The Story of Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat by Peter Johnson and Kerry McFadyen
For too many years nature-based tourism product has relied on taking advantage of a pristine environment. The very nature of intrusion in most cases results in some level of degradation. The recent pandemic has highlighted both in Australia and abroad, that the forces of the tourism dollar very often have undesirable consequences. We are now hearing the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘regenerative tourism’ more often. The development of the Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat is a story of sustainable and regenerative tourism that started in 2005.
The Diamond Waters Treehouse Retreat Experience.
Discovering the joy of being a tourism provider came late in life to husband and wife team, Peter Johnson and Kerry McFadyen. It was a journey commenced in part by accident, in part by design.
The accident part was when looking for a beachside unit in the Camden Haven (just south of Port Macquarie) they stumbled onto a 5.2 hectare property bounded on one side by the pristine Camden Haven River, a short walk to the beach on the other and just a kilometre from town. It may not have been love at first sight but it was not far off, and six months later they purchased and moved their young family up from Sydney.
For twenty years prior to the sale the property had been used as a retail and wholesale nursery and in halcyon times was one of the most successful in the region. Towards the end of the previous ownership the nursery industry began to seriously decline, the owners moved the wholesale nursery to more fertile ground and little time was left for maintaining the property. By the time Peter and Kerry arrived, the retail nursery business was floundering, approximately 50% of the land was smothered in lantana and other weeds, wetlands were trampled and in decline, stagnant water through over fertilization and the evidence of the former land use everywhere.
The design part was forged from Peter and Kerry’s desire to find for the property a way to fund their dream to create a paradise that gave to, rather than took from, the environment. What follows is the step-by-step description of how their journey unfolded. Process is described, solutions are shared, measured outcomes revealed.
It is written in the hope that others might take inspiration and find their own way to use the force of tourism dollars to make the world a better place.
Step 1 – Master Planning
In 2004 we engaged an ex-public works architect with a special interest in sustainability to assist in a master planning exercise to explore how our 5.2-hectare property could be used to generate an income that could resource the rehabilitation of the environmental damage resulting from the previous three decades of land usage. During his first visit to our property, our architect asked us what our intentions were regarding the trees that partially blocked our view of the river. Our response was we love the trees and the naturally filtered view of the water. His response was “good to hear, I will continue work for you”.
To cut a long story short, the concept of environmentally designed tourism was born. Along with this outcome followed an understanding and mapping of energy, water, waste-water and septic, protected wetlands, bush fire, flood, weed control, and tree management requirements.
Our key learning – research is critical, details matter, and be prepared to think outside the box.
Step 2 – Approvals
As we have 1.5 hectares of high-value protected wetlands our Development Application triggered State Government approval. This took nearly 18 months, ironically because the project was considered small and insignificant and could not get to the top of the Minister’s pile. Once signed off by the State Government it took a further 12 months to be approved by local government, largely because we were pathfinders in terms of environmental solutions for septic, flood and building design.
Our key learning – patience and persistence are eco-sustainable development virtues.
Step 3 – Design and Cost
By 2008 we were heading into detailed design and costing. This was at a time when the words low carbon or sustainability were rarely mentioned. Our Master Plan already required us to ‘tread lightly on the environment. Through our planning processes, we were told we would never have access to town water or sewer and no upgrade of our electricity supply. After an electricity assessment informed us that we could only extend our electricity use by 4kW per hour our pathway to a low carbon development was sealed. We decided to embrace a vision for sustainability and reduce carbon reliance in a way that was unheard of at that time.
As there were no blueprints for sustainable building in rural settings pre 2010 we created our own Sustainability Matrix to guide our choice in building materials, systems and FFE (furniture, fittings and equipment). Among other things, the Matrix determined: that all materials had to be recycled or recyclable; all electrical equipment had to be the lowest wattage possible; no chemical pest control; no VOCs; 65% of materials and labour sourced within 100 miles; every decision based on ‘build it once and build it to last’; all decisions to avoid the need for mechanical air conditioning; all systems to be state of the art and upgradeable.
The Design Matrix drove innovation and inspired all who worked on the project, even those that were originally sceptical.
- It is too much to list all results, but some of the best and most satisfying outcomes were:
No air conditioning and yet we have rated a perfect 5/5 on all guest satisfaction indices for our 11 years of operation. And zero complaints.
- A solar farm that generates approximately 10 times more electricity than used by the development.
- A 12-volt external compressor refrigeration system that uses just 12-32 watts per hour compared to similar sized convention fridges that use over 300 watts per hour.
- Every piece of timber sourced and crafted locally and we made the finals of the Australian Timber industry Design Awards competing against large commercial projects.
- State of the art Australian made exterior LED lighting for our pathways (yes back in 2010) where after 10 years we have not had to replace one of the 38 globes that use just 0.5 watts.
- Water supply that is 100% rainwater collected on site.
- A state-of-the-art septic system that uses minimal energy that was easily upgraded 9 years later to increase capacity to 100 persons.
- High quality furniture and most appliances that have not needed to be replaced after 11 years of use. We have recovered the lounges and resurfaced our dining tables rather than replace.
- A description by NRMA Open Road “as where eco meets Vogue”.
Some assume that sustainability comes at a price. After 11 years we can safety say that the marginal additional upfront cost has been paid back many times over with reduced cleaning and replacement costs.
Our key learning – do it once, do it to last.
Step 4 – Environmental Regeneration and Carbon Footprint
Our master plan demanded that we tread lightly on the environment but before 2010 we did not fully understand how we could harvest tourism dollars for environmental regeneration. As we moved away from the business of plant nursery and into tourism and, subsequently weddings and events, we found that the more we restored the damaged environment the more our guests loved their experience. A tourism-inspired cycle of increasing resources to regeneration was created.
It started with simple weed control and the planting of 70 native trees. Over time we have planted another 200 trees, cleaned and nurtured our wetlands, and removed tons of previous land use refuse. We could try to describe the change but historical images from Google Earth show the improvement in a way words cannot. Where once mangroves had been removed we see massive regrowth, the land that was cleared for rows of potted palms is now covered in native vegetation, all thanks to the flow of tourism dollars. We are now home to: over 150 bird species; and thriving populations of endangered species such as land mullets and other reptiles; antechinus, bandicoot, gliders, bats and other mammals.
We do our best to minimise our carbon footprint through our innovative building design, and our solar farms generate more electricity than our business consumes. More importantly, the massive growth of our now nurtured wetlands and burgeoning forest trees are sinking the carbon produced by others.
Our key learning – tourism development on pristine land should be consigned to the annals of history. Governments and councils should be incentivising people to use tourism development money for the purposes of environmental regeneration.
Step 5 – Continual Improvement – Inspiration From Others
After assessing all options, we chose, in 2013, to seek Certification with Ecotourism Australia (EA) and have maintained Advanced Ecotourism and Climate Action Business Certification ever since. Our certification reviews inform process improvement, and our communication with EA colleagues have helped to shape our interpretation and marketing plans. EA Certification has been instrumental to our success in the international marketplace (35% + international guests). We are engaging with the University of Queensland to encourage students to take advantage of our facilities for the purposes of research into wetlands, regenerative tourism and carbon footprints.
Our key learning – step up in your community, communicate and share.
The journey of regeneration is ongoing. We still have weeds to control, more native planting and a host of other projects. We are in the process of building bird hides, installing an EV charging station for our guests and there are still two old nursery structures to demolish for further environmental improvement. Tourism and some forward thinking back in 2005 made our dreams possible.
We are but one small operator on 5.2 hectares. Imagine the impact on biodiversity if another 1000 properties were restored in the same way.