This past winter, if you drove the bend in the road as Oneroa turns into Wairere at the right time, you might’ve seen tog-clad people jogging between Stockroute beach access and the Zephyr Cafe parking lot, looking simultaneously hot and flushed but also definitely cold from the bracing temperatures of the sea and air. You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder “what on earth?”
I’m here to pull back the curtain on the exhilarating experience that is The Sauna Project Tairāwhiti, and to beckon you over.
Simon White, a Gizzy lad from Tiniroto way, is the entrepreneur who about 18 months ago found himself with a little seed of an idea surprisingly taking root. A couple years ago, he was on a hike with friends. These friends, who were builders by trade, had taken the leap and built a sauna on a trailer. They’d seen a market for a mobile sauna that offered people the sauna wellness experience at the edge of the sea. (The sauna was built with a fog-proof window that gives the sauna-goers something beautiful to look at.) They asked Simon if he’d be keen on getting into this enterprise with them; they could build a second one that he could lease to own. He was just about to head off on an OE to Hawaii. Little did he know that this ember of an idea would stoke while he was away. By the time he returned, he had a fire going, not unlike the roaring little woodburner that would heat his own Gizzy-based mobile sauna.
Let’s back up a sec, because this was one of Simon’s biggest learnings. A lot of people conflate the ideas of “sauna” and “spa” and “spa pool”. They’re surprised by what they find at The Sauna Project. So let’s do a little explainer. A sauna is a little room that’s heated to a piping-hot, bracing, but tolerable temperature that when you expose your body to it, produces wellness magic. You might’ve seen these little rooms with bleacher-style bench seating in a hotel or a gym. That’s a sauna you saw.
Saunas and “heat bathing” are found the world over and from ancient cultures into the present. They can be made from a variety of materials and attain their high temps in a variety of ways. But The Sauna Project, currently parked up in the carpark of Zephyr Cafe out at Wainui Beach, is a wood-fired sauna. That means that it contains a small woodburner inside. The fire gets the sauna to around 75-90’C. There are lemon-sized rocks that sit on top of the wood burner within a bespoke cage that keeps them in place. Water, infused with essential oils, is poured onto the hot rocks, which causes a temporary intense but again, tolerable, spike in the perceived temperature inside the sauna.
So what’s a Sauna Project experience like? You book your slot on the website and then arrive in your togs, with a towel and drink bottle, ready to sweat. You find a spot inside the sauna (the upper bench seats are hotter than the lower ones) and you brace yourself for the next 15 minutes of a wild and yet motionless journey. Simon welcomes everyone and starts the first of three sessions with essential oil-infused water poured on the rocks. This creates a wonderful, aromatic, and yet audaciously hot, steam. Then with a small towel, Simon wafts the air around the interior of the sauna, creating a current of hot air. By now, after just a minute or two of being in the sauna, beads of sweat will be blooming all over you, as your body reacts to the heat.
Why does something so, well, hot result in better sleep, a sense of euphoria, a sense of connection to the earth, to the cosmic web of people, both those sitting in the sauna and humanity in general and other wellbeing benefits? Well there are several reasons, say the founders of The Sauna Project and regular users. Firstly, the exposure to heat closes the loop on our stress cycle. In our modern lives, things stress us out. But rarely (and maybe, thankfully) our modern existence doesn’t give us the events that expel the stress symptoms from our bodies. (Imagine: our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their stress about the next meal, but the act of the hunt would expel the stress hormones from their bodies.) Sauna-goers find that sitting in a sauna for 15-minutes pushes our bodies and our minds to the brink of what we think we can cope with. We pant. Our heart rate increases. Our body pumps out sweat at a surprising rate. And The Sauna Project peeps believe that our daily stress symptoms leave the body with all that sweat.
While visitors to the Sauna Project are welcome to do what they want and need to do, a common practice is to sit in the sauna for 15 minutes before emerging for the first time. The air is cool – even a 25’ summer’s day will feel invigorating after the 80-ish degrees of the sauna. The fresh air shakes you from the heat-weariness in the most welcome way. You slip on your jandals and dash down to the beach. Even if you’re not a regular cold-water plunger, you’ll find yourself joyfully running into the sea. And this is another way the experience improves our wellness: the duality of the hot and the cold, the fire and the water, works its magic on us. Regular sauna-goer, and doctor, Amanda Roe, says “the average sauna user will lose about one pint of sweat during a 30-minute session. Once your body heats up, your cells get to work. Your blood vessels dilate and this allows your muscles to relax. When you hit the cool air and water, the blood vessels constrict, pushing the blood back toward your internal organs. This pumping effect promotes our detox pathways (good thing for all that sweat coming out!) Sauna provides health benefits across the board: increased mood, decreased stress, better injury healing, improved glucose regulation, lowered blood pressure to name a few.”
But if you pull the camera up to a birds-eye view, you can see more than this powerful duality. The sauna + sea exercise gets microscopic and cosmic all at once. The Sauna Project bundles for you all the elements that make up every organism in our infinite universe: fire, water, sky, air, and earth. Your heart is happily thumping, this time from the shock of the cold water and after a second, you’ll be surprised how you’re craving the heat of the sauna again! So, off you go, back up to the sauna. You step on to the timber floor of the sauna and the cosmic element connection continues.
Simon gives the crew another essential oil treatment to the air you breathe and you sit with your thoughts for another 15 minutes before another cool sea dip, or just a little cooling shower from a watering can. The light, meditative music will take your mind places. And sometimes, by the second or third session of the hour, you’re getting to know your sauna mates, laughing and watching as the last minutes just fly by. When the hour is up, you might feel reluctant to leave, a surprising turn of events compared to the first part of the session.
When Simon isn’t surfing, playing bass in his band Oceanspace, or studying mahinga kai (Māori food production and gardening) at EIT, he enjoys catering each sauna session to the cosmic and human energy levels to determine the temperature of the sauna and the essential oils that he uses. And he prides himself on the safe space that his sauna creates and the substance-free euphoria that the saunees experiences. He watches people connect to one-another (he’s seen a few people find employment), he enjoys the meditative and cleansing experience he provides, and adding a business that perpetuates more wellness for people in our community.
Interested in what a cleansing sauna can do for you? Book your session with the Sauna Project Tairāwhiti on their website. They’ll be shifting out of their current pozzy at Zephyr cafe for the summer months, so stay tuned for the next location for our wonderful, local, mobile sauna. Or even better, if you know of a great, water-adjacent location, sing out to Simon at on Instagram @thesaunaproject_tairawhiti or 022 326 5885.
Story by Sarah Holliday-Pocock
Photographs by Ellen Mary Taylor