Thursday, December 7, 2023

High life on top of the world

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Setting up a tourism venture on a farm not only provides a second income but also acts as a public relations exercise to help bridge the rural-urban divide. And when it includes luxury glamping and breathtaking views the visitors cannot fail to be impressed. Andrew Stewart took a look.
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In terms of spectacular views, Angus and Sarah Gilbertson’s farm is up there with the best. 

Rising to 600 metres above sea level at the highest point, the panorama on a clear day encompasses all the mountain peaks of the central plateau, Mount Taranaki to the west and the clear blue waters of the Tasman Sea far to the south. 

Between these stunning landmarks are great swathes of some of the most productive farming country in New Zealand that connect the landscape in various shades of green. It’s the sort of view you can’t help but stop and enjoy and this is part of the reason the Gilbertsons created their glamping business five years ago.

The farm, Tapuae, has been in Angus’ family since 1921 and is up a quiet country road north of the sleepy little village of Waituna West. The couple have farmed it in their own right since 1998 and it is about 600 hectares of mainly hill country though there is a proportion of cultivable land used for cropping. Angus runs the farming side of the business with 3500 sheep and 300 cattle wintered but is happy to help out with the tourists when he is needed. 

Sarah used to work for Farmers Weekly in Feilding but once the couple started a family she wanted to start a home-based business to work in more with the demands of small children. In 2014 glamping was in its infancy and the promise of setting up a unique experience under canvas was what drew them to investigate it further. 

Sarah did extensive research and found a company, Canopy Camping Escapes, that was looking for landowners to partner with its glamping business. The partnership is relatively simple, Canopy handles the sales and marketing in return for a percentage of the income.

Sarah spent the best part of a year wandering around the farm looking for the perfect site. She paid close attention to where the sun rose and set, which way the predominant winds blow and access across the farm. One day Angus casually suggested using their bull paddock and once Sarah had a closer look she realised it was the perfect site. It also meant access has to be past their homestead, which makes meeting guests and showing them the site much easier. 

Another key was using existing farm buildings or upcycling them. 

An old shearer’s quarters and stables were given a new lease of life in the glamping site as were huge power poles and beams from around the farm. But the star of the show is the purpose-built canvas tent complete with timber floor, wood-burning stove and custom furniture. For Sarah sleeping under canvas is a special experience like no other and that is the main reason she opted for a tent, albeit a pretty flash one.

The kids climbing a tree with friend Reggie Stone.

Juggling the demands of a young family, farming life and the needs of tourists does have its moments. Keeping hungry stock out of the glampsite area also provides a few testing conversations between Angus and his wife. But the ability to operate a home-based business that Sarah loves far outweighs any negative aspects.

When asked what advice she might have for others looking to jump on the tourism bandwagon, Sarah is very positive. 

“If you are happy to open up your farm and you have a piece of paradise you want to share with people I think it’s a great way to have a work/life balance and a second income stream on the farm. 

“I also think it’s really important to have a connection between rural and urban. By opening up our farms you certainly see the delight on people’s faces when they come here. They also appreciate more the work that’s involved with a farming operation.”

While that might sound appealing to many looking to give tourism a go, Sarah also warns you have to be a special type of person. 

“You have to be the sort of person who likes people and talking to them as well as being comfortable with people coming onto your property.”

It seems the Gilbertsons are just those sort of people and they relish the experience of running their own glamping site. Like the stunning setting, this hard working couple is on top of the world.

Kiwi glamping really takes off

Canopy Camping Escapes was created by friends Liz Henderson and Sonia Minnaar in 2012. 

“We wanted to escape with our families – somewhere unique and outdoorsy. We loved the idea of arriving at a beautiful location with a luxury canvas tent, fully set up and waiting. Somewhere private and secluded. A place where even though it’s in the middle of nowhere has hot water, decent loos, comfy beds and warmth,” they said.

Though Sarah and Angus Gilbertson were one of only three sites when they started in 2014, Canopy has expanded rapidly as demand increased. They now have more than 50 sites all around New Zealand but not all of them are the traditional canvas tent. Some offers caravans, huts, sheds and sleep-outs as accommodation options.

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