Mention the words “Australian outback” to most people and they’ll immediately picture Ayers Rock, standing alone in the middle of an endless stretch of red, dusty plains. Well, not Jan Hayes. Mention the same words to her and she’ll give you just one word in reply. “Party!”
That’s what life has been like for her and her husband, Billy, after spending the past 15 years running the Northern Territory’s renowned Ooraminna Station Homestead. Situated just 30km out of Alice Springs, the tourist destination has catered for functions of up to 900 people as it reveals exactly what life was like living as a pioneer in outback Australia.
Once used as a film set for the movie The Drover’s Boy, the station now hosts tourists for overnight stays in its wooden slab hut, stone police station, stone jail, luxury cabins and pub. You can also sleep out under the stars in a swag jovially referred to as “the pioneer suite”. Guests are served a meal of Aussie damper, bush tucker and billy tea and entertainment includes everything from live opera to stories around the campfire.
The unlikely tourist destination is one of Alice Springs’ biggest success stories but even more remarkable is the story of how Jan fell into this true-blue Aussie lifestyle.
Born in Melbourne to parents who were farmers, Jan left her job as a bank teller in Collins Street at the age of 20 to join a friend who’d gone on a working holiday to Alice Springs.
“I fell in love immediately,” she said. “Everything was so real. The people were real, the scenery was real. Everything was so straight down the line, not fake like you get in the city. It was like there was a magnet in those damn hills, you know?”
Before long she fell in love with champion Stockman Billy Hayes and they wed three years later in
Over the next few decades they battled through drought, bought several properties until
interest rates forced them to sell and raised three children (Jenny, Billy and Matthew) on their working cattle property, Deep Wells Station.
The couple built a luxury cabin and horse riding business in the early 1990s but it wasn’t until after filming for The Drover’s Boy had finished, when the pub and jail had been built away from the cabins, that the business really took off. A local camel farmer by the name of Nick Smail begged Jan to allow his boys to set up their swags there for the yearly Christmas Party. She warned there was no power, no water, only bush for a toilet and twigs for a fire but he was ecstatic.
“Afterwards he said to me ‘Jan, if you don’t do something with that site you’re a fool. It’s got an atmosphere you can’t buy with any money, sitting there in those hills with the craggy, sandy outcrop and the sun going down reflecting off all the rocks. It’s stunning.”
Jan was convinced and immediately set about planning a salt-of-the-earth, outback tourist destination. Plenty of people “knocked” her, told her she was crazy if she thought she could convince anybody to come out to the middle of the Simpson Desert just for the fun of it. But she stormed down to the accountants and put forward her case.
The head of the tourist commission asked her define her “target market” before carefully explaining that she would need to choose “what type of people you want to attract”. She told him she wanted them all, at which point he laughed.
“You can’t have them all,” he said in disbelief.
But draw them all she did. Aside from the white tablecloths, satin chair covers and fine cutlery, Jan had just one business motto and that was to keep it simple. Meals were cooked in camp ovens, served in metal pannikins and when it came time to clear the tables, Jan would just run around with a wheelbarrow.
Drinks were either Mango Champagne from just up the road or 1.2L Darwin stubbies for the boys while food ranged from a tasting plate of emu, crocodile, kangaroo and camel to fresh barramundi, corned beef, a BBQ or a roast with vegetables.
“Nine times out of 10 they wanted apple crumble and cream for sweets. I had Mum’s old recipe and used to make tray after tray of it. I could make one big enough for 20 people in four minutes flat. Boom!”
As word of Ooraminna Station spread, Jan’s functions grew from 50 people to 100, to 500, to 700 until eventually Baker’s Delight brought out a crowd of 900 people. The couple catered for
weddings, conferences, motor car groups and Contiki tours. They brought with them live bands,opera singers, celebrities and motivational speakers.
“People would come and try out karaoke and there was always one clown in every crowd,” Jan said. “One night we had a car company bring out all these young people and some of the boys would take their swag off into the bush hoping they’d get lucky that night. Then, at 3am or 4am they’d come knocking on our door saying ‘you never gave me a swag’ because they couldn’t remember where they put it. Billy was always working the bar and if he wasn’t he was having a cup of tea. Well, he should’ve been except everyone kept filling him with grog.”
There’s a noticeable change in Jan’s voice when she talks of Billy. Billy died in a quad bike accident last year at age 67. She remembered back to when they were first wed. She’d told her mother she fell in love with a “bloke who has grass seeds hanging out of his ears” and in 1966, after 10 months away mustering cattle to Tennant Creek in the drought, he’d made the long trip to Melbourne to ask her father for his permission.
“It was such a hard day for him. Bill wasn’t all that tall but Dad was six-foot-four, my two brothers were six-feet tall, Bob Wiltshire (who used to play AFL football for North Melbourne and Geelong) was six-foot-five and another bloke was six-foot-seven, and they were all in the kitchen when we walked in!”
Billy was a renowned stockman in Central Australia and was added to the stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach in 2009. Australian poet Murray Hartin also wrote a poem about Billy’s first plane trip
called Turbulence that went on to become nationally renowned. Jan said he was “a real bushman and amazing horseman” who had been approached by several film crews for documentaries, but he was such a humble and quiet man he always knocked them back.
Billy and Jan had been planning retirement and the day before he died, she had a contract for the sale of Ooraminna Station waiting for his signature on the bedside table. Without him by her side, she doesn’t have the strength or passion to run the station anymore and it has been sitting vacant since his death.
Now, she’s desperate to find a buyer so that the buildings don’t go to waste. Until that opportunity arises, she is keen to continue partying – a desire she proved just last week when her children threw her a surprise 70th birthday.
“We were dancing until 2 o’clock in the morning,” she laughed. “Somebody asked me the next day ‘what would you like for your birthday?’ and I said back to them ‘a Panadol, a foot soak and a Berocca, that’s all.”
First published February 2013