How a Permaculture Icon Shares His Land and Way of Life with Hipcamp

Hipcamp partners with landowners (who become Hipcamp Hosts) to connect your property with folks who are looking for places to stay and camp outside to help you earn extra money. All you need to get started is a flat spot where someone can pitch a tent or park a van, or a structure (such as a yurt, canvas tent, or tiny cabin) for them to spend the night in.

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When Geoff Lawton arrived at what is now Zaytuna Farm 20 years ago, there were just open fields, valleys, and trees. In the ensuing two decades, he has built dams, planted “food forests,” and cultivated vegetable gardens, creating what can only be described as a permaculture paradise in northern NSW.

Fronting Terania Creek opposite the village of The Channon in the Byron Bay hinterland, the farm has been a labour of love for Geoff and his wife Nadia, who learnt traditional ways of land use from her father growing up in Jordan’s Dead Sea Valley. The couple met on the Greening the Desert Project there in 2000—one of many permaculture initiatives they have been involved in around the world. Sharing their passion is one of the key drivers behind inviting guests to stay at Zaytuna Farm via Hipcamp.

“We want to save the world and we have a system that can do it,” Geoff says. “Being able to open our land to people provides a way for people to experience it without being much hassle to us.” 

Photo by Jessica Mae

Intentional Infrastructure: More than a Simple Night’s Stay

The 27-hectare farm has 10 large campsites, and the couple has hosted up to 60 people at a time during their busiest period, between Christmas and New Year. But guests don’t just pitch a tent and take off in the morning—they learn how they can live a more sustainable life, from weaving to growing healthy food, as seen at the farm. “We grow 28 varieties of bamboo here,” Geoff says. “It’s very useful. It’s easier to say what you can’t make with bamboo. It can be used for building and craft, and it’s all edible. Bamboo leaves are like chocolate to a cow, so it’s used as forage.”

Farm animals, which also include goats, chickens and ducks, play a crucial role in the ecosystem, cycling nutrients, mowing, weeding, pruning, fertilizing, aerating soil, and helping build new topsoil. They also provide ethically produced meat, milk, eggs, hides, and feathers. By avoiding using chemicals or tilling the soil, the Lawtons have stopped soil erosion and allowed life, such as micro-organisms and earthworms, to return.

Photo by Jessica Mae

A lot of work has been done to expand and build upon Zaytuna over the last 20 years. On-site buildings include solar-powered, mud-rendered, lime-plastered straw bale and bamboo bale housing, as well as upcycled shipping containers with wind-ventilated roofing. These containers house a launderette, internet cafe, classroom, student kitchen, and a commercial kitchen. “Nadia is particularly famous for her cooking,” Geoff says proudly. She is also a registered permaculture teacher in both the English and Arabic languages, and works as a consultant and aid worker. 

The property also has a solar power station and a small dairy, with another shipping container acting as a makeshift cheese factory. Another seven houses are also being built, creating an eco-hamlet in which families who have bought shares will each have one hectare of land for private use. 

Guests use compost toilets and water is collected from roofs and filtered to be used as drinking water, while water from tanks, dams, ponds, and swales is used for irrigation. This design has also made the farm drought and flood-proof.

Photo by Jessica Mae

Working to Make a Difference

Zaytuna is a dream come true for Geoff, who was born and raised in England and fell in love with the idea of living a self-sufficient lifestyle while growing up as a teenager in the 1970s counterculture era. Seeing people living in traditional ways on surf trips he took to Morocco and the Caribbean during UK winters strengthened his resolve. He immigrated to Australia with just $50 in 1979, the same year original permaculture developer Bill Mollison began offering courses on the subject—Geoff took them, of course. He spent time living on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, an early permaculture hot spot, before moving to Tyalgum in northern NSW to manage the Permaculture Research Institute. They named their farm Zaytuna, which means “olive tree” in Arabic, because it is a symbol of peace.

Having worked in more than 50 countries, Geoff believes northern NSW’s subtropical climate is one of the best on the planet. “We get the best of both worlds—a moderate winter and a tropical summer,” he says. “It’s the most stable variation of the subtropics. We have everything you can possibly grow in this climate.” This includes vegetables such as corn, potato, beetroot, eggplant, capsicum, and cucumber, herbs for both culinary and medicinal purposes, and fruits including pineapple, mangos, bananas, and oranges.

Photo by Jessica Mae

Zaytuna Farm and Hipcamp Australia

Geoff makes weekly educational films for online permaculture courses and social media and was given the idea of joining Hipcamp Australia (formerly Youcamp) by his cameraman, who is also a Hipcamp Host. “I see him every week and we compare notes and discuss how many people stay.”

“It’s a great way to supplement your income with very little extra effort.”

More than 15,000 people have checked into Zaytuna Farm via Hipcamp, and the money earned helps fund maintenance and eco-tourism infrastructure. “It’s a great way to supplement your income with very little extra effort,” Geoff says. Some people stay at Zaytuna for weeks on end, and a few who become especially interested in the design systems have become friends. “They have gone on to take courses and become part of the permaculture group,” Geoff says. “Some people have come and wanted to volunteer while others have just wanted to experience this.”

Photo by Jessica Mae

Geoff likens Hipcamp to other self-organising platforms, such as Uber. “You don’t have to do any bookwork, everything gets done by the organisation,” he says. “People turn up and they have already paid. If they want to extend their stay, they organise it through Hipcamp. It takes out all our administration.” 

Geoff’s main advice to other Hipcamp Hosts is to make sure to set ground rules and ensure guests read them before they arrive. With more Australians seeking affordable holiday options near home, this is especially important—as is providing an opportunity for visitors to learn about ways to help save the planet for future generations.

Photo by Jessica Mae

How to start earning extra money hosting campers on your land

Want to earn extra income to help pay for property taxes, home expenses, and future dream projects? Learn more about becoming a Hipcamp Host.

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Angela Saurine is a writer, copywriter and editor based in Sydney, Australia who specialises in travel and lifestyle. She was national travel reporter for News Corp Australia before embarking on a freelance career. Angela was named Best Travel Writer in the 2012 AFTA National Travel Industry Awards and winner of Best Travel or Tourism News Story in the 2017 Australian Society of Travel Writer Awards. She was also a finalist for Best Responsible Tourism Story in the 2013 ASTW awards, and Travel Photographer of the Year in 2014. She has travelled everywhere from Arnhem Land to Antarctica and Christmas Island to Easter Island.

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