Full Steam Ahead

The Sauna Project’s mobile sauna offers Bay of Plenty locals the chance to get hot ‘n’ steamy (then freezing cold) at their favourite beach or event and experience the physical and mental benefits.

The Sauna Project’s mobile sauna offers Bay of Plenty locals the chance to get hot ‘n’ steamy (then freezing cold) at their favourite beach or event and experience the physical and mental benefits.

Going from extreme heat to extreme cold sounds punishing but dozens of locals are soaking up
the euphoric experience every week at Pilot Bay and Waihī Beach.

The Sauna Project offers hour-long sessions where you alternate between 80⁰C inside their wood-fired mobile sauna before dashing across the sand to plunge into freezing cold water during winter.

It’s a shock. Your skin tingles and your heart races, but a sense of peace and calm also descends
as you take in your idyllic surroundings and forget about the stress of daily life.

Contrast therapy (hot to cold) is great for your cardiovascular health. It gets the blood pumping in
the same way as moderate exercise, and can help improve your sleep, mood, skin and general wellbeing. The multi-sensory experience is enhanced by the addition of essential oils on the sauna’s hot rocks, and is something that people of all ages, sizes and physical abilities are able to enjoy.

The Sauna Project is the brainchild of three Tauranga friends — David Seidel, Keelan Kanji and
Luke Mexted.

The compact mobile sauna.

David Seidel (left) and Luke Mexted.

David grew up in Germany where having a sauna in your home was commonplace. Keelan’s father
is one of New Zealand’s leading pain specialists and prescribes sauna therapy for many of his patients. While Luke discovered the power of sauna when living in Queenstown with his wife, Tish, who worked at Aroha Retreat. “We started using their sauna one or two times a week followed by
a cold plunge. Suddenly our sleep was better, our skin was better and we were having more
in-depth conversations about life,” Luke explains.

When Aroha Retreat’s sauna was occupied by other guests, Luke and David (who was also living
in Queenstown at the time) were disappointed there wasn’t another good option publicly available. So when they moved back to Mount Maunganui in 2022 (and into a flat with Keelan), they decided
to build their very own mobile sauna. “We built it in the driveway on a trailer and the space was only just big enough,” David recalls. “We could hardly walk on either side. We had this vision for all these beautiful places we could take it to all over New Zealand — lakes, beaches, isolated spots.”

The original sauna was 3m x 2m and featured a secondhand window and door, which they refurbished. Luke is a builder by trade so it didn’t take long to figure out how to design and construct it. The friends then took their invention to NZ Spirit Festival and were blown away by the demand
from festival goers. “We were fully booked for the entire three days from 7am until midnight. New people would arrive for a session every hour. It was crazy. Everyone loved it and we were just buzzing about how many people had joy from it.”

Before the trio knew it, they were regularly booking public sessions for their sauna at Tay St beside
the beach. “We have built a community around this sauna,” Luke says. “Regulars just kept coming.”

Heading into the sauna at Pilot Bay.

Public sauna sessions usually involve three 15-minute sauna stints, each followed by a brisk ocean dip.

These days, their sauna sessions are held at Pilot Bay on Wednesday and Thursday evenings
(6pm–9pm), and at Waihī Beach on Monday and Tuesday evenings. A third mobile sauna has
now been set up in Gisborne and a fourth location is soon to be unveiled.

The Sauna Project also builds handcrafted saunas for private buyers around New Zealand, with
10 having been sold in the past 18 months alone. “Our ethos is to use sustainable, locally sourced materials,” David explains. Timber is harvested from Bay of Plenty forests (typically redwood, macrocarpa or modified pine), and their wood-fired sauna heaters are custom built by Roaring
Meg fires in Southland.

“Our mission is to have a sauna in every town in New Zealand. It’s a modality of health that could benefit a lot of different people. We’ve had so much positive feedback and it’s honestly just that classic story of ‘we had a problem that we wanted to solve’ so we just took that Kiwi attitude and
ran with it.”

Luke says there’s so much healing and social connection that goes on around the sauna experience. “One of the coolest things is typically we have random people sitting in the sauna together and over time they become sauna buddies. When you’re inside, you have really good chats with people and you’re just able to connect with each other. There’s no distractions. Your phone isn’t there, you’re just in a conversation with another person. And we found that so many strong connections and genuine friendships have developed from that experience.”

As part of their commitment to growing a sauna culture in New Zealand, David says The Sauna Project plans to hold an annual festival in Tauranga every year. “We held our first one this year and
it was a baptism by fire. Next year will be even bigger and we’ll invite other sauna companies to
come together to share their craft, so watch this space.”

This story was made possible with the support of Tourism Bay of Plenty.
Photography by ilk