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  • Shelley Dark


It’s a glorious morning again. Overnight rain, clearing up at dawn. At Gwinganna they call today terrible Tuesday. Some guests get headaches from the new diet of no sugar, refined foods, alcohol or caffeine. You could call it a symptom of withdrawing from life! So far so good for me. I feel fine.

Wallabies feed here and there. Outside the dining room, grapes this morning, a nice sugar hit. Again we stand out on the mown lawn overlooking the coast, with the very beautiful and calming Megan. You know those special people who, when you look at them, make you mentally exhale in a relaxing sigh? She takes us through the graceful breathing exercises, where we open our hearts with arms out wide, swoop with our hands like birds, then straighten up and reach for the sky, pushing away with the palms of our hands. She epitomises elegant movement.

Near the end, she tells us about an experience which instructor Ali had in a South African village. Each morning, the first woman to rise would go to the crest of the nearby hill and start singing a particular song of gratitude for the day. As they rose, one by one, the other women of the village would join her, until all of them were there, singing. The hairs on my arms are standing up.

I don’t realise Ali is standing behind us. In a clear strong voice, she sings a bar. We sing it after her. In my mind, I imagine a big round black African woman dressed in red and green, a red bandana wound around her head, arms out. Ali sings exactly the same words again. We repeat them. And so it goes, the same words, the most beautiful haunting melody. At one point Ali is almost whispering. We whisper after her. It’s one of those golden moments which give you goosebumps. A tear runs down my cheek.

Afterwards Ali has moved off, so I go to Megan and tell her how much I enjoyed it. She says that someone once used their phone to record it. When I find Ali, I thank her and ask her if I may record it on my phone. She says yes. I make a mental note to remind her.

This morning I opt for the challenging walk again. It’s only 3km and I don’t see how 3km can be all that bad, when half of it has to be downhill. I’m right. It’s steep, but doable. I put my phone in a light jacket I tie around my waist. I tell Ali on the side that I’d like to stay at the tail of the walkers so I can photograph the view. She’s fine with it and says if I hadn’t told her she wouldn’t have known. I still feel better for having confessed. I hate being sneaky.

We walk up past the cottages which are at a distance from the retreat and have a view of the coast. They each have their own plunge pools and laundries. Guests in those have a buggy to come down to the resort, but as Ali says, unless you really want to get away from it all, you’re better off down closer to all the amenities.

At the top of our walk, after a calf-stretching concrete road where I hang onto the steel traffic barrier to stop from slipping backwards, there’s a nice view. It’s not clear and open like the one at the retreat itself but I’m glad I came. The tall gum trees are majestic.

The cottages are now down below and the ocean is a shimmering silver strip on the horizon.

The walk down is quite steep. Ali says it’s safest to sit on our bottoms and slide down the next few metres. I don’t want to wreck my pants on the dark wet rocks, or the mud. I manage it standing up.

Another guest is walking behind me when we suddenly hear a loud noise. I’m not sure what it is, and out of the corner of my eye I see movement across the steep slope above our eye level. My walking companion says ‘avalanche’. I’m still having trouble understanding what’s happening because the long grass on the very steep hill is moving erratically. Suddenly I realise it’s a very large black boulder or boulders, rolling and bouncing very fast, down the mountain. The walkers in front of us, whom we can’t see, must surely be in its path. Sick dread in the pit of my stomach.

The noise stops. Silence. Then a lot of calling out ahead of us, and behind us. Someone shouts, ‘Was anyone hurt?’ ‘No,’ shouted back. What a relief.

Later we find out that the 3 women in its path couldn’t see the boulder coming. They could only hear it. At the last minute 2 of them ducked under a rock ledge as it tore past them, the third moved down the slope. One got a slight cut. I’m not sure if it was from the boulder or from ducking down. We all speculate about what dislodged it. The overnight rain, rain for the last couple of weeks, our movement on the slope above earlier. We're just babbling.

Everyone is shocked, and hugely relieved. Had it hit anyone, they'd be dead, or as good as. The manager Sharon makes a speech at breakfast, saying that something like this has never happened before. That trail is now closed, and engineers will be looking at the whole area. They are taking it very seriously. I applaud her proactivity not just in addressing the physical issue, but in speaking to the whole dining room. It defuses further discussion.

I think tomorrow I’ll go for the yin option!

I have been looking forward to the nutty muesli we had yesterday for breakfast. Today it is polenta porridge instead. 😬With almond or rice milk, roasted buckwheat or almond meal. I’m not minding the almond milk at all. But even the word polenta at breakfast sounds off-the-planet. I taste a small spoonful. Nup. I push it away. I enjoy the fruit - watermelon, kiwifruit, grapes, whole nuts. Followed by scrambled eggs with turmeric and a crispy onion biscuit. I surprise myself at how much I can eat. I’m liking the big breakfasts.

The yang exercise this morning is boxing and deep water running. I can't bear the thought of someone punching my gloved hand, jarring my shoulder. Or of me punching someone else. Running in deep water sounds like a physical version of Edvard Munch's The Scream.

I love the sound of the dance. It's called Nia, and it's low impact. It's in the pavilion where we did yoga yesterday. Good choice. It’s absolutely brilliant. Taryn our instructor has a wonderful smile and tells us the only thing she wants us to get out of the morning is JOY. Sounds like a plan to me.

She demonstrates moves even I can copy. Who cares if you're out of step anyway? The music is great with a strong beat, and we have lots of freestyle dancing, moving all over the dance floor. We make a loose circle facing inwards, and move in and out. We pull our elbows back hard into our sides with our fists in front, with an explosive grunt. It reminds me of the All Blacks Haka at rugby matches. Except we don't put our tongues out. We snarl like tigers. We punch the air and grunt. It looks and feels to me like a cross between martial arts and tribal dancing. We are sweating and laughing. It’s great fun. I love that our instructor is putting so much energy into her dance. She is so generous with herself. Each time I see her face, it is lit with enjoyment. Towards the end, we lie on yoga mats and cool down with slow easy movements. Afterwards I go to thank her for giving so much of herself. Her t-shirt is wet through.

I’m looking forward to another pseudo-sweet for morning tea, but today it’s a strange-coloured smoothie. Stomach says no. I sniff it. Banana and something else. I hesitate, taste it, think about it, decide it’s ok, and drink it all. Then a chamomile tea. See how I’m getting in the zone? I’m surprising myself. Then again, there’s no other choice. Well not strictly true. There’s fruit in a bowl as well.

Today’s talk with Carolina is called The Mosaic of Wellness. It’s about some contributors to good health: the genes, the liver, the adrenal glands, sleep. Husband John has been telling me for yonks that I eat too much sugar. I know that it’s probably true but there are so many wackos out there giving advice. Isn't it a natural food? I need convincing.

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 or please check the facts for yourself.

GENES: Up until recently it was thought that a person’s genetic code was fixed in stone.

  • Studies in nutrigenomics have shown that genes which otherwise might signal predisposition to a certain type of illness can actually be ‘kept quiet’.

  • Our DNA can change during our lifetime

  • Genetics load the gun. Diet and lifestyle pull the trigger.

  • In 1989 1.5% of the population had diabetes. In 2012, the figure was up to 4.2% - lifestyle

  • Between the years 1982 to 2009, the number of reported cancers rose from 47,000 to 114,000 - environment and lifestyle.

LIVER: this is one of the major organs of the body with a huge number of essential functions, and we need to look after it

  • everything goes through the liver, what we eat, what we put on our skin, what we breathe

  • the liver can regenerate itself if it’s damaged, but its common for a problem not to be recognised until there is a serious condition

  • the liver has a heavy workload of processing, metabolising, purifying, detoxifying, manufacturing, regulating, storing

  • If we add to this workload by making it process too much sugar, alcohol, caffeine, harmful chemicals and trans fats on top of its other duties, it can become overloaded and its work can bank up

  • when the liver is overloaded, we feel tired, dark circles under our eyes, the whites of our eyes become yellowish, we crave sugar and may have health complications

  • if overloaded, the liver has an escape hatch where it can release half-processed substances back into the blood stream

  • Dr Mark Cohen of MRIT Melbourne has written a paper about the effect of eating organic foods. One week of eating mostly organic food reduced urine pesticide levels by nearly 90%. So eating organic foods can reduce the workload on the liver.

  • limit caffeine intake: 1 cup of coffee daily (said to help prevent Parkinson’s disease), none after midday

  • max recommended daily intake of alcohol: 100mls day, with 3 alcohol-free days a week, no binge drinking, eat food with alcohol

  • limit sugar intake: excess consumption can increase risk diabetes, cause blood sugar spikes energy swings; excess stored in liver, insulin resistance and weight gain, poor gut bacteria

ADRENAL GLANDS: two small glands on top of kidney, producing hormones like cortisol, adrenalin, sex hormones.

  • The adrenal glands are affected by toxins in the bloodstream, drugs, infection, pain, sugar, worry, fear, artificially long days, poor food, lack of sleep.

  • Cortisol is our natural stress response.

  • when adrenalin is released our pulse quickens, our blood pressure goes up, the blood leaves our core and moves to the extremities, digestion slows. Our bodies get ready for fight or flight.

  • We don't want our cortisol levels to be too high for too long

  • Cortisol suppresses DHEA, the 'youth' hormone, testosterone, oestrogen, growth hormone

  • Cortisol levels in the body are naturally highest at 8am, and lowest between midnight and 4am.

  • If cortisol levels are too high or too low, sleep can be disrupted. Melatonin which aids sleep is only released when cortisol is decreasing. If we’re stressed it interferes with the production of melatonin.

  • too much cortisol lowers our immune response, impairs our short term memory

  • if we go into stress survival mode, we don't sleep, we can gain weight, we look to caffeine and alcohol, we crave sugar, we can be depressed, and feel sick.

  • this all disturbs our circadian rhythm which can lead to inflammation, and health problems: heart, cancers, neurology, autoimmune problems, arthritis, diabetes

SUMMARY: we need to stop overloading our livers (less alcohol, sugar, caffeine, reduce toxin intake). We need to stop living in the fight or flight mode which can exhaust our adrenal glands (lower stress, meditation, exercise, better diet, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, acupuncture, creativity) . We need to get enough sleep to allow our bodies to repair (routine bedtime, avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugar at bedtime, no computer devices at night, dark room)

Immediately Carolina finishes her talk, it’s time for lunch. Four big grilled prawns on top of an avocado purée, with brown rice coloured green (with puréed kale I find out), and a big piece of baked pumpkin. I wish the piece of pumpkin wasn't left in that BIG state. I'd respond better mentally to smaller pieces. There are a couple of green salads on the table as well. The prawns are very yummy. I’m REALLY missing water with my meal. I remind myself again to make sure to have a big drink before I enter the dining room next time. During the meal, I walk out of the dining room to have a drink from my water bottle.

Straight after lunch, Dreamtime. There are tree ferns at the entrance to the spa. The goddess dances. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has done this yet, so I’m interested to see what will eventuate. I go to the spa and shower first after my sweaty dance routine. Then I sit outside on a comfy chair overlooking the circle. I hear laughter over to the left outside one of the treatment areas. It sounds wonderful. The therapists are walking along the raised circular walkway towards the reception area, coming from right and left, looking for all the world like models on a catwalk, as they come to collect their clients. I hear one cutie say, ‘I’ve got the giggles’. She goes into reception and comes out almost immediately. ‘You’re Shelley’, she says. ‘You’ve got the giggles’, I say. She laughs again, a lovely fresh young face. ‘Yes I have!’ Her name is Jodie. We walk together to the treatment room, discussing how good it is to really laugh.

In the room, she runs me through this, her signature massage treatment. She’s going to make long sweeping runs from my shoulders right through to my feet. She talks about breathing. About what I expect from the treatment. She tells me it’s going to celebrate my femininity. I'll celebrate anything.

She takes out a large pack of cards, and says, ‘Now choose your goddess’. Oh what fun! I blindly choose one, she turns it over to show me..... I couldn’t have chosen better - a beautiful fairytale goddess, in long gown, looking simply divine. She's standing in the throat of an iris, holding the petal around her shoulders as a cape. Her name is Aeracura and Jodie says she is a pagan goddess. (the card was actually pink and blue, which I can't quite do, so I've converted it to black and white) The message she has for me, written on the card, is ‘You are just getting started. So have patience with yourself and the process, and do not give up.’ I think immediately of this new Shelley Dark Travel business. It's the reason I’m here at the retreat really. The message is so apt. I’m not going to give up. It’s a good omen!

The treatment begins. I am face down. Music begins to play, a clear pure voice singing the lyrics. I hear an echoing voice, and wonder if it’s part of the soundtrack. I realise it’s not. It’s Jodie, singing. She has the most beautiful voice. How perfectly wonderful! As the massage goes on, she's singing just for me. She's every bit as good as the singer on the recording. Or is she the singer too? She makes a fabulous noise like a wind sighing over a prairie, and long satisfied sighing exhalations. All the while long sweeping massage strokes from toe to shoulder. It’s absolutely amazing and transports me totally. I can’t believe my luck to be having a massage with a girl who sings like a bird and makes magic noises! I feel as if I'm witnessing a performance. By the time it’s over, I’m floating. When I get up, we have a big warm hug.

I walk back to my room in the late afternoon light. Tonight at 6pm there’s a talk about breathing - I’ll be there. But first I need to wash the oil out of my hair. I’m off into the shower.

The breathing talk before dinner is held in the old church which used to be the Tweed Heads Methodist Church. It has beautiful stained glass windows. We are lying on our backs each with a tiny hard block under the back of our heads. I have a bolster under my knees. The instructor speaks very softly. He doesn’t have a microphone so I can’t understand what he’s saying. It doesn’t matter. I simply gaze at the beautiful pressed tin ceiling, which is white with maltese crosses pressed into it. It's arched from one side to the other. I concentrate on breathing with my belly.

Dinner is…… ta dah…. omg..... thick grass-fed eye fillet steak! With a peppery crust, and tasty pesto, asparagus and a tomato and onion salsa. And a platter of vegetables. It’s a beautiful meal. I’m on a very jolly table tonight and there’s lots of laughter. There’s a couple whose engagement happened 50 years ago this weekend. A couple of men who are friends here together. I think they’re both married but I’m not sure. A young lawyer from Sydney. Sharon told us on the first day that many people are here to get away from work and may not want to discuss their career. So for the most part we avoid asking what someone does. The casual clothes, massage-oil-hair and flipflop footwear are great equalisers. You could be sitting next to the chairman of Rio Tinto and never know it. I tell the table about the nougat in my car. There are lots of enquiries about my number plate. We’re all missing that little sweet something to finish the meal. Chocolate seems the toxin of choice.

But seriously, there is plenty of food here. It’s fresh and wholesome and the menus are varied. And it's nice to know that much of it is grown in the garden. While I’d prefer it to be just a bit spicier, I guess that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m not really missing sugar, or caffeine, or alcohol. Well, maybe a teensy bit. That’s a pretty big achievement. I am missing salt and pepper, but not desperately. I’ve had a cramp or two at night in bed. That’s unusual for me. I'm drinking more water than I do at home, but not in the dining room.

I find Ali and ask her when she will be able to sing the African song again so I can record it. She says I’m not the only one who has asked. ‘Gosh, I don’t know when I can do that,’ she says, as she goes on leave tomorrow, ‘The only chance we'll have will be at breakfast.’ She'll do it. I’m so glad. She asks me to be discreet with the phone. Discretion is my second name.

And so another day ends buddies. You know how I said I wouldn’t do the equine experience? I put my name down for it at 6.30am tomorrow. See you then.

shelley dark, writer 

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