Natural calm in Manutuke’s green hills and still waters

Down on the farm in New Zealand, there’s a quiet revolution going on with new glamping sites popping up all over.

By Justine Tyerman

Down on the farm in New Zealand, there’s a quiet revolution going on. Farming families are catching onto the opportunity to open their special places to visitors by providing accommodation in private glamping sites. Richie Clark of Manutuke, near Gisborne, is one of those hospitable landowners.

Manutuke is the newest glamping site in the Canopy Camping Estates portfolio which has grown in less than five years from one to more than 40 sites throughout New Zealand. Canopy Camping sets up and manages glamping sites for private owners.

Far from the tourism hotspots of Aotearoa New Zealand, there’s a tranquil valley ‘out East’ near the small seaside city of Gisborne where dabchicks, shovellers and other waterfowl are your only companions.

Enclosed in a horseshoe of lush, green hills on the shores of a little lake and wetland, you will find Manutuke Eco Retreat, a peaceful oasis just a short drive from the world-class surf breaks, luscious wines, New Year and wine and food festivals that the Eastland region is famous for.

The brand-new, twin-tent glamping site, built on a raised platform above Te Wai Repo O Te Arai Awa (the wetland of Te Arai River), is lovingly designed and luxuriously furnished with sustainability and eco principles uppermost in mind. It’s off-the-grid, powered only by the sun ... talking of which, guests at the retreat can take a short hike to the top of the hill above the lake and be the first in the world to see the light of the new day. Well off the beaten tourist track, thanks to its remote, extreme easterly location, Gisborne is the first city on the planet to see the sunrise.

There’s a yoga platform at the top of the hill, and a huge four-person hammock for relaxing, daydreaming and taking in the panorama of the fertile plains below and the sparkling Pacific Ocean beyond.

Owner Richie Clark, whose family have farmed at Manutuke since 1882, envisages the retreat as a place to reconnect with nature in a restorative, healing environment.

“Exposure to nature makes us healthier, happier and more creative,” says Richie. “Our guests are encouraged to turn off technology, slow down, focus on engaging their senses and tune in to the natural surroundings.

“At the retreat, you are completely immersed in nature. Ideally, you come for three days. The first day, your mind is recalibrating and you start to notice things around you a little bit more. By day two, you begin to see cloud patterns, smell fragrances and hear the sounds of nature. By day three, you forget what day of the week it is and a new reality takes over - the power of nature.”

Pastimes and activities here are gentle, reflective and meditative. Apart from sunrise and sunset yoga, guests can explore Te Wai Repo O Te Arai Awa and visit the little island in the middle of the lake on two stand-up paddleboards and a two-man kayak.

The 70-hectare property, which was planted two years ago in redwoods, cedar and eucalyptus trees, offers excellent hiking and biking on 10 kilometres of flat and hill tracks.

The man-made structures, set on interconnecting decks and boardwalks, are constructed from canvas and eco wood. They sit lightly in the natural environment but are built to last.

The design and ethos of the retreat are respectful of the earth, says Gisborne interior architect Pamela Hall who worked on the project.

“Richie’s family are from the land so honouring the land was the primary focus — that’s at the heart of the project,” says Pamela.

She sourced as much as possible from local suppliers, using natural fibres and products. Some of the furniture has been created from trees felled on Clark land like the exquisite black Russian olive wood vanity.

The main tent, made of sturdy, heavy-duty canvas by Bushtec Safari from South Africa, houses the sumptuously-appointed master bedroom with a queen-size bed, ensuite and open-air shower.

Next door is an equally luxurious circular “bell tent” with a queen-size bed, and a separate cylindrical building housing a state-of-the art eco toilet with a solar-powered dehydrator that guarantees the system is odourless.

Overlooking the jetty and lake, there’s a partly-enclosed kitchen, an open-air claw-foot bathtub and a seating area.

In the evenings, guests can pull up a beanbag on the lawn, light the outside fire and toast marshmallows.

“The raised lawn in front of the tents is the only grassed area on the site. We’ve deliberately left the rest of the vegetation wild and natural. It will eventually grow up to the height of the decking so you will feel like you are in a sea of green and gold . . . in the midst of a wetland,” says Richie.

After five months of intensive work, Richie is well-pleased with the final product which restored a boggy paddock to its original state.

“The wetland will provide a thriving ecosystem that will attract and sustain breeding populations of rare and endangered waterfowl,” he says.

“We hope we might inspire other land-owners around the country to convert marginal farm land into wetlands and look for other ways to receive income from the land.”

ABOUT Manutuke Eco Retreat

  • Location: Waingake Road, Manutuke, 15 minutes’ drive from Gisborne on the East Coast of the North Island, New Zealand. 
  • Beds: Two large tents accommodate four adults in two queen-sized beds (NB Strictly adults-only. Not suitable for children due to the proximity of the lake.) 
  • Power: Off-the-grid, with solar power providing lighting and USB ports for lantern and phone charging (if you must!). Energy for hot water and cooking is supplied via LPG gas bottles. LED lanterns provide lighting for the bell tent. 
  • Bathroom: Open-air, walled shower and vanity; separate eco toilet with solar-powered dehydrator that guarantees an odourless system.
  • Kitchen: Self-catering in a well-equipped, semi-enclosed kitchen with a BBQ, large chilly bin, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans.  
  • Activities: Yoga, hiking, biking, e-biking, stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking ... and relaxation.