Jeff Lyons took a break from overseeing a fencing project and training new staff one spring morning to chat with me about his adventure farm camp: Lakewood Lodge. Lakewood Lodge was founded 26 years ago on the north island of New Zealand by Jeff’s mother, Christine. When they first purchased the property, it was very run down and required a lot of hard work to get it going. “Mum always said she came down the drive with a list of 200 jobs, and by the time she got through 100, there were another 200,” said Jeff, who added that it can still be like that in terms of ongoing maintenance.
You wouldn’t know how much hard work goes on behind the scenes from the smiles of happy campers in the photos and the testimonials from repeat customers who enjoy the myriad of activities and beautiful scenery of Lakewood Lodge. One ex-camper even chose to have her wedding on their grounds, a lovely testimony to what the summer camp experiences had meant to her. Jeff is about as dedicated as one can be to his business: he started working there part-time as a kid and only spent time away to travel to the US to attend camps and complete outdoor education courses. About five years ago, Christine retired, and Jeff took over as managing director of the business with his own son now helping around the Lodge on his breaks from university.
While most of their guests are New Zealand school camp groups, the Lodge also hosts Airbnb groups, conferences, corporate groups, Christmas parties, local scout field guide groups, and oversees tour groups from Tahiti, Japan, Taiwan, China and other countries. Jeff has more demand now than he can handle, with around 80% of the schools being repeat customers. “In the past four and a half months, there were only four days with no one here,” Jeff said.
The variety of activities for campers is impressive: horse trekking, archery, the Flying Fox zip line, a climbing wall, low ropes challenge, cooking lessons, frisbee golf, kayaking, survival skills, and an Iron-Person Competition, to name just a few. And of course, there are the animals. “The kids every day get a chance to do animal feeding and pet them and work out their purpose,” said Jeff. Over the years, Lakewood Lodge has had horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and a goat named Betty, with the horses being one of their “biggest drawcards.”
Along with creating cherished memories and building skills, Jeff and his staff want their campers to leave with a better understanding of how to care for the natural world. “When groups come here, we try to educate them about recycling and caring for the environment, that is something that we are really big on,” said Jeff. This involves activities like feeding the pigs their food scraps and learning about sustainable living. Impressively, Lakewood Lodge is not on the town water supply and relies solely on rainwater. They have built a massive water system with ponds and tanks including their own sewage treatment system. Jeff said that it is sometimes very challenging, “but as long as we stay on top of it, it works and keeps us self-sufficient.”
The Lodge has vegetable gardens and chickens for eggs, but Jeff said they are “more just for show” since there is not near enough production to feed the number of campers they host. “A lot of our kids come from Auckland, they haven’t been out of the city before or been to a farm or touched a sheep,” Jeff said. It’s becoming more and more frequent that he will hear a kid exclaim, “oh my goodness is this where eggs come from? I thought they came from a carton in the shop!” Educating the kids about where their food comes from and how to properly care for animals is a part of what Jeff and his staff do each day.
When I asked him how he handles the stress that can come from the constant needs of this type of enterprise, he admitted that it is difficult to completely switch off. Jeff and his partner are conscientious about taking one- or two-night breaks whenever they can get away. Jeff lives just five minutes from the property and when everything is running smoothly on the Lodge grounds, he will run back to his home office which gives him a bit of a break.
Jeff’s enthusiasm for what he does came across throughout our conversation, with his ready smile and obviously deep engagement in all the aspects of his business. I asked him what he enjoys most about his work. Without hesitation Jeff responded, “I love the outdoors. I love seeing the smiles, the experiences, seeing the kids overcome something whether it is washing their own dishes or going down the Flying Fox overcoming their fear of heights or getting on a horse for the first time.” In the end, all the hard work Jeff, Christine, and their staff have put into Lakewood Lodge is returned multiplied through the joy and growth of children who are gaining confidence and learning to take care of the world that will soon be theirs.