What was meant to be a short Waikato break turned into a complete change of lifestyle for former British territorial army nurses, Nigel and Helen Naylor. Little did the couple know that their trip to Atiamuri would turn their lives upside down.
Both Nigel and Helen were registered nurses with highly demanding jobs. All they wanted was a change of scenery to unwind, so a visit to Helen’s sister Pauline in Atiamuri seemed like an ideal opportunity, to escape the Auckland metropolis.
However, there must have been something in the water of Lake Atiamuri, or maybe it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time, because before they knew it Helen and Nigel were scouting for their own slice of Atiamuri heaven. Instead of a ‘typical Kiwi home’ they discovered a tourism business with its shutters closed, ready for a rebirth.
Even more surprisingly, it is one of those ‘middle of nowhere places’, which under their ownership has been given a new lease on life with the New Zealand Cycle Trail project.
If you regularly travel SH1 you may have stopped off at the self-serve gas station at Atiamuri, which offers some of the cheapest fuel in the North Island. And you may have noticed Boris the corrugated bee sitting on top of a sign announcing Beez Neez Lodge.
The three-bedroom homestead houses Helen and Nigel, who welcome as many guests as they can into their 40-bed haven, which is a combination of bunks and beds with shower, bathroom and kitchen facilities. Already, this former backpacker lodge is being transformed into a ‘flashpackers’, as Nigel believes baby boomer cyclists are looking for some added comfort, while the bunk rooms are ideal for mates on a group ride.
With the southern start of the Waikato River Trail just four kilometres down the road, the new ‘bee-innkeepers’ are all geared up to create the kind of buzz cyclists are looking for.
“We can drop off guests at the start of the trail and we’re looking at other things like bike hire and connecting several trails,” says Nigel.
Most of all; they have turned the licensed eatery into a hive of activity, with homemade pizzas and summer salads.
Helen reveals, in her lovely Yorkshire accent: “When we visited Pauline we just didn’t want to leave. We loved the peace and quiet, the lake and being close to family, it just was the perfect time for a change.
“We’re not in it for the money and we realise we will never be millionaires doing this, but I can have my horses here and we have some pet goats.”
Nigel talks about big and small plans. His parents have moved in next door and father Terry has become the handyman on duty. Mum Lil helps in the eatery and Pauline and Davey are duty managers on call. It has taken no time for the whanau to settle in. Locals drop in for a quick drink, a pizza or an ice cream and maybe a game of bar Jenga.
In 2003, while planning their emigration to New Zealand, they were both called up for active duty in Iraq, as part of the biggest compulsory call up since WW2.
Helen worked as a nursing officer based at the only field hospital in the conflict zone and Nigel was attached to a medical supply regiment. They met each other in 2001 while enlisted in the British Territorial Army. For, Nigel it was something different, away from his daily role as a nurse, and Helen jokes that it was to get away from her first husband.
After a couple of years living together they started planning their move to New Zealand. With a shared love of ‘the great outdoors’ their transition to life in New Zealand was relatively seamless.
Nigel became a warranted leader within Scouting NZ and the Mountain Safety Council (before 2015’s restructuring of the organisation) and Helen loves to ride and drive her horses.
Their careers have resulted in various nursing roles at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, as well as throughout the South Auckland community. One of Nigel’s roles in Auckland was as a First Aid instructor at Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) and Helen worked at MIT as a clinical nurse lecturer.
Nigel hopes it will be within this next season they will have the range of services bikers and hikers are looking for.
“It is a learning curve but we are in a pretty good spot because this is the perfect stopover for cyclists from Rotorua, Taupo or Cambridge and many people enjoy cycling both the Waikato River and the Timber Trails.
When not busy running their business, they love exploring all that the local area has to offer, especially the nearby lakes and the Waikato River Trail.
“No matter how many times we cycle along the Atiamuri Bridge to the Whakamaru dam section of the trail, there is always something that catches your eye, while attempting to dodge nature’s cycle traps, the tree roots and pine cones,” jokes Helen.
Nigel loves seeing others using this wonderful asset and says he feels like a child in a sweet shop; “because when the tourists have been and gone we get to play here all the time.
“For me the Atiamuri to Whakamaru stretch of the trail is the best. Cycling through pine forests with the perfume of the trees is a natural tonic, while gazing at the mighty Waikato River.
“The temptation to hop in for a swim is always there, but we cycle on, thinking about the cold drink waiting for us at Whakamaru, or our own pizzas at the Hive. We go Lake Atiamuri and Lake Ohakuri for all our watersports and share a few secrets with our guests who’d like to discover hidden gems like natural hot pools or a swimming hole with waterfall.
“Living and working in south Waikato is why we moved to New Zealand. It’s a shame that it only took us 12 years of living in Auckland to work it out!”
On this note Helen explains that they are just off to lake Atiamuri for a swim.