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  • Shelley Dark


Our last dawn at Gwinganna. There’s mist curling upwards from the valley floor. The sun is colouring the fluffy clouds pink. This is a truly beautiful setting.

The manager of the retreat, Sharon, takes us for qi gong. When the retreat first started, although the manager she wore many other hats too. One of them involved helping guests to welcome the day. So to celebrate the 10th birthday today, she's out here again.

Her approach is different. Like Donna, she asks us to put our hands on our dantian (the centre of our energy), which is three finger widths below the navel. We put our right hand on our belly first, and cover it with our left. Then we close our eyes.

She asks us to imagine we are rooted to the ground, tendrils and roots growing down from our dantian, twining down our legs deep into the earth. Also we are also to imagine a strong growth going up into the sky, with leaves and a canopy reaching far up into the cosmos. We are drawing the energy of the universe from both the sky above and the earth below. It is meeting within us.

Then we go through the simple moves which we have done each day, looking out over the hills and ocean in the distance. I hear Ali's song in my head. I feel a deep contentment - gratitude for my husband and family, my life.

CLICK HERE and then press play. Close your eyes. You'll see the African women standing on the hill, their numbers swelling as each one arrives to join in, singing their song to welcome the day.

The challenging walk this morning again involves the steep drive. The owner of the retreat, Tony de Leede, arrived last night for the celebrations. He lives in Cronulla and he's warm, friendly and down to earth. He'll be taking a pump class. He jokes that his pump is the very old-fashioned sort. The word pump sounds like a form of torture to me.

I’m going for the gentle and entertaining walk with John Palmer. The story goes that he came with the territory right from the beginning and is a fixture at Gwinganna. He has a beard and wears a hat with a string under his chin. His shirt is dirty and his pants are wet to the knees. Perhaps he’s been walking through long grass. I wonder where he lives. Someone has told someone else who told me (!) that he lives in a hut somewhere on the property. Who knows. He’s eccentric, unpredictable, talented, extremely knowledgable, funny, dry, laconic. He knows and belongs to this country.

He starts his talk by talking about man as he was millions of years ago, how he exercised, squatted, twisted and ran in the course of a day. He doesn’t push the point by saying that we no longer do it. But that’s what he means. He shows us parts of the vegetable garden, grabbing whole leaves of plants I don’t recognise, and stuffing them into his mouth as he talks. Even a huge tendril from a choko vine. As he talks, it gradually disappears into his beard. He’s making us all laugh.

We try an aniseed tasting leaf, and a ‘sweet’ leaf (tarragon). We smell rose-scented geranium. When someone takes a leaf to eat, he suddenly says, ‘Are you sure you took that from the same plant as I did?’ He appears very relaxed but he is obviously watching us closely. He talks about the need to experience all sorts of tastes. Bitter, sweet, pungent. He talks about the universe, history, the bush, plants, legumes, ants, different types of trees.

He takes us past the 'retreat recycling area'. It's all I can do not to laugh out loud. Other instructors take you on picturesque bush hikes, exhilarating climbs. John does the rubbish dump tour. Rusting air conditioners and stacks of wood and concrete blocks. He pulls up at an old upside down jacuzzi tub, its hoses still attached to the outside. ‘You know when you don’t eat properly?’ he asks. ‘That’s what happens when your pipes get clogged up,’ he says. We’re all laughing. The staff have already said they never know what he is going to do, and they love him.

He shows us the orchard with many different types of fruit. Sapote, chocolate tree, guava, jackfruit, persimmon, all the citrus, many more. There’s sooty mould here too. The gardens are slightly wild. Weeds jostle with native and introduced plants. I learn later that a sous-chef called Shelley asked if she could take over the fruit and veggie gardens. She’s doing a marvellous job. They’re productive and thriving.

Someone calls out 'John, you have a spider on you!' John looks uninterested. 'Do I?' he says. 'Yes! On your beard!' the woman nearly screams. John flaps idly at his beard. A huge spider as big as the palm of my hand goes flying on to the grass. John bends to examine him. 'It's a huntsman. He's ok I think,' he says.

We skirt the rainforest area, with its huge trees. John says they are hundreds of years old. We see the spa and its complicated circular construction from underneath. John tells us the story of how Tony de Lees found the architect who was at the time one of the instructors.

Breakfast, when I look at the label below the large dish on the serving sideboard, is pumpkin porridge. It is orange. My stomach does a small flip. The brekky challenge. I serve myself a small portion, cover it with almond meal and almond milk. It turns out to be quite nice. Normally at home I’d add lots of brown sugar to the top of anything like this. I feel pleased that I’m not looking for it.

Today is all about the 10th year birthday party. After breakfast there is a yang option of a cricket match with Tony and John. I learn that the cricket stand came from the Gabba, and the Australian cricket team including Greg and Ian Chappell and Rod Marsh once played backyard cricket here.

I think I feel more meditative on this morning of our last day and go for yoga. It's hard to totally relax into it. My mind is in transit already, from the retreat back to civilisation.

We have to be out of our rooms by 10.45 so that incoming guests can check in at 2pm. I finish my packing and load the car. There’s help if we want it but my bags are small and many.

The surprise pre-lunch speaker is Dr Libby Weaver. She was an original staff member, met and married a guest from New Zealand, and has flown in for today. She is an author, respected speaker and has a PhD in nutritional biochemistry. Her books are Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Woman’s Syndrome.

Before that we watch a Getaway episode from the early days of Gwinganna. It makes the staff laugh when they see themselves. There’s been a lot of development since then and they all look different. There’s a birthday message too from part-owner Hugh Jackman, who tells us how when he was doing ‘The Boy from OZ’ in Brisbane, he went back and forth each day just so he could sleep at Gwinganna. He loves the place.

Dr Weaver's talk is fascinating. Much of it reinforces what we have learned through the week but there are extras. She calls it The Changing Face of Human Health.

She tells us that every second, each cell in our body co-ordinates billions of chemical reactions. Every day, our heart beats 100,000 times. Every month, we completely regenerate our whole outer skin layer. Our skin is born in the second layer down, and it takes its information from the body. If there are nutrients missing, the cells assume that there is a famine coming and interpret this as stress.

In today's modern world, we are living too much in sympathetic nervous system mode (the fight freeze flight mode). We need to activate our parasympathetic green zone (the rest, digest, repair and reproduce zone). We need to stop perceiving our jobs as a source of pressure, by using all the methods we have learned this week. The only way that science knows so far is to extend the lengths of our exhalations and become breath-aware. Take 20 long deep breaths, do meditation. I mentally add, do Dr. Daniel Siegel's C.O.A.L. (his book, Building a Mindful Brain).

Stress is about perception. We need to identify what is scaring or stressing us, work out a plan to deal with it, execute it consistently, assess how the plan is going, and correct constantly.

I said earlier in the week I'd give you the evidence in support of cooking with good quality Australian extra virgin olive oils, such as Cobram Estate and other good quality oils produced here. For those of you who are interested, I have added this at the bottom of the page.

Lunch is a festive affair. We were told early in the week that contrary to usual practice on the 5-day retreat, there will be a glass of wine. We are offered sparkling white wine or red. And horror of horrors, a glass of soda water as well at the table.I feel like punching the air!

The meal is really superb. Three delicious courses, artfully presented. The first course is on a large rectangular piece of slate. The fish is moist and delicious. Surprisingly, no one gulps their wine. Quite a few don't have any. I can see lots of glasses half full, including mine, as if it's almost too much to deal with. There is no mention of dessert on the menu. But there IS dessert! When it comes, it is an alternate drop of either a lime cheesecake in a glass, or a sponge roulade on a plate. I look at my sponge dubiously. Is this another trick? We take our spoons and look at each other. Both have sugar in them. I need a sparkly multi-coloured font to write sugar! I score the roulade and am ecstatic. It's light and lovely. I relish each mouthful.

Sharon speaks and presents Tony with a gift. She names the 12 staff members out of the original 35 who have been here for the whole ten years. Tony presents her with a huge bunch of flowers. He says he 'courted' her for a very long time before she agreed to work for him. Gwinganna is his baby and he loves it. Before that, she managed 'Gaia'.

After lunch it’s a whirl of goodbyes, email exchanges, and suddenly it’s over. Some are flying out, some driving. They go to Sydney, Woolongong, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Hamilton (NZ) and goodness knows where else. Some live on the Gold Coast or Brisbane. Even the Sunshine Coast like me. Some have come here to lose weight, some to improve their diet, some to get over a marriage breakup or relationship difficulty, some just to indulge. They range from young and super fit to the more elderly and sedentary, slowed down by arthritis. The full spectrum of the human condition. Everyone seems happy with the result. I certainly am. I came for relaxation and pampering. I'm leaving with a new lifestyle plan.

And so we leave Gwinganna. I have so enjoyed having you along with me - it's been a pleasure to share it with you.

Until next trip buddies, namaste.



I said earlier in the week that I'd give you the evidence about the smoke point of good quality Australian olive oils being excellent to cook with, contrary to what was said in a lecture. Here is what I have read. Click on the links for more information.

Smoke point is the temperature at which free fatty acids and other volatile components start to visibly smoke. Most people know you cannot cook above the smoke point temperature, however people often don’t consider that they are not generally reaching these temperatures. Therefore there is a little bit more to it than smoke point, and it is actually the stability of oil that is more relevant when cooking at home.

Regardless, high quality extra virgin olive oil, with a low free fatty acid component and high levels of antioxidants has a higher smoke point (about 200-215C). The three main factors which make good quality EVOO safe for cooking are:

1. The monounsaturated component - Because EVOO is mainly monounsaturated ("good)") fat, and lower in polyunsaturated fat it is quite stable and resistant to oxidation. Saturated fats are also reasonably stable which is why coconut oil (high in saturated fat) is often thought to have a good smoke point. Virgin coconut oil however does not have the naturally occurring antioxidants to protect the oil before it reaches its smoke point.

2. Free Fatty Acid (FFA) Component - Free fatty acids are short chain fats. Because they are small, they are the first to oxidise and start smoking (smoke point). High quality extra virgin olive oil have a lower FFA levels, which means that it has a higher smoke point. Bad quality olive oils have higher FFA levels so have a lower smoke point.

3. Natural Antioxidants (polyphenols) - This has a lot to do with the stability of the oil, which is often the most important factor when cooking at a normal temperature. Because heating is an oxidative process, when you have more antioxidants in the oil, they help to counter the generation of volatiles from the heating process. EVOO gets its natural antioxidants from the skin and flesh of the fruit which naturally protects the oil during heating and also on the shelf. Because refined olive oil under goes harsh treatment the natural antioxidants are removed and often synthetic additives are added to substitute the antioxidants that have been lost. However, the naturally occurring antioxidants are not only better for you but naturally protect the oil just as nature intended.

These are 3 studies which look at stability of good quality olive oil for cooking, plus a page from Cobram Estate's website. I love the Cobram Estate product and have shares in it. I think it's the best olive oil in the world:

There are more papers on it, but that might overload you!

When it comes to refined oils, methods used are deodorisation, bleaching, heat treatment and sometimes caustic soda or sodium carbonate to refine in order to remove rancid flavours, colours and odours. This harsh processing means those oils have been stripped of their natural antioxidants along the way.

shelley dark, writer 

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