Renegade jungalow builders

“The pervading attitude is we are a group of renegades. Always feeling a bit of an outlaw, I have no problem with that word or in living with a bunch of renegades.” announced Alexis in 1993. I’m inclined to think that she feels quite differently about his today. Time changes people !

We founded the Bellyacres community in 1987 on a ten acre parcel nestled in lush tropical jungle, on the world’s most remote archipelago, downslope of the world’s most active volcano. Unwittingly, I became the default ringleader of this crazy bunch of self-proclaimed anarchists and, quite surprisingly, we created a magnificent sustainable ecovillage model. Sadly, by 2015, the bubble burst and everything changed although Bellyacres continues.

When our original twelve members committed to start our experiment, mainstream living was a world motivated by materialism and individualism with only a few fringe folks practising conservation or self-sufficiency. I was one of them with a dream to create an artistic ecovillage and the ambition to become more socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable. After two years of hacking away at the jungle, bulldozing access trails and clearing areas for homes and orchards our construction phase began.

Over the following ten years we built seven houses, a dozen jungalows, a community kitchen, a sauna, showers, a workshop and a few farm sheds. From the start we adopted the cultural norm for our isolated rural location and assumed it didn’t matter if we got official permits or not because we lived in a neighbourhood of mostly non-compliant buildings. None of us were concerned that all of our structures were illegal in some way or another and for a very long time it wasn’t a problem. We built what we wanted and where we wanted viewing ourselves as regular renegade outlaws on a social mission, just like Robin Hood.

Members came from our friendship circle of jugglers and were already a subculture of society. The majority were type-A personalities—undoubtedly far more competitive, outgoing, ambitious and impatient than average. Being mostly self-employed entertainers they were captains of their own ships used to making unilateral decisions. They each had their own personal visions with their own style and speed for achieving goals. Everything about living and working collectively was foreign to them. I should have seen the blatant signs of future potential problems but I was having way too much fun. Our parties were legendary combining the antics of carnival costumed world-class jugglers, ecstatic dancing, improv comedy, and creative eccentricities accompanied by the best musicians on the island. Our superbly professional shows, our circus programs, and our venue for other community events were gifted to all Big Island residents and for over two decades I loved that we were able to provide this for our neighbours.

Our eccentric entertainers were clearly rebel individualists with strong desires to remain as free as possible from the controls of rules and regulations. We mischievously described ourselves as anarchists—without ever debating its meaning or impacts on community living. We initially had zero guidelines or restrictions on drugs, sex, loud music, or anything that might limit our ability to party! Most community groups have strict policies regarding the use of marijuana, alcohol, tobacco and hallucinogenic drugs. We had absolutely no limits: everything was okay and just good fun if it added to the party spirit. Some communities include morning yoga, meditation sessions, or regular spiritual gatherings. This didn’t fit with our style at all. Sure, we had a few joggers and even a yogini or two, but our post-party days usually began after the hangovers had worn off. This permissiveness allowed individuals to join our group who would never be permitted to join other communities. On the upside, these same uniquely creative characters instigated a multitude of amazingly wonderful activities and events that remain some of my most fun memories. With our ‘anything goes’ policy we experienced the ‘yin and yang’ of life – it was mostly really fun…but there’s often a price to pay for such extreme thrills.

We had all started our jungle adventure by sleeping in tents. However, while I had the comfort of a yurt for my first ten years, my fellow members grew tired of the constant requirement for repair and maintenance of cheap tents, the incessant infestations of invading tropical bugs, plus endless unwanted drips and showers pouring in during tropical downpours. They started to cut trails into the virgin jungle adjacent to our property, exploring more remote locations where they could upgrade their accommodations.

My yurt 1988 – home for ten years!

They started by building wooden decks and spreading tarps over their tents to provide more comfort and protection from the elements. Next, they widened the trails and spread cinders for better access so they could haul in more materials. This glamping continued unabated with the addition of real beds with real mattresses, plus tables and chairs to cosy out the bigger and bigger tents they erected. But that wasn’t good enough………….. 

Eventually, every tent was replaced by individually designed rustic jungle cabins. These ‘junglaows,’ as we named them, were situated on solid decks higher off the ground with steps and sometimes a small lanai (porch). The primitive tarp roofs were replaced with recycled corrugated tin or rubber membrane and there was a mixture of plywood, plank, and screen walls with custom made doors and sometimes even recycled glass windows. 

About a dozen jugglers’ jungalows were built between 1992 and 1995, providing a new level  of safe, dry, and warm accommodation for members, guests, renters, and hundreds of work exchange/interns who came to Bellyacres from that time on. Like most similar structures—intended to be temporary—they were constantly upgraded over the years with artistic paint jobs inside and out, better furniture, more glass windows, and even solar electric systems, in some cases. Eventually, four of them were upgraded with water and power systems for showers, toilets, and kitchens and became small independent houses, rather than just sleeping cabins.


In all Bellyacres tents—and later our jungalows—we read by oil lamps, which have an ancient operating technology that we had to learn and then teach to every guest who stayed with us. It’s amazing how even the brightest brains became befuddled by such a simple task. We had no end of oil spills and broken lamp glass and blistered fingers and breathed a sigh of relief when, around 2008, we replaced them with solar-charged LED lamps. It was a miracle that we only had one major fire.

Our original 1987 plan described about twelve house site members living permanently on the land with other members and guests visiting from time to time, staying in tents or communal bunkhouses. We discovered that there was zero interest in shared accommodation. Our independently-minded anarchists wanted their own place—hidden from everyone else—where they could have privacy and a sense of being alone in the jungle after escaping from the claustrophobic cacophony in our community kitchen. Fortunately, this became a possibility in the depths of the jungle, although members became very territorial about jungalow sites and it was hard to please everyone all the time. One member complained strongly after a new jungalow went up because he could see the light of his neighbours oil lamp and even heard them laughing!


In 1990 a few of us did a survey, with only the corner pins of our property to guide us, we had to plot the 1,742-foot line that separated our property from the bordering state land. This all predated laser equipment so our team macheted through the thick jungle, trudged over fallen trees, squeezed through tangles of vines, then scrambled up and down rocky lava cliffs guided only by a compass, a flag on top of a long bamboo pole, a 100-ft surveyors’ tape, and lots of shouting. 

When we completed the line of red surveyors’ tape tags, we thought we had done a pretty good job—considering the jungle terrain—but it was not perfect. Many years later, a professional laser survey demanded by the county planning department indicated that one of our houses was straddling the border with the state land. Additionally it established the fact that eight of our jungalows—and several other structures and trails—were also off of our property. All of our renegade builders knew this; however, once it was brought to the attention of the authorities, it caused me years of considerable legal wrangling and the fallout eventually changed our ecovillage forever.

1999 Bellyacres site plan

Technically illegal, this degree of homestead-style squatting on any of the 1,240,000 acres of land controlled by the state of Hawai’i on the island of Hawai’i and especially in rural and remote Puna was actually considered quite normal back in those years, and still is today. Many of our neighbors bordering D.L.N.R.-controlled land have a driveway, shed, or water tank in the easement or over their property line. However, no action has ever been taken, unless there is an official complaint – which unfortunately was our fate!

In the fall of 2014, we had a major decision to make regarding a State of Hawai’i order to tear down our jungalows built on the adjacent land they claimed jurisdiction over. A proposal was communicated via email and supported by a majority of members who felt a sense of urgency to fully comply. A minority of members felt that we would do better to claim that this land still belonged to the Kingdom of Hawaii and therefore the State of Hawaii had no jurisdiction. Uncle Robert Keli’iho-omalu and the Lawful Hawaiian Government supported us but by this time the renegade spirit had gone from most of our members and they acquiesced to the demands of the State. Within a year all of our magical jungle cabins had been demolished and that part of our history was gone forever. I was saddened and terribly disillusioned by this action which had a huge impact on Bellyacres infrastructure. I had a premonition that the end of this spirited era of renegade building was the beginning of a new storm. And so it is!

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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