real life

We sent Helen Razer to a health retreat...








There are not many things at which I excel but I’m an absolute boss at despair.  It’s tricky to match my talent for feeling overworked, underappreciated and/or taken-for-granted.  Or, at least, I thought it was until I spent a week in the oddly comforting company of others who felt just as trapped and exhausted by life’s obstacle race as I did.

Together, we found a way out of the maze.  Together, we stopped whining and lightened our load.

Actually, together we also lightened our body mass index.  After a week at Gwinganna, I was delighted to find I’d misplaced four kilos. And this, to be honest, is exactly why I’d first nagged Mia to send me to report on a retreat with a name that is whispered by beautiful actresses.

Unable to go on believing that ALL my clothing had shrunk by exactly one-and-a-half sizes in the wash, I committed my self-absorbed self to a week of springtime detox.

As it turned out, I lost a lot more than my fluffy winter coat.  I lost my shit, for example, during an afternoon of gestalt therapy.  “I LOVE YOU HELEN AND I FORGIVE YOU” I screamed to myself through tears as a lovely counsellor named Justine provided Kleenex and encouraging words.  Was this the indulgent act of a middle-class, middle-aged toddler? Almost certainly.  Did it help me grow the hell up?  You betcha.   You come here for the fat loss; you stay for the personal development.


Oh, yes. Get your airsick bag, my cynical friend, because I’m about to take you on a magical unicorn ride across a sky flecked with superfoods. Welcome to The Week That Changed My Life (and toned my abs).

Everyone was here to change; even if, like me, they were a little unaware of how desperately change was needed.   Put fifty strangers in the same community for a week and strip them of makeup and everyday obligations and they’ll start telling each other everything. I knew my fellow guests were in need of urgent transformation because they told me.  And, I knew because the act of taking a full week out of life and a little north of two grand out of the bank shows extraordinary commitment to change.

It might look like a small portion, but…

The first and most anticipated change revealed itself within hours of arrival. Having made our way from around the country and checked in to this luxe hub of health, we sat down to this Sunday evening dinner. It was impeccably presented and bursting with flavour. Perfectly formed as it was, “It’s very small,” I thought to myself.  “It’s very small,” said the schoolteacher from Newcastle. “It makes a Lean Cuisine look like a pig on a spit,” said C, the woman who would become my confidante and detox-whisperer for much of the week.

“You might think your meal looks quite small,” said Donna. Our pneumatically healthy den-mother for the week, she was accustomed  to reading panic of faces that believe they will be starved. “Don’t worry.  By Wednesday, you’ll find your portions are enormous.”


Oh, how we laughed at her naivety.  Until, of course, on Wednesday came and we found ourselves unable to finish our meals.  “I think they’re tricking us,” I said to C, unable to believe that I could ever be satisfied by a meal the size of a postage stamp. “Yes.” she answered. “I think they’ve cheated by making my stomach smaller.”

Somehow, 130 staff members have got this detox thing down to a reliable science. They know when our appetites will adjust, when our appetite for exercise will return and when our caffeine headaches will subside.  “Just lie down, breathe and remember your headache will be gone by Wednesday” said the resort’s nurse as I tried to explain by telephone that I would probably bleed from the eyes without a macchiato.

“Wednesday,” she cooed and I cursed the name of this stupid day. Until Wednesday came and I found that I was not missing caffeine, sugar, alcohol, simple carbs, late nights, newspapers, work, television or wi-fi. Until Wednesday came and I found I was enjoying rising early, exercising vigorously and discussing my life’s extraordinary bowel motions with my fellows. (Don’t judge. It happens to everyone.)

Of course, all this unblemished living is made so much easier to take by high-end linens, consistent, careful service and infinity pools.  And, it must be said, by the Spa Sanctuary which runs so smooth it feels as though it is managed by Buddha’s mum.  All packages come with some spa time and the two massages I enjoyed here both made it to an all-time top ten.


The week, although tranquil, is busy.  There are opportunities scheduled at every turn to try new approaches to exercise, meditation and nutrition.  And this is before you even consider scheduling specialist one-on-one appointments in kinesiology, naturopathy and other complementary practises I am unable to spell.

Hiking at Gwinganna.

Amassing knowledge of Pilates, Alexander Technique and the immune response to stress across a week was, for me, an immense pleasure. Like my detox-whisperer C, I found myself with limited patience for those concepts, such as yin and yang, that did not have their roots in evidence-based science. But that is because I was a child in the seventies and have an irrational dread of anything I associate with hippies.

Then again, I have an irrational dread of change, too. It had been unfolding in my life for months and I was unable to receive it. My partner, who had been ill for some years, was in remission and I was simply unable to process it. Crazy, I know.  You’d think watching the person you love most in the world being released from pain would be seventeen shades of awesome.  And, it was. I had just become so accustomed to my life as the cheery, healthy, capable half of a couple, when the role was denied me, I became a cheerless, unhealthy lump.

There were so many stories like mine at Gwinganna. There were so many of us who needed to change.

Change is a difficult animal. Feed and encourage it and it will respond with reward.  Ignore it and it’ll tear you apart.  Take it to Gwinganna and it will put on its sweatpants, stare you directly in the face and say, “come on, sad donkey. You and I are climbing up a mountain.”  And, no.  This is not a metaphor.  Go to Gwinganna and you’ll climb a very literal mountain several times.


For each of the seven mornings spent at Gwinganna, there came an invitation to join a “bush walk”. Actually,  this trek across some of the property’s most beautiful but arse-paralysing five hundred acres could have been more honestly named a “bush hurt”.  Or, in fact a “butt hurt”. Whatever you call it, there is no doubt that time spent sweating in clean air where the loudest sound is your own pitiful moaning does a body good.  It ramps up your fitness in double time, of course. But the practise, like so much at Gwinganna, helps you keep up with the pace of your change.

If you care to change the way you eat, the way you move, the way you respond to stressors and the way you prioritise, come to Gwinganna. Even if you don’t want to make all of these changes, you’ll find they occur anyway.

Helen was a guest of Gwinganna at the beginning of spring. She seems to have misplaced those four kilograms for good and has been seen at a Tai Chi class. She no longer drinks coffee and her partner is effing grateful that she took her miserable self on a change-cation. 

Visit the website to learn a little more about its packages.

Helen Razer is an occasional broadcaster, frequent writer and incessant yabber-pants. Follow her on twitter or at Bad Hostess.