Members of a tour group say their outback holiday has turned into “a nightmare” after they were left “stranded” in remote Queensland by their east coast tour operator.
Halfway through an eight-day tour of the outback, an alleged fight broke out between the tour company’s 70-year-old owner, Charlie Sturgess, and bus driver Robert Kellett, 59, near a local restaurant in Longreach.
Police said Mr Sturgess fell through a ground-floor window during the incident on Tuesday night.
Mr Sturgess, who owns Cannonvale-based company Reef N Beyond, then left town with his bus but without his tour group or his employee.
“It’s just been really, really stressful,” tourist Mark Hewitt, of Newcastle, said.
“We thought we were going to get another bus and continue on our tour … but [on Wednesday] we were told this gentleman who owned the company had cancelled all the bookings and we were on our own.
“There were 10 of us stranded in the outback with nothing.”
Many of the tourists used credits from travel company TripADeal to book the outback tour.
CEO Norm Black said the company “acted immediately” when they were made aware of the situation on Wednesday morning, and flew the tourists out of Longreach to their respective home towns on Thursday.
“Once that plane takes out from Longreach I’ll be thinking ‘thank God I’m out’,” Mr Hewitt said.
“[But] Winton, Hughenden, Charters Towers — there were 10 of us going to come in there, buy coffee, buy drinks — so all those little communities have lost as well.”
Police said investigations into the alleged assault between the two business associates were continuing.
“It’s something very unusual and it’s very unfortunate for the people involved,” Longreach police officer in charge, Senior Sergeant Regan Drahim, said.
“In a town this size and this isolated it’s really difficult to try and find an alternative for them.
“Obviously these people have invested a lot of money in their tour and it’s very disappointing for them.”
Sydney pensioner Robyn Hughes said she paid $4,000 for the tour, excluding airfares.
“I’m very disappointed. I was so looking forward to seeing the dinosaur museum,” she said.
“I want us to get our money back.”
Others in the group had extended trips booked with the same company.
“We weren’t going to be home until after Easter time, so we’ve got our own stuff that’s been rebooked, so it’s really been a nightmare,” Melbourne resident Susan Silver said.
‘Not left stranded’
Mr Sturgess told the ABC he intended to fully refund the tourists but denied the group was left stranded.
He said he had intended to continue the tour, but “none of the other passengers wanted anything to do with me” following the alleged altercation.
“These people were not left stranded. They were given plenty of opportunity but refused it,” Mr Sturgess said.
“We are a very professional business and this has never happened before and will not happen in the future.
“We will be giving the people full refunds and the money TripADeal has paid for their plane flights home, we will be refunding them.
“The passengers would certainly have our apologies if they had communicated with us.”
Mr Kellett, who had been driving the bus, declined to comment.
Outback Queensland Tourism Association chief executive Denise Brown said she had never heard of tourists being separated from their tour bus in the outback in such a manner.
“I’ve certainly heard of it happening in the cities, and it’s sort of commonplace, but that’s not what outback Queensland is about,” she said.
“I’m incredibly sad for our tourists who’ve come out for their long-awaited trip.”
Queensland Tourism Industry Council chief executive Daniel Gshwind said there was no specific legislation governing tourism operators, but there were duty-of-care obligations.
“Like any other consumer facing business, they are falling under the consumer protection laws, and obviously they have legal duty-of-care obligations that you cannot step away from,” he said.
As they left Longreach, the tour group members said they had felt welcomed by outback locals.
The morning they were left stranded, another tour operator had dropped them at a local tourist attraction for the day.
“The people in town here have been extremely friendly and welcoming,” Ms Silver said.
“We’ve felt very comfortable in Longreach, we’ve just felt very uncomfortable on the tour.”