More and more Kiwis are discovering the delights of luxury under canvas, writes Michael Lamb
Next season it's all about heading off on safari. Instead of elephants and rhinos, think wild deer. Hunting memories, not wildebeest. Because safari tent accommodation is taking off in a big way across the country. It's glamping gone wild, so we just had to try out a couple of safari tent getaways of the two dozen or so (and growing) on offer around the country.
A camping ground at a lonely beach north of Auckland doesn't seem like the most likely spot for the safari touch, but the luxe lodge at the Pākiri Beach Holiday Park is in a world of its own.
Perched beside the bird haven of the lazy Pākiri River (Pākiri is one of the few places where the ultra-rare NZ fairy tern lives) and just a couple of hundred metres from the distant white noise of the sea, this is safari-meets-settler style. With rustic 19th-century touches, a soul-warming woodburner and a quirky take on a four poster bed, you could imagine you've just arrived by horse from same distant settlement. There's even a Luminaries nod with a poker table loaded with cards and chips.
And that's the point with safari tents: they're not all animal skins and dreams of the African savannah. These are blank canvases (no pun intended) for the hosts to create any story they like on and that's all part of the fun.
Whakamārama, halfway between Katikati and Tauranga, isn't normally noted for its North African influences. But Riverside Farm's hosts Russell and Melissa have created a playful Moroccan-themed safari tent on their cattle farm, beautifully situated by the dreamy upper reaches of Wainui River.
You have to take your hat off the to their attention to detail. The delicately carved cupboards and Moorish tiles, it's not stuff you'll find kicking about at Bunnings. The luxe touches and flourishes you'd expect in a five-star hotel - handmade soaps, candle-powered Moroccan lanterns - make the experience a nice combination of the earthy and essential. The setting, down near the river with bush running up the other side of the valley, is beautiful. In the mornings we sat out on the deck and watched the wild deer drift across the far side of the valley and tried to pick out the different bird calls that provided the soundtrack.
What I like about the whole safari tent concept is its disruptive influence. We have plenty of amazing accommodation in New Zealand but we also have vast quantities of sub-standard stuff too: motels that are stuck in some breeze-block hell from the 80s (not in a cool retro way); dreary, bland, soulless units and cold, miserable rooms. Being quite nice people, I reckon most New Zealanders are too polite to complain.
Safari tents are a chance to show what we can do because they encourage creativity. Without the permanence of bricks and mortar, they side-step the red tape of local bureaucracy and free the owners up to express themselves.
They are wonderfully practical and utilitarian yet easily loaded up with the opulence people expect from an uber-glamping experience. There's a certain theatre about these tents and it's cool to see how the hosts get into the spirit of it. Our Pākiri retreat complemented the rustic settler vibe with on-point details like Forest & Bird botanicals and Fairtrade coffee, while the vintage lounge suite on the deck was the perfect spot to absorb the riverside setting. We sat drinking wine and reading books, the northwest aspect catching the picture-perfect sunset.
Overnight a storm blew up and the sound of the Pacific Ocean rose to jet-engine volume but the tent was cosy and secure - none of that dread of sudden destruction in the average bivouac. The skin of canvas that separates you from the world adds to the eco-tourism feel, the sense of getting back in touch with the natural world.
Rachel McFarlane, the Business Manager at the Pākiri Holiday Park says the safari tent has been hugely popular. "Our guests love it, they love the character, warmth and touch of luxury," she says. "We have a unique position right on the beach here and the glamping tent view across the estuary and out to the ocean is second to none. It's like being on safari at the beach, listening to all of the different bird noises at night."
Most of the safari tents you'll find in New Zealand are from a range designed and made, not in deepest, darkest Africa, but in the Netherlands, under the Yala brand. They pitch them as luxury lodges and they're part of a nascent trend that is all about people wanting something a little different, something more in tune with nature. Covid aside, there has been a massive global growth in alt accomm such as tents, yurts, tipis and treehouses. It's all part of the eco-tourism boom, with the vendors of the kit alone forecast to be looking at a $9 billion industry by 2027.
The Dutch safari tents that dominate our market are simple yet fiendishly clever in design. They come in many styles and can be typically configured a number of ways - both of the ones we tried as a couple offered room for five people, so they work for both romantic getaways and your classic family holidays.
Rachel McFarlane says she loves when children arrive at the Pākiri tent and hearing how excited they get. "They are totally blown away by the tent and the special bunk bed area," she says.
Can't wait until summer? Some operators pack up in winter but many don't: it may be counterintuitive to go safari-style in the coldest months but both tents we tried had pretty grunty heating systems - the big woodburner for Pākiri and a punchy gas heater in Whakamārama. So if you're looking to experience life under canvas, leave the elephant gun at home, take the camera and get in a flap over this new way to stay.
CHECKLIST: SAFARI TENTS
Pākiri Beach Holiday Park's glamping tent sleeps five, with features including an al fresco bathroom, four-poster bed, separate bunkroom for three, cosy lounge, outdoor kitchen with Weber barbecue and beach views. From $350 per night. pakiriholidaypark.co.nz/glamping-tent
Riverside Farm's Moroccan-style safari tent also sleeps five, with two double beds and a single bunk bed, fully tiled indoor bathroom with a dump shower, kitchenette and outdoor barbecue as well as self-cook gourmet food packages available to order in advance. From $280 per night. riversidefarm.nz