How this couple lead a double life between Amsterdam and Ōakura


Saskia Thornton and Mike Eastwood return to New Zealand at the end of each year to spend several months living in their blinged-up Oxford caravan, parked in the bush near the Kaitake Range in Taranaki.

An entrepreneurial couple get the best of both worlds, avoiding winter by jumping hemispheres and spending back-to-back summers in an apartment and boat in Amsterdam and an Oxford caravan in Ōakura.

Words: Emma Rawson  Photos: Brooke Lean

If someone were to drill a hole in Earth from Amsterdam to the southern hemisphere, they wouldn’t quite end up in Ōakura, but close enough. While the true antipode of the Netherlands is Waitangi in the Chatham Islands, Saskia Thornton and Mike Eastwood live a life of (near)-polar experiences, spending half of the year in the capital of the Netherlands and the other half in a 1976 Oxford caravan parked up in bush near the Kaitake Range.

During their summers in Amsterdam, Saskia and Mike wake up to bicycle spokes rattling over cobbled streets. Summers in Ōakura, on the other hand, start with warbling tūī and korimako and the kettle whistling on an outdoor induction stove. Maintaining businesses and homes on both sides of the work takes a bit of life admin, but Saskia and Mike are a couple who get things done and don’t take no for an answer.

Cabinetmaker Mike spent 12 weeks renovating the 1976 Oxford, originally painted a bright orange. “I think there are more new parts than old now. It probably would have been cheaper to start from scratch, but we love the look and history of it,” he says. The layout is the same as the original, but Mike completely rebuilt the joinery, adding extra storage. He also redid the plumbing and electrics. The original cushions were recovered, and Oskar, the dog, is a fan but prefers to sleep on the bed at night.

“I come up with the mad ideas, and Mike is the one who makes it all happen,” says Saskia. “So, when I wanted to move to the Netherlands, we found a way to make it work for us.”

Sometime around her 30th birthday, Saskia had what she calls a bit of a meltdown. An urge to move to the Netherlands that started deep in the pit of her stomach over time had grown to an ache in her bones. Saskia’s mum, Dita, is Dutch, and growing up, the family visited the Netherlands many times. Saskia had always wanted to live in Amsterdam.

Saskia and Mike were persuaded to move to Taranaki by Saskia’s sister Anneke, who lives in New Plymouth with her partner Max and their kids Toby (5) and Jack (3).

“I was 17 the first time I ventured overseas alone for a year abroad in Germany, which taught me a lot. I knew what living in another culture was like and how much satisfaction it gave you once you moved, made new networks and friends and learned the language. I wanted to have that same experience with the Netherlands, but Mike didn’t want to do it, and he took a lot of convincing.”

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Says Mike: “I’m just a simple Kiwi guy. Work is a big part of life, and I wasn’t sure if I could do my carpentry work there. Initially, I agreed to go for six months, and Saskia insisted we needed at least a year.”

Mike purchased the fire pit from Tiny Anvil in Auckland, one of the first things the couple bought after they got the land in Ōakura. “We’ll definitely be roasting marshmallows with the boys this summer,” says Saskia.

Saskia can do her marketing consultancy work from anywhere in the world — she is the branding brain behind the international success of Kiwi cheesemaking brand Mad Millie (see NZ Life & Leisure, November/December 2017). So, in 2018, the couple packed and set forth for Europe, leaving their dog, Oskar, temporarily in the care of Saskia’s parents.

A year stretched to 18 months and then came a hard-to-refuse opportunity. A rundown 58-square-metre apartment in central Amsterdam with a 10-year fixed-rate mortgage of 1.8 per cent made buying an apartment cheaper than renting. Although Mike has years of experience as a cabinetmaker under his tool belt and has worked on some award-winning New Zealand houses, he’d never built an entire home. Doing up an apartment in a five-storey 1906 building in a European city where you don’t speak the language, and everything must be craned through a window was quite a feat.

Saskia has always been a fan of the Dutch biking culture, and when she lived in Auckland, she used to cycle to work from Takapuna to Albany, while Mike was a keen mountain biker. “Dutch biking is a bit different through. It’s easy, flat, fully bike-pathed, and the city has great infrastructure,” says Saskia.

“I spent every day building and every night on YouTube learning and Googling the Dutch names for tools and materials I’d need,” says Mike.

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“All the little things like dealing with building-site rubbish were the hardest. I have a van, trailer and a workshop in New Zealand, but you need a permit in Amsterdam just to get a skip.”

Saskia runs her marketing business and attends meetings for FTN Motion — she’s a director — from a desk in the caravan, which also doubles as a bathroom vanity.

In the end, Mike had to pack bricks and other building waste into dozens and dozens of rubbish bags and haul them out the window onto a special chute.

Renovating their 18-foot Oxford caravan was a doddle in comparison. They bought the caravan on Trade Me in 2020. When they returned to Aotearoa that year, Mike spent their MIQ-quarantining time ordering parts, redesigning the caravan’s layout and teaching himself about 12-volt electrical systems. He gave himself a 12-week deadline and got to work.

They like to cook simple, fresh meals that are quick to prepare, including lots of organic salads and veggies from local grower Kaitake Farms.

The sleek refitted caravan features whitewashed birch plywood and clear-coated douglas fir cabinetry. It is solar-powered and designed as a permanent home. Mike thought long and hard about the details that would make the space liveable. The bed had to be permanent and not fold-out; there had to be storage and a desk for Saskia to work. The cabinets have stays on them, so they can’t be left open.

“Mike thinks very carefully about all these things, and he knows what we are like when we live in a small space and how to design around things like me leaving cupboard doors open,” says Saskia.

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Innovative details include the ceiling extractor fan with mosquito net — essential for letting out hot air in the summer and not letting the mozzies in — and a pull-out induction cooking element. “It’s always a talking point when people see an induction cooker in an old retro caravan,” says Mike.

Saskia and Mike pack one suitcase of clothes each so the caravan wardrobe never overflows. “There is also a tonne of storage under the bed for overflow or things such as shoes, our suitcases and any other bags”

The couple bought a one-hectare patch of land in Ōakura, now the caravan’s permanent home. It’s in a clearing encircled by protected native bush. Mike is in the process of building some cabins to go alongside.
It’s not uncommon for business designer and marketing strategist Saskia to attend a board meeting via Zoom while sitting at her little caravan desk (it doubles as a bathroom vanity), cicadas clicking away in the background. When living in Amsterdam, she might write a digital strategy for a New Zealand client at her desk in a coworking space close to many of Amsterdam’s famous landmarks, such as the Rijksmuseum, Dam Square and Anne Frank House.

The pull-out induction element runs off the caravan’s solar-powered electrical system and turns heads at campsites because it is so unusual to find one in such a retro-looking caravan.

Meanwhile, for Mike, a hammer is a hammer on both sides of the world, and the couple plans their annual Aotearoa return around when he finishes various projects. They need to be careful about adhering to Netherlands tax and legal requirements. “We have to keep an eye on how long we are in New Zealand as we’re taxpayers of the Netherlands, and Mike is in the process of getting a Dutch passport, so he needs to stay in the Netherlands a certain amount of time every year.”

To help fund their lifestyle, while they are in New Zealand, they rent out their Amsterdam home and plan to do the same for the Ōakura caravan and cabins once they are finished. They bought a little 1970s canal boat in Amsterdam so Mike could study canal boat joinery. When they go on weekend outings down the canals, they put their apartment on Airbnb. “We’ve become experts at packing everything and cleaning the place quickly. That’s the good thing about living in a small space,” says Saskia.

The couple’s canal boat is called J8, a play on the word jacht, the Dutch spelling of yacht. The boat is from the 1970s and requires some maintenance, but it is perfect for exploring canals in the Netherlands. “It’s an amazing way to see the country. You travel very short distances, very slowly,” says Saskia.

She is as adventurous and determined in business as she is in life. She’s a director and co-founder of New Zealand electric motorbike company FTN Motion. When she was with Mad Mille’s parent company, iMake, she marketed a home brewing system called The Grainfather, which made $35 million in revenue before the business was sold to an international malting company. She’s never short of work no matter what side of the world she’s living in, and Mike’s skills and can-do attitude are always an asset. They love their double life with the best of both worlds.

The Streetdog electric motorcycle from Saskia’s Wellingon-based firm FTN Motion is handy when driving to the beach or the local village. “It always sparks conversations with the locals because of the distinctive look and the fact it is so quiet as we whip past,” she says. The next release of the Streetdog is available for preorder now (ftnmotion.com/the-streetdog)

“It is ingrained in us as humans to put down roots and find a permanent location, but Saskia and I do like to go against the grain sometimes,” says Mike.

“Every time we move locations, we get a burst of energy. This life does take a bit of planning, but it’s one that makes us happy — so why not?”

IT’S A SMALL WORLD 

The couple’s 1906 apartment is comparatively new by Amsterdam standards. Mike, who renovated it, had to school up on the building laws while learning Dutch. Some things that would be easy in New Zealand — for example, booking a skip — were tricky in the European city, which requires a permit; the kitchen overlooks the brick-lined streets of central Amsterdam. Saskia conducts much of her business from the main desk in the small second bedroom, off the main bedroom (which also doubles as a wardrobe).

Saskia and Mike try to keep things minimal in both locations to make life work in the two countries. “Once a year, we have a big clear-out of our Amsterdam apartment before heading to New Zealand so that our place is clutter-free for renters — and us. All our personal items can now fit in two lockable cupboards in our bedroom and a small three-metre-square lockup, which we rent to keep Mike’s tools in.”

When shifting overseas, Saskia says it’s best to eliminate oversized items, such as furniture. “You can always repurchase those. When moving to Amsterdam, we made the mistake of keeping everything we owned in a shipping container stored on Mike’s father’s property, thinking we would return in a year. We are still working through everything in the container five years later.” Coworking spaces in Amsterdam and Ōakura have been essential for Saskia’s work balance. “It gets me out of the house; it’s good for networking and a change of scenery.”

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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