Wellness / Retreats / The Body / Travel. Discover ancient body practices, exotic destinations, global spas and retreats and healers and healing in a fun and engaging way.
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Like a ceiling fan, my head is spinning. I can hear voices, but can’t make out the words. Doubled over in excruciating pain, I’m reaching out for a seat but there isn’t any. It’s just groomed coconut husk-lined dirt paths surrounded in tropical plants and shrubs. My skull starts pounding and I can feel my heartbeat thumping deep...Read More...
Like a ceiling fan, my head is spinning. I can hear voices, but can’t make out the words. Doubled over in excruciating pain, I’m reaching out for a seat but there isn’t any. It’s just groomed coconut husk-lined dirt paths surrounded in tropical plants and shrubs. My skull starts pounding and I can feel my heartbeat thumping deep inside my ears. I recognise this feeling – and in preparation for what typically comes next, I know that I have about a minute before I hit the ground in a fainting spell.
My legs are suddenly taking me somewhere. A solitary shelter topped in dried palm fronds, where I sit and breathe deeply. But it’s not working. The pain is not subsiding. With stifled groans, I now have an audience, but I’m hurting too much to care. There’s a quick translation of my diagnosis into Tamil before some gentle massaging starts and a herbal concoction is deposited in my hands.
“Drink, drink,” the lady keeps repeating. It takes all my effort to sip the warm brew between waves of discomfort, while 16 sets of eyes are upon me.
I’m in Matale, in the centre of Sri Lanka’s spice region uncovering the healing benefits of medicinal plants. My host is the the zealous Bonnie, a general practitioner and Ayurvedic natural medicine doctor who is excitedly sharing the uses and benefits of some endemic and even common day ingredients we might find in the garden or kitchen.
Sri Lanka is a part of the ancient spice-trading route which dates back as early as 2000 BC supplying spices such as Cinnamon between the East and West. Thanks to its tropical climate, equatorial location and year round temperatures, an ideal growing environment produces thriving plants, herbs and spices.
Here, aromatic spices are more than just meal flavour enhancers; they are also the main medicine used by Sri Lankan families everyday for healing. Spices have some extraordinary health benefits and medicinal properties to help treat and prevent a great number of ailments and conditions. Today I’m taking a tour of some of the spices used in traditional Ayurveda – an ancient healing system, which is based on the “science knowledge of a long life,” declares Bonny.
Research shows that spices are the key to strengthening agni (metabolism or digestive fire) and one of the most important principles in the ancient science of Ayurveda. Its responsible for absorbing the nutrients and essential elements the body needs while burning off waste products.
Only half an hour ago I was enjoying a tour of the lush green gardens lined with 83 medicinal plants, where, the spices, I’m told, are not grown in great numbers here or harvested onsite. This ensures that plants and buildings are kept separate, in order to preserve their quality and ensure germs are kept at bay.
Pepper (Mijaku). There are 5 different colours of this pungent berry, which is the earliest known spice to humankind. All types (green, black, red, white and yellow) originate from the same plant. Pink peppercorns on the other hand are not in fact peppercorns, but tiny berries.
“Red is the ripest and hottest, black are left on the vine to mature for a stronger flavour, white is made from boiling the black pepper until the skin comes off to reveal the seeds inside, while green peppercorns are the youngest, resulting in a milder, sweeter pepper,” shares Bonny.
Pepper, particularly black pepper is high in antioxidants and antibacterial properties and stimulates the taste buds to aid in digestion. Known as a strong carminative it prevents gas, promotes sweating and urination. Nutritionally, Pepper is high in Manganese and Vitamin K.
- For the cellulite prone amongst us, the peppercorn outer layer is said to stimulate the breakdown of fat cells.
- Here in Sri Lanka, Pepper is the basis of the world famous Mulligatawny (Tamil pepper water) soup.
Clove (Karambunatti). Are the dried unopened buds often used for decorating food and chewing. Endemic to Indonesia and later introduced to Sri Lanka, cloves are especially effective in helping digestion. It is a mild aphrodisiac and disinfects the lymphatics. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may prevent toxicity from pollutants and digestive-tract cancers.
- Dap some clove oil onto a tooth ache to numb the area or chew a clove
- Use a couple of drops of Clove oil in water and gargle for a sore throat
- Add 2 drops of clove oil to your skin care products to help speed up the healing of wounds, cuts, bruises, athlete’s foot or sagging skin.
Cinnamon (Kurundu). Native to Sri Lanka, true cinnamon or “Ceylon Cinnamon is created from the bark of the tree and harvested once a year,” said our medicinal doctor. It differs to other types of Cinnamon known as Cassia both in its healing properties, strength and flavour.
True Cinnamon, known as the best in the world has been shown to improve blood sugar levels for diabetics as well as other cardiovascular diseases and assist with weight loss, with no toxicity side effects to the liver or kidneys.
The tree also produces Cinnamon oil, which is made from the leaves.
- Put a drop of Cinnamon Oil on a cotton bud and place in the ears when swimming or flying.
- Cinnamon oil can can help to extract earwax.
- Cold feet? Put a drop of cinnamon oil on the sole to warm them up.
- Stained teeth? Put 1-2 drops cinnamon oil in warm water and gargle and rinse.
- Cinnamon oil in the toothpaste also gets rid of gingivitis.
- Sri Lankans love to include Cinnamon in their daily diet with a quill in their rice while cooking.
Turmeric (kaha). The root of this bright yellow spice is known as an anti-inflammatory, anti bacterial, anti oxidant and anti cancer. Owing its preventative and curative characteristics to its active ingredient called Curcumin, the compound is proven to protect and improve the health of nearly every organ in the body by preventing oxidation and inflammation shown to trigger the diseases of modern life.
Ayurvedic texts show that Turmeric is used for rheumatoid arthritis, dissolving gallstones, conjunctivitis, skin cancer, chicken pox, wound healing, urinary tract infections and liver ailments. It is also used for digestive orders including colic, flatulence, menstrual difficulties, respiratory conditions such as asthma and allergies, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and gallbladder issues. Turmeric is currently used in the formulation of many sunscreens and by multinational companies involved in making face creams.
As many as 133 species of Curcuma have been identified globally with studies showing that Curcumin clings to cancer cells and is as effective as some pharmaceutical drugs, without the side effects. It is one of the best healing spices available today.
- Fresh turmeric or turmeric powder on a small cut helps it heal
- Place on your forehead when you have a fever
- Turmeric mixed with milk or water to treat intestinal disorders, colds and sore throats
- Turmeric and linseed oil forms a paste that reduces the pain and infection of wounds
- Sprinkle or grate a bit of fresh turmeric on meals daily to reduce internal inflammation
Aloe Vera (Kaṟṟāḻai). Known globally as a healing plant for skin conditions, cuts and burns, Aloe Vera is also good for the bowels – for those with gas and reflux. In Ayurveda, it’s suggested that the body needs good oil every day to line the digestive tract.
- I have not tried this at home, however, Bonny shares an Indigenous recipe – take 1 teaspoon of Aloe Vera twice a month orally to help bowel function.
- Aloe vera applied to sunburn aids in the healing process
Ginger (Inci). The go-to traditional remedy to help with queasiness and ease nausea. Ginger helps with motion sickness by stabalising the hormone vasopressin, suggested to play a key role in settling the electrical conductivity of the stomach.
A concoction including Ginger is also what I happen to be sipping right now.
- Grate 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger into a cup of warm water for heartburn, cramps, indigestion and morning sickness.
- Take a piece of pickled or crystalised ginger for travel sickness
- Grate 4 tablespoons of fresh ginger in a cotton bag/cloth and place under a running bath tap to help sooth aching and tired muscles
Cacao (kokko). In Sri Lanka, three of the four main types of Cacao are grown – Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. The pod, which grows directly off the trunk of the tree can vary in colour from green to yellow, purple to red, each containing approximately 45 beans.
Raw Cacao is a wonderful source of antioxidants that impart anti aging properties as well as being good for heart health, due to high levels of flavonoids. Not that we need a reason, but foods rich in Cacao appear to reduce blood pressure, lower blood disease and cancer as a result of improved blood flow, in addition to aiding learning and brain functionality in areas such as memory.
Interestingly, about 500 Cacao beans are required to make 1kg of chocolate. Studies show that raw Cacao is better for the body than dark chocolate due to the flavonoid degradation during the cooking process. Still, a little bit of dark chocolate is good for the system due to its higher level of bitterness, less caffeine content and increased medicinal value.
- Put a teaspoon of raw cacao into smoothies, porridge, coffee, on cereal or over deserts.
- Cacao is said to be good for insomnia at night in a warm glass of milk.
- Add a handful of fresh mint leaves, 1/4 teaspoon cacao powder, a cup of hot water and drizzle of honey for a tasty chocolate mint tea.
Saffron (kuṅkumappū). Known as an aphrodisiac spice, saffron strengthens the whole body, has a particularly powerful effect on the reproductive organs and is used to enhance fertility. It is a good spice for menopause and menstrual problems, since it is a revitalizer of blood, circulation and the female reproductive system, as well as the metabolism in general. Saffron regulates both the spleen and liver and it is said to help asthmatic and bronchial disorders, reduce inflammation, treat acne and skin conditions and strengthens the heart.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. The stamens of 75,000 flowers have to be hand picked to make ½ kilo of useable product.
- Make a luxiourious face mask with sandlewood oil and saffron
- For an Ayurvedic recipe – combine a mixture of saffron, bush honey and aloe vera in a pot and boil for three minutes to create a hair removal cream. Place the paste on the area of your body and leave for 10 minutes before washing off. Use the mixture a maximum of three times in two months.
Cardamom (Enasal). Growing in the shade of high jungle trees, the green Cardamom pod seeds are found at ground level and can only be harvested by hand. Once dried, they are a traditional medicine for teeth and gum infections, lung congestion, gastro, gall bladder stones and as an antidote for poisons.
There is a long list of health benefits for Cardamom as an anti-carcinogenic, as good for the heart and cholesterol, treating urinary disorders and as an anti-depressant commonly used in aromatherapy. Other conditions Cardamom address range from hiccups to detoxing, muscle spasms to asthma.
- For a sore throat, crush one cardamom seed and coat in bush honey before eating.
- Chew one seed after smoking or drinking to improve the breath
- For urinary tract infections or as a diuretic spice your warm water with plenty of cardamom and drink throughout the day.
Curry Leaves (Karapincha). The use of fresh curry leaves helps the functioning of the stomach and small intestine. In Ayurvedic medicine, curry leaves are used for their medicinal properties as an antioxidant (by being able to control diarrhea), as an antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory including ulcers, anti-carcinogenic and for liver protection. The roots are also used for body aches and the bark as a snakebite relief.
- Try eating 10 fresh fully-grown curry leaves every morning for three months to help prevent the diabetes produced from obesity, where the leaves are supposed to reduce LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase HDL – the good one.
- Some also say that a liberal intake of curry leaves is considered beneficial in preventing the premature greying of the hair, by nourishing the hair roots allowing new roots to grow with normal pigment. Try this one at home and let me know how you go.
Nutmeg (Sadikka) and Mace (Wasawasi). Nutmeg is the dry seed and mace is the red membrane around the seed. Nutmeg and Mace increase absorption especially in the small intestine and are recommended for urinary incontinence, gas and to relieve nausea. It is one of the best spices to calm the mind.
Ayurveda also tells us that Nutmeg is used to help with bronchitis, snoring and sinus as well as being added to a balm for menstruation. Research also shows that nutmeg/mace oil treats cancer by inhibiting the blood vessles that feed tumours.
Since nutmeg and mace have hallucinogenic properties never use more than one teaspoon.
- For sound sleep try 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg with 1/2 cup of warm milk.
- Add a tiny bit of Nutmeg oil to mens aftershave for a spicy scent
- Use Nutmeg or mace to flavour custards, desserts, fish and pasta.
- For a diarrhea treatment place 3 drops of nutmeg/mace oil on a sugar cube and swallow it after the oil has seeped in
- Mix a few drops of Nutmeg essential oil into a massage carrier oil (eg. Grapeseed) for great pain relief
Well that was as far as I got on my spice trail before stomach clutching set in and my hasty retreat to, what I thought would be solitude. Back on the timber bench, my unrequested but well appreciated treatment continues with a strong smelling herbal cream that’s being rubbed along my lower back, sides and abdomen. ”It’s made from red oil,” the smiling man tells me. In the background I can hear voices talking about curry powders and face creams made from sandalwood oil and jojoba, but I’m too busy coiled over, close to whimpering to take anything in.
Who knows how much time has passed, but finally my hot and cold sweats have ceased, the pain is subsiding and the colour starts returning to my cheeks. Everything is quiet, but it’s not until I open my eyes and take in my surrounds that I realise that there are no voices discussing spices and no multi-coloured jars of exotic goodness being passed around for testing. My fellow travellers are seated or laying down in various states of consciousness all receiving massages too.
I missed half of the workshop while I was not-so-quietly dying, but the medicinal spice class has finished and who knew that everyone would end the experience with their own mini Ayurvedic treatment. What a relief to find that I’m not the only one getting some hands on attention.
Everyone is up, but our spice tour is not yet complete. We now have a chance to taste-test the culinary uses of these colourful medicines in a spice-infused feast. Hesitantly, I join in on the deliciousness, but not before my Ayurvedic masseuse advises me to stay away from the pineapple – for its acidity.
Herbal Balm Pain Relief and Red Oil
My saviour today, this white ointment called ‘herbal balm’ is made of Cardamon oil, Clove oil, Tea-tree oil, Nutmeg Mace oil and three types of Cinnamon oil. It was so beneficial that I’ve popped into the retail centre to buy a tub to take home. After five minutes, the herbal balm is followed by 1/2 teaspoon of red oil.
Red Oil is called ‘home doctor’ because it helps with many symptoms of pain relief. Also known as Siddhartha Oil (the birth name of Gautama Buddha who founded Buddhism) or Buddha Oil. The oil is good for arthritus, joint aches and pains and Tendinitus. It contains seven different types of Ayurvedic plants including Black Cumin plant, Bitter Melon plant and Haritaki tree, amongst others.
Before leaving this mini medicinal sanctuary, the Spice Gardens share two more Ayurvedic recipes with me to enjoy at home.
Winter Spice Tea Recipe
- Make a mix of cardamom, ginger, ground cinnamon, coriander, star anise and cumin seeds and store in an airtight container in the fridge
- Place 1 teaspoon of the spice tea mix in a pot with 2 cups hot water
- Infuse for 2 minutes and strain into 2 cups
- Add 2 drops of vanilla essence and stir
The spice tea mixture is warming and stimulates the body. It is good for phlegm, colds and flu and stomach problems.
- Mix two teaspoons of lime oil (extracted from the skin of lime fruit), ¼ teaspoon tamarind extract and one teaspoon of wild bee honey in a glass of water or black tea and take before breakfast on an empty stomach for 90 days.
- Once a week take mixture in lemon juice instead of water/tea.
This is a traditional Ayurveda herbal remedy to burn calories and excess lipids to rid excess weight and improve metabolism and hormonal balance.
Drip, drip, drip … warm droplets of oil descend from above, onto my forehead. It flows back toward my hairline where I try to imagine troubles are melting away. Before long the constant drops start to develop a distracting beat. I breathe into it, trying to relax into the stillness of my surrounds. The warmth quickly...Read More...
Drip, drip, drip … warm droplets of oil descend from above, onto my forehead. It flows back toward my hairline where I try to imagine troubles are melting away. Before long the constant drops start to develop a distracting beat. I breathe into it, trying to relax into the stillness of my surrounds. The warmth quickly disappears as the oil vessel cools and soon cold droplets emerge. Gentle footsteps approach, there’s a tap of the metal fountain with its slow oil-releasing spout and suddenly a silky stream begins to create oval and then circular patterns that dance across the width of my brow.
I’m on an Ayurveda trail through Sri Lanka, experiencing some of the therapies that make up this ancient healing system. Right now stretched out on a bed, wrapped in white towels, my head is on a tray and I’m receiving Shirodhara, a timeless medicinal treatment advocated for those with a busy mind. Unsure yet if it is an age-old form of torture or a delightful spa treatment, I decide to devote a bit more time to it.
Ayurveda is the worlds oldest surviving healing system originating from Monks in India over 5000 years ago and with monastic Ayurvedic medicinal evidence dating back at least 2500 years in Sri Lanka. It is a holistic science of health based on maintaining a physical and emotional balance with knowledge gained from thousands of years of observations that came to be known as the ‘science of life’.
Ayurvedic principals are based on the premise that every individual is unique and no one diet or lifestyle routine works for all. The medical system uses a variety of diagnostic tools to determine the health and resulting treatments required for each patient (which will typically entail a recipe rather than a pill), the most important of which is the principle of three Doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
Doshas are said to be energies made of a combination of five elements – space, air, fire, water and earth that form each person and perform different physiological functions in the body. Everyone will have all three Doshas, but is usually dominant in one or two. Importantly, the Doshas give insight into a persons mind/body characteristics, physiology and personality traits.
The aim of Ayurvedic medicine is prevention and through an analysis of the dosha’s (undertaken in a Doctors appointment), an imbalance toward one indicates that some alignment is required. The ensuing therapy typically results in a two or three week program complete with specific treatments allocated for each day which may take the form of yoga, liquid remedies, meditation, broths, herbal body steams, baths and massages, a designated diet of food and drinks and exercise or rest as per your doshas requirements.
Each treatment depends on your unique prakriti (primary dosha) and the balance between all three of them. More complex treatments are also added, depending upon the desired outcome, such as Nasya (medicated herbs to the nostrils), Thalam (herbal head paste), Elakizhi (herbal bundles dipped in medicated oil), Karnapooranam (oil in the ear canal) Lepam (herbal paste for swelling of the joints), Njavara Kizhi (medicinal rice herbal milk massage), Pizhicchil, (warm body oil treatment), Sirovasti, (warm oil head treatment) and Netra Sekam (eye milk cleanse), amongst others.
While my fellow travel buddies, Arga, Mylene, Hanna and Emma receive Abyanga (gentle full body massage) and foot treatments, my Shirodhara therapy has been recommended for my Vata dominance. From the Sanskit words shiras (head) and dhara (flow), the experience is a gentle, constant application of warm oil on the third eye chakra point just above and between the eyebrows. This chakra is said to transcend time, allow the seeing of inner and outer worlds and provide the gift of spiritual contemplation and self-reflection. Through the application of oil to this point, the treatments purpose is to induce a deep state of relaxation, to sooth the nervous system and stimulate the endocrine (pituitary gland).
Chemli is my therapist today and advises me that the treatment should help my eyes and relax my mind. I try hard to switch off and unwind, all the while wishing the oil was still warm. I’m not feeling anything around my eyes, but the constant dripping does help to bring my wandering mind back to the present moment.
Often more important than the treatment style is the type of herbal oil blend used to align the bodies constitution. The oil today is “a combination of Triphala,” shares Chemli, an infusion of herbs especially “beneficial in an evening before sleep and a smaller amount of Nala Yadi (made of 20 different herbs),” predominantly for awakening the manas (mind) in the morning. I learn learn that Triphala (three fruits) is one of the most famous herbal compounds used in Ayurveda and is a combination of Haritaki, a fruit that nourishes the body and is good for the eyes and digestive system. It helps enhance absorption of nutrients and cleanses the body channels; Amalaki, purifies toxins from the body, balances stomach acid, strengthens the liver and offers disease-defying qualities and is considered one of the best rejuvenation herbs, along with Bibhitaki, which pacifies both Pitta and Kapha and cleanses the blood, muscle and fat tissue.
Unlike the softly scented bungalow spas of Bali or pristine health resorts of Europe where one would expect to find floral-lined water features trickling in the garden and soothing background tunes lulling you to sleep, a visit to a Sri Lankan Ayurvedic clinic is like the food – nutritious with no pretenses. It centres on the authenticity of an ageless medicinal system and the therapeutic health benefits of each treatment. Since the system descends from Monks, whose aim is to attain spirituality through enlightenment with no possessions and distractions, the basic settings of my therapies, start to make sense.
Rather than sensory-based surrounds, expect a simple room with only the bare essentials – a table, towel, chair and single piece of equipment required for the treatment. In my case, this is a timber frame from which a metal bowl with spout hangs by some rope as well as a small bucket under my head tray to catch the surplus blend. Fragrant flowers may be saved for the Buddhist temples, but look carefully around the clinic and you could just find a back room of concoctions and brews, tiny jars of rainbow-coloured liquids, make-shift concrete lined bath tubs intended for detox treatments, dark rows of Sinhalese and Tamil labeled elixirs, exotic potions, heady herbal mixtures to target your trouble spots and some of the 1200 plant, 100 minerals and over 100 animal products that comprise the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia.
The end of the treatment nears and there’s a final tap of the vessel releasing a cold liquid flow that momentarily moves once again across my temples before my hair has the life squeezed out of it for excess oil. I’m relocated into a seat to have my scalp massaged with a towel and finally, my hair brushed.
My Ayurveda trail through Sri Lanka has definitely had its hits and misses and I can’t say that the past hour has triggered any mind opening experience or spectacular clarity to newfound thoughts. The Shirodhara treatment has, however, left me with a relaxed feeling – one I can imagine being more beneficial as a part of a two-week program with multiple applications. In the meantime, I return to my accommodation with a glossy, pungent scalp, vowing to wait an hour before washing it out. And, what do you know – by the next morning I have had one of the best sleeps of my Sri Lankan stay.
How to Determine your Dosha
VATA (wind) energy that controls bodily functions associated with movement.
- Vata predominant characteristics: Slim, tall, small frame, prominent bones; often dry skin and hair and don’t perspire much; fast and changeable; love movement, change and travel; easily get bored and work on multiple projects at once but often don’t finish them; creative, quick to learn, but also quick to forget; flexible (body and mind), easily adapt to change; often have cold hands and feet and prefer hot rather than cold climates; excitable, high energy in short bursts; spontaneous and fun personality but with changeable moods when out of balance; irregular routine; can tire easily and also overexert.
- In balance: there is joy and enthusiasm, creativity and vitality.
- Out of balance: lack of energy and responds to stress with fear, worry and anxiety; lower back pain, joint pain, head aches and bloating.
- To obtain balance: requires grounding, warming and routine.
- Health tips: Cooked and warm foods such as rice are best for nourishing the body. Exercise should be a medium intensity such as yoga, swimming and walking. Introduce some habits into the schedule such as regular sleeping and eating times.
- Pitta predominant characteristics: Sharp mind, focused, passionate, good concentration and intellect; medium build, strong, well-built; organised and self confident; quite competitive and enjoy challenges; strong digestive fire so seem to always be hungry and get irritated if they have to wait for a meal; when stressed Pittas become irritated, have temper tantrums and get angry; don’t like hot weather as they get tired and sweat a lot; skin is fair, sometimes with freckles or red tones and sunburns easily; strong public speakers with good leadership and qualities, but can push themselves too hard or become impatient and controlling; typical physical problems include rashes or inflammations of the skin, acne, boils, skin cancer, ulcers, heartburn, acid stomach, insomnia, dry or burning eyes.
- In balance: Romantic, content and intelligent.
- Out of balance: Aggressive, demanding and pushy. Can cause ulcers and anger, excessive sweating, red rashes, inflammation of the skin, acne, skin cancer, boils, ulcers, heart burn, insomnia, dry eyes, eczema, blisters and burning pain.
- To obtain balance: need cooling, calming and moderation
- Health tips: Find ways to cool the body internally and externally such as eating fruit, dark leafy salads and vegetables. Avoid overheating via the sun and with alcohol. Exercise should be calming. Induce positive emotions such as care, kindness and compassion
- Kapha predominant characteristics: Bigger build and bones, good health and immunity, sturdy and physically strong but may have sluggish digestion and be overweight; thick oily skin with less wrinkles but sometimes have acne; luxurious, thick hair; don’t’ like cold or damp weather; don’t like change; easygoing, relaxed, compassionate and non judgemental; faithful, loyal friends, loving and forgiving; slow-paced, slow learning patterns and slow considered speech; self sufficient, calm, stable and reliable; have the most steady and long lasting energy of all constitutions; soft hair, voice and skin with potentially large eyes; prone to depression; aim to maintain harmony with all around them.
- In balance: is a point of stability, expressed as love and forgiveness.
- Out of balance: tend to accumulate possessions, water or weight. Can lead to insecurity and envy. Suffers colds and congestion, sinus headaches, asthma, allergies, dampness and lethargy.
- To obtain balance: needs drying, stimulating and expression
- Health tips: Foods that are warming are your friends including lot of spices while staying away from sugars and saturated fats. You need to get out, explore and exercise. Be open and find new challenges (for the mind and body) and get the systems moving.
There are many online quizzes available to determine your dominant Dosha(s), here is one from Deepak Chopra who has helped bring Ayurveda to the world over the past decade. www.doshaquiz.chopra.com
“Goats climbing trees … are you sure?” queries Chris. “You will see,” suggests our Madonna music-loving, Arabic driver. We leave the narrow lane ways of Marrakech heading toward the west coast of Morocco in search of the allusive tree-climbing goat. Travelling in the signature transport for the region, Katherine, Chris and I are in a...Read More...
We leave the narrow lane ways of Marrakech heading toward the west coast of Morocco in search of the allusive tree-climbing goat. Travelling in the signature transport for the region, Katherine, Chris and I are in a shiny aquamarine blue Mercedes. She is the prized possession of Karim, our fun-loving taxi teamster. His head is bopping and voice chorusing along to the 1980’s hits – Like a Prayer and Into the Groove, all the while encouraging us to join in. We cling on as Karim weaves his way around donkey-carts, police roadblocks, roadside stalls brimming with vegetables, languid village life and finally out onto the dusty plains of the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve.
Known as a 10,000 square mile designated UNESCO protected region, the reserve is rimmed by the sea, yellow stained desert sands, hazy mountain ranges and dotted with Argan Cooperatives. It is home to the endangered Argan tree grown to produce the rich, velvety Argan Oil.
Oils go in an out of fashion as quick as diets, with the exception of this ancient oil heralded from the deserts of Northern Africa around Taroudant and not far from the wind-swept coast of Essaouira. Due to its multiple uses in cosmetics, beauty products and cooking, it’s proclaimed as one of the latest miracle ingredients for the culinary and beauty scene. As a result, Argan Oil is now one of the world’s most expensive natural oils, becoming popular through the Moroccan Hair Oil product range that caught on in Australia in 2011, while the European market, especially the French have been using it for a lot longer, due to their historical ties with the ancient coastal port.
We continue westward and sure enough, up ahead just off the roadside is a gnarly tree with some goats petering on its scant thorny branches, munching away at the yellow-green fruit. What a bizarre site. But there is no time to take in the moment as windows are down, cameras are ready and snap, a couple of quick blurry pictures are taken before we are accosted. “We can’t stop,” says Karim “they ask for money to see the goats in the tree.”
“So do the goats climb the trees naturally or are they put there for money?” I ask.
Karim simply smiles. The goats, history tells us, are the Argan Keepers, making sure that the harvest is protected. Considered the sacred custodians of the ever-prized fruit, goats are seen scattered amongst the Argan plains. Traditionally, the goats were an integral part of the oil extraction process. After eating the fruit of the Argania spinosa tree, the kernel containing the oil-rich seed would be expelled within the excrement and later collected to produce the oil. The goats, these days have mostly retired from the argan business and left the local women to take over with the kernel extraction process.
We pull into an Argan Cooperative and are greeted by a local lady who ushers us inside. “All the workers here are women from the nearby villages and native to the area,” she shares. A large board with all the womens’ names and work schedule verifies this. We wander inside the working room where some five ladies are cracking open the Argan shell with stones and popping the nut of the fruit into baskets.
It’s nice to see the purpose built co-ops giving employment to the local women, for aside from Friday nights out in Marrakech when the 18 to 80 year olds dress up in a special outfit, small heals and a little lipstick for dinner with their husbands; we have not come across any local women in our travels. More importantly, the opportunity to work plays a vital role within the Berber tribe by offering the women independence, a share in the profits to go toward their family health care and education, along with knowledge about the protection and value of the ancient Argan tree. Of all the 28 women who partake in the cooperative business, we learn, the husband of only one lady doesn’t like her working.
The Argan oil production process starts by removing the soft husk pulp, which is dried and fed to the animals. The shells are ground down and used as natural exfoliants and the seeds, intended for skin and hair products are left raw and cold-pressed while kernals destined for culinary purposes are roasted to bring out the nutty flavour. Nearby a lady demonstrates the traditional labour intensive extraction process where the roasted kernels are ground into a paste in a stone rotary quern. This is then kneaded and pressed by hand and rolled into patties. While drying, the oil separates and is collected leaving dry, black Argan cakes that are fed to the animals or ground up and made into the wonderful Moroccan black soap.
Scars, dry skin, bland bread, wrinkles, stretch marks, frizzy hair?—just put some argan oil on it. The Moroccans have been using this liquid gold, silky smooth, miracle wonder for just about everything – sparingly of course, given its high price tag. Packed full of Vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the nut, related to the Olive is said to assist with many types of skin conditions from dry skin to acne, psoriasis to eczema. In the kitchen too, the oil can be internally taken. Moroccans use it daily by drizzling it over cous cous or salads, stirred into soups, targines and even deserts.
Argan Oil contains three times the Omega 3s than Olive Oil, more vitamin E than Sweet Almond Oil and a host of cancer-fighting antioxidants. Scientific studies show that culinary Argan oil helps lower cholesterol, improve circulation, stabilize blood sugar, ease arthritic pain and other inflammatory diseases. It also has a place in boosting heart and brain health and regulating hormone levels. Plus, it’s tasty.
Applied externally, Argan Oil has rich stores of essential fatty acids (EFA’s) and antimicrobial properties to treat damaged skin, brittle nails and support scalp and hair health. As it is easily absorbed and regulates the pH balance, it protects against sun damage and reduces inflammation.
Our visit moves to the retail area where we get to see the final products lining the walls. There is massage oil, hand and body creams, shampoos, conditioners and face products, even lip balms and cosmetics based on Argan Oil. In the centre, we dab some Argan lotions on our skin and nibble on bread dipped in Argan oil, a Moroccan tasting peanut butter and my favourite, an addictive Argan-styled Nutella spread known as Amlou made with Argan oil, almonds, peanuts and a little honey.
Despite the dozens of Argan oil options in the retail area, the only product not on the shelves around us is Moroccan hair oil. Interestingly the world-renowned product I use weekly that’s sitting in my bathroom cupboard at home is made in Israel. Given the danger of Argan tree extinction, it turns out that there are a couple of other countries, namely Algeria, United Arab Emirates and Israel that grow and produce a revised strain of the liquid gold.
As one of the oldest drought resistant trees on earth having existed for more than 80 million years, with the hardest kernel shell of any fruit in the world, one could imagine that this plant known as ‘the tree of life’ is planning to stick around for a while. Although, between the stunted tree growth caused by goats and the 15 years it takes for the first fruit to appear on the branches, the future sustainability of this ancient tree to keep up with modern day demands needs to be considered.
How best can we support the Argan initiative? Back in Marrakech, you can’t walk 10 metres without falling over an argan vendor. Just be warned that some are little more than bottles of vegetable oil being passed off as a bargain. To best safeguard the authenticity of this ancient fruit – buy organic, eco certified and from the source. Purchase from an Argan Cooperative where you know that monies raised go toward the traditional Moroccan villages who have worked this plant for centuries and whose monies help fund and educate the Berber.
The end of our visit with the lovely local Berber women nears, so sufficiently oiled up, inside and out, we collect our newly purchased goodies and bid goodbye to the Argan keepers. Tonight we will be feasting on Moroccan-styled Nutella for dinner in the coastal port of Essaouira!
The vocals from nine young men, a drum, big white smiles, foot stomping, clapping and finger clicking are filling the carriage with life. There’s no stopping the toe tapping that comes from hearing a great beat and right now on our journey from Bandarawela, the local Tamil tunes that chorus up the train offer a...Read More...
The vocals from nine young men, a drum, big white smiles, foot stomping, clapping and finger clicking are filling the carriage with life. There’s no stopping the toe tapping that comes from hearing a great beat and right now on our journey from Bandarawela, the local Tamil tunes that chorus up the train offer a wonderful sound, matched only by the beautiful scenery flashing by.
I’m in the hill country in central Sri Lanka on a local train filled with a combination of Sinhalese and Tamils that make up the nation. While others doze or vie for a seat; green hillsides with rows of tea estates, waterfalls, local village life and Eucalypt forests whiz past. With heads hanging out windows and bodies clinging to open doorways, it’s noticeably more than just me that’s appreciating the cool mountain air and lush highland landscape.
We reach the tiny station of Idalgashinna, 1600 metres above sea level and entranceway to the tea growing mid-regions of the Uva province to start our ascent into the mountains as a part of a two-day hike. With my fellow intrepiders, the walk will see us travel through tea estate plantations to meet the pickers, visit the villages and see what tea-life entails.
Most people know of Ceylon tea – the variety of black tea called Pekoe grown in Sri Lanka but may not know that the country itself was known as Ceylon until 1972. As a part of my travels, I’m on a Ceylon sipping tea trail across the country where only yesterday, on the outskirts of Kandy, a group of us were uncovering the production process at Geramgama Tea Factory, one of 13 properties that make up Pussellawa and the greater Ceylon Tea Estates.
Not being a big tea connoisseur myself I was unfamiliar with the process or the fact that all types of tea come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. It’s only the variations in region, the time of the harvest and style of processing, in particular the level of oxidization of the leaves that determines the difference between white, green, black and oolong tea.
We watched on as demonstrations on the drying, oxidization, heating, rolling, sifting, bagging and packaging methods unfolded. The processing equipment used is what the British brought into the country over 100 years ago and despite modern machinery being available for harvesting, tea plantation ‘plucking’ is still conducted by hand. This ensures that only the flush (top two leaves and bud) is taken, maximising the aroma and flavour to provide a higher quality ‘cuppa’.
Once the leaves are in the factory they are spread into troughs to ‘wither’ which removes excess moisture. They are then rolled, twisted and parted, serving to help enzymes in the oxidisation process. Leaves intended for green tea are left un-oxidised while black tea goes through a heating process where the leaf ferments and changes colour from green to copper before being fired (Chinese tea) or steamed (Japanese tea) to retain the flavour and eventually turn hard and black. On top of this, it’s the grading thats intriguing. While a tea grade doesn’t indicate the flavour or quality, in Sri Lanka it does signify the size of the leaf and where on the stem it originates.
- D (Dust). The particles remaining after sifting. These are often used in tea bags to infuse rapidly for a strong brew.
- F (Fanning). A small broken leaf, a little larger than dust.
- S (Souchong). The larger leaves on the bottom of the branch often twisted and used in Chinese smoked teas.
- P (Pekoe). Less course and smaller than Souchong
- OP (Orange Pekoe). Aside from the buds and flowers these are the youngest and smallest leaves at the end of the branch
- BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe). Broken grades of orange pekoe leaves are made smaller by a machine for a faster infusing tea.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe). Orange pekoe grade with leaf buds and tips.
- FBOP (Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe). Broken orange pekoe grade with some tips.
- Green tea un-oxidized tips and leaves to retain their colour and fresh flavour.
- Golden Tips the unopened buds
- Silver Tips made of the unopened leaves known as buds at the top of the plant to make white tea. The most expensive tea type available.
Back to todays mountain hike and we bid farewell to our Tamil entertainers before commencing the uphill journey through leopard country into Horton Plains National Park to our morning tea stop. We sit briefly to enjoy a hot cup of BOP warmed over an open flame and sweetened with karupatti (brown pieces of concentrated coconut palm flower sap) amidst valleys of rolling green plantations. In the 33-degree heat and glare of the sun, there are no ‘pluckers’ here today. “They come early in the morning when it’s cooler,” Raj, our local mountain guide tells us.
The trail continues. Dramatic slopes plunge below on one side and scale above on the other. We weave through dense forest, patches of open brush and thick vegetation that clutches at our legs, before once again being framed by knee height tea hedges. It’s hot, it’s sticky, it’s sweaty and overnight bags are now well suctioned to our backs. While the humidity, higher altitude and rainfall of the central highlands provide an ideal climate for high-quality tea, it doesn’t necessarily help the frizz-inclined amongst us, so we stop frequently to hydrate.
The afternoon walk gives us time to find some tea seeds, meet the local villagers of the Badulla district and take in the local Hindu temples, great views and cooler air. Up ahead there is an enormous shell of a building that’s falling down in front of us. “This was once a tea factory,” Raj shares, “but closed 10 years ago.” There are no roads and given the inaccessible nature of the mountain region it’s too difficult to transport the tea to factories, so it relocated. This means that the elevated landscape once home to hundreds of tea gardens weaving their way along the slopes, is, as we get closer to the village, slowly being replaced by terraces of vegetables.
We are nearing Ohiya and kids come out to greet us, to play games, take selfies with our phones and practice their English, while families emerge from tin houses stapled down with roofs stacked by rocks, to wave vanakkam (hello in Tamil). Life is very simple here, so tonight we relish at the chance to join in the local entertainment with a game of Carrom (a board game version of snooker with red and black disks that are flicked into the corner pockets) and clapping along to some songs in the lounge room of Misty Mountain Lodge, 2100m above sea level.
It’s now day two of our highland hike and we continue climbing into the clouds. The dawn veil of mist slowly dissipates and hovers its way between the mountain folds overhead while the sound of rushing water in the next valley calls out. We pass by highland hamlet life; endless smiling faces, cows being led into the plantations, mountain shrines, a farmer and even a nursery of tiny toddlers napping in their aerial sleeping bags while their parents work the fields.
A kilometre on and rows and rows of tea bushes hug the hillside providing lines of contours as far as the eye can see. This morning the women are readying themselves to pluck from field number six, 11 hectares in size. It’s only young Tamil women that make up the plantation workforce (introduced from South India 180 years ago during British ruling) as the Sinhalese weren’t interested in plantation plucking. To this day, the skills are still handed down the generations from mother to daughter, following in their grandmothers’ footsteps.
Ladies are usually responsible for certain rows in a field of tea that require it to be visited every week. By carefully selecting the top two leaves and leaving sufficient bud for the next pick the women collect up to 20kg per day before taking the sacks to be weighed. Today in Haputale West Division’s Udaveriya Estate a couple of husbands are also helping out by collecting the cow manure as fertilizer.
Sri Lanka continues to be one of the top exporters of tea through out the world. Tea from this region, I’m told, is destined for some of the largest infusers, including Russia, the former Soviet nations (Estonia, Latvia and the ‘stans’), the Gulf Countries (United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia), Syria, Turkey, Britain, Eqypt, Libya and Japan.
It’s time for a mid-morning break and once again we take a spell, trackside, with a warm brew. Tea, in Sri Lanka is taken at least five times a day and is considered good for the health. All teas contain antioxidants called polyphenols (also in fruits, vegetables and grains), the strongest of which, known as catachins (particularily ECGC), are said to fight the free radicals that contribute to heart disease and cancer. While tea does contain caffeine to boost mental alertness, it also features L-theanine, an amino acid (only found in tea) that simultaneously heightens alpha wave activity to promote relaxed concentration (found in the newest leaf growth).
White, green and black tea all possess different types of antioxidants, however, the less processed the tea the greater polyphenol potential. Green tea antioxidants are said to help burn fat, fight food-borne bacteria, balance blood sugar levels, enhance immune functions, be good for eye tissue, reduce the risk of stroke and improve cholesterol, not to mention the research showing the reduced growth of cancer.
The fermented leaves of black tea have a higher caffeine level that can protect the lungs, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke, while the uncured and unfermented white tea offers high anticancer properties and in another study, inhibits wrinkle production by strengthening collagen and elastin as well as helping keep the joints young. With all of these health benefits, it makes you wonder why we don’t bath in it! On the flipside, however, too much tea can also affect some people with headaches, nervousness or anxiety and nausea.
We kick on down hill with hiking sticks still in hand to find ourselves overlooking the beautiful Bambarakanda Falls. At 263m tall it is the highest waterfall in Sri Lanka. It’s the final stop on our delightful two-day, 26 km Ceylon tea trail and a perfect spot to take in one of the Sri Lankan pleasures – a selection of spicy curries, hoppers (rice flour pancakes) and condiments for lunch, with of course, a nice cup of Pekoe pick-me-up.
Misty Mountain Lodge – www.mistymountionlodgeohiya
A fairytale homeland full of miniature mushroom houses, lichen carpet, curtains of twisted vines and light beams that shoot like stars down between the trees, unfolds before my eyes. At any moment elves and pixies will jump from the mattress of moss that blankets the ground scurrying to escape as our boots send shock waves...Read More...
A fairytale homeland full of miniature mushroom houses, lichen carpet, curtains of twisted vines and light beams that shoot like stars down between the trees, unfolds before my eyes. At any moment elves and pixies will jump from the mattress of moss that blankets the ground scurrying to escape as our boots send shock waves reverberating across the enchanting forest floor.
I’m in the South West corner of New Zealand’s southern island in the wild and remote World Heritage fiordlands where one could imagine the cute critters of children’s fiction novels residing. Look carefully and we might just spy a glimpse of Tinkerbelle and Queen Clarion flitting around in Pixie Hollow.
Known as Milford Sound, the area was once a giant glacier that carved its way through the valleys and over the centuries as the ice melted, the waters remained to create a stunning fiord. To best explore these wild lands, I am on one of the most famous hikes in the world – the Milford Sound track, a four-day wilderness walk and entrancing journey along what feels like, the untamed edge of the world.
What is it about a nature walk that’s is so good for the soul? Is it the perspective gained on life devoid of any work-based distractions? Is it the immeasurable quality of being one with the environment? Does it offer a sense of belonging to something bigger than just the self? Key research findings in 2010 from Beyond Blue maintain, “that humans depend on nature … for emotional, psychological and spiritual needs”, and furthermore, nature helps to “lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress.”
The beauty of nature is that it resets our minds. Based on psychology’s ART (Attention Restoration Therapy), urban environments constantly occupy our mind and force us to direct our attention to hundreds of decisions and tasks daily, which is depleting. In contrast, natural landscapes demand very little, thereby, replenishing mental resources. In effect, what man-made environments zap from us, nature gives back.
The question begs asking then – is nature the best medicine? Indigenous cultures have known about the intrinsic connection to nature for healing and lived this way for centuries. While the western world catches up, there are many strong bodies of research into eco-therapy confirming that both viewing and being in nature increases mental health and spiritual development. Not to mention the healing plants and minerals that live within it.
Well, what better place than in this remote region between raging rivers and snowy peaks to test my nature therapy skills on. Let’s see what sublime state of serenity I exit the ‘sounds,’ at the end of day four.
World of Waterfalls
From triple-tiered to plummeting, 100m high and majestic to small and rocky, we pass over, by and below a multitude of waterfalls, each as beautiful as the next. We are now in what I call the ‘valley of the falls’, close by Hidden Lake where the cliff faces today shed over 100 and I can understand why this area is known as one of the wettest places on earth. We walk into a clearing and an ethereal mystical fog hovers above our heads, as if not yet wanting to reveal the enormity of the mountains towering over us mere dots on the grass plain below.
The clouds have been leaking for days and as our walking path quickly transforms into a shallow stream, we change from tramping to trudging to sloshing. Heads are down to keep the drips out and our eyes are scouring the forest floor in front for an ideal spot to plant each foot. Up ahead there is silence. I turn my camera to see Don at ground level with just his head above water. #expletives … I momentarily panic, trying to understand the enormity of the situation before rushing toward him. One simple step too far to the right of the walking trail hidden below water and he’s fallen into a deep hole with a 10kg pack strapped to his back. But, he’s now up and back on his feet. A moment passes and it seems that Don is all right and Adam can’t stop laughing but for Linda and I – we’re shocked at the thought of going under so easily.
We continue with care, stopping occasionally to appreciate just why it’s called a rainforest; and with good reason, since the region offers an unparalleled annual rainfall of 7 metres a year. As a result, landslips, rock fall regions, volatile alpine weather and detours are ever present. The landscape is eternally changing so there’s never a dull moment. We side along fern-coated embankments, hairy trees lined by ‘Old Mans Beard’, Hirere Falls, funky fungi, the Pompolona Ice Field and beautiful Beech woodlands. As scenes shift between forests and fields, our path too alters, from chocolate coloured mud to platforms hovering over rocky beds and swing bridges across foamy rapids. Ranging from a trickle to a torrent there is always one consistency; the sound of rushing streams close by.
Like a turtle shell, my pack is glued to my back and we now move as one. I only wish I could say the same of the lead weights on the bottom of my legs that continue to absorb their waterlogged surrounds. Unlike my boots, I feel safe in the knowledge that my backpack contents – food, clothing, toiletries, bedding and equipment for four days, will remain dry. After 5 hours on foot, with a warm fire and dry clothes beckoning, I’m looking forward to arriving at the Mintaro Hut for the night.
Simple dormitory rooms with bunk beds await, above a kitchen and dining area. Arriving before dark allows us sufficient time to unpack our sleeping bags and cook a hot meal before enjoying the company, games and conversations of some of the other hikers. A couple from Germany, a backpacker from Holland, a family with three kids from Queensland and our party of four sip hot drinks by the warmth of the fire. Before too long we are being sidled out as this valuable piece of real estate turns into a Laundromat. Everyone is vying for precious hanging space to dry out soaking socks and tops while the inners of hiking boots are disembowelled and displayed in a three-metre radius around the hearth.
It’s the middle of the night and I wake suddenly with my bed shaking. Unfortunately it isn’t the prowess of my lovemaking skills being tested; it’s an earthquake, 5.7 on the Richter scale. I stay in my sleeping bag, wide-eyed, giving thought to the snow-capped mountain towering above and hope that any slips, landslides or avalanches miss our humble hut below. Already, the heavy rains had resulted in a temporary cancellation of our walk and the track being closed yesterday. We waited at our first night accommodation, Clinton Hut for four hours for the waters to retreat before it was safe enough to continue.
This morning the sun in shining for the first time, the foggy curtain has lifted and the snow line fizzes and steams under its warmth, providing a startling contrast against the blue cloud-free sky. The rivers have receded and once again we are following in the footsteps of centuries of travellers before us. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, given our hiking profile today.
A long day of uphill tramping means that it’s time for some solo walking while others power ahead to reach MacKinnon Pass. It gives me the opportunity to travel at my own speed and absorb the surroundings of Lake Mintaro. Science tells us that the value of walking at your own pace is that cognitive performance (the brains working memory) required for reasoning and learning, improves. A hurried or slow pace, however, will not achieve the same memory boost. With any luck then, I decide, I’ll be more intelligent by the time I reach the top!
Everyone is smiling today and I’m sure it’s not just the improved brain connectivity, but thanks to the sunshine. There’s an obvious physiological response to being in nature, as hoods are off and suddenly the panorama appears bigger, the air is fresher, the colours are brighter and the wildlife, noisier. Delicate flowers emerge from the rock faces, sparrows dart through the undergrowth, rare Whio (blue ducks) float amid the reeds and even my pack seems lighter. Over the next few hours, every step I take and the deeper I go into the wilderness, the greater perspective I seem to gain. Clarity starts to solidify and moment-by-moment the insignificance of small-scale problems dissolves in the midst of nature’s creation.
So why do we find it so relaxing to be in nature? It’s proposed that the environment is innately part of who we are and where we come from. In human evolution terms, cars and concrete office towers have only been a part of the landscape for a very short period of time. So nature helps us by returning our spirit back to its innate setting.
Aside from the rain, the Milford Sound track, so far, has been a comfortable undulating hike and well sign posted. Just watch out for whiplash, given the stunning scenery at every head turn. At 120m above sea level, I now huff and puff my way toward the alpine pass at 1200m, wondering why I didn’t do any training beforehand. With a total of 64-avalanche areas enroute, this means that, in parts, there is no stopping to catch the breath or take in the views – just a small warning sign posted in the ground of ‘200 metres of danger ahead’.
One of the best ways to become more proficient at anything is by integrating both hemispheres of the brain through movement, so I bring myself back to every step on the trail and the mindfulness of my walk. Just like a pendulum, the tempo is providing me with a hypnotic beat that allows my conscious mind to switch off and live more acutely in the moment. This goes a little way to explaining why it’s easier to think if you’re doing something rhythmical and, where better than on this killer uphill hike to practice.
Wow. I’m at the top and it’s breathtaking – in more ways than one. There is not much more that can be painted into this 360-degree scene – mountains, valleys, rainforests, waterfalls, rivers, snow-capped peaks, wildlife, blue sky and happy faces. Literally, I am feeling on top of the world. A view and a moment that would not be lost on even the most seasoned veteran tramper. I feel so connected to everything yet at the same time, so remote and out of reach of modern civilization. Surrounded in rock formations shaped over millions of years, densely wooded Clinton Valley on one side and the forests and waterways of the Arthur Valley cutting through the other, in any moment a hoard of dinosaurs could rumble their way down the valley and the scene would not look out of place.
The region used to be plentiful with bird life and fish as the Maori regularly travelled through the Clinton Valley searching for greenstone to trade as well as in their seasonal search for food. While there is no monument or presence of Maori here today, the Quinton MacKinnon memorial, acknowledging the New Zealand explorer of Scottish decent is a perfect place to stop and refuel. For entertainment, the allusive ‘Kea’, the worlds only alpine parrot, endemic to the country and emblazoned as a logo on the side of most campervans has not only come out of hiding, but in its typical cheeky style is pilfering through walkers backpacks in search of food. A fellow tramper turns her head momentarily while her rain jacket; a plastic bag and some clothing are casually tossed aside by a Kea digging into her belongings.
Just then a distant beat cuts through the mountains’ silence and a helicopter comes into view. Emergency air lifting out of the Milford Sound track is possible, given the inaccessible nature of the place. We hope that someone hasn’t suffered an injury. Rounding the corner to the Pass we watch as the helicopter deposits its drop close by a shelter. It turns out that civilization is closer than you think, for the airlift today was to drop off lunch for a guided tour group – hamburgers and thick shakes. It is a comfort and security for some, seeking home luxuries and pre prepared meals, however, a tiny disappointment for independent hikers embarking on a wilderness experience. It’s moments like these where it becomes even more apparent that every persons ‘eco therapy’ lives at a different level.
We pass by the ‘loo with a view’ and commence our knee-breaking descent into the Arthur Valley. After two and a half hours (maybe three for me) of pushing my legs up the winding mountainside trail to the Pass, they are now deciding to wobble their way down the other side. We scramble beneath Mount Balloon and over Jervois Glacier and another avalanche zone littered with grey boulders – some as big as cars to find ourselves alongside the Roaring Burn River. Here, freakishly tall tree ferns mix with majestic waterfalls (including New Zealand’s highest, Sutherland Falls), steep steps, bridges and aquamarine streams. Despite the near-freezing degree temperature I find a quaint swimming hole close by Dumpling Hut and take a super-speedy dip in the glacial waters.
It’s the final day and once again I walk solo for a part of the route. Sadly the relaxed and leisurely pace I had planned for the remaining 18 kilometres will be replaced by Olympic walking speed in order to meet our earlier boat booking. With the promise of swarms of sand flies ahead, I slow down a little to enjoy my tramping backdrop.
There are many lessons that nature can teach us and watching the rivers diverge through the landscape offers me a reminder of how nature constantly shifts and moves in order to survive. I take this as a nice analogy of the need for flexibility, a cue to allow the space for growth. Just as a sapling radiates towards a space in the tree top canopy that offers light and air, so too can we be malleable and adapt towards our surrounds.
It’s the homestretch and I spend some time by the beautiful Mackay Falls shrouded in spray, hanging out with little Weka’s that scamper about my feet, crawling under the naturally formed rock ledge called ‘the bell’, having lunch with Linda not far from Lake Ida and swinging on the Giant Gate Falls bridge. Finally, the four of us meet up and we tramp our way into Sandfly Point, armed and ready for the little mites to eat away at our bare legs. Surprisingly, it’s all hype. There are no black swarms engulfing our every move, just a few ankle bites to take away as souvenirs today.
Importantly, we have completed our 55km (33.5 mile) hike and ultimately arrived at the stunning Piopiotahi (Milford Sound). Adam, Don and I dip our feet into the freezing waters as Anita Bay chugs its way into greet us. We jump on board and cruise out across the Sound, a part of the Te Wahupounamu World Heritage area where the iconic Mitre Peak launches out of mirrored waters and rises nearly 1700m into the air. Opposite, kayakers glide past as waterfalls spill from hanging gardens in the sky sending a fine mist our way.
The scene is a final reminder of our beautiful four-day walking experience, of being one within nature, raw and engulfed in all the elements. Feeling grounded through the energy of the earth, nature has shown us a fundamental way to reconnect and restore the spirit through eco-therapy. We bid goodbye to our ‘other world travels,’ to this piece of paradise providing cover for the secret world within and one that I will remember (and tell my nieces) as being, the earthly embodiment of a hidden hobbit heaven.
Beyond flexibility, what other life lessons did nature offer me as a part of my self-appointed, eco-therapy walk?
- Depth of beauty (or beauty of depth). Around every corner there is a wondrous scene overflowing with life and what might appear as simple on the surface, is filled with an intricate ecology, thousands of years in the making. Look deeply (at the beauty within ourselves and others) and just like nature, it reveals something more than skin deep.
- Timing. There is no better moment than here and now, but be conscious that there is a cycle, a season and time for everything. Be patient and don’t despair during frosty evenings, as warm sunny days are on there way; hold out over three days of rain and you will be rewarded with rainbows. Appreciate natures rhythmic cycle and that there is a right time in our lives for every event.
- Inner Peace. Even with the challenges facing our planet, nature shines. So too, is there peace already within us. Being in nature provides our minds with the space to let go, enjoy the freedom and find the kind of joy that is not attached to external things.
- Be Open. Flora blooms regardless of the appearance of its face or colour (and its waterlogged surrounds), just as we too can open and share our true nature and make the most of our personal attributes. In order to fully know and appreciate who we are – passions and fears, we need to allow ourselves to open up to our innate essence. Being open is also about being receptive to the potential life changing experiences that are available at every turn and the opportunities that present themselves.
- Survival. On a one-way walk, sometimes the only way to reach the end is over the mountain. Just as nature never gives up; commit to growth, expansion and persistence to overcome any challenges.
What life lessons has nature given you?
- Wear two pairs of socks to reduce blisters and minimise toenail loss
- Food should be high in fat for energy and low in weight. Dehydrated dinner packs are great – just add hot water.
- Tie your shoe-laces together (not while your walking) so the Kea don’t steal them (two is heavier than one for them to carry)
- Bring some waterproof gear. A pack liner is only $5.
- A head torch is handy when trying to find your way to your bunk bed in the dark
- Earplugs are a must against snorers
www.doc.govt.nz. No camping is allowed and seasonal hiking restrictions apply. Bookings are required and fill up quickly when the season opens. Only 40 independent hikers can travel on any given day, due to the number of hut beds available.
To get there. Transport and hut tickets can be booked together. Book a bus from Queenstown to Te Anau. A small bus can then be arranged from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs that meets the boat to take you across Lake Te Anau to commence the Milford Sound trek at Glade Wharf. Four days later meet a boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound followed by a bus from Milford Sound to Te Anau or straight to Queenstown.
Even underwater, I can feel my butt wobbling. Like a fire hose, the jet pressure is clearing a wake of everything in its path, which right now happens to be my Gluteus Maximus. Whilst I do appreciate the nozzles body contouring attempts at hydrotherapy, I decide to move a little to the right to allow the...Read More...
Even underwater, I can feel my butt wobbling. Like a fire hose, the jet pressure is clearing a wake of everything in its path, which right now happens to be my Gluteus Maximus. Whilst I do appreciate the nozzles body contouring attempts at hydrotherapy, I decide to move a little to the right to allow the stream of water to dig into my thigh. “Ahhh, that’s better.”
Onsen, hot springs, mineral streams or healing waters – what ever you like to call them, the benefits of underground mineral waters have been recorded on every continent for centuries. Before the days of high-tech spa treatments; wellness seekers, the disease ridden and even royalty visited thermal pools for their therapeutic benefits which are said to originate from volcanic geothermal hot spots or fault lines in the earths surface that seep minerals from deep in the core.
The mineral compounds in hot springs vary from location to location and so too are the healing properties. Spring water high in Lithium is said to relieve depression and aid digestion; waters rich in iron help to benefit the blood and immune system, while sulphur and sulphate rich waters address skin infections, inflammation and respiratory problems. Saline hot springs rich in sodium chloride are considered by some to be beneficial for rheumatic conditions, central nervous system disorders or postoperative procedures, while Bicarbonate water assists with hypertension and opens blood vessels to improve circulation.
My global dips in medicinal waters have entailed visits to Pamukale in Turkey, the Black Forest in Germany, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, Bath in England, Kobe in Japan, Ecotermales in Costa Rica and even natural hot springs in outback Australia. One place said to have many natural hot pools, thanks to its geographic history is New Zealand. So here I am on a super-soak journey uncovering the best geothermal retreats for modern-day soakers on the South Island.
The Māori call the springs and pools of New Zealand ‘waiariki’ and use them for warmth as well as natural healing properties. Long ago, the Māori also used many boiling springs (Ngāwhā) for cooking and cleaning – although I wont be boiling any eggs on my hot pool travels this trip.
Hanmar Springs Thermal Pools
One of the most popular hot springs of the country, Hanmer Springs is an easy day trip from the city of Christchurch, taking just under two hours through beautiful countryside to get here. From a meager bathing pool in 1850 to today’s 2015 thermal pool theme park, Hanmer has certainly grown in size and popularity to become a mineral-based modern day tourist attraction.
Early Māori used the springs known as Te Whakatakataka O te Ngearehu O Ahi Tamatea – “where the ashes of Tamatea’s fire lay,” to warm themselves and rest whilst travelling overland between the east and west coasts. In Māori legend the springs were created when Māori traveller, Tamatea asked the northern volcanoes to save their travel party. A ball of flames appeared from the volcanoes and travelled from the river to the sea with pieces flying through the sky and turning to ash. It’s at one of these spots where the ash fell to the earth that formed Hanmer Springs.
Kicking back, alpine style in a region known as a relaxation destination for thousands of years is certainly a nice way to unwind. Thanks to an enormous alpine fault that created the Southern Alps, this hot spring resort with a backdrop of tree clad mountain escarpments offers three types of thermal pools – sulphur, mineral and freshwater.
Drawn from a ground bore, the mineral rich waters are kept as natural as possible and are said to contain a variety of minerals including calcium, sulfur, sodium chloride, carbonates, potassium and magnesium to relive the pain from arthritis. The mineral waters are then mixed with freshwater to create a variety of pools with different temperatures.
Aside from the many public pools, there are also private indoor pools and other mineral themed activities for kids and families including water slides, a fresh water lap pool and the ‘lazy river’. Today the facility is busy so I decide to avoid the queue for the slide and wallow in the popular hexagon shaped concrete-lined pools at a balmy 38 degrees.
Indoors there are spa themed experiences of a different kind with massages, facials, scrubs and body treatments on offer, although, as forest trails weave their way skywards, I decide to finish my afternoon outdoors stewing in three of the 12 open-air mineral pools. At 40 degrees, the sulphur pool is a knockout with a smell that starts wrinkling not just my toes but also my nose. It’s great, so I decide to linger for longer and I’m well rewarded all afternoon with silky smooth skin.
Glacier Hot Pools
I journey via the TransAlpine railway across the breadth of the island to the West Coast where 39 degree day temperatures are replaced by wet, grey and stormy skies. Loaded up in my winter woolies I make my way south to Franz Josef, a small town in the middle of glacier country.
I have come to hike the ancient ice rivers that cut their way through the valleys. The spectacular sight is a bucket list highlight of my trip to New Zealand. Due to global warming the glaciers are fast receding and a crampon-strapped walk through their blue-tinged crevasses are now only accessible by helicopter. Unfortunately, the grey soaked skies and misty covered mountains mean that all glacier walks are cancelled today. Instead, I take the three hour round trip along the valley floor to sight the face of the 7000-year-old, 12 km long ice block carving its way through the rainforest.
Whist the non-glacier experience was a little disappointing; my spirits are warmed as I sink my cold and wet feet into the steamy mineral waters at Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. Just one-block from the village centre, the hot pool complex offers a tranquil setting against a backdrop of giant ferns and boulders within the UNESCO World Heritage Westland National Park. The drifting mist and light rain only adding to the afternoons’ ambiance.
With a choice of three outdoor pools from 36-40 degree temperatures, I settle in 38-degrees to defrost my bones. While it might occasionally be hard to find your own little thermal pool corner, it is a nice way to get to know other fellow travellers – a couple from Malaysia, a French man cycling the length of the country, a group of hikers here to soak their tired legs and a couple from Holland on a romantic getaway.
I find a peaceful spot alongside the rainforest where I can lean on the ledge and take deep breaths of fresh air before turning again toward the rising steamy waters. I am particularly interested in viewing the three private pools that were titled by the local Te Runanga o Makaawhoi Māori tribe. With fabulous names like ‘the reviving waters’ (Te Wai Whakahaumanu), ‘the easing waters’ (Te Wai Whakawai) and ‘the tending waters’ (Te Wai Taurima) I am intrigued as to their therapeutic benefits. The site, however, is currently under construction and ‘receiving a facelift,’ the receptionist informs me, so the private pools and massage room are not available.
Unlike Hanmar Springs, the Glacier Hot Pools it turns out are not natural thermal springs. Instead, the water comes from the glaciers known by local Maori as Kã Roimata o Hinehukukatere (frozen tears of Hinehukuatere’s lost love) and go through a heating process before entering the three zones. This means that visitors can, in fact, put their head under the water if they so choose to. I decide not to give it a go, given the soggy Band-Aid that has just floated past me.
Research shows that hot pools even without high mineral content are still therapeutic. Immersion in hot water raises the body temperature and causes the blood vessels to dilate, resulting in increased circulation. Together with the buoyancy of water reducing body weight by up to 85% to help relieve the pressure on joints and the energised stream of pressure released by jet nozzles to relax muscles, the result is a release of endorphins, the bodies natural pain relief.
There is no pain relief required here, my cheeks are flushed and I’m sufficiently cooked, so it’s time for me to step back out into the cool air. My relaxing and warming glacier hot pool experience is just what I needed tonight.
Onsen Hot Pools
Heading south along the rough and wild western coast I spend some time in the lovely lakeside village of Wanaka before arriving into the adventure capital of Queenstown.
A shuttle transfer picks us up for the 10 min ride out of the city, hugging the Shotover River. We pass by remnants of gold prospecting days where fragments of tin shacks shake in the breaze and pulley systems that previously transported food and supplies are now used for fishing and small time gold seeking, before arriving at Arthurs Point.
Perched on the edge of a cliff face looking over the Shotover Valley with it’s jetboat and rafting trips below is the stunning setting of the Onsen Hot Pools. Six private rooms, each with a cedar lined Japanese-styled hot tub centerpiece take up to four people and have been purpose built to provide a luxury soak.
A press-of–a-button and the enormous window retracts back into the ceiling to reveal nothing between me and the great outdoors. The postcard panorama is breathtaking. Another touch of a button and the jets are on, pushing forth a mixture of mountain spring water, rain and lake water. But where are the hot minerals? To ensure its pristine quality, I’m told, the water is charged with pure Oxygen, ensuring our baths are crystal clear, chemical and contaminant free.
The hot tubs are very popular with couples – if the Onsen brochure is any indication. Unfortunately, I do not meet my ‘lord of the springs’, but for our fun group of four, the soothing soak is a chance to release the tension in our weary muscles while looking back over our week of south island antics.
The Onsen Hot Pools may not be natural hot springs, however, the facilities, private rooms and customer service are first class, to be matched only by the striking scene before us. After two full days of paragliding, canyoning, mountain hikes, cable car rides, downhill luge races and exploring the city of Queenstown – I think everyone deserves a hot soak with a million dollar view.
My 5 Hot Spring Tips
- Don’t pee in the pool!
- Don’t put your head under the water
- Drink freshwater to rehydrate rather than the mineral waters.
- Take care, with many remote natural springs in New Zealand, some are boiling pools that can burn or contain dissolved minerals that are highly acidic.
- Sit back and enjoy your super soak
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