The owners of an iconic New Zealand tourist attraction have ridden a Covid-19 rollercoaster of emotion. But owl is not lost, with an upsurge in domestic visitors expected to bring record numbers through the gate. Paul Williams reports.
Settled in small-town Shannon is a quaint and quirky little tourist attraction that came to husband and wife Ross and Jeannette Campbell one night in a brainstorming session.
Ever since he was a little boy growing up in the Waitotara Valley, Ross had always had a love for owls. But it was Jeanette who came up with the catchy title for the boutique mini-zoo. Owlcatraz.
It was on that night - 24 years ago - the idea came to turn seven hectares of bush on the edge of town into a park featuring native owls and other wildlife.
The Campbells set about moulding the land to fit that vision, constructing paths and walkways as they went. They stayed true to the original quirkiness and created a piece of rural New Zealand magic.
The star attractions have become owls going by names such as Owl Capone, Owle McPherson, Michowl Jackson, Owlbert Einstien, Owlmo and Owlvis Presley. A lake on the property took on the name Lake Owlsmere.
Is it a little corny? Who cares? It worked. On opening, they had 1000 visitors in the first three weeks, and countless school groups and tourists have been through the gate since.
"Often you hear of people having an idea but not acting on it. We decided back then we really wanted to give it a go ... and here we are," she said.
As its popularity grew, the Campbells began giving guided tours of morepork, glow worms, weka, donkeys, alpacas, fallow deer, pig, cattle, a miniature horse, rabbits, ostrich and guinea pigs.
"We had done as much market research as we could and had written a business plan. It was a leap of faith, but we knew how much traffic went past each day. It flows past here like nobody's business," he said.
They have a cockatoo in the foyer that greats people. His name is Joey. He's 40 years old. He could possibly outlive 74-year-old Ross. Cockatoos can live to more than 100 years old.
It was also home to what is believed to be New Zealand's biggest collection of ornamental owls – totalling more than 1000 display pieces.
Campbell also built a miniature railway operation - complete with its own "station" and passenger platform.
Owlcatraz was once home to the biggest cattle beast in the world - Big Red - and although the 2.8-tonne cattle beast died in 2008, his head was stuffed and is mounted on the wall.
The house, land and buildings, which include a historic pioneer-era jailhouse built in 1911, are situated on 6.67 hectares of bushland surrounding a natural wetland catchment of streams and a lake.
Owlcatraz was on the market well before the outbreak of Covid-19 two months ago. The couple signed with the real estate agent two weeks before the virus hit.
Like all affected business owners, they were initially concerned about the impacts it might have on Owlcatraz, and also the sale process that was already underway.
But tenders, which were due to close on Wednesday, May 27, kept rolling in regardless.
"We've always relied on the domestic tourism market anyway," he said.
Owlcatraz has proven its durability before. It survived a freak storm in 2008 that felled many of its gum trees and damaged property. The clean-up of its treks and enclosures lasted for months.
By its own nature, Owlcatraz had attracted its fair share of publicity, and just recently featured yet again on a current affairs television show, this time on Seven Sharp, helping keep Shannon on the map.
The Campbells were proud of the fact that over the years they had employed more than 100 locals and volunteers. They currently had a staff of four, kept on during Covid-19 thanks to the government wage subsidy.
Jeanette said while it was hard to say goodbye to Owlcatraz, the timing felt right. A recent battle with breast cancer and the realisation they weren't getting any younger meant it was time for someone else to take over the keys.
The battle with breast cancer took its toll, with seven-days-a-week treatment and surgery, and it forced them both to think about the future post-recovery.
Future owners could breathe new life into Owlcatraz and put their own stamp on the park, Jeanette said, by creating it as an accommodation or wedding venue, or an environmental education facility.
"While it is hard to leave, we are ready, and we are excited about what's going to happen. Someone else could take it to a whole new level. They could create whatever they want and live their dream," she said.
The Campbells haven't re-opened Owlcatraz since the Covid-19 lockdown, but that had given the real estate agents a chance to take several interested parties through the park.
Shannon will always be home for the Campbells. They were community-minded people, involved in Sunday Schools and youth groups, and were members of the Shannon Progressive and Ratepayers Association.
But after living in Shannon for more than half a century and being heavily involved in the community - Ross was also a former Horowhenua District Councillor - they were planning on moving to Palmerston North to be closer to their children and grandchildren living there.
And when they do leave, it might be Joey, the cockatoo, that has the final say.
"Bye-bye," he'll chirp.