Hong Kong high rise to rural Australian retreat

It’s never too late to completely rethink where you live, how you spend your day, or what might make you happy.

Married couple Antony Spanbrook and Chris Yeo lived in Hong Kong, one working in high profile events management, the other a medical professional. A visit to the Southern Highlands in Australia with their three children, led to them falling in love with a rural bush property – and a spur of the moment decision opened up a unique opportunity for them to completely change the lives of their whole family.


Antony Spanbrook (left) and Chris Yeo (right)

It is possible to think of two more different places to live than congested, super-frenetic Hong Kong and a big old rolling farm in rural southern Australia. But not easy. One is for late nights, bright lights and stress, the other is for early mornings, sunset and yoga. One is commuting to work on the ultra-modern Metro system in a city of 7.5 million people squeezed into just 426 square miles, the other is making breakfast for the kids and listening to the roosters crow. One is life in the fast lane, the other is arriving at a favourite destination with your favourite song on the radio and a smile playing on your face.

This much Antony and Chris knew before they decided to swap one for the other. Antony used to run his own successful high profile events business in Hong Kong before deciding to sell up and come home to Australia. His partner Chris bought into the dream. Sort of. “In fact, we didn’t really know we wanted to go and live in the country at all,” smiles Antony. “But we knew Sydney was four speeds slower than Hong Kong and then decided to slow it down even more by moving to the Southern Highlands, equidistant between Sydney and Canberra where, in comparison to Hong Kong, everything moves at a snail’s pace.”

Antony had initially been attracted to life in Hong Kong after the events company that employed him opened an office in the territory to work on the ‘handover’ ceremonies in 1997. He moved there full time in 2000, met Chris in 2002 (“It was by chance and then we figured out that we’d been at a number of places and events at the same time and never met”) with whom he shared a ‘commitment ceremony’ in 2006 – gay marriage not being recognised in Hong Kong – all while starting his own company and building it up to survive first the SARS epidemic and then the global financial crisis.

Chris, a doctor, had moved to Hong Kong in 1998 for different reasons. “I left Singapore because I was gay and I didn’t feel right living in a country where I wasn’t allowed to be gay,” he explains. “My brother, who is also gay, was already in Hong Kong. I lined up one interview with a medical practice and was hired on the spot because I spoke multiple languages.” As driven young professionals, the “fast-paced, ludicrous” city and the lifestyle went hand-in-hand. “We had a great social life, a great travel life, we ate out a lot,” says Antony. “It was high-life urban living I suppose.”

The flip side of that, however, is that it has to be paid for. “I’ve never worked harder,” admits Antony. “We would get up at 5:30, hit the gym and be at our desks pretty much from 7:30 in the morning till 7:30 at night. That was a standard day. My company would do over 200 major shows a year, all round Asia, so I was probably on a plane every second week. Chris became a medical aviation specialist with Cathay Pacific [airline] so we travelled a lot, but that meant the time we spent at home together was super important.

Skyscraper living in Hong Kong where high rise homes can be small

“Honestly, we’re only just starting to scratch the surface of what it brings to our lives day-to-day, the relaxation, and the calm we feel. The absolute sense of belonging. It’s almost medicinal.”

The couple rented in Hong Kong until they could save up to buy an apartment, and bought right in the centre, in West Mid-Levels. “It is a pretty swanky district,” says Antony. “And the apartment was quite big for Hong Kong, but it was derelict and gross when Chris found it and insisted we buy it.”

“I always wanted to buy the most square feet our money could afford,” explains Chris, “so instead of having a nice view and a small apartment, we decided to forego the view and look out over other buildings from the 14th floor, and have a bigger apartment – and that’s how we ended up with the big one.”

“We loved living there, and spent time and money to make it just right,” says Antony. “It was all about the details. I mean, because of his job when Chris flew over to London he’d buy fancy Christmas decorations. Everything had to be just right… We both loved turning it into our perfect home. However, when the kids came along we knew that eventually we would both want something else for them. When it came to selling, it was with tears in our eyes.”

The kids – Archer and the twins, Charlotte and Andrea – arrived via surrogacy in the US in 2011 and 2012. Chris and Antony also legally married in the US in 2011, with another ceremony at the Sydney Opera House after same-sex marriages were recognised in Australia in 2018.

“The kids put a completely different spin on life in Hong Kong,” recalls Antony. “And on what we needed from a home,” adds Chris. “When you live in an apartment in New York or Hong Kong your outdoor area might be a paved park or a basketball court, but kids need space to learn, explore and just be kids.”

As family life took over and the couple debated their next move, Chris decided he wanted to pursue the ‘Australian dream’. “But,” he recalls, “we couldn’t make the figures work.” When his mother passed away, however, she left him enough money to make it happen. “We thought we would buy a house to remember her by,” is how he puts it. “To honour her memory.” It became something much more substantial than that.

It was almost by accident that they “stumbled across” 70 acres of land when they were visiting the Australian Southern Highlands on holiday – and it was love at first sight. They bought it on the spur of the moment. “You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” gushes Antony. “The main house part was an operating sheep farm, and they also grew vegetables and had an egg business as well as other things.

“When we looked at it, we thought we could probably continue the sheep business, and the land has traditionally been full of fruit trees so that was nice. We back on to forest and we’ve got two waterways, so it’s a pretty special place with beautiful views. But it was when I saw the bush area, I just suddenly thought, ‘Oh, my god, can you imagine having a little bungalow here?’ And I just got carried away.”

Antony sold his event business – which, due to Covid, was “not exactly pumping” – to focus on their new home and new career… “The land was called Rosalind Park when we bought it,” he says. “Which I thought sounded like a retirement village, so we rechristened it Aruna which means ‘Moon Love’ in Japanese and ‘Dawn’ or ‘New Day’ in Thai. And so now we have the Aruna Estate with four villas and two cabins for guests to rent out plus sheep, chickens and horses which, of course, the kids love.”

The family embraced farming, and only grow native plants and grasses on the property

“There’s nothing more liberating than being out of your comfort zone in your 50s. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls, and now I drive tractors.”

The couple threw themselves into building their retreat – and farming. “We didn’t know a thing about it,” laughs Antony. “But let me tell you there’s nothing more liberating than being out of your comfort zone in your 50s. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls, and now I drive tractors. We even cleared the rocks by hand, but it’s been so much fun. You don’t have to be the best at everything straight away, so I just tootle along and do my thing. Everything I’ve done I’ve learnt on YouTube videos and tutorials. And country people are very generous with their knowledge.”

It’s been a steep learning curve, but comes with a huge sense of accomplishment. “The Aruna Estate is a complete escape,” Antony enthuses. “It’s all about proximity to nature. Our cabins are on wheels, nestled among the trees and completely off-grid. The interiors are simple, and filled with sunlight during the day. They’ve each got outdoor wood-fired bathtubs too, and nature trails that lead down to the river where we’ve built meditation decks. The villas are posher (with full-length glass walls and polished oak floors) and are really for people who want a farm stay with creature comforts.”

Antony & Chris have thrown themselves into the outdoor lifestyle

The cabins are completely off-grid, with birdsong and the bush the only sounds

Clever use of space maximises the light, the views and comfort

And while the guests now want for nothing, it is time for the family to concentrate more on their own space. “We live in the main farm building, the cottage, and we’re in the process of making that feel like home. But there has just been so much to do in the 15 months since buying the land.

“The kids chase about on their bikes and are totally at home,” laughs Antony. “There is the occasional push back – ‘I want to play on my device’ and things like that – but that’s fine because we’re incredibly happy with how it’s gone. And honestly, we’re only just starting to scratch the surface, I think, of what it brings to our lives day-to-day, the relaxation, and the calm we feel. The absolute sense of belonging. It’s almost medicinal.”

Being at Aruna has also allowed Chris to reconnect with an old hobby.  “I used to garden in Singapore,” he says. “But that had to stop in Hong Kong as only the super-rich have gardens. But now I have been able to start again and grow roses, peonies, daffodils, bluebells and dahlias around the cottage… the rest of the property is home to only native grasses and plants.”

Antony nods in agreement. “When we lived in Hong Kong, it was always go, go, go, go, go – and we loved it. My whole career moved at a million miles an hour, I always had 50 million things in my head and I enjoyed being able to act on them quickly. But I don’t think you realise what you’re missing out on until you start living differently.

Chris cooking in the cottage kitchen at Aruna

Nestled among the trees, the cabins and villas are designed to bring the outside in

“The old phrase for a dramatic change of circumstances was
‘sea change’, now the buzzword is ‘tree change’, where people are leaving cities behind and ‘going country’.”

“At Aruna we have a big yoga deck beneath a 30m high scribbly gum tree and I try to have a negroni sundowner in a different location every day. On one occasion we counted 14 different bird calls. That is a big change from the constant hum of traffic and the noises of a crazy-alive international city.”

But does it feel like home yet? “Absolutely. We are still working on the cottage to get it exactly how we want it, but it is still a working farm so whereas our place in West Mid-Levels could be a perfect place to entertain our friends, this property has other duties to fulfil – as well as being a comfortable home for the kids. It has our touch, but we’re not finished yet. The ‘feel’ is there for us though. It already feels right.

“The old phrase for a dramatic change of circumstances was ‘sea change’, now the buzzword is ‘tree change’ where people are leaving cities behind and ‘going country’. We just took that notion a whole step further.”

Enjoying being in nature: including a soak in the outdoor, fire-powered bathtub (top left)

Magical views from the villa take in the creek, down over the valley and into the forest beyond

To book into one of Chris and Antony’s beautiful cabins, click here: ARUNA Estate or to see more on Instagram: ARUNA Estate (@arunaestate_penrose)

Interview: Bill Borrows

Photography: Good Thanks Media