Recessed into a high country station is a house made predominantly of glass, where you can tuck yourself away for views of the Mackenzie Country and its brilliant night sky. Words Shelley Robinson Photos Skyscape
It was one of the more “eventful” school trips Bevan Newlands had been on.
As head of sport and outdoor education at Pembroke House in Gilgil, Kenya, he took 30 children to Loisaba Conservancy, a 23,067ha wildlife conservation area. During their stay, lions casually sauntered through the camp. And then there was the hasty retreat to the school bus when a bull elephant wandered through the site.
But it was also where Bevan saw Loisaba’s Starbeds for the first time.
“It was literally a bed, built on railway irons so they could roll the bed out of the room and you could sleep under the stars,” says Bevan.
The seed had been planted for what would later be Bevan and his wife Bridget’s tourism venture in the Mackenzie Country. But like all good seedings, it would emerge when the timing was right. Bevan and Bridget returned from Kenya in 2009 and it wasn’t until 2013 that the idea of accommodation built predominantly of glass showcasing both the Mackenzie Country and its night sky began to take form.
Bevan had been chatting with his father-in-law Michael Lindsay up at the Omahau Hill Station, a 2428ha farm near Twizel he owned with wife Elaine, when he noted how hard his son-in-law was working as a housemaster at Waihi School.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you and Bridget come up to the farm? I need some help and you could come up with something in tourism for the farm.’”
The idea resonated. Bevan and Bridget had grown up on farms and wanted to raise their two children, William and Dominic, in a rural setting. And those skybeds still lingered at the back of their minds.
So while driving home through the Pukaki area, Bridget uttered the sentence that started the project.
“Why don’t we just dig a hole in the ground and put Perspex over it?”
Bevan got straight to work that evening, sketching ideas for how the concept might evolve.
“Then we said, ‘If we are going to do this, let’s make it a bit more upmarket.’ We threw lots of ideas out there. Slowly, I taught myself to do Google SketchUp. We created something a bit more dynamic and closer to what Skyscape is today,”
And that is a place of tranquillity, nestled half a metre into Omahau Hill Station with uninterrupted views of the Mackenzie Country through a bedroom built of glass.
But it took a lot of hard yards to get the building there. Bevan took a business course and spoke to a wide range of people about the concept, from eco-house specialists to glass manufacturers. The couple even stood on the streets of Geraldine and surveyed popular opinion.
“We met so many people who said we couldn’t do this. There were two different types of people; some who looked and said, ‘Too hard can’t do this’ – and there were lots of those – and then there were those who loved it and jumped on board,” says Bevan.
He visited his former basketball coach and managing director of de Geest Construction, Brian de Geest, to talk it over.
“What gave us the confidence to do it was he said, ‘Bevan if you don’t do this, I will.’”
It was the green light for the couple. Construction began in April 2016.
Skyscape was a tricky design though, with no straight lines and glass everywhere other than for the kitchenette and bathroom, which are polished concrete under a living roof.
The build took a year, hustled along in part by Bridget’s culinary skills.
“We say the first Skyscape was built by chocolate cakes because Bridget bribed people to help us,” chuckles Bevan. “We were doing it on a shoestring.”
But the chocolate cakes worked a treat. On May 1, 2017, Bevan and Bridget opened their off-the-grid sanctuary.
“People in the tourism industry said, ‘Why would you build that? What are people going to do?’ And we said, ‘Nothing. That is the point.’ This world is so filled with busyness, with people feeling they have to do something all the time. Skyscape is a place where you can come and do nothing.”
With tussocks and, in winter, snow at eye-level, visitors can lie in bed and feel truly connected to the world around them, immersed in the quiet beauty of the Mackenzie Country. A quiet drink can be enjoyed in the sunken courtyard made from stones from the surrounding paddocks or in the outdoor stainless-steel cedar-clad bath.
And at night? Well, that is another story. Skyscape is located within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which means magic happens with a celestial playground overhead.
Within three months, Bevan and Bridget knew they had created an attraction. A woman flew in from Hong Kong specifically to stay in Skyscape for two nights.
“We’ve also had people fly in, especially from Australia, just to take photos. And that was one of our objectives, we wanted to create an experience,” he says.
And people kept coming. So much so, Bevan and Bridget have now opened the first of two new Skyscape experiences.
“The new buildings are fully integrated into the ground like a cave; the earth flows down over the back of the roof and down the walls. You hardly notice them when you drive up,” says Bevan.
The idea may have been seeded in Kenya, but it took the unflinching belief in their concept for Bevan and Bridget’s haven in the hills to be built. And just a few cheeky chocolate cakes.