An unexpectedly rewarding journey of denial and depravation.
It's 168 hours (and counting) since I've had a coffee, a glass of red wine, cheese, meat, or a chocolate eclair. It's been one hell of a week. Now I'm standing in the middle of Queenstown's Fergburger store, one of the finest hamburger companies in New Zealand. The grass-fed beef patties that sizzle on the grill have people lining up all day and night, even for breakfast. The Mr Big Stuff burger is $NZ16 ($14), with the patty in a fluffy bun with melted cheddar, bacon, red onion, aioli and barbecue sauce. I put my hands into my pockets to pay for one. But for the first time in my life there is a raging battle in my mind. Do I hand over the cash and bite into all those calories or bury my fists deeper into the pockets and walk back into the cold, empty-handed?
I am on an amazing journey that goes beyond the picture-postcard views of the Southern Alps and the glacial-fed Lake Wakatipu, the daredevil jetboat rides and the bungy jumps that define Queenstown. It is a wellness adventure. A journey of denial. Of detoxification. Of breathing deeply.
It all started seven days earlier when I checked into the luxe Aro Ha Wellness Retreat on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, welcomed with herbal tea and a snack of macadamia and beetroot paste dehydrated on a nori sheet. Aro Ha is new, eco-friendly and perched in the lonely rolling hills that stretch into snowcapped mountains about 40 minutes from Queenstown, near Glenorchy.
The five and seven-day retreat programs are filled with raw vegan cuisine and a regimented program of Vinyasa yoga, meditation, massage, strength and circuit training, cooking classes, and workshops on everything from nutrition to permaculture. There's even a personal hygiene talk that covers how to clean your nostrils and scrape your tongue.
Then there's the daily hike. My charges must have had a LOL moment when I listed "walking the dog" as my physical activity. The sub-alpine walks are up to 17 kilometres on steep mountain trails. They sometimes cross rivers. They sometimes have fallen logs across them, loose shale or snow. They sometimes require kayaking. They are sometimes across wobbly swing bridges. One of our jaunts is along the famous Routeburn Track that cuts through beech forest and alongside roaring rivers. There are red toadstools, waterfalls and rainbows that stretch from the water to the mountain tops.
But it's not so much about grabbing the proverbial collar and being dragged through the program. There is, instead, a gentle nurturing by the leaders whether they are walking at the back of the pack with you, patching up hot spots on your feet before they metamorphose into blisters, encouraging you to do one more push-up at circuit class, or correcting your downward-dog yoga posture. The twice-daily yoga sessions - at sunrise and sunset - take place in a studio with a big picture window to the lake and mountains. The sessions always end with shavasana, which involves about 10 minutes of lying on your back with eyes closed and relaxing the body. It becomes the easiest part of the day and some others like it, too, because I hear them snoring. Despite my early resistance, I also join in the "om" chants that go with the yoga.
"There is no doubt it is challenging for people," says Damian Chaparro, the American managing partner of the $NZ30 million retreat that opened in December and who formerly ran The Ashram in California.
"We are incorporating a number of practices that produce optimum health and have taken out the bits and pieces that may be seen as superficial - there are no facials or manicures or anything like that," he says. "We come at it from a nutritional side and a physical side with stretching, moving, breathing and sweating.
"It's a high fibre and high-nutrition diet (limited to 1200 calories a day). There's no meat, dairy, coffee, alcohol or refined sugar. Then we sprinkle in a bit of mindfulness and meditation," he says. "We are bringing more nature into your life, more connection with the environment, more awareness of where and how your food comes to the plate and what you are eating. In the end, you sleep better and your eyes are brighter, the skin becomes clearer, the tongue clears up, the body goes through a detox process."
Not to mention the weight loss that results from just one week of healthy living. Chaparro says the idea for Aro Ha was "kind of on the back of a napkin" when he ran it past Chris Madison, also from the US, who owns a $2 billion hedge fund company and has been a client - 12 times - at The Ashram.
"Chris was sold on it straight away. He is the type of guy that makes things happen, and here we are four years later," Chaparro says as he sips a manuka detox tea in front of the schist-surrounded log fire in Aro Ha's cosy lounge. There's a wall of bookshelves along one side of the room, lined with reading on meditation, yoga and good food.
Good food that is delicious is a signature of the place, especially in the hands of Brazilian chef Ranieri Silva who sources as much of it as possible from the retreat's own gardens, its hot house that is connected to the kitchen, and from local suppliers. The nutrient-packed meals taste as good as they look and it becomes a habit among our group of 10 to photograph them as if they are movie stars waltzing along a red carpet. The philosophy of the food is that it is paleo-based, vegan, enzymatically active, raw, soaked, sprouted and fermented. Among Silva's dishes is a Moroccan vegetable curry with a spice mix that includes cumin seeds, tumeric, smoked paprika, cardamom and dry kawakawa leaves (kawakawa is a traditional medicinal plant used by Maori).
Each of our meals is accompanied with such a description, outlining the benefits of the food we are about to eat.
One day is reserved for fasting and we have just five nutrient-packed juices that surprisingly suppress any severe hunger pangs.
Meals are taken at a long communal oak table in a spacious dining area that has a farmhouse feel and killer views through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
All the Aro Ha buildings are of recycled timber, right down to the floorboards. In a nod to zen, they are minimalist in their furnishings. The property has a sustainable building management system that includes solar panels and a wood-fired boiler that convert sunlight and water into energy to give Aro Ha off-the-grid capability and a minimal carbon footprint.
Rainwater for the gardens is collected from the roofing and the buildings have high levels of insulation.
"A lot of people come here wanting to get back on track and to lose a bit of weight," Chaparro says. "That is often the initial goal, but as they experience the program they recognise there is more depth to it.
"The goal for us is to create genuine deep-down health."
The writer lost 5.4 kilograms during the retreat week and one month later has lost a further two kilograms. He still hasn't had a coffee, or even a chocolate eclair. He passed on the Fergburger and walked out empty-handed. He travelled courtesy of Aro Ha and Destination Queenstown.
A TYPICAL DAY AT ARO HA
7am Breakfast, sometimes only a juice.
8am Sub-alpine trek on steep terrain, 3-4 hours.
12.30pm Lunch at a communal table.
1-2pm A break of about an hour.
2pm Circuit training or Pilates.
3.30pm One-hour therapeutic massage.
5pm Nutrition workshop or cooking demonstration.
6pm Restorative yoga.
There are direct flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Queenstown with Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin. Flight time is about three hours from Melbourne and Sydney. See airnewzealand.com.au; jetstar.com; qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com.
Five-day/four-night retreat from $NZ4550 ($4265) ; seven-day/six-night retreat from $NZ6250 a person. Most of the bedrooms share a bathroom/toilet, kitchenette and entry hallway with another bedroom, but if the retreat isn't full you get it to yourself. The rooms are uncluttered and include lake and mountain views.