The Dreamtime Menu emailed prior to my weekend retreat at Gwinganna started off promisingly enough with a variety of face and body treatments ranging from balance aromatherapy to organic glow spray tan application. So far, so spa. Things started to get a little crazy with rockupuncture (tiny needles hammered in with hot stones?), and “Ho-oponopono” which sounded like an unintelligible rap lyric but was apparently something to do with colour therapy. The craziness continued with a Soul Search treatment involving Angel Cards to reveal valuable information about relationships. I wondered whether to bring some silver to cross the palms of the gypsy crone who would no doubt be administering the service. A further treatment offered massage to music including “rhythmic slapping of the larger muscle groups”. Excellent. Bongo butt therapy. Most disturbing of all, I could book in some time with Stevie the horse for the Equine Experience, which, through interaction with the horse, would bring to the surface anything which might be holding me back. The menu added a cautionary note for those who might be confused about the interaction: “Please remain fully clothed for sessions with Stevie”.
So it was that I arrived at Gwinganna a fully fledged sceptic. I have long been a spa junkie, but let’s just say, a fair weather spa junkie, trapped in an endless cycle of detox and retox where a herbal steam and lymphatic massage in rainforest surrounds is usually followed by many cocktails. I couldn’t say I was a believer in alternative therapies but I was anxious to kick start a health regime without going on some diet involving chewing each piece of food 32 times, eating cotton wool balls, or pretending I was in the Israeli army.
I arrived at Gold Coast airport to meet the courtesy bus, and sussed out my fellow boot campers. Aside from a retired couple from Melbourne, they appeared to be largely alpha-type gen Y’s barking orders into their Blackberries at subordinates. Not to be outdone, I got out my Blackberry and tried to bark some orders at one of my subordinates, but he had done all his tasks admirably and I found myself shamefacedly whispering him a pleasant weekend.
A short drive through the pretty hinterland valley of Tallebudgera brought us to Gwinganna’s near vertical driveway where the bus strained and heaved to get to the top. “The Hill” is legendary and elite detoxers must hike it before finishing their programme. Fortunately for those opting for the pampering weekend, it was not a requirement, although the mad and enthusiastic were invited to attempt it.
The retreat is spread over a large acreage of bushland and open grass looking down towards the east coast. It consists of a number of heritage Queenslanders housing the common areas and some of the smaller accommodation quarters. Relaxation classes take place in a tiny weatherboard church. Larger rooms are in new buildings scattered amongst the organic orchard, and although nice enough, with their water hyacinth furniture, redwood floors and lack of ambience, they seemed a bit like something you would find in a display home. Gwinganna’s premium accommodation is housed in the semi-Asiatic “Signature Villas” and these are probably the pick of the bunch. Something that struck me was that in the heritage and orchard villas, there were no baths, which would have been heaven at the end of the day.
Facilities were otherwise excellent, with a brand new gym, wet edge pool looking over the valley, open air yoga pavilion and the lovely spa, with its pavilions radiating out from a circular walkway enclosing several stately gum trees. The spa rooms themselves were simple timber boxes but treatments were generally excellent and Christine, who gave me my facial with the very active Phyt’s organic range, definitely had The Touch. Also recommended by fellow spa goers was Lisa, who in addition to her skills as a masseuse read the tarot and angel cards. Let me assure you, with her dark curls and dimples, she was far from cronely.
Gwinganna’s weekend programme involves hours of activity beginning with a somewhat timorous knock on your door at 6am for dawn qui gong, followed by a one hour bushwalk (light or strenuous), breakfast, 90 minutes of yoga or pilates, followed by 90 minutes of a further activity – tribal dance, or cricket, or boxing, for example, then lunch. Afternoons are dedicated to dreamtime – treatments or therapies, self imposed fitness, or just reading on a sunny verandah in the organic orchard with a pot of herbal tea and a few wallabies for company.
The whole weekend reminded me of nothing so much as school camp for grown ups. There were about 60 happy campers, led by our programme co-ordinator, an athletic woman of indeterminate age, Amazonian height, crackling energy and annoying cheerfulness. The key personality at Gwinganna however, is John Palmer, guitarist, horticulturalist, bush guide and environmentalist. Never less than entertaining, he reminded me of a 60 year old surfer who had popped too many ‘ludes in his day, made all the more fascinating because his hippy-style delivery was both informative and scientifically correct – he knows what he’s talking about and although he would never tell you himself, apparently has an AO for services to the environment.
Although all activities were optional, the communal atmosphere meant that you felt obliged to join in if for no other reason than to have something to discuss at dinner. Now, dinner at a table of complete strangers would ordinarily send me screaming, but after initial pleasantries, I found a group of people from all walks of life and all ages with interesting stories to tell and whose company I genuinely enjoyed (even the A-types): Kate, an ex-army grandmother who had been given the weekend by her children, Rebecca, a gazelle-like interior designer escaping from Sydney, Joe and Megan, a hilarious couple from South Africa, and Marshall and Margie, two sweethearts from Melbourne in their late 50’s. Marshall had had a massive change of lifestyle after a heart attack some years ago and a week at Gwinganna every year helped keep him on the straight and narrow. Even so, he strained the salt from his contraband packet of peanuts through a tea strainer and surreptitiously sprinkled it onto his food every evening.
Not that it needed it. The food was amazing, 95% of it plucked fresh and dewy from Gwinganna’s organic garden and orchard, including eggs from its happy little hens. Breakfast might be poached eggs with spinach and mushrooms, or Bircher muesli and apples roasted with cinnamon, and piles of delicious fresh fruit and nuts. Lunch and dinner consisted of a soup – maybe cucumber with prawns, or pumpkin with asian herbs, a variety of salads, and maybe a curry or “bake” of some sort, high protein, low fat and all incredibly filling and tasty. To my very great surprise, not once did I crave chocolate or alcohol (even though a glass of wine was permitted at dinner) and I left 2 kilos lighter after 2 days and with a renewed interest in whole food cooking. I also noticed that the serial detoxers – those who had stayed on from the previous week’s programme, were glowing with health and all looked a good ten years younger than they turned out to be. That’s as good an advertisement as it gets.
I spotted Stevie on my final walk around the property. Clearly nobody had tried to cavort naked with him, as he was munching placidly in his meadow, a poster horse for inner peace.