A rustic bush hut near Whangamōmona inspires a couple to slow down and be mindful
A backcountry hut along the Forgotten World Highway is a befitting backdrop for this city-eschewing couple.
Words: Cari Johnson Photos: Jane Dove Juneau
If trees could talk, mānuka and tōtara would likely chatter each time a dust-coated 2020 Land Cruiser 70 trundled up the hill. After all, visitors besides goats and deer are rare on this sliver of a backcountry road just off the Forgotten World Highway, somewhere between Stratford and Whangamōmona. And the visitors who pause and listen to the forest? Even rarer.
The trees would agree that Michael Drought and Kerry Kelly-Drought are rare sorts, indeed. The couple, who reside in Ōakura, find solace in silence at their off-grid hut. There’s a quietness to the surrounding 202 hectares of regenerating bush that seeps into bones and gently hugs the soul. “We started noticing how good we felt not being in a city — to be surrounded by the bush,” says Kerry.
Seven years ago, the entrepreneurial pair — he a dairy farmer and she a mortgage broker — began to slow down. To be fair, the small tin shed that came with the land practically demanded it. It still does.
Even after Kerry and Michael rolled up their sleeves to add “luxuries” to the now-144-square-metre hut (including a flushing toilet, a coal range, and a bunk room for their nine grandchildren), the dwelling continues to demand simplicity.
There’s no internet and unreliable cell reception. Perishables are packed in chilly bins. “Life slows down when we’re off-grid in the bush,” says Michael. “It makes us stop and enjoy the environment. Filling up the bathtubs, gathering firewood, heating the coal range — everything takes longer here.”
Buying the patchwork block of bush-covered backcountry was a no-brainer for Michael, a third-generation farmer from Ōpunake who has spent his entire life outdoors.
On the southwest foothills of Mount Taranaki, his boyhood was spent catching trout and playing sport instead of doing his homework. This was a child who could shoot a wild goat or hare well before his first legal sip of beer. Michael chuckles: “It’s just what we did.”
The land is inextricably in his blood. But listening to the land — genuinely listening? That pastime he credits to his wife. Kerry, born and bred in New Plymouth, has always been spiritual, though her spirituality didn’t extend beyond her mum’s oracle cards until, in her mid-40s, she began suffering from anxiety. One yoga class later, she found her mind-body anchor.
“I suppose my anxiety came from internalizing people’s problems, so I had to learn to be present and not take on other people’s struggles as my own,” she says. “Yoga allowed me to be my happiest, truest self.” Spending hours in restorative poses takes a lot of persistence, not to mention the strength of the mind.
After three months of daily yoga, Kerry rewarded herself with a month in Bali for yoga-teacher training and a raw-food course. “That really prompted this journey of looking after myself — to treat me like a best friend. I started looking after myself inside and out,” she says.
Building a rustic retreat in the forest couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Bit by bit, Kerry began to slow down. Eat more whole foods. Meditate in the woods.
Michael may have grumbled initially, but he too began to make small changes towards a more present life. (He’ll now enthusiastically eat a turmeric-spiced cauliflower “steak”.)
And that’s how Kerry convinced her husband, a Taranaki farmer to the bone, to roll out a yoga mat and mindfully breathe his way through a downward dog pose. Their philosophy on eating — and for Michael, hunting — has changed dramatically since.
Says Michael: “I can get venison from our bush block, but it’s no longer just about the shooting. That’s pretty much where all our meat comes from now. My friends are all ‘Let’s have a shootout,’ and I’m like, ‘No, the bush isn’t about that anymore.’
“We’re not vegetarians, but we call ourselves flexitarians. We’re going back to a predominantly plant-based diet, like how I grew up when most vegetables and meat came off the farm. Kerry and I are at a point in our life where we are embracing alternatives.”
Wait, a livestock farmer mainly eating vegetables? Sure, he says. Michael, the owner of several dairy and beef farms around Taranaki, likens his flexible diet to the future of farming: “As a farmer, you have to be open-minded to change. If you don’t stay flexible, you won’t be in business for long.”
Perhaps, this receptivity is what eventually brought the pair together, though it took a few decades and international moves to happen.
In the late 1980s, Kerry moved to London and made her mark in real estate at a young age. At 23, she had sold a home to Welsh actor Catherine Zeta-Jones and was named top real estate salesperson in England.
Seven years later, she returned to Aotearoa and embarked on a new career in sales and marketing, leading to a job as front-of-house event and marketing manager at Trinity Hill Winery in Hawke’s Bay.
Coincidentally, there were a few years when their paths could have crossed in England. Until the 1990s, Michael’s whole life revolved around the dairy farm and raising his three children.
Then, at nearly 40, he and his wife parted ways. Eighteen months of relief-farming in the Scottish Highlands and English countryside may not sound relaxing to most, but Michael is not most people.
“I saw it as an opportunity,” he says. “And I came back with a new perspective on life.” Taranaki has a way of tugging at the heartstrings of its former residents. Sure enough, when Michael met Kerry at a party 16 years ago, she was working as a mortgage broker in New Plymouth. He was back in Ōpunake.
Their courtship required a 45-minute commute, twice daily, until one day Kerry decided to take life by the horns and launch a mortgage firm. In 2006, she opened Mint Home Loan Finance; as her own boss, life never felt so flexible.
Today, on a grassy ridgeline close to the bush hut, the couple take a few quiet moments to listen to their personal hinterland. “We call it forest bathing,” says Kerry. “We just sit in the forest and take in what’s around us.” That’s not to say silence always means solitude. Given the hut’s cosy interiors and Kerry’s reputation for cooking (she makes a mean goat roast), it’s unsurprising the hut is a full house most weekends.
The pair hope to slow down further but, with their propensity for restlessness, perhaps never to a complete halt. Michael runs farming operations across 700 hectares around Taranaki with the help of his son Simon, including three dairy farms, two beef farms and a run-off. “He will never retire,” says Kerry. “He loves working.”
This is coming from a woman who, despite reducing her hours at the mortgage firm, spends her days devouring books and courses on everything from mindfulness to foraging.
“I have this inkling to help people learn to look after themselves, to put themselves first,” she says. When she isn’t on a two-day juice cleanse or dandelion hunting for her next caffeine-free cuppa, Kerry is organizing retreats for friends and acquaintances at the bush hut. “She is always in somebody’s ear,” says Michael, her most devout convert.
Yes, Michael and Kerry love their slower way of life. They have yet to rule out electricity for the bush retreat, but like their lifestyle, there’s no right or wrong answer to what feels right. Here, in the present, they are precisely where they need to be.
WHAT IS FOREST BATHING?
Contrary to its name, forest bathing has little to do with taking a sudsy bath in the forest. Shinrin-yoku, a phrase coined in Japan in the 1980s, translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere”. The practice involves tapping into all five senses — listening to birdsong, smelling those native trees, breathing fresh air — for what many psychologists agree will temporarily relieve stress, anxiety, and other health problems.
Kerry learned of the term in a mindfulness course and studied the benefits further in Li Qing’s book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health. “Forest bathing is about feeling the healing presence of the trees. It’s about walking slowly and being present,” says Kerry.
“And listening to whatever is around you,” adds Michael. “The peacefulness of the bush is similar to yoga and meditation, which we call our ‘healing medicine’. We get a similar joy from being at the hut — where we wake with the light and go to bed once it is dark.”
This predominantly plant-based diet leaves some wiggle room for animal products. Kerry began to reduce her meat and dairy intake after attending a raw food course in Bali. It has taken her and Michael several years to adapt their way of eating. Most of their meals are made with produce grown on their half-hectare garden and orchard, which they started last year on their farm in Ōkato.
“It’s quite difficult to change your lifestyle instantly,” says Kerry, who earned a diploma in nutrition and life coaching during last year’s nationwide lockdown. “It’s a journey, which is why we tried cutting out something small each day.
Before you know it, you’ve changed a habit by 100 per cent.” Preservatives, processed gluten, and store-bought animal products are typically off the table at their household. What’s on the table? Fresh milk from the farm and venison that Michael hunts himself, provided it’s consumed in moderation.
“We try to keep animal products to one small portion once a day. If we have eggs for breakfast, we’ll eat plant-based for the rest of the day,” she says. But they love a good glass of wine and, when hosted by others, all bets are off. “If we go to someone’s house, we’ll eat whatever.”