We managed to avoid detection in our nearly-private bush on the edge of Lake Taupo, but it felt like we should wake up early and pack up in order to avoid any unwelcome confrontation that might arise form our stealth camping setup. Looking back, Japan was really an easy place for stealth camping: a roadside station offered toilets and drinking water that were open 24 hours a day, and the only attention we ever received from the locals at those michi-no-eki stops was curiosity and the occasional dose of amazement at the way in which we were traversing the country.
New Zealand has a rather different approach to vagabond travellers setting up camp wherever they like, as the country is regularly travelled by people who opt to camp and tramp around year round. There’s been some pushback from the NZ locals about people camping in public areas that we’ve heard about, but if they’re fed up with foreigners like us, they’ve been awfully polite about it – everyone we’ve met has been helpful and friendly and we’re still really thrilled to be here.
Our first farming/WWOOFing stop in New Zealand was scheduled just outside of Taupo in the Kinloch area, where we discovered a permaculture-focussed property being run by Hermann and Monika Geister, two former chefs who now own and operate the Taupo Market. For the North Americans reading this, picture any farmer or artisan market you’ve ever visited and place it outside in a public park every Saturday. The Taupo Market has a little bit of everything going on – from espresso booths to fresh bread, empanadas to handmade donuts, reclaimed wood walking sticks to fresh oysters. Hermann and Monika have been running the market for some time, though they’ve also opened cafes and restaurants in the Taupo area since they first came to New Zealand from Germany in the early 1980s. If it wasn’t already obvious, they’re people who care about the land and about food, and Kakariki, their off-the-grid homestead was perfect evidence of that.
Our trip from Lake Taupo to Kakariki (which, incidentally, means “green” in Maori) was a 20km ride up and down over hills towards Kinloch through a scorcher of a day. We were careful to apply the sunscreen liberally to avoid getting burned by the infamous New Zealand sun, which was just waxing into its summer offensive. We arrived at the spot that Google brought us to and were a little unsure of which driveway belonged to Hermann and Monika until a neighbour pointed out the right driveway.
The cows weren’t much help in helping us find the place.
Bessie, the Geister family dog greeted us as we approached the straw bale house and Monika came out to say hello. The property was absolutely gorgeous. What had been a worn-down overgrazed sheep pasture ten years prior is now a blooming mosaic of microclimates with hundreds of species of plants growing all over their six acres. Vegetable gardens, food forests, ornamentals and herb perennials were only the first things I noticed as we put our bikes away and got changed before dinner. Monika gave us a quick little tour to point out all of the cool features of this truly green property
Kakariki, arguably the one of the “greenest” houses in New Zealand, is outfitted with a 12-panel solar array and batteries, which keep them off of the grid power. While the occasional heavy-usage or cloudy day means that they have to switch on a diesel generator, the Geisters haven’t paid a utility bill in ten years. While their drinking water is pumped from a community well shared with the other neighbours in the area, much of the water they use on the property is part of a grey water system, which sequesters all water leaving the property into settling tanks that they can then use on their trees and plants.
What’s that you say? Sewage on their plants? Nope. There’s no problem with “black water” because Kakariki is outfitted with these awesome compost toilets that are aerated with a flue and only need to be changed every couple of years with regular usage. The company that produces them is a New Zealand-based company called Bioloo, and while I was initially skeptical about Monika’s no-smell claim, I was amazed that it was as nice as any toilet I’ve used. A healthy scoop of wood shavings between uses means that the carbon levels keep the compost process going and the moisture (and smells) stay absorbed, especially with the added ventilation of the rooftop flue. I’m sold – it’ll have to be a feature of the house we eventually build.
And those wood shavings? A convenient byproduct of cutting up wood pallets to be used as fuel for heating all of the water on the property. Their impressive wood stove has an attachment called a wetback to pump cool water through the back of the stove and store it in 278-litre tanks to be used for showers and general washing. But wait – there’s more. The stove is also what they use to heat their water-based radiators (when needed), cook their food, and heat the oven for any of the baking they do. A propane range is used as a backup if they don’t want to fire up the whole stove for smaller cooking jobs, but the Stanley stove they have does the trick for just about all of their heating needs.
In addition to offsetting the energy demands of the house by heating the home and water with wood, they can cook with the same energy. Since the carbon dioxide being returned to the atmosphere by burning the wood is the same carbon originally captured by the growing tree, the wood stove is effectively a carbon-neutral way to heat their home and water.
Did I mention that they are former chefs? Everything was so delicious, and so much of the food we were having was sourced directly from the property. It was quite a treat to have people who care so much about food looking after you.
We had initially slotted a week in with the Geisters before we thought we would get back on the bikes again. We had such a great time staying with them in their amazing home that we had to ask if we could stay longer (and if there would be more WWOOFing work to do). They generously said that we absolutely could, so long as we were able to dogsit Bessie on the days that they would need to be away. Hermann and Monika have recently taken over the Gourmet Night Market in Mount Maunganui where Al and Natalia live, so they needed to be away for one of the days of our stay. Looking after Bessie was a small price to pay to stay longer.
Our main work over the time we were there involved clearing out some of the wood that had been taken off of trees on their property. After a couple of wood chipper mishaps, we cut firewood and created mulch for the pathways in Monika’s medicinal herb garden area. I can still smell the eucalyptus gum trees that I was chopping up with a machete for kindling. Before we left, we also looked after the chickens and helped to design a forest grove on a slope with some native plants that Monika had picked out. Since we installed that garden area on December 1, we joked that they would need to send us a photo every year on that day so we can see how the young trees are doing. Bronwyn also got to try her hand at some artistic garden ornamentation and even made a funky little outdoor living space to enjoy.
Our time at Kakariki was really special and it was truly difficult to leave. Hermann and Monika were such amazing hosts and we really felt like we clicked with them as people. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to suggest that we’d really like to model our own future on the life that they’re living and I know that we’ll always think of them as distant mentors as we shape our own property in the future.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Taupo on a Saturday, head over to the information booth at the Taupo Market and say hello to them. They’re thoughtful, generous and hilarious people – I know that meeting them will remain a highlight when we think back on our time in New Zealand.
So what else did we get up to in Taupo? Other than really digging life at Kakariki, visiting cafes (including a trip to L’Arte Cafe with Monika) and setting things up for the Saturday market, it was a pretty relaxing time.
Unless, of course, you were hoping to hear about the trek we took through Mordor itself: the 29,200-step/19.4km epic Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I’ll tell you all about it in the next post.
Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com