Kaitlin Jane returns to Gwinganna lifestyle retreat where a focus on organic living inspires lasting change
If you ever need proof that eating fresh, organic, seasonal food keeps you healthy, vibrant and looking at least a decade younger, all you need is an introduction to Shelley Pryor.
The organic gardener at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, Shelley is the embodiment of her natural approach to food and a familiar face at the multi-award-winning resort, having been with the Queensland-based company since it opened in 2006.
She is also the perfect choice as presenter of Gwinganna’s three-night Organic Living retreat, even if the vision is somewhat confronting. I am, after all, only a couple of years older than Shelley, which makes it hard to avoid comparison. I have a hard time not staring at her supple skin, shiny hair and sparkling teeth. Like I said, confronting. But I have three days to learn some of the tricks of Shelley’s trade, and she has plenty to share.
Shelley grew up on a farm in rural Victoria where her parents – her dad, a hunter/butcher/cultivator, and her mum, a garden guru/self-taught herbalist – helped instil a wholesome food philosophy. A former chef and an aloe vera juice devotee (she drinks it every day), Shelley brings 50-plus years of experience and knowledge to the retreat, and she passes it on with great generosity and passion.
The next three days are full of garden talks, orchard walks, and learning about bees, worms, soil, compost, and planting by the lunar calendar. We discover natural remedies for dandruff (rosemary), eczema (aloe vera), sleeplessness (catnip tea), bruising and inflammation (comfrey salve), and learn a handy trick to aid gum health and teeth whitening (rub with fresh sage). By the end of day three, my notebook is bursting with information and I am trying to work out how to squeeze a beehive into my tiny back garden.
Shelley is a dynamo and her enthusiasm is contagious. Most of our group are keen gardeners and enjoy exchanging tips and ideas while exploring Gwinganna’s setting, the beautiful Tallebudgera Valley in the Gold Coast hinterland. And for those just starting out, Organic Living is a fabulous way to gain a tonne of knowledge in just a few days. You’ll head home with all kinds of plans.
One thing Shelley continues to emphasise is not to be afraid to make mistakes. Plant it and see what happens. She shows us examples of plants and trees in the Gwinganna garden that haven’t thrived and then illustrates how to investigate why. Good soil is the key to success, according to Shelley, “Once you get the soil right your plants will flourish, and healthy plants don’t have problems with pests.”
When we’re not sampling rocket from the garden, plucking kumquats from the trees or following Shelley around like eager ducklings, we’re busy with everything else Gwinganna has to offer.
Despite the dark, chilly winter mornings, I enjoy the sunrise qi gong on the hill overlooking the valley, followed by a gentle walk before breakfast. No matter what else is on offer, if John Palmer is leading the walk, I will always follow. Like Shelley, John has been with Gwinganna since the beginning. He is the resident botanist and social ecologist, and he’s also the sweetest, most passionate environmentalist I’ve ever met. He created Gwinganna’s 16 walking trails by following the animal paths around the 200-hectare property. My favourite is the walk to the giant old fig tree. It’s a short and easy walk, but when you wrap your arms around the gorgeous plant, said to be more than 1000 years old, and you will feel something incredibly special.
Meals are consistently wonderful and centre around what’s in season and abundant in the garden. Perhaps because we have achieved so much before 8am, breakfast is my favourite meal of the day. Banana, date and quinoa porridge with fruit compote, sheep yogurt, and an assortment of seasonal fruit is first, followed by something hot such as poached eggs or vegetable frittata. Unless you’re on a week-long detox program, coffee and tea are also served until 11am.
There is a gentle stretch class offered after breakfast and then a choice of ‘yin’ activities, such as yoga and Pilates, or ‘yang’ activities, like boxing and water polo. There is always a big walk offered too, but be warned, ‘The Driveway’ is a killer.
Afternoons slow down with time to chill by the pool, visit the chickens, explore the gardens or enjoy the largest spa in the southern hemisphere. With 33 treatment rooms, this sanctuary has an extensive range of wellness services along with a steam room that is home to a giant amethyst crystal. I have always found the treatments here to be superior, but the Panacee Rejuvenating Facial Ritual absolutely blew me away. Using organic skincare brand PHYT’S, my therapist, Jan, expertly massages creams and serums into my skin for nearly two hours, leaving it deeply hydrated and plumped for days.
Accommodations are scattered throughout the property and come in several styles and price ranges. I am fortunate to be staying in a seriously luxe villa called Boorabee (meaning koala). This contemporary, light-filled, open-plan villa has a large deck with heated plunge pool, day bed and an amazing freestanding bathtub that sits practically in the middle of the room. It is set further up the hill so offers added privacy and a magnificent outlook over the valley. It comes with an electric buggy and even has its own washer and dryer. It would be absolutely perfect for a couple enjoying a retreat together. I felt like a princess having it all to myself.
I have taken so much away from my stay at Gwinganna. Now that I’ve seen the effects of a healthy organic lifestyle, I’m very keen to incorporate some changes into my life. I have already started a big compost so I can feed my undernourished soil and keep more food scraps out of landfill. And I have planted a row of aloe vera at home, too. I don’t have eczema, but I do have envy. Let’s see if this is the secret elixir in Shelley’s Fountain of Youth.
Aloe Vera Juice
Could this be Shelley’s secret? Among other benefits, aloe vera juice aids healthy digestion, supports your immune system, fights cancer cells, helps your body absorb nutrients, reduces toxins, promotes regularity, help soothes muscle and joint pain, heals burns and hydrates skin and hair. Better still: it’s super simple to make.
- Leaf from aloe barbadensis plant
- 500ml purified water
- Place leaf in a bowl and drain yellow sap for 20 minutes.
- Cut off the tip, tail and spikes.
- Use a sharp knife to remove the skin in the same way you would fillet a fish. Cut flesh into chunks.
- Rinse flesh in a bowl of water to remove any yellow residue.
- Place flesh in a jar of purified water and place in fridge overnight (eight hours).
- Drink the water in the jar (leaving the flesh behind).
- Start with 1⁄2 cup and work your way up to 500ml a day.
- Refill the jar with purified water and repeat the last two steps until the flesh has lost its vitality. Do this for 8-10 days.
If the water in the jar is too thick the first time, dilute it with purified water before drinking it. The juice will get thinner each day the steps are repeated. There will only be a bitter taste if it has not been drained or rinsed enough.