From sunrise to sunset, visitors to the Fiordland Eco Retreat enjoy views of dramatic mountain ranges and Lake Te Anau, all from the serenity of a house nestled in the hills. Words Shelley Robinson
On a steep hill overlooking the town of Te Anau, there appeared to be a section of land that no one wanted. After 10 years on the market, it was yet to entice its new caretakers.
But could this be the one? The telltale sign of dust drifting up from the gravel road below indicated someone had pulled up. Soon after, over a barbed-wire fence and weaving his
way through matagouri and bracken leaves, Glen Greaves emerged and stepped onto the Ramparts Road section for the first time. He and his partner Susanna Graveley had been searching for a section in Te Anau with little success.
A few minutes later, Susanna’s phone pinged in England, where she was visiting family. It was a panoramic video of the section showing the gentle slopes that led down to Lake Te Anau and the dramatic soaring slopes of the Kepler and Murchison Mountains.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty nice,’” says Susanna with a laugh.
And so, the land had found its new caretakers. A young couple who would live in a caravan for one and a half years to get to know the land and understand how it interacted with the sun and the wind. And when they were ready, the couple would begin building what would be known as the Fiordland Eco Retreat, a home that would welcome many.
In 2010, Susanna was working for a sustainable buildings company in West Yorkshire, England, when she had a nagging feeling that it was time to go see the world. She packed a backpack and headed to her first stop, New Zealand.
It turned out to be her only stop.
“I just decided that I didn’t ever want to leave,” she laughs.
When deciding where to retire her admittedly not-well-used backpack, it was Te Anau, Fiordland that beckoned.
“I thought this was the most beautiful part of the most beautiful country in the world, so this is where I am going to go,” she says.
It’s funny how history can repeat, albeit this time in reverse. Susanna’s grandmother Kathleen Wolner travelled from New Zealand to England on her OE. She, too, decided to stay at her first stop.
It may have been Te Anau’s scenery that drew Susanna in, but it was the community who made it impossible for her to leave.
“Everybody who walks down the street says hello. Just coming from England where it is a bit different, it was beautiful. There is a real sense of belonging,” she says.
She secured a job at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre helping tourists plan their days and it was there that she met ecologist and Department of Conservation’s Takahe Recovery Team senior ranger Glen Greaves.
And the rest? Well, that is something Susanna’s dad likes to tease his daughter about, the way only dads can. When Susanna set out from England, she had a blog called Just Me and My Backpack. The name aged quickly.
“My dad now calls it Just Me and My Backpack, My Partner, My House, My Dogs and My Baby!”
After purchasing the Ramparts Rd land in 2013 the couple set to work creating an eco-home on the hill, hunched over spreadsheets in their caravan. In a close-knit town like Te Anau such projects are closely monitored by the community.
“I managed the local cinema and bar at the time and you could see the driveway from town because it is up on the hill. One of the regulars came in and said, ‘You’ve made a bit of scar on the landscape, haven’t you?’”
Susanna laughs at the memory and says she was quick to reassure him that it was only while the power and internet services were put in and then it would be grassed over, because how the home merged with nature was important to the couple.
“We were very conscious when we designed it; it would blend into the landscape. The actual house, you can hardly see it from a distance. It all looks like part of the hill,” she says.
The design has been an amalgamation of Susanna’s knowledge from her master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Consultancy from the University of Leeds and Glen’s knack for interior design.
The home has been built as two. Susanna and Glen’s home with two-year-old Harrison on one side, with the self-contained three-bedroom, kitchenette, living room and 1.5 bathroom eco-retreat for the guests. A hallway divides the two spaces.
With central heating commonplace in England, Susanna was a bit perturbed by the approach to heating in most New Zealand homes.
“I found it bizarre to come here and kind of have to waft heat through the house from the fireplace,” says Susanna.
So, underfloor heating was chosen, which, along with other nifty wee heat retainers, make the home a snug temperature for a cozy winter retreat.
The house is timber-framed and filled with wool insulation. The pad (or house foundations) is also fully insulated, retaining heat. In the northern-facing rooms, passive solar gains are made from the polished concrete floors that draw in the sun and radiate it out into the home. The roof has a steep pitch to make sure the solar panels soak up the winter sun, powering the house and hot tub. Rainwater is collected and stored, while wastewater is managed on-site. Up the back of the house, there is a fruit orchard alongside young gum trees that, once matured, will fuel the fireplace.
But for many of the eco-retreat’s visitors, it is the view alone that creates the experience. In the morning, people wake to the sun dancing with the mountains, while the light show is reflected in the waters of Lake Te Anau. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows change over the different mountain ranges as the sun begins to set. The township lights up in the distance when darkness falls while the stars put on the last act, all of which can be enjoyed from the hot tub.
They are views that can become etched on the soul.
Susanna received a message from an American woman who stayed with them over Christmas.
“She said the memories of our place is what has got her and her family through lockdown and she holds it really dear.”
Susanna’s mother agrees. On a visit, she travelled around the South Island. On her return she told her daughter, “I’ve seen New Zealand and my favourite part of it is sitting on your deck looking at your view.”
It is a place of peace. Where the only sound is of the bellbirds and tui as they discover the kowhai trees Glen and Susanna have planted. Where visitors are greeted by Harrison toddling towards them with a big smile on his face and his parents not far behind, before being tucked away in their cozy warm place of retreat.
It is a true winter getaway.