Headlights on against the stormy gloom, we drive through pelting rain, past the Southern Highlands hamlet of Robertson, along muddy roads and through a farm gate. Parking the car by a barn, my partner and I find a golf umbrella then load our overnight bags and a few supplies into a little wagon and set off on foot along a forest track that soon emerges at an impossibly green meadow. And there in the middle of it, lit by after-rain sunshine, is a very small house called Edmond.
More precisely, Edmond is a tiny house run by In2theWild, one of a new breed of accommodation providers tapping into the appeal of "tinys", many of which, like Edmond, resemble cute-as-a-button gingerbread houses with their gable roofs, picture windows and French doors.
If you're new to the tiny house movement, here's a brief rundown. Although people have been living in lean-tos and gunyahs and cabins for millennia, and writer Henry Thoreau popularised the idea of living simply back in the 1850s, tiny houses on wheels – the modern variant to sidestep building regulations (though they're built strong to be roadworthy in transit) – started sprouting up in the US about 20 years ago. The second wave came in 2007 and 2008 when Americans hit hard by the global financial crisis started seeking affordable, environmentally friendly housing.
Now the world is going crazy for tiny house living, thanks to a growing desire to live more simply and sustainably with less stuff, and a little help from Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo.
In Australia, it started as a DIY movement. North Carolina's Fred Schultz ran tiny house-building workshops in 2015 after building his own tiny house in Castlemaine, Victoria. Then commercial builders got in on the act. Designer Eco Tiny Homes on the NSW South Coast is arguably the biggest, having built more than 90 tiny homes in the past two years. There are now tiny-house real estate agents and tiny-house villages, Australia's first tiny house festival was held in Bendigo last month – and now tiny houses have moved into travel.
Melbourne-based Shacky was one of the first to offer tiny-house stays, in 2016, as a crowd-funded social enterprise to help farmers earn extra income. The first tiny was little more than a cute shed on a sheep farm north of the Otways in southern Victoria.
Unyoked, set up by brothers Chris and Cam Grant also in 2016, cranked things up a notch by putting architect-designed tiny houses on privately owned wilderness blocks a couple of hours from Sydney and Melbourne. On its website these are presented as escape hatches from modern life.
"We grew up camping and hiking," says Cam. "But once we started to work full-time, we noticed we weren't doing that as much; we'd work all year for that one trip away where we fully disconnected. Unyoked is an antidote to that. We're not just renting tiny houses, we're helping people step out of the busyness of the nine-to-five and reconnect with a more natural way of living."
More than a dozen operators now offer tiny house stays, mostly in NSW and Victoria, as a way to disconnect from our devices, reconnect with nature and each other, and maybe even inspire a more minimalist lifestyle back home.
It's worth noting that although they're legally caravans, most tiny houses – with their super-high ceilings and queen-size loft beds – look and feel nothing like caravans. They're more like cubbies for grown-ups. Or a way to dip a toe in the waters of off-grid living. Most have solar panels, composting toilets and rainwater tanks.
"Most of the people who come here are either thinking of living in a tiny house or looking for an adventure," says Karen Bennett of Tallarook Tiny Home in southern NSW.
Whatever the reason, tiny house stays are booming. Shacky is rolling out seven more tinys this year, in Tasmania as well as Victoria. Kindled, which has one tiny house just west of the Blue Mountains, plans to bring tiny houses to Canberra and Brisbane soon. Singapore-based Tiny Away opened its first tiny last year in Picton and now has 22 in NSW and Victoria with more planned for Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. And Adelaide-based Cabn, which has one of Australia's most luxurious tiny houses, in Kangaroo Valley, is building 20 more this year.
What's it like to stay in a tiny house? Traveller recently stayed at two in NSW and two in Victoria, to sample four different styles.
Named after a character in The Count of Monte Cristo (In2theWild's owners are avid readers), Edmond is a classic, house-like tiny with enormous windows offering views of the surrounding paddocks and trees. There's a wide L-shaped daybed with colourful cushions and throw rugs, the perfect rainy-day reading nook. Tiny-themed books are provided, such as Cabin Porn (it's not what you think) and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. There are also board games, colouring books and pencils. The windows are all double-glazed, making Edmond feel quiet and cosy.
It's spacious and light, thanks to the contemporary white decor and 3.3-metre ceilings. There's a good-sized kitchen and fridge, rainwater on tap, a great hot shower and a composting toilet that smells like sawdust (and nothing else).
The night feels long, in a good way. We make dinner, play Scrabble and read, before climbing the ladder to our comfortable queen bed (there's plenty of headroom) and drifting off to sleep listening to rain pattering on the roof. The next morning we wake to sunshine streaming through the skylight and have breakfast at the picnic table outside. By the time we leave, it feels as if we've been away longer than just one night.
In2theWild has 10 tiny houses in various locations about two hours from Sydney, from $179 a night. See in2thewild.co
THE RIVER CABIN
Tallarook Tiny Home opened last year on a 20-hectare property on the banks of the Clyde River on the NSW South Coast and, nestled amid tall river red gums with a wide timber deck, it's positively woodsy.
Its interior is beautifully styled with driftwood sculptures on the white walls, Japanese shibori-patterned cushions and grey-blue Morgan & Finch bed linen. There's aircon as well as a ceiling fan and a basket by the daybed contains slow-living magazines and brochures from Designer Eco Tiny Homes (who built Tallarook and In2theWild's tiny houses).
It's mid-afternoon when we arrive and warm enough for a skinny dip in the Clyde, said to be the cleanest river in eastern Australia. There's no one around and the only sound is the wind in the trees. At sunset, kangaroos come out to graze. After dinner on the deck, looking at the river through the trees, we lie in bed stargazing through the skylights, which also have blinds and insect screens.
When kookaburras wake us the next morning, we take out one of the canoes for an early-morning paddle and spend a leisurely hour drifting through the mist. A platypus gives itself away when it dives, breaking the stillness.
Breakfast is the opposite of tiny: a hamper full of fresh, local ingredients such as farm-fresh eggs and bacon, crusty sourdough bread, jam from Clyde River Berry Farm next door, muesli, yoghurt and fresh orange juice. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate (and marshmallows) are in the cupboard. Relaxing in the sun afterwards, contemplating another swim, I think: I could live here.
Tallarook Tiny Home, 30 minutes from Bawley Point on NSW's South Coast, starts at $250 a night including breakfast supplies. See tallarooktinyhome.com
THE HOME-MADE TINY
On the outskirts of arty, counter-cultural Castlemaine, Victoria, Fred's Tiny House is bit different than the others. Clad in corrugated steel, it was built as a home, not a weekender, by Fred and Shannon Schultz, who lived in it for a year with their one-year-old daughter, before moving into a larger house on the property when baby No. 2 came along.
Because of this, it's full of clever ideas, many of them inspired by boat design, such as storage hatches, foldable tables, a two-burner stove that runs on ethanol and a low-energy eutectic fridge (Fred's Tiny House is impressively fossil-fuel-free as well as off-grid). It also feels supremely welcoming with its pine-panelled interior, timber floor and wood-burning "rocket stove". The stove not only warms the home but heats rainwater for the shower which is actually a deep Japanese-style bath in a cedar-panelled cubicle. Outside there are two decks, one on either side of the house, to catch the winter sun and provide summer shade.
There's a tiny house under construction in the driveway when we're there and Fred, Shannon and their carpenters are often around for impromptu chats about all things tiny, making this an ideal stay for DIY inspiration.
Fred's Tiny House in Castlemaine, Victoria, starts at $79 a night. Fred also runs tiny-building workshops around Australia. See fredstinyhouses.com.au
Despite being only 90 minutes from Melbourne, and just out of Kyneton in central Victoria, Unyoked's Micah is the most outback of all the tinys we stay in. It's on the far side of five farm gates in a secluded gully of gnarled eucalypts beside the dry Campaspe River.
The first thing I notice on opening the sliding glass door is that there's no loft. The queen bed occupies a raised platform, flanked on two sides by enormous windows, making it more than just a place to sleep. It's the perfect spot to curl up with a book, a cup of tea or your favourite person and still feel like you're outside. We spend a leisurely couple of hours watching sheep graze outside and, later, a spectacular moonrise.
Welcoming touches include two yoga mats, a stack of Penguin classics such as The Call of the Wild and Picnic at Hanging Rock, and coffee beans with a hand-grinder, a plunger and an aeropress; there are also purchasable "provisions" such as bottles of wine, negroni and beer and packets of muesli and pancake mix.
Inspired by huts in Scandinavia and Japan, Micah is disarmingly simple with its flat roof, all-ply interior, camp stove and basic bathroom. Unyoked even calls its tiny houses "cabins" and "hideouts". Says director Cameron Grant: "We're trying to emulate the experience of hiking through a forest and finding your own cabin in the woods."
Unyoked has six tiny houses, three close to Sydney and three close to Melbourne, from $199 a night. See unyoked.co
Louise Southerden travelled with assistance from Destination NSW (visitnsw.com), In2theWild, Tallarook Tiny House, Fred's Tiny Houses, Unyoked and Designer Eco Tiny Homes (designerecotinyhomes.com.au).
FIVE OTHER MINIMALIST STAYS
Three clear tents designed for stargazing, between Lithgow and Mudgee, from $370 a night. See bubbletentaustralia.com
WINE DOWN POP UP
Boutique shipping containers at three Victorian wineries from April to July this year, from $275 a night. See contained.com.au
An energy-efficient geodesic dome with king-sized bed in rural northern NSW, from $340 a night. See farawaydomes.com
Three restored vintage caravans delivered to campsites around Byron Bay, from $399 for two nights. See retropod.com.au
BLUE DERBY PODS RIDE
A three-day mountain bike trip staying in designer pods in Tasmania's north-east, from $1750. See bluederbypodsride.com.au