. Her parents, who live in Port Macquarie but originally came from Nepal, loved the look of the old property when they first saw it in the middle of last year, and bought it, putting her in charge.
Chowhan has set about increasing the amount of groceries offered since taking over.
How's business? "Since one month after we took it over [July], August and onwards has been very busy," she says. "Since October it's been crazy."
Outdoor camping gear manufacturer Drifta is based in Gloucester. Not only are they are manufacturer of national standing, they have a major retail outlet in downtown Gloucester, too.
Jim Spencer and his wife Sue bought a 450-acre property on Curricabark Road with frontage on the Manning River two years ago. They came from Valentine, in Lake Macquarie, and could not be happier.
They hope to finish the work on three luxury glamping sites they've built on the property by the end of February and start offering them as top-end romantic getaway accommodation for couples. There's a swimming hole at rear of the property which looks up to a steep ridgeline.
Each site will have a kitchen and indoor bathrooms, and generous verandahs.
"They will be right on the river," he says. "It's bloody beautiful."
It's not just visitors who are coming.
Real estate agent Gary Ferris of Webb Real Estate in Gloucester, says, "From March to now, we've seen unprecedented sales. I've been selling here since 2009, and this is the strongest period I've experienced."
"We have been selling a property a week over the last nine months," he says. "Not just residential. Bush retreats, hobby farms, lifestyle properties, all sorts of property, and farms."
Ferris lives on a farm property and appreciates how connected it is (he can get Netflix).
"COVID has made people appreciate space, clean air," he says. "There has been a bit of reawakening. Gloucester has so much to offer. Word of mouth is powerful."
Blocks of land in Gloucester suddenly became popular. "We had a rapid uptake of residential blocks in town," says Andrew Tregent, principal of Webb Real Estate. "They were $60,000 to $90,000 house blocks. Some had been sitting there for 12 months. Just snapped up."
Tregent says there's even a waiting list for rentals now.
And the buyers are not all coming from Sydney.
"Our area has always been strong on weekend with day trippers from Newcastle," he says. "The big majority of our buyers, too. Nearly 50 per cent come out of Newcastle and the Hunter."
He says the rush is a sign of the times.
"There is an increase in activity not only for rural boltholes, to hide away, but also to build and move," he says.
"That has become very evident with the flexibility and decentralisation of the workforce, to work remotely. To look to regional areas ... And keep city-based jobs."
In terms of both visitors and new residents, the covid pandemic has been the game changer. NSW residents were hit with travel restrictions early in 2020. In June 2020 they were allowed to travel beyond 250 kilometres from home, which meant Sydney folks could reach the Barringtons. And once on the road, they were searching for fresh air and freedom.
After nearly two years of work, the Barrington Coast brand was launched in early 2020 on Facebook and instagram - it's even on TikTok now. The brand has more than 70,000 followers on Facebook and 36,000 on instagram.
The council also launched a Barrington Coast website, full of lush photography and field guides on places to go and things to see and do.
Sharon Bultitude, destination management coordinator for MidCoast Council (which combined Great Lakes, Taree and Manning councils) says the marketing has quickly produced dividends.
"It's been a tough journey," she says. "We faced challenges and backlashes. When I did end of year report, we are now seeing results come through and they are very positive. It's very rewarding in such a short period of time."
Bultitude says the region as a whole has always had a great product to sell - adventures with nature.
"What we are seeing over the past decade, that real desire for people to get out into nature. It has grown exponentially. Getting back to nature. That is the key to our target markets.
"And motivations have changed - it's all about immersing in nature. And covid is only increased that for us. It's gone off the charts - that is what people want: they want to hike, they want to paddle, they want nature, they want to look at waterfalls, at all the different levels, from serious adventures to daytrippers. It has exploded, and covid has ratcheted that up.
"Covid has moved our offer, our plan ahead at least two to three years in terms of where we thought we would be in terms of awareness and desire."
And the biggest winner from the campaign has been Gloucester, which never had the money to spend on advertising and marketing to a bigger, or now more targeted, audience.
"The exposure and awareness we've been able to drive to that end of our region has been massive," Bultitude says. "Gloucester is kind of exploding at the moment."
The campaign's "bulls-eye" target is 30-to-50-year-women seeking adventure, pushing heavily through social media channels.
Take a look at the 60-second video advertisement on the Barrington Coast Facebook page: It's women surfing, biking, in the rainforest, driving a vintage car, tasting gin, swimming in a mountain pool.
"She's the decision maker," Bultitude says of that target. "Seventy per cent of the travel decisions are made by the women in the household. By targeting our adventure travel woman, which is a slightly older demographic as well, it means we also reach the mother, the partner, the girlfriend, who actually makes a lot of those decisions."
Of course, it's hard to measure, but the numbers are strong for engagement through those channels.
Through 2019, early in the new branding, visitation was up 8 per cent at 2.3million for the region and total tourism spend was estimated at $629million, also up 8 per cent, according to Tourism Research Australia.
The figures from the Barrington Coast Facebook page show 66 per cent of the audience is women, and on their instagram account it's 67 per cent.
In marketing, the goal is to put their destination in front of the eyes of people who are looking for this type of holiday.
The final decision - where to go, where to stay and what to do - is up to the visitor. And that's where tourism operators become responsible for not only closing the deal, but keeping the visitor talking, writing and posting about their holiday while they are on it.
The Barrington Coast team also offer workshops and teach tourism operators skills for the modern customer. The area is dominated by small operators, and the depth of skills varies considerably.
"We can only do much in terms of the visitor experience," Bultitude says. "We know the power of social media. We need operators to share, to push awareness. And also about the experience, so they offering check-in, service, bring that level of experience while people are in destination."
The Barrington Coast strategy is to increase yield, by getting visitors to stay longer, spend more, and visit more in the off-peak and shoulder seasons.
Dan Buckley and his wife Judith have made a huge commitment to tourism in Gloucester. They offer luxury eco-holiday accommodation on a 40-acre block. The Ridge house is an architect-designed five bedroom, two pavilion, contemporary styled house featuring energy efficient materials, passive solar design,off-grid solar and large rainwater tanks. They also have fully self-contained one-bedroom eco-cabin on the property, with five more planned in the near future.
"The occupancy has been terrific for house and cabin since the start of June when travel restrictions in NSW were eased, Dan says.
How terrific? Ninety per cent occupancy.
"It takes advantage of the views," he says. "The sunrises are spectacular, the sunsets are exceptional. Those rocks [The Bucketts] make it spectacular."
"Thirty per cent are groups of ladies who want to get away. All they do is sit on the balcony and talk and drink champagne."
Dan is directly involved with his guests. He knows where they come from, and books many of them himself by the phone.
"I talk to all of them, tell them the weather a week out, where they might go swimming at Rocky Hole, or another swimming hole, or drive for an hour to Tuncurry to the beach," he says.
Of course, he is optimist about the area. But he's also a doer.
"I'm a pragmatist and an economist," he says. "When you have something beautiful in your backyard, you make something of value and tell everyone how beautiful it is."
And visitors don't hesitate to talk about how good it is either.
A review was just posted on Stayz about the property that says, in part, "Some added surprises were the Australian King Parrots in abundance and the beautiful Green Tree Frogs which the kids adored. If you like star gazing go outside with no lights and look up. I doubt you will see more stars than this location particularly if you come from the city."
Dan has done his own homework since day one.
"I close all my deals," he says of bookings. "About 50 per cent of our sales are direct by websites or phone. Another 20 per cent by Airbnb. Another 15 per cent from Riparide, booking com and expedia.
"I try to get locals to understand, the booking agents take money out of everyone's pocket. Use Airbnb for research, then find your property online and do direct. You get a better deal and learn more local information. They are small businesses owned by locals who have a passion, you'll get a better price and keep the multinationals out ..."
At the end of the day, whether tourists come in great numbers or not, Gloucester is in no hurry for big changes.
"We like the friendly vibe," says real estate agent Gary Ferris. "People say hello to each other. People chat. The town has a friendly personality. That's what makes Gloucester special. Nice personality, beautiful outlook, with rivers, mountains, fields."