Travel

Sleep in a Sacred Navajo Earth Home Near the Grand Canyon

Become one with the desert and save water for the community in this Airbnb.

Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin

A winding road snakes along the edge of the Grand Canyon, through a piney forest, before opening up to the Arizona desert. A turn off the highway leads to a dirt road, to life off the grid. This is Navajo Nation. Here, the starry night skies are more vivid. A rounded home in the distance blends in with its reddish surroundings. Which makes sense, because the house-a traditional Navajo hogan-is made out of mud.

Hogan by the River sits in Cameron, Arizona, one of the closest towns to the south entrance of the national park. Navajo family members and the tribal community helped build this hogan with their hands in 2006, using cedar logs from the Grand Canyon and mud from a nearby wash.

There are actually two hogans on the property: a male and a female. While the female hogan is used by the family for gatherings, the male hogan is a place for ceremonies, where blessings and songs help maintain balance and harmony with Mother Earth. And this sacred male hogan is where Airbnb guests are invited to stay.

Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin

Shanna Yazzie is the one who opened up her family’s homestead. When her grandmother passed away in 2016, Shanna decided to continue her legacy, following her elder’s strong example of bringing life back to their culture. Along with her mother, Amelia, they sought approval from the family to open up their home to travelers, so that they could share their family traditions through the earth home.

“Not all natives live in a teepee or speak the same language,” says Shanna. “We are still here and we all have our own language, ceremonies, and traditional homes.”Shanna gives visitors the option to participate in her tribe’s traditional corn grinding and weaving demonstrations. During these hour-long experiences, her hands grip a stone pestle until a fine, pale yellow flour fills a mortar; or she picks through strings on a loom, until she passes the spool over to the guest. The daughter and mother duo share stories of their culture and history of the area, along with recommendations for local restaurants and shops, traditional jewelry makers, and directions to nearby attractions like Monument Valley, Lake Powell, and Grand Falls.

Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin

Here in the desert surrounding the hogan, antelope tracks are clear in the dirt. Lizards dart under rocks and coyotes sing in the distance. You might spot a porcupine, fox, or rabbit nearby. At sunrise, light stretches over a distant mesa and illuminates the San Francisco peaks further off. Nearby blue hills have survived generations of youngins climbing up and sliding down with pans and cardboard. Depending on the weather, a seasoned wash ripples with sandy ridges, or else flows with water into the Little Colorado River, crossed over by a wooden bridge.

The humble interior of the hogan provides basic needs-nothing superfluous. There are two beds, a small table with chairs, a clock, firewood, wool blankets, and some books. During cooler months, the Yazzies put a cast iron wood burning stove in the cozy room. Just outside the hogan sits an outdoor cooking stove. Like an upgraded campsite-some might say glamping experience-the space invites visitors to disconnect from the daily hustle and grind.”I want people to experience what our grandparents lived like and what we currently still live like,” says Shanna. “I wanted to keep everything simple.”

In that vein, an old miners-style lamp hangs off a wooden notch-which is necessary, because there is no electricity in the earth home. And bottled water awaits, as there’s no running water.

The decision not to install running water also speaks to a critical aspect of the land: water is crucial here. It’s something Shanna knows all too well, as she and her cousin Emma Robbins are members of the Navajo Water Project. The indigenous-led human rights nonprofit works to bring the precious resource to homes that don’t have running water, a lack that affects one in three Navajo homes.

Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin
Photo by Robert Franklin

Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack running water than white households, while Black and Latinx homes are twice as likely to be in need. The Navajo Water Project has helped more than 300 homes since 2014, and are expanding their work to the 44 million people in need across numerous states in the US, as far as Texas and West Virginia.

“I think I would be part of the Navajo Water Project even if I wasn’t employed,” says Shanna. “I feel like it’s our responsibility to help other people get the essentials, such as water. I feel like I’m not working, but I’m doing what needs to be done.”

Shanna’s home reflects this need to provide the essentials, respect those in need, and connect with the surrounding nature-a nature that’s so seemingly endless out in this middle-of-nowhere land full of stories and possibilities. Our family has gathered in this area numerous times to help our community, reunite and share laughs, and learn the traditions from our elders, which we pass down and preserve in this hogan.

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Ashley Franklin, Diné, is Hashk’ąąn Hadzohí (Yucca Fruit Strung Out) and born for Táchii’nii (Red Running Into the Water). She is a writer for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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