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Nature enter me

23 May 2023
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Photo: Jarred Walker

Offering a unique way to escape into nature, stylishly simple Unyoked cabins are popping up in off-the-beaten-track spots across the globe. Words and interview Josie Steenhart

Up a winding, bush-lined road on the other side of Raglan, turn off and feel the thrill of your 2WD tires scrabbling for purchase on the steep gravel driveway. Park, sling on your backpack and stack your provisions in the provided trolley, double knot your shoelaces, then prepare yourself for a hill walk rated “spicy” (which for an unfit city slicker is something of an understatement).

Once you’ve slogged through some mud, some long grass, some native bush (all on a seriously steep incline), laughed somewhat hysterically, possibly cried a little, worked up a fierce sweat and sat on your butt several times in the aforementioned terrains catching your breath, relax – you’ve arrived at your Unyoked cabin and that’s literally the only requirement for your stay.

Launched in 2016 by Aussie brothers Cam and Chris Grant, Unyoked currently has close to 100 cabins across Australia, the UK and New Zealand, and plans to launch “another 100 or so” in the next 18 months.

On my return to Christchurch, genuinely refreshed and gently buzzing from the breathtaking views, the abundance of tūī (of which there are precisely zero here) – and possibly from the coffee I proudly ground my own beans for (more on that below) – I caught up with Cam to find out more.

How did Unyoked come about, and how has it evolved/grown?

This whole thing started because we were scratching our own itch. Having grown up in the outdoors and then done the whole uni rite of passage – going overseas and spending time in remote, adventurous places – nature was a big part of our lives.

Fast-forward a few years and we found ourselves in the corporate world, following that standard path many of us follow. We were stuck in the city, somehow feeling like we had to be busy all the time and missing the opportunity to go and get back in touch with the natural world as much as we needed – and we noticed it, you know.

We were looking for a way to get that feeling of being free we used to have as kids, to feel the benefits of nature you only get from being secluded and surrounded by the wild... but, importantly, we needed it to fit in with our lives – you can’t go for a four-day hike every week, right?

That’s really where the whole idea came from – being able to feel alone in the middle of nature, miles away from everything, but actually only driving one or two hours, and having everything there you needed so you could do it without any stress or hassles. That’s essentially what Unyoked does.

In terms of what we do evolving, to be honest, outwardly we’ve stayed pretty true to our intent and strategy outlined on day one – helping more people get to nature more often.

Internally we’ve evolved everything a thousand times over, our systems and processes, cabin designs, things like that, all to make sure our community has nothing to worry about except spending as much time in nature as they can and our hosts can manage the cabins as efficiently and hassle-free as possible.

What has really evolved is the rest of the world. The number of people starting to realise now how we, as humans, need nature to operate to our full potential, and go looking for ways to do that... It’s pretty exciting to see how that’s growing, and Unyoked is here ready for anyone going through that journey.

What sets Unyoked apart?

Our mission here is to help more people access nature more often because we believe nature’s the answer to many of modern life’s problems. One of the key things we’ve done since day one is raise the awareness of how nature, and its scientifically proven benefits, can help us.

Aside from the numerous benefits like reducing cortisol levels, boosting your creative thinking skills or giving you a sense of perspective, being in the outdoors gives us a sense of freedom and has a way of slowing us down to our base pace that nowhere else can really match.

That’s what Unyoked is all about, every part of what we do from how we do our awareness activities to where you park the car, how you make your morning coffee, the type of content you’ll find recorded on our cassette tapes in the cabin and the properties we say “yes” or “no” to, is intentionally designed to help you access the benefits of nature quickly, easily and effectively.

As a business we see ourselves as a nature company, not a cabin company. For us, our cabins facilitate the experience of being closer to nature, they’re the means not the ends. That’s quite different from others who have come into the space recently, which there’s nothing wrong with, but Unyoked stands for, and allows you to experience, more than just four walls and a roof, if you know what I mean.

Is it true that every cabin is identical?

Pretty much! While we’re onto generation 12 of our cabin designs, iterating on things like how you reach back for the light switch when you’re reading in bed, or optimal space between the sink and the stove, the primary characteristics of our cabins are set.

For us, nature is what it’s all about, cabins facilitate you being out there conveniently and comfortably regardless of what your intention is on your trip. We don’t want people to lose themselves in filters like Airbnb, optimising for the most minute of details. At Unyoked what you should be choosing is the distance from your desk/home and that’s about it.

We want you to know every time you go to one of our locations, the cabin will be consistently cool, the level of nature will be consistently epic, but the geography itself will be different.

There’s too much to worry about out there, too much choice in life designed to distract us, what we wanted to do here is bring people back to what matters and make things a little easier for a change.

How did you settle on the design/details?

A lot of testing, haha. I think most of our team has a few different coffee grinders at home now, and the office sure has its fair share of goodies. The driving factors in the decisions for us are all-around reducing friction, reducing choice and delivering on a high quality minimal experience that helps people slow down, turn what’s normally routine into ritual and put the focus on the nature outside.

Everything’s geared towards that. For example, from the beginning we’ve provided high quality coffee beans with a hand-grinder, believing that by creating a mindful experience out of something that’s usually mindless routine, it can help us disconnect from the rhythms of the 9-to-5, step back and connect with something more meaningful while out there.

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Photo: Jonny Goosman

How do you find/secure the locations?

Our three criteria for a property have never changed; you have to not be able to see/hear other people or human elements from the cabin, you have to be able to access close to the location by 2WD, and, most importantly, it has to have what we call “wilderness vibes”.

This is more of a feeling, that one you get at the back of your neck when you’re staring at a forest lit up by the sun, or the feeling of time slowing down when you’re confronted by a vast landscape laid out in front of you. It’s something intangible, you know it when you’re there, but we’ve built it into our processes over the years, which allows us to unlock these epic, secluded locations in places where you wouldn’t usually look for them.

We work in partnership with amazing hosts to make this happen, they’re private landowners, businesses, NGOs or government agencies, all sharing a vision with us of helping people connect with nature more often and to protect it for future generations. They’re the ones who make this all possible.

When did you first launch in New Zealand, and how’s it going here?

We launched our first few cabins in New Zealand in the Waikato and Auckland regions around June last year. Our country manager Charlie Chrisp (who’s from the Waikato) has since expanded our network of cabins to six locations across the North Island.

New Zealand was a natural progression for international launch as it hosts arguably the most breathtaking and diverse landscapes in the world – ones we stared at the most back when we were chained to the desk in our past lives, just itching to get out into.

We’ve worked hard to build awesome local relationships in New Zealand. This, in conjunction with a strong local team, has positioned us to continue to grow our network of cabins and get more people out accessing the benefits of nature.

For Charlie and for us, Kiwis have nature on tap, there’s no denying that, and are more along the adoption curve of ‘getting’ what time outdoors does for us. But what’s missing for a lot of people here, similar to in Australia and the UK, is the behaviour of getting to nature to slow down when you need it, rather than waiting for a holiday or a trip full of activities.

That’s what we’re trying to help with, by unlocking epic, immersive locations within one-to-two hours from the city, Unyoked helps you to get all the benefits of the best four-day trek ending in a DOC cabin, but allows you to do it when you actually need to, instead of having to wait for your next block of leave.

Can we expect to see some cabins in the South Island soon? (please!)

Absolutely, we’re really excited about unlocking some stunning nature locations in the South Island. We have a couple of dozen locations earmarked and are in the process of narrowing down the very best to launch in Central Otago and Canterbury.

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