Honouring the land

A drone’s-eye view of Manutuke Eco Retreat. Picture by Ben Cowper
DABCHICK ON THE LAKE: 'There are 1800 dabchicks in New Zealand and we are lucky to have 32 of them right here on our lake', says the eco-retreat's owner, Richie Clark.
Manutuke Eco Retreat showing (from left) the kitchen, main tent, toilet and ‘bell tent’. Pictures by Liam Clayton
Retreat owner Richie Clark and interior architect Pamela Hall.
The ensuite bathroom with a vanity made from Russian olive wood and mirror frame made from totara fence posts.
The sumptuously-furnished ‘bell tent’.
The rustic outdoor fire on the lawn.
The bath belonged to Richie’s granny.
The luxurious master bedroom featuring the ‘Land and Sky’ artwork above the bed.
‘We used only curves, which gives the sense of being part of the wetland . . . a challenge for the builders.’
The curvy decking leads from the ‘bell tent’ to the main tent, kitchen and bathroom.
Manutuke Eco Retreat -
‘Our aim for the wetland project is to provide a thriving ecosystem that will attract and sustain breeding populations of rare and endangered waterfowl,’ as seen on the island.

A boggy paddock has been transformed into a beautiful wetland and lakeside eco retreat at Manutuke. Justine Tyerman talks to owner Richie Clark as the retreat opens to the public . . .

Born in Africa

As Pamela executes her last karate chop of 101 plump pillows and moves an armchair half a centimetre to the left, Richie stands back, surveys the scene and nods with a hint of a smile on his face — he gives a thumbs-up and the sound of a thousand bees and cicadas ruffles the tranquil rural atmosphere as the videographer and photographer launch their hunt for images.

Construction and design work has just finished at Manutuke Eco Retreat and it’s time to introduce Gisborne’s latest up-market rural glamping venue to the world.

The twin-tent lakeside glamping site, built on a raised platform above Te Wai Repo O Te Arai Awa (the wetland of Te Arai River), is carefully designed and luxuriously furnished with sustainability and eco principles paramount. It’s off-the-grid, powered only by the sun, and visually beautiful.

A glimmer of the idea for the retreat came to owner Richie Clark a few years ago while he was travelling through Africa, camping under canvas, cooking and eating under the stars, surrounded by nature.

“I travelled for three months from Capetown to Rwanda camping every night in a different location,” says Richie who grew up at Manutuke on land farmed by his family since 1882.

“There was just something special about being in a tent in the natural environment as opposed to being enclosed in a hotel room,” he says.

Back home walking the hills of his family’s property at Manutuke, Richie looked down on a cattle paddock which typically turns into a bog in the winter.

“I thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice if the paddock was converted back into a wetland as it was a few centuries ago?’ ”

“We had the paddock surveyed and found there was virtually no fall which meant by building a dam wall we could create an eight-hectare lake.”

After two winters the lake filled with water and the wetland was born . . . along with Richie’s vision to create an eco-retreat on the lakeshore.

Fast forward five months, and thanks to the hard work of interior architect Pamela Hall, builder Sam Bain, landscape architect Willie Murphy, kitchen designer Tony Sharp . . . and a few good mates, Richie’s dream has become a reality. The retreat hosted its first guests last week and is now fielding inquiries from far and wide.

Nature fix

Richie envisages the retreat as a place to disconnect from social media and reconnect with nature, a restorative, healing haven.

“It’s an opportunity to get right away from screens, large and small, to slow down, have a digital-detox and get a nature fix.

“Exposure to nature makes us healthier, happier and more creative,” he says.

“Due to our busy lives and the lure of technology, we are experiencing a collective dislocation from the natural world.

“At Manutuke Eco Retreat, the idea is you come to stay for two or three days and be completely immersed in nature. We don’t have television, computers or Wifi and guests are encouraged to turn off their phones and focus on engaging their senses.

“Ideally you need three days to fully experience the nature effect. The first day at the retreat (and away from your phone), your mind is recalibrating and you start to notice things a little bit more. By day two you start to see cloud patterns, smell fragrances and hear sounds. By day three you forget what day of the week it is and a new reality takes over.”

The camping concept is experience-based, being part of nature — waking up with the birds and going to sleep when it’s dark, he says.

“We’ve designed several bird-watching areas to observe the 12 different species of waterfowl we have here. There are 1800 dabchicks in New Zealand and we are lucky to have 32 of them right here on our lake. We also have shovellers. So people can come here and learn all about the bird life.”

Guests can explore Te Wai Repo O Te Arai Awa on two stand-up paddleboards and a two-man kayak, and visit the little island in the middle of the lake.

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.

“Jeff Carter of Southstar Trails is designing mountain bike trails for us which will add yet another dimension to the experience.

“We’re building a platform at the top of the hill overlooking the bay especially for yoga. You can take the jute yoga mats up there at sunrise or sunset, or chill out in the huge, 24-foot hammock that accommodates four people — a great place to relax. Eventually, there will be other hammock sites dotted around the property too.”

Structure touches the earth lightly

Built to last

Exploring the site, you get the impression it’s built to last.

“This is the first tent of its kind in New Zealand,” says Richie, showing me around the luxurious master bedroom with a queen-size bed, ensuite and open-air shower tucked in behind.

“It’s seriously sturdy, heavy-duty canvas made in South Africa by Bushtec Safari.

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

Out the front, there’s a partly-enclosed kitchen, an open-air claw-foot bathtub that belonged to Richie’s grandmother and a seating area overlooking the jetty and lake.

The jetty, with its circular platform extending into the lake, is a striking feature.

“The round shape was a challenge for the builders but it really anchors the whole thing. It’s magic. We’re getting so much enjoyment out of it.”

In the evening guests can pull up a beanbag on the lawn, light the rustic 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, rough 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.”

Honouring the land

The structure touches the earth lightly and blends quietly into the natural environment.

“It’s respectful of the earth,” says interior architect Pamela Hall, who returned from London three years ago and has established a practice here.

Having worked on multi-million-pound projects, the eco-glamp was very different from anything she’s been involved with before.

“It’s been a real pleasure to work on the Manutuke Eco Retreat with Richie and his team,” says Pamela.

“Richie’s family are from the land so after researching eco-lodges and glamping in general, I set about finding out what’s inherent and important here. Honouring the land became the primary focus — that’s at the heart of the project.”

Pamela sourced as much as possible from local suppliers, using natural fibres and products — sheepskin rugs and cushions from East’s Outdoor Work and Leisure; custom-designed joinery and a mirror by Woody Woodpecker and lighting and solar power from Gisborne Rewinds.

“The materials and décor are not too bold or flashy. And we’ve been able to incorporate family heirlooms and hand-me-downs too, such as the bath,” says Pamela.

Some of the furniture has been created from trees felled on Clark land. Each piece tells a story. The exquisite vanity is black Russian olive wood from Richie’s parents’ place. The rustic mirror frame is made from totara fence posts, a reminder of when the lake was a stock paddock. A stool in the bell tent is a black walnut tree stump from Richie’s grandparents’ property, planted by his father. The wood is gnarly and resonant with history.

The corrugated iron shower wall is reminiscent of a shearing shed, a reference to the rural environment in which the retreat stands.

A natural cane armchair, all the way from Malawi, sits in the bell tent, a reminder of the faraway birthplace of the whole idea.

The sustainability principle extends to details too like bamboo toothbrushes, soap dispensers and eco products from Gisborne’s Isla and Olive.

And the lighting. Everyone has their own lantern to minimise the effect on the natural environment.

A special artwork, created and gifted by Pamela and her mother Pirihira Hall, hangs in a recess above the master bed.
Entitled ‘Land and Sky’, it is a traditional Maori art form passed down from Matekino Lawless, Pirihira’s mother.
Muka (flax fibre) was extracted from harakeke (flax) blades using a mussel shell, then carefully worked and woven by hand to create this piece.

Inspiration was drawn from the newly-created wetland, the maunga (mountains) that anchor Manutuke and the sky above.

Hand-shredded flax was used to create the fringe which represents the tussocks and grasses that sway in the wind, transforming the hillsides into rippling water.

The three rows represent Manutuke, the place; maunga, the mountain; and you, the visitor. The fourth element that binds it all together represents time, here and now.

Immersed in nature

Eco-sourced timber

When designing Manutuke Eco Retreat, Richie wanted to be completely off the grid and use eco-sourced timber.
“We used FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) sustainably-sourced timber for the project,” says Richie.
“The only wood that ticked all the boxes for us was thermally-modified pine from Abodo. Thermal modification is a new practice that dramatically increases the wood’s durability and stability and leaves it a beautiful rich brown colour which turned out to be a real design feature.
“The process effectively creates a new sustainable environmentally-friendly timber which has comparable characteristics to tropical hardwoods.
“It’s achieved by using steam and high heat to cook the pine up to 230C for 32 hours. This changes the chemical and physical properties of the wood. The extractives and the resins are driven out so you don’t have the bleeding associated with Kwila.
“The pine becomes naturally durable, equivalent to H3-treated pine, with 50 percent less movement than ordinary pine.
“The process also degrades the sugars in the cells which means that the conditions for fungal growth is almost eliminated.
“The decking is also pine that is quarter- sawn where the grain is vertical. This improves stability and decreases surface cracking so will it still look great in 30 years’ time. The sand colour also blends well into the environment.
“Abodo’s 30/30 principle appealed to us. It takes 30 years to grow a tree so they believe the timber should be designed to be in service for a minimum of 30 years.
“The site is situated on the edge of a wetland and is made up of interconnecting decks and boardwalks which completely immerse you in nature.
“There are no right angles in nature so to honour and respect the landscape and ecology, we used only curves which gives the sense of being part of the wetland. With over 380m2 of decking and boardwalks, the project certainly provided the builders with a challenge,” he says.

Creating a thriving ecosystem

How do you feel now that the project is finished? I asked Richie.

“I really like the wetland safari concept we have created here, bringing new life to the area. I get great satisfaction from being by the water. It reminds me of my time camping out in Africa,” he says.

“With my marine biology background, I’ve always been fascinated by raised wooden walkways over estuaries and mangroves where you can look down at the exposed mudflats and watch the natural biodiversity at work. Our aim is to provide guests with an intimate naturalistic experience over the riparian vegetation.”

One of his goals for the project is to showcase the process of restoring marginal agricultural farmland into a wetland for wildlife and conservation.

Less than two percent of the district’s wetlands remain and are our most threatened ecosystem, he says. Historically, 84,765 hectares of wetlands existed in the region compared with 1487 hectares that remain today.

“We are finding that land serves a great purpose when you restore it back to the way it was originally, when you restore the hydrology and vegetation, this creates a very special habitat opportunity for wildlife,” he says.

“Our aim for the wetland project is to provide a thriving ecosystem that will attract and sustain breeding populations of rare and endangered waterfowl. We are working towards establishing specific habitats to support populations of the critically- threatened matuku and spotless and marsh crakes.

“The enjoyment we receive from the wetland far outweighs the financial returns we would get from trying to farm a boggy paddock.

“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.

“It’s so awesome watching the birds and the breeze in the tall grasses."

A boggy paddock has been transformed into a beautiful wetland and lakeside eco retreat at Manutuke. Justine Tyerman talks to owner Richie Clark as the retreat opens to the public . . .

Born in Africa

As Pamela executes her last karate chop of 101 plump pillows and moves an armchair half a centimetre to the left, Richie stands back, surveys the scene and nods with a hint of a smile on his face — he gives a thumbs-up and the sound of a thousand bees and cicadas ruffles the tranquil rural atmosphere as the videographer and photographer launch their hunt for images.

Construction and design work has just finished at Manutuke Eco Retreat and it’s time to introduce Gisborne’s latest up-market rural glamping venue to the world.

The twin-tent lakeside glamping site, built on a raised platform above Te Wai Repo O Te Arai Awa (the wetland of Te Arai River), is carefully designed and luxuriously furnished with sustainability and eco principles paramount. It’s off-the-grid, powered only by the sun, and visually beautiful.

A glimmer of the idea for the retreat came to owner Richie Clark a few years ago while he was travelling through Africa, camping under canvas, cooking and eating under the stars, surrounded by nature.

“I travelled for three months from Capetown to Rwanda camping every night in a different location,” says Richie who grew up at Manutuke on land farmed by his family since 1882.

“There was just something special about being in a tent in the natural environment as opposed to being enclosed in a hotel room,” he says.

Back home walking the hills of his family’s property at Manutuke, Richie looked down on a cattle paddock which typically turns into a bog in the winter.

“I thought ‘wouldn’t it be nice if the paddock was converted back into a wetland as it was a few centuries ago?’ ”

“We had the paddock surveyed and found there was virtually no fall which meant by building a dam wall we could create an eight-hectare lake.”

After two winters the lake filled with water and the wetland was born . . . along with Richie’s vision to create an eco-retreat on the lakeshore.

Fast forward five months, and thanks to the hard work of interior architect Pamela Hall, builder Sam Bain, landscape architect Willie Murphy, kitchen designer Tony Sharp . . . and a few good mates, Richie’s dream has become a reality. The retreat hosted its first guests last week and is now fielding inquiries from far and wide.

Nature fix

Richie envisages the retreat as a place to disconnect from social media and reconnect with nature, a restorative, healing haven.

“It’s an opportunity to get right away from screens, large and small, to slow down, have a digital-detox and get a nature fix.

“Exposure to nature makes us healthier, happier and more creative,” he says.

“Due to our busy lives and the lure of technology, we are experiencing a collective dislocation from the natural world.

“At Manutuke Eco Retreat, the idea is you come to stay for two or three days and be completely immersed in nature. We don’t have television, computers or Wifi and guests are encouraged to turn off their phones and focus on engaging their senses.

“Ideally you need three days to fully experience the nature effect. The first day at the retreat (and away from your phone), your mind is recalibrating and you start to notice things a little bit more. By day two you start to see cloud patterns, smell fragrances and hear sounds. By day three you forget what day of the week it is and a new reality takes over.”

The camping concept is experience-based, being part of nature — waking up with the birds and going to sleep when it’s dark, he says.

“We’ve designed several bird-watching areas to observe the 12 different species of waterfowl we have here. There are 1800 dabchicks in New Zealand and we are lucky to have 32 of them right here on our lake. We also have shovellers. So people can come here and learn all about the bird life.”

Guests can explore Te Wai Repo O Te Arai Awa on two stand-up paddleboards and a two-man kayak, and visit the little island in the middle of the lake.

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.

“Jeff Carter of Southstar Trails is designing mountain bike trails for us which will add yet another dimension to the experience.

“We’re building a platform at the top of the hill overlooking the bay especially for yoga. You can take the jute yoga mats up there at sunrise or sunset, or chill out in the huge, 24-foot hammock that accommodates four people — a great place to relax. Eventually, there will be other hammock sites dotted around the property too.”

Structure touches the earth lightly

Built to last

Exploring the site, you get the impression it’s built to last.

“This is the first tent of its kind in New Zealand,” says Richie, showing me around the luxurious master bedroom with a queen-size bed, ensuite and open-air shower tucked in behind.

“It’s seriously sturdy, heavy-duty canvas made in South Africa by Bushtec Safari.

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

Out the front, there’s a partly-enclosed kitchen, an open-air claw-foot bathtub that belonged to Richie’s grandmother and a seating area overlooking the jetty and lake.

The jetty, with its circular platform extending into the lake, is a striking feature.

“The round shape was a challenge for the builders but it really anchors the whole thing. It’s magic. We’re getting so much enjoyment out of it.”

In the evening guests can pull up a beanbag on the lawn, light the rustic 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, rough 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.”

Honouring the land

The structure touches the earth lightly and blends quietly into the natural environment.

“It’s respectful of the earth,” says interior architect Pamela Hall, who returned from London three years ago and has established a practice here.

Having worked on multi-million-pound projects, the eco-glamp was very different from anything she’s been involved with before.

“It’s been a real pleasure to work on the Manutuke Eco Retreat with Richie and his team,” says Pamela.

“Richie’s family are from the land so after researching eco-lodges and glamping in general, I set about finding out what’s inherent and important here. Honouring the land became the primary focus — that’s at the heart of the project.”

Pamela sourced as much as possible from local suppliers, using natural fibres and products — sheepskin rugs and cushions from East’s Outdoor Work and Leisure; custom-designed joinery and a mirror by Woody Woodpecker and lighting and solar power from Gisborne Rewinds.

“The materials and décor are not too bold or flashy. And we’ve been able to incorporate family heirlooms and hand-me-downs too, such as the bath,” says Pamela.

Some of the furniture has been created from trees felled on Clark land. Each piece tells a story. The exquisite vanity is black Russian olive wood from Richie’s parents’ place. The rustic mirror frame is made from totara fence posts, a reminder of when the lake was a stock paddock. A stool in the bell tent is a black walnut tree stump from Richie’s grandparents’ property, planted by his father. The wood is gnarly and resonant with history.

The corrugated iron shower wall is reminiscent of a shearing shed, a reference to the rural environment in which the retreat stands.

A natural cane armchair, all the way from Malawi, sits in the bell tent, a reminder of the faraway birthplace of the whole idea.

The sustainability principle extends to details too like bamboo toothbrushes, soap dispensers and eco products from Gisborne’s Isla and Olive.

And the lighting. Everyone has their own lantern to minimise the effect on the natural environment.

A special artwork, created and gifted by Pamela and her mother Pirihira Hall, hangs in a recess above the master bed.
Entitled ‘Land and Sky’, it is a traditional Maori art form passed down from Matekino Lawless, Pirihira’s mother.
Muka (flax fibre) was extracted from harakeke (flax) blades using a mussel shell, then carefully worked and woven by hand to create this piece.

Inspiration was drawn from the newly-created wetland, the maunga (mountains) that anchor Manutuke and the sky above.

Hand-shredded flax was used to create the fringe which represents the tussocks and grasses that sway in the wind, transforming the hillsides into rippling water.

The three rows represent Manutuke, the place; maunga, the mountain; and you, the visitor. The fourth element that binds it all together represents time, here and now.

Immersed in nature

Eco-sourced timber

When designing Manutuke Eco Retreat, Richie wanted to be completely off the grid and use eco-sourced timber.
“We used FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) sustainably-sourced timber for the project,” says Richie.
“The only wood that ticked all the boxes for us was thermally-modified pine from Abodo. Thermal modification is a new practice that dramatically increases the wood’s durability and stability and leaves it a beautiful rich brown colour which turned out to be a real design feature.
“The process effectively creates a new sustainable environmentally-friendly timber which has comparable characteristics to tropical hardwoods.
“It’s achieved by using steam and high heat to cook the pine up to 230C for 32 hours. This changes the chemical and physical properties of the wood. The extractives and the resins are driven out so you don’t have the bleeding associated with Kwila.
“The pine becomes naturally durable, equivalent to H3-treated pine, with 50 percent less movement than ordinary pine.
“The process also degrades the sugars in the cells which means that the conditions for fungal growth is almost eliminated.
“The decking is also pine that is quarter- sawn where the grain is vertical. This improves stability and decreases surface cracking so will it still look great in 30 years’ time. The sand colour also blends well into the environment.
“Abodo’s 30/30 principle appealed to us. It takes 30 years to grow a tree so they believe the timber should be designed to be in service for a minimum of 30 years.
“The site is situated on the edge of a wetland and is made up of interconnecting decks and boardwalks which completely immerse you in nature.
“There are no right angles in nature so to honour and respect the landscape and ecology, we used only curves which gives the sense of being part of the wetland. With over 380m2 of decking and boardwalks, the project certainly provided the builders with a challenge,” he says.

Creating a thriving ecosystem

How do you feel now that the project is finished? I asked Richie.

“I really like the wetland safari concept we have created here, bringing new life to the area. I get great satisfaction from being by the water. It reminds me of my time camping out in Africa,” he says.

“With my marine biology background, I’ve always been fascinated by raised wooden walkways over estuaries and mangroves where you can look down at the exposed mudflats and watch the natural biodiversity at work. Our aim is to provide guests with an intimate naturalistic experience over the riparian vegetation.”

One of his goals for the project is to showcase the process of restoring marginal agricultural farmland into a wetland for wildlife and conservation.

Less than two percent of the district’s wetlands remain and are our most threatened ecosystem, he says. Historically, 84,765 hectares of wetlands existed in the region compared with 1487 hectares that remain today.

“We are finding that land serves a great purpose when you restore it back to the way it was originally, when you restore the hydrology and vegetation, this creates a very special habitat opportunity for wildlife,” he says.

“Our aim for the wetland project is to provide a thriving ecosystem that will attract and sustain breeding populations of rare and endangered waterfowl. We are working towards establishing specific habitats to support populations of the critically- threatened matuku and spotless and marsh crakes.

“The enjoyment we receive from the wetland far outweighs the financial returns we would get from trying to farm a boggy paddock.

“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.

“It’s so awesome watching the birds and the breeze in the tall grasses."

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