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Takou River - a dream becomes reality

 

Walt Disney once said that all our dreams could come true if we had the courage to pursue them. He left out the bit about guts, determination, and even a dash of blood, sweat and tears, but if you add those to the mix, as Ian and Anna Sizer have done, Disney is right.

The Sizers own Magic Cottages at Takou River, a group of eco-friendly boutique cottages offering luxury accommodation on a typically glorious patch of Bay of Islands terrain, 15km north of Kerikeri.

It’s a big dream brought to reality over the last 12 years, but there’s a certain irony in how and why this environmentally conscious business came into being: before Takou River, the couple worked in the oil industry!

Ian was an engineer and Anna an environmental scientist, and it was a high-pressure corporate life, living out of suitcases, travelling constantly. Countries such as Siberia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Algeria and the Congo were ‘home’ for brief moments in time, but their hearts held what they really wanted to do: create a more sustainable, off-the-grid lifestyle and a truly memorable childhood for the family they hoped to have. So they started planning …

“We first visited New Zealand while we were working in Papua New Guinea and living in Melbourne,” Ian says.

“We came and explored, and were initially struck, as most people are, by the beauty of the country and the stunning outdoor experiences. When we first decided to move we didn’t have a family, but we knew New Zealand was the ideal place to bring up children.”

They both come from rural backgrounds in the UK, and have fond memories of growing up with plenty of space and the freedom to explore, take risks and develop without the pressures they would have had in a more urban environment. They wanted their children to have the same, so making the decision to move was relatively easy. Finding the right place proved harder.

“We searched for about five years, spending most of our holidays here, searching the country, from the very south of the South Island through to the north, but everything we saw was either too big or too small,” Anna says.

“We also had to balance the practicalities of finding somewhere close to schools and amenities because by this stage we had baby Harry. We were almost at the point of giving up hope when we made our last trip.”

Anna had six months’ maternity leave so they planned six months’ of searching. She also had a best friend who suggested they visit her godmother in the Bay of Islands. Chatting with the owners of the bach they were renting, the Sizers discovered their new home!

Takou River changed hands in October 2003 and the Sizers made their permanent move from the UK in June 2004. They found themselves with 150 acres of land. Neglected, overrun with gorse, covered in rocks and boulders and, at that stage, conventionally farmed at a very basic level.

Their dream was to convert the land to certified organic status, which they achieved within the minimum three years. Three years of annual audits (which continue), a steep learning curve with lots of study, and a heap of hard work.

That included planting around 70,000 native trees and plants (to date), mulching, removing rocks, digging out gorse, fencing, building up and implementing an active biodiversity plan and creating wetlands in areas where they couldn’t run their herd of deservedly smug-looking organic Hereford beef cattle.

At the same time, the couple was converting several existing buildings on the property into what would become their business. One of these they had called ‘home’ before they built their real home, a totally off-grid construction, where the only connection to the outside world is the phone line.

It all happened very fast and is perhaps more impressive when you consider that within a few days of the move, Ian flew off to a job in Papua New Guinea and Anna was left literally holding the baby – or, to be more exact, a toddler and a baby!

“To be honest, it was all so quick I don’t think I had a chance to feel anything!” she laughs.

“Harry was 16 months and Lucy only four weeks when we arrived, so there was no time to think, no time to wonder if we’d done the right thing – it was just a matter of knuckling down and getting on with it. There were times I wondered about our sanity, and in hindsight, had I known then what I know now, I would seriously have questioned our plans!  

“Dealing with a tiny baby and an extremely active toddler, getting to know about life in rural New Zealand, managing a large property, building a business. Ironically, it sometimes made me look back at my corporate existence with profound nostalgia! But absolutely no regrets.”

Despite Anna’s degree in environmental science and ecology, the pair acknowledges they knew little about the New Zealand environment, and they are grateful for all the offers of help they received early on, “from amazing people who have become firm friends”.

Voted one of the top 10 luxury lodges in New Zealand, the secluded cottages are self-catering, but for clients who prefer a more pampered existence, catering packages can be arranged, as can be a range of spa treatments. There is even the option of fully catered gourmet meals provided by Food at Wharepuke. The Sizers aim to make their guests feel truly relaxed and indulged.

During all the effort, they added one more to their brood. Oliver is now eight, Lucy, 11, and Harry, 12. Ian says one of the best things about the journey has been watching the children grow up appreciating the environment they live in.

“Of course they’ll never truly value it until they leave! But we had an interesting discussion recently about what to do when the current power system batteries need to be replaced. We talked about connecting to the grid, but the children were horrified. Being off the grid is very clearly an important part of how they identify themselves and something they value highly.”

The couple says the hardest part of their experience, aside from clearing the land and planting all those trees, was the complexity of it all – just so much to do and none of it simple. In the early days, Ian was working away for around half the year, which made it very tough when the children were tiny and they had no family close by. Both he and Anna now work full-time on the property.

Is there anything they would do differently? Anna laughs and is quick with the answer.

“Build a smaller house! There would be less maintenance and cleaning!” she says, before getting serious again.

“We love the house, but if we had our time over, we might have done things a bit differently. We would like to have been cleverer with the space, and perhaps integrate passive solar, which we haven’t done. We run on solar power and a micro hydro scheme. But it all works well as it is – and it’s a good excuse not to hoover!”

- by Liz Swanton

Magic Cottages at Takou River, 660 Takou Bay Road, Takou Bay, New Zealand.

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