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Talking toilets

Justine Tyerman finds herself looking forward to visiting the loo . . .

Despite my green tendencies, I’ve never been a fan of composting toilets . . . but a recent visit to the loo at Glenorchy changed all that. This tiny settlement at the head of Lake Wakatipu, permanent population 450, is home to the astounding Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat, the only net positive energy accommodation in New Zealand. Clever technology allows the camp to generate more energy than it uses — in fact it generates 105 percent of the energy it consumes each year.

Opened in March 2018, the story behind the camp is visionary and inspirational. It’s the brainchild of US philanthropists Debbi and Paul Brainerd who fell in love with the Glenorchy region 20 years earlier after tramping the Routeburn and Hollyford Tracks. Designed according to the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the most rigorous sustainability standards in the world, the camp is committed to “offering a unique opportunity to experience living in harmony with nature”.

The seven categories of the LBC — Place, Health and Happiness, Energy, Water, Materials, Beauty and Equity — are represented as the petals of a flower which really appeals to me. They involve such factors as having a healthy interrelationship with nature, supporting a just and equitable world, celebrating design that uplifts the human spirit, using materials that are safe for all species, creating spaces that optimise health and wellbeing, supplying their own water and energy . . . all concepts close to my heart.

Anyway, back to the loos. Forget any notions of drafty old camping ground ablution blocks with spiders lurking in dark corners. In an impressive building labelled ‘Dunnies ‘N’ Showers’, there were a series of state-of-the-art, completely odourless, waterless, chemical-free composting toilets with a sign on each door depicting a woolly sheep (the general store next door is called Mrs Woolly’s) perched on the seat, enjoying a cup of tea. The diagram explains how the toilets operate and the fact they save a whopping 300,000 litres of water per year.

Although we were staying at the camp in a self-contained Maui motorhome with our own bathroom, I found myself looking forward to visiting the Dunnies ‘N’ Showers, especially the fully-tiled, walk-in showers which use purified rainwater collected from rooftops and stored in underground cisterns.

Nothing goes to waste here. Greywater is cleaned by micro-organisms and plants in the constructed wetlands and then reused for landscape irrigation.

Energy efficiency is achieved with solar thermal collectors, triple-pane Argon gas windows, insulation made from wool and recycled plastic bottles, thermal wraps to keep buildings airtight, high-efficiency air exchangers, LED lighting, motion sensors that turn lights off and adjust heating when rooms are unoccupied, and energy monitoring systems to help improve efficiency.

Facilities include smart bunkhouses, elegant one, two and three-bedroom eco cabins, powered RV/motorhome sites, and the Homestead with a fabulously well-equipped shared open-plan kitchen, dining room, sunroom, lounge, conference, retreat and meeting rooms. Outside there’s the Scheelite Campfire Shelter with a huge open fire.

I loved the use of recycled materials rescued from the demolition of local woolsheds, stockyards, grain warehouses, buildings damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes and even old telephone poles. Barn doors were recycled from Addington Raceway and a collection of old brass taps have been repurposed to hang tea-towels in the kitchen. Hooks have been fashioned from fallen beech trees near Paradise and desks in the cabins were made from rimu woolshed floors.

Eye-catching artworks are a feature of the communal areas. An entire wall in the Humboldt Room, named after the magnificent mountain range it looks onto, is made of driftwood by international landscape artist Jeffrey Bale. A massive sliding metal door to the room was made from recycled car body parts by Wellington artist Andrew Missen. Pieces by Glenorchy textile artist Amanda Hasselman are exquisite.

I spotted some stunning photography by Glenorchy photographer Laurence Belcher (see main photo on p7) whom we met a few years ago on the Paradise Cycle Trail run by his son and daughter-in-law, Matt and Kate Belcher. Laurence is also an accomplished chef who cooked us a delicious dinner at Paradise Lodge many moons ago.

Other photos tell the story of the camp’s construction and the many people involved in the project.

There’s also historical information about the Head of the Lake for guests to read. Maori began arriving in Aotearoa about 750 years ago and named the South Island Te Wai Pounamu, the ‘Waters of Greenstone’. The region is rich in pounamu, a stone highly treasured by Maori who carved it into adzes, chisels, knives, hooks, clubs and ornaments.

European settlement in the area began in 1861 when William Rees established a sheep station there. Then came the gold rush of 1862, sawmilling of beech and totara, scheelite mining and tourism. Travellers in the 1880s came up the lake by steamships TSS Earnslaw and Ben Lomond and had a choice of three hotels at Glenorchy, one at Kinloch and a guesthouse at Paradise.

A road link from Queenstown was opened in 1962 and finally sealed in 1997. I vividly recall driving that dusty, windy road as a child when it was first opened.

I lost track of time as I wandered around the camp checking out the solar panel garden, wetlands, braided river stone walkways, mosaic stepping stones and artworks such as Erma, the moa, and Dan Kelly’s water-powered sculpture of a 5-stamp battery used to crush quartz to extract scheelite. The rock was mined in the area from the late 19th century until the end of the Korean War in 1953, to extract tungsten used in armaments.

The complex is as physically beautiful as the philosophy behind it. All profits from the camp go to the Glenorchy Community Trust directed by leaders of the local community to support initiatives that “enhance the liveability and vibrancy of Glenorchy”.

The retreat has recently been named in TIME magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Places.

Staying there enhanced my sense of wellbeing. It just felt good . . . See also Justine's travel feature here.

The ‘Homestead’ at Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat. Pictures by Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat
The communal Greenstone Lounge at Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat features recycled timber beams, a riverstone mosaic floor and artworks including a massive sliding door made from recycled car body parts by Wellington artist Andrew Missen.
The Dining Room at Camp Glenorchy.
Water Sculpture at Camp Glenorchy.
Recycled taps used as hooks.
Premium Eco Cabin Bedroom at Camp Glenorchy.
The diagram of the odourless, waterless, chemical-free composting toilets at the camp.
The seven categories or petals of the LBC— Place, Health and Happiness, Energy, Water, Materials, Beauty and Equity.
The Scheelite Campfire Shelter.
Glenorchy lagoon walk.
The Toi Toi eco-cabin at Camp Glenorchy.
The moa sculptures in the gardens.