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  • Shelley Dark


When the wakeup knock comes at 5.30am, I'm awake, showered and dressed with my name tag pinned to my t-shirt like a grade-oner about to start school. Except I have my mobile in my pocket to take a photo of the dawn. I open my bedroom door to say good morning and the volunteer jumps with fright. Out on the escarpment dawn is psychedelic. Strange shapes under the big central gum tree look eerily like misshapen wild pigs. They're seats made of natural timber.

Here's the quaint little cricket stand nearby. I sense the ghosts of many surreptitious mobile users. Then I zoom back to my room (150-200m or so - a pleasant brisk walk) to collect hat and water bottle which I ought to have brought with me.

At 6am everyone who feels like getting up gathers near the dining room where the principles of qi gong are explained. It's pronounced chee goong. Nearly the whole 60 or so of us are here. We crunch on apples and sip herbal tea. It's all a bit surreal.

Qi gong is mostly about breathing and being in the moment. Important for best being able to deal with what we face during the day. If we are 'centred' and calm, what comes out of our mouths is likely to be wiser. Sounds good. Centred is another one of those funny words. If you're not centred, do you walk round in circles?

We walk out to stand in a group on the big open lawn area, gazing over the rolling hills towards the ocean. Our instructor is Donna, the program manager. The principle is to relax the stomach and breathe like a baby. It's taken me nearly seventy years to perfect pulling in my stomach in and standing up straight. I let my stomach sag outwards and my knees bend. I bounce a little to get the feel of the stance. Feeling like Mr Bean accidentally stumbling into an exercise class.

The stomach should move with each breath. I have always wanted to do tai chi and this resembles it. My inner oriental muse sweeps Mr Bean aside. I love the graceful silent movements. The fingers of the hands become fluid, bending slightly to follow the direction of the arms. We repeat the movements, breathing in time. We end by putting our hands together in front of our chests, bending slightly and saying 'namaste'. From the soul within me to the soul within you. What a beautiful way to greet the day. I’m so grateful to be here.

Then we are given a choice of three activities - a moderately challenging walk with Ali who is tall and athletic, a gentle walk with John whom I gather is an eccentric, or a stroll with Shelley to see the herb garden and to hear how to use plants medicinally. I want to do them all. But I really feel like some decent exercise. By the look of the steep hill above us, I doubt I can do anything described as challenging later in the week. This is described as moderate, so today seems the day to do it.

It’s rained heavily overnight. The bush path is wet and slippery, the ground saturated. The roughly mown grass is a couple of inches high so it’s not long before my feet are saturated. I’m wearing sneakers instead of the old goretex hiking shoes I brought with me. Bad choice. It's squishy underfoot. We cross a creek back and forth hopping from rock to rock. The man next to me mutters that we seem to be going downwards a lot, and we are going to have to climb back up at some stage. We laugh together. He has said what I am thinking. The walk back up to the retreat is only moderately challenging, but still I’m glad to see the dining room above us.

Breakfast is a bit rushed because I go over to the cricket stand to email John first. On the way into the dining room we are offered a little apple cider vinegar in a shot glass. I guess to aid digestion. The acid scalds my throat as it goes down, and I can still feel it during breakfast. I think I'll skip it tomorrow.

When we walk into the dining room, we take our name tag from near the door, and when we sit, we put it in the place-card slot at the table. There is a small horizon pool outside. There's another larger pool over at the gym on the other side of the lawn. I sit with people I haven’t met before. One girl who has been here five times has gone for a walk by herself at 5am before anyone else was up. So you can do your own thing as well as the organised activities. Some people are here for a couple of weeks. I hear about a couple who have been here for a couple of months! The conversation is bright and happy. Today we have paper napkins. :-(

Breakfast is rather yummy. There is nutty muesli and almond milk or rice milk. I have never tried almond milk and I pour lots of it all over the muesli. I hope I like it. It will substitute for the water I'm not allowed to have. Fresh fruit on the table - watermelon, grapefruit slices, roast pear - this is great. I wish I could photograph it for you. Followed by a poached egg on top of noodles and grated carrot with an avocado purée garnish. It’s another riot of colour.

That's another challenge. At home, I always give a thought to colour combinations on my plate from a design point of view.For me, it's as important as what I'm eating. I once had a degustation meal at Le Bristol in Paris where they based the entire menu on lime green and white. It was a taste and eye sensation. I don't do lots of colour. In my house, my clothes, or my food. I'm thinking for best nutrition I'm going to have to change. Or plan alternate meal colour schemes during the day to cover a bigger range of colours in my food. I eat the entire breakfast. I do miss salt and pepper a bit. Don't mention sugar.

After breakfast we can choose an hour and a half of yin or a yang activity. Or do nothing. Yin is feminine and night and calm. Yang is masculine and day and energetic. The yang today is stationery exercise bikes in the gym and then some balancing work. I'd rather poke myself in the eye with a stick. I've done yang already today anyway.

I decide on the yin of yoga with Kish. I've tried yoga before and found it too hard. But this is wonderful. Gentle and enjoyable. No pressure to perform past your capability or joints. Or maybe it's my attitude. I'm not competing. Valerie from checkin yesterday lies on the mat next to me. She is nearly a contortionist. I can see her doing unbelievable things out of the corner of my eye. She's grabbing her ankle and bending over at the waist to put her head on the knee of her outstretched leg! I think she could nod to her big toe if she wanted to. That must be unhealthy. At the end, we lie on our mats with cute little wheat packs over our eyes while Kish our instructor intones a meditation. I fall asleep and hear later that a few people were snoring.

Morning tea is nicely presented on a platter. They're very yummy dried apricot balls with a dot of yoghurt or something white on top. Only one each please. It’s not really sweet because of course there is no added sugar. But if all morning and afternoon teas are as yummy as this I'll be happy.

We move to the comfy chairs in the lecture room, where we have a talk about diet by Carolina. Like Sharon last night, she is wearing a light microphone and is beautiful and vivacious. I sit in the front row again, which becomes my possie. There's something comforting about habit even in this new place.

I enjoy watching Carolina's performance as her skirt swishes around her legs. She moves back and forth across the front of the room, smiling, engaging everyone in the audience. She is from Brazil and has an accent. Some of her vowels are beautifully rounded 'received' English. Others are straight broad Australian. It's a delightful and funny combination. She speaks of the simple diet she had as a child. Now she is highly qualified and has a Masters in Clinical Functional Nutrition.

The girl next to me is taking notes in a Gwinganna notebook. Once I realise there is a plastic clipboard, pen and notebook at the back of the room with my name on it, I slip back to get it and start writing. If you aren't really interested in the role diet plays in health, skip this bit and start again at lunch.

A disclaimer: I don’t have a background in science, so I’m relying purely on hearing and comprehension for any notes on the talks at Gwinganna. I'm not sure exactly what is mainstream and what could be considered unproven alternate thinking. Additionally my interpretation is a simplistic version of what was said and could be inaccurate. For any of the information I give you from lectures this week, either don't read it if its too much detail, or please check the facts for yourself.

This is the gist of Carolina's message.

The first note I take is about cooking with oils, and their smoke points. When heated to smoke point, cooking oils produce volatile compounds and become unhealthy to cook with. Carolina recommends cooking with coconut oil or macadamia oil, as she says they have higher smoke points. She says that olive oil has a lower smoke point. I have read a bit on this subject - on the contrary, I think good quality Australian olive oils have a high smoke point. I use extra virgin olive oil for everything - salads and cooking. I don't say anything now because I'd like to check my facts and send Carolina the evidence when I'm at home to support this. I'll give it to you too.

She says that research is beginning to show that a lot of health problems are caused by inflammation in the body which tries to maintain a slightly alkaline Ph for optimum health. It's thought that acid foods like dairy can cause inflammation, alkaline foods like fruits and vegetables are calming. It sounds the opposite of what you'd imagine, but I'm sure I heard right.

Additionally we should throw out any spreadable butters or margarines - they have additives to make them so. If you must use a spread, use plain butter. Preferably not on bread but on your vegetables. If you want it soft, leave it out of the frig. Don't eat trans fats, mixed fats, or low-fat. Low-fat products usually have added sugar. We want whole foods.

The desirable pattern of blood sugar levels during the day is a level line to give us a steady supply of energy. We don’t want the common repeat pattern of eating simple refined foods which are quickly converted into sugars in the body which leads to raised blood sugar, with the energy swings associated with that and the unnecessary extra load on the liver. We can best achieve stable levels by eating complex whole foods. The hormone insulin plays a major role here in converting the sugars. It is produced in the pancreas and helps to move glucose (sugar) from the blood into the cells of the body for energy.

There are three things which are not good for the stability of blood sugar levels. Simple carbs like white rice, white bread and pasta give you spikes in blood sugar, so aren’t good. Caffeine is not good as it stimulates the production of adrenalin, which in turn causes a blood sugar spike, which then subsides until you feel the need of another hit. A nasty merry-go-round. And the production of cortisol is not good. This is the survival mechanism hormone produced when the body feels under threat - the primaeval threat was famine. Through a complicated process, cortisol encourages the production of visceral fat. Which is why stressed people can get fat even when they are not eating a lot.

We go out for a short break and drink some zinc as a test. It’s supposed to taste yucky if you have enough in your body. It tastes fine to me. Uh oh.

Back in the room, with the skeleton looking on, Carolina gives us the solution to the problem of maintaining stable blood sugar levels. For each meal, combine fats, proteins and carbs, but eat them as WHOLE foods.

The stomach produces acids to digest our food. Zinc is needed to produce stomach acid. Stress uses up a lot of zinc to produce cortisol. This can leave the immune system and the adrenal system without enough zinc. Alcohol too uses up zinc and manganese.

In the small intestine, 70-90% of our nutrients are absorbed in the first third. Water is absorbed by the colon, leaving the fibre. B vitamins in particular are absorbed here.

95% of our serotonin is produced in the bowel. 5% is produced in the brain.

Carolina runs out of time, and I am sorry as I am really enjoying it. I’ve got the message though.

To stop our energy levels during the day from swinging wildly and putting a strain on our livers, we need whole unprocessed foods. Bodies under stress need foods rich in zinc. Stress and stimulants are not good for our bodies.

Lunch is the same barramundi as last night, this time with a dried tomato and nut pesto on top and a grilled half lemon. There are two salads, both green. I eat mine all up and still feel hungry. The feeling reminds me of boarding school. One of the staff speaks to the whole dining room about remedies for people having headaches (I don’t), and also tells us about a lecture at 6pm tonight about the colon by a colonic hydrotherapist. I’ll go because I know nothing about it except that Princess Diana used to have it. I like to know the facts before I poo-poo something. :-)

But now it’s time for me to go to my treatment. Something called Abhyang Fusion. Stand by for an update this evening!


I can’t get over how busy we are in here! (just noticed I said ‘in’, as if it’s a jail. hmmm.) I keep thinking I’ll do some nothing. Maybe tomorrow. But I don't want to miss anything.

The spa complex is set into the edge of a rainforest area with big double mirrored doors.

Inside a statue of a woman holds a dove, a corridor either side. These both lead to the large reception room lined with upholstered seating. High plate glass walls overlook palms and tropical plantings around a circular raised wooden walkway with stainless steel balustrading. Offshoots lead to the treatment rooms. I am given a pair of thongs, a robe and a locker to keep for the duration of my stay. I'm amused in the change room to see the different modesty levels of women dressing and undressing. Some don't care, others hide behind a towel while they pull underclothes from beneath.

I have a warm bath first - it is already prepared when I arrive. It's full, lemon-scented with lavender and rose geranium leaves floating in it. All the water here is rainwater, so the tanks must be full at the moment. I get out of it to get my phone (hidden in my dressing gown pocket so that I don’t offend anyone) to take a photo of it for you. There I am stark dripping naked when a therapist who doesn’t realise I am in there, opens the door. I brightly say ‘hi!’ and frighten the life out of her. She apologises and flees.

I lie in the warm bath with a towel cushioning my head, looking out of the louvres to the tree canopies moving outside. The water laps at the sides of the bath. A beautiful breeze blows over my wet skin, feeling cool and delicious.

After a while a therapist comes to take me to the massage room for my Abhyang Fusion. The first thing I see in this room is a big bowl with flowers and pink salt in it. Ready for a leg exfoliation. The last time I had a salt scrub, it made me so itchy I had to abandon the massage and go home. I explain this to Cassia, who suggests that we use the whole time for massage instead. Even better!

I spend the next hour in dreamland. Cassia is expert. She massages my legs, arms, back, scalp and even tummy. The best scalp massage you could wish for. Firm and fabulous. I always think a good massage is like a symphony - it has a beginning, a middle and an end. By the time it’s over, you are totally in sync.

I shower in a dream and walk back to my room. I only have time to change before tonight’s talk.

I’ve always thought colonic irrigation (it’s called hydrotherapy now) was a bit of a wacko thing to do. I felt sorry for Princess Diana a. that she felt she had to do it and b. that it was reported in the newspapers. I don’t have digestive or bowel problems. However, if I did, I think I’d probably consider anything which might help. In the interests of keeping you informed, off I went.

Petrina (affectionately known as Poo-trina hmm) is one of two therapists who do this at Gwinganna, so it must be popular. She has just come back to work after a holiday in India.

She’s not frightened to talk about bodily functions and is very graphic in her descriptions of colonic hydrotherapy. Some people even get emotional release from it. I learn a few things I didn’t know about the colon. The consumption of alcohol leaches magnesium from the body, and the colon needs magnesium to work properly. Magnesium can be applied topically by such means as a magnesium bath. So if you drink a lot, take some magnesium baths, or have some magnesium powder in water.

The Chinese say that belly massage is the most important massage of all. The human body was designed to squat to defecate, not to sit. Allbran is full of sugar, so don’t eat it. A good solution to constipation is psyllium hulls - one teaspoon in a glass of water, and drink plenty of water afterwards.

As soon as the talk is over, it is time for dinner with seat allocations again. That's a lounge area above, inside the dining room. I’m with the girls from Melbourne and a man from Darwin. Another couple of girls who weren't at the talk are wondering about colonic irrigation. They ask me if I've changed my mind about it. I haven't.

Everyone is comparing the wonderful treatments they had this afternoon. No one is complaining.

We each have a big bowl of tasty salad which has lots more herbs than lunch, and plenty of sliced chicken in it. Am I imagining it, or is the food getting better and better? There’s also a sharing plate of corn on the cob, beetroot, asparagus. We all spot the roasted chips at once - they turn out to be bitter roast parsnip. I’m last to finish again.

Now I’m back in my room. Looking forward to bed again, dreaming of today's heavenly massage. I just realised I didn't have any afternoon tea. I'm tired and content. Until tomorrow buddies.

shelley dark, writer 

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