How life in this West Coast woman’s dream homestead is teaching her young boys resilience


Young mother Renee Cadigan is developing a self-sufficient life and teaching her boys valuable life skills at the same time. 

Words: Bryony Ammonds-Smith  Photos: Renee Cadigan

In a flourishing garden near Lake Kaniere, six-year-old Leonardo has fallen in love. Gleefully, he has claimed his little treats. The object of his affection? His mother’s first-ever successful crop of carrots.

Renee Cadigan (Ngāti Kahungunu) loves how hands-on her two young sons are in the garden. They have their own patch, but nothing they grow is quite as good as Leonardo’s treat. Renee taught him how to weed carrots and the rest is history.

The garden is just a slice of the off-grid and nature-focused life that Renee is aiming to create for her boys. Leonardo and his younger brother Nekoh, four, also know how to follow a forest track by the markers, how to call for an SOS via radio and pack a hiking bag.

“My children know how to identify kai in the bush, and understand how everything works in nature,” Renee says.

Renee, who grew up on a farm in Ranfurly, is resourceful enough to make improvements to her villa (inland from Hokitika) and take her children tramping in the local bush. She says her childhood taught her to work for what she wanted and master the art of being alone. Being a fully-independent teenager is an impressive feat in itself.

At 18 Renee had a son, Ashton, now 18 himself, working in the local meat factory and living 20 minutes down the road with his girlfriend. When Ashton was two, his father took his own life, leaving her to face life as a solo mother. Renee felt enormous pressure due to the stigma of the time.

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“I was having to prove myself and be as resourceful as I could.” These years planted the first seeds of a self-sufficient mindset. Literally. Renee mastered a rental-friendly hack of growing food crops in plant pots.

“My goal was to minimise stress when it came to money.”

She was resourceful and quick to master new skills. Renee gained her barista certificate at 16, her hairdressing qualification at 18 and her fashion (sewing) certificate shortly after losing Ashton’s dad. Instead of enrolling in a mechanics course, previous “girl-racer” Renee taught herself the basics of engine maintenance under the guidance of her friends who loved to tinker. Then, Renee and her son travelled to Australia where she briefly worked as a lab technician in Kalgoorlie. While there, she also added a real estate sales licence to her toolbox. Renee lived in Western Australia for two and a half years before a bad relationship pushed her to move back to Aotearoa for a fresh start.

By the time that she found her dream homestead, Renee was perfectly equipped. “If I can learn to do it, I won’t have to pay for someone else to.”

The homestead’s origin is a bit of a love story. Renee and her husband Martin, who works at the local dairy company, married by the lake they now live on. “This is the first place he brought me when I first met him. I said to him, it would be amazing to live out here.”

They were living in Hokitika when lockdown inspired them to hunt for their own slice of the world. “We wanted to get away from everyone.” Self-professed water baby Renee was ready to move lakeside when post-pandemic circumstances put the perfect home on the market for a reasonable price.

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And Renee now has 859sq m in which to develop her ideal life of self-sufficiency. When she isn’t developing her homesteading life, Renee will have tramping gear on and be out in the local forests. Trying to deal with a delayed concussion helped her discover the healing powers of walking in nature. Her desire to explore often takes her further afield and her boys are her frequent travelling companions.

“I’ve loaded up the car and taken the kids around the North Island for three weeks,” she says. And she shares it all on Instagram, including the budget. Her followers were impressed at how little she spent.

Renee feels a push to share her journey with the online community of budding homesteaders. “When I started out homesteading the only people sharing online were already established and experienced homesteaders.” So she began sharing a beginner’s journey with beautiful imagery, helpful tips, anecdotes and the much-needed inspiration to try something new. Renee is passionate about encouraging others to take a leap.

“How can I go now?” is the question she wants them to ask.

As she learned to be resourceful through personal challenges, she knows the benefits of giving things a go. Besides, it’s better to try and fail, than not to try at all.

“It is a crucial skill when life gets expensive,” she says. She has found that car-camping and DOC huts are a cheaper way of holidaying than staying in motels. Then she and the boys can have more adventures on a smaller budget. She is also reaping the rewards of her vegetable garden and fruit trees. “Since having the garden, I’ve saved $150 a fortnight on groceries.”

For Renee, it’s all about the mindset. She thinks about her priorities daily, and sometimes feels like she is sacrificing nice things for experiences. But for her, doing things cheaply is worth it.

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One day, she wants to walk the Te Araroa trail – from Cape Reinga to Bluff. She isn’t sure if she wants to do it with the boys or by herself. “They say you understand yourself more when you are in a high pressure situation.”

“We’re happy. We’re doing the things that we enjoy without worrying about what society says is successful.”

THE TALE OF THE GLASS HOUSE

One of the earliest projects Renee completed is her glass house. When they first stepped onto the property there was no garden but many rhododendrons, which Renee can’t stand, and a water tank. All Renee saw was potential.

The glass house is nearly all recycled, apart from a new roof. The walls are windows from neighbours who had conveniently just renovated their crib. (There are just eight permanent residents at Lake Kaniere with the remaining households being cribbees.)

“The old windows were being taken to the tip, so I asked them if I could have them.” Today, the glass house stands proud amongst her garden.

Renee is always thinking about the next project. The West Coast often has a lot of rain and power cuts, so she wants to conserve water as much as possible. She is “learning how to store the power,” so that she can turn on a lightbulb. Solar panels are already on the cards, and they want to install a generator before winter hits. Once she sets her mind to it, nothing can stop her. “Whether my husband will agree to it or not is a different story.”

Find Renee on Instagram: @reneecadigannz

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