Northland: Northern lights

The concepts of kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga are embedded in Northland. Three tourism operators from the region reveal how they balance doing business with doing good.

The Huts

Kelly Moana Murphy and Adam Murphy have a simple goal.

“What we want to provide is a nice place for people, but to get people to think about what we really need. You don’t need a lot to be happy,” says Adam.

They’ve proven this is possible with their business The Huts—two small, cleverly designed eco-conscious buildings that look out over Shipwreck Bay and 90 Mile Beach.

Kelly spent her formative years in Northland before her family moved to Raglan. Before the family left, they bought a piece of land, and it sat there untouched for around 25 years. After Kelly and Adam had their first child, they decided it was a good time to move back and, in 2017, they opened a business that would give them the lifestyle they sought plus an opportunity to regenerate the family land.

At first, they didn’t want to use the term eco-lodge, but it’s accurate and it’s a phrase that people understand, so they went with it. Becoming more sustainable is often about choosing options that are occasionally more difficult and often more expensive. But Kelly and Adam have based their decisions on whether they match up with their long-term values.

“It’s hard, but it’s totally worth it in the long run,” says Kelly.

People notice the attention to detail in the 24-square-metre huts. The passive solar design, by Kelly’s uncle, means there is no need for additional heat during the winter; the materials were all sourced from New Zealand; the pine ply was stained with a natural beeswax and linseed oil product; they ordered high-quality furniture that would last; mattresses are made of organic cotton and sunflower foam; they grow a lot of their own vegetables and provide high-quality locally-made bread, organic milk and home-made muesli for breakfast; and there is no WiFi.

Adam and Kelly don’t plan on building more than the two existing huts and the “yoga/star gazing/beersies deck”. They want to find ways to make the experience even better for the people who do stay there (it is often used as a base when people visit Cape Reinga) and ensure their regulars keep coming back (one guest has enjoyed it so much they’ve returned 11 times).

The pair are also doing their bit to give nature a nudge. They received a grant as part of the One Billion Trees Fund—they were the smallest recipient of them all—and, in four years, they’ve planted more than 2500 native trees, along with 80 fruit trees. It’s clay soil on a hill beside the sea, so not all of them have survived, says Adam, but they’re proud of what they’ve achieved so far and plan to do more of it.

And that sentiment is increasingly rubbing off their guests. One regular brought four kōwhai trees to plant on a recent stay and another guest spent a few hours helping to clear some land. Talk about planting a seed.

Barefoot Sailing Adventures

Rachael Biggins doesn’t really classify Barefoot Sailing Adventures as an eco-tour. Doing what they can to protect the places her business relies on to survive and educating people about how special they are is just part of the company’s values, she says.

Biggins grew up in Whangārei and spent time working for the Department of Conservation maintaining campgrounds and walking tracks. Then, she moved into tourism, working on boats in the Bay of Islands, but that time spent in nature stuck with her. When she and her partner started Barefoot Sailing in 2016, they wanted to prove they were responsible operators.

To do that, Barefoot Sailing went through a globally-recognised environmental accreditation programme called Blue Flag and became the first boating operator in the country to be accredited. The scheme factored in everything from the handwash used to the way the boat is cleaned.

“That was a real eye-opener, and it was a very strict audit process.”

To get the tick, Barefoot Sailing needed to have an education component to its business. Biggins got in touch with Project Island Song (PIS), an environmental trust run by volunteers that aims to bring back birdsong to the Bay of Islands.

As well as donating a portion of each trip’s profits to the trust, Barefoot Sailing Adventures offers staff time and help with logistics where necessary, such as transporting workers to the islands. But the biggest impact it has is through teaching its passengers about the islands, their inhabitants and the efforts being made to protect them.

While accreditation was important, Biggins says there was another reason to get involved: they wanted to be part of the community. They saw how the community had got behind the PIS vision, whether it was trapping pests, weeding or going into schools and educating kids, and they wanted to do their bit.

It takes a lot of effort to take care of nature, she says, but it’s deeply satisfying to be able to put that effort in and then witness tieke/saddleback being reintroduced to the islands, or watch a video of kiwi walking down the main street of Russell at night.

“It’s incredible to see the transition.”

For Biggins and many other tourism operators, COVID-19 has been tough, but sustainability is about the long term, and about being involved in something bigger than herself. Small contributions often turn into big contributions and, after four years of involvement, she has joined the board of the PIS trust.

“We can make an impact just by saying yes. It’s that simple. We can make things better.”

Now she couldn’t imagine running a business that didn’t have an environmental and community element to it. And she can’t wait to share the group’s success—and the region’s beauty—with as many people as possible.



In 2004, Suzan Craig purchased a cattle farm near Whangārei. It was remote, run down and almost entirely bereft of native trees and animals. She set about restoring the land, storing more carbon and boosting biodiversity by planting a huge variety of trees, rushes and grasses.

Since then, with the help of the local community and the wisdom of her father John Craig, a past professor of environmental management and deputy dean of science at the University of Auckland, animals have been fenced out of waterways and nearly 30 hectares of wetlands have been restored. Around 430,000 native trees have been planted, and the land is once again home to huge numbers of native birds as well as native fish, lizards and insects.

Craig was a founding member of The Long Run Global Ecosphere Retreats, which believes in “four Cs”: community, culture, conservation and commerce. She knew that to reach her environmental goals she needed revenue, so she built three bungalows, an events space and a cafe that opens in the summer. She also set up what she calls a “biodiversity positive” mānuka honey brand—her great-uncle started one of New Zealand’s first beekeeping companies circa 1888.

For Craig, it’s all about going full circle: 100 per cent of her profits are reinvested back into land, so the better the business does and the more that people support it, the more they can do to restore it.

A big part of the project is measuring and monitoring the impacts of the business and then offsetting that with planting. Since 2004, Craig has been working on creating a “bio-value index”, which calculates the carbon sequestration and biodiversity value of native broadleaf forests, soils and wetlands compared to typical pine plantations. This work recently took out the Restoring Nature category at the Sustainable Business Awards, backing up its supreme award win in 2020.

Tahi also works to educate children in the region about the importance of bees and biodiversity—it has provided hives to 20 schools and developed educational material that fits into the curriculum.

Like The Huts and Barefoot Sailing, Tahi has shown that tourism businesses that invest in the long-term viability of the environment can also create economic value. Tahi employs around 20 full-time staff, with many more part-timers and contractors.

It’s been said that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. It doesn’t often feel like that in our modern, growth-focused, polluting society, but Tahi is an example of a business that has tried to move back in that direction.

Tahi “will always be my number one”, says Craig, and she has set it up so that it will continue long after she has gone. It’s been a difficult journey, but a rewarding one, and it provides a template for the future.

Craig has ambitions to do it all over again, and is currently in negotiations to buy another piece of land. She hopes that Tahi will inspire more New Zealanders to use business to bring back nature—and inspire more New Zealanders to support the businesses that believe in protecting it.

More by