One of the world's 10 best meditation retreats is in KwaZulu-Natal
Alex Patrick follows her bliss to the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo, which is as famed for its food as it is for its serenity
In the quiet hills around Ixopo, there is an even more serene place. On the top of one of these hills, overlooking a valley in the Umkomaas River system in KwaZulu-Natal, stands the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC).
Within these 121ha, the most noise you will hear is the wind rustling through trees, birds singing, and the hum of a lawnmower upon whose back rides the figure of Colin Kemery.
The floppy hat gives him away. Part groundskeeper, part in-house chi kung teacher, Colin points to the reception area of the BRC, revealed through a maze of indigenous shrubbery and cobblestones.
This visit is for the Wesak ceremony, celebrated the world over on the May full moon. It commemorates the Enlightenment of Buddha as well as his birth and death.
The centre is home to many interesting characters, including founder Louis van Loon, a Dutch citizen who travelled to various monasteries and meditation centres in the far East, Europe and the US to pursue his own Buddhist studies. He arrived in South Africa in 1956 at the age of 20. He lectured Buddhist philosophy at the universities of Durban-Westville and Cape Town.
Van Loon purchased the Ixopo plot in 1970 with a vision of creating a Buddhist retreat, a refuge where he could continue his practice and introduce Buddhism to South Africans. His wife Chrisi plays an active role there when she is not "walking" in Europe.
The centre was also declared a Natural Heritage Site by Nelson Mandela
The BRC, originally an overgrown plot brimming with wattle trees, was transformed into the indigenous, biodiverse landscape that the retreat calls "a birder's paradise".
There are over 160 species of birds recorded on the property, including the blue swallow, of which the Ixopo Buddhist Retreat has been appointed custodian by the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
The centre was also declared a Natural Heritage Site by Nelson Mandela. CNN would later feature the retreat as one of 10 finest meditation centres in the world.
MEALS ARE A MEDITATION TOO
But most of us come for the food. Speaking at the first of what would become many bestselling cookbook launches, Van Loon said he had become sick of eating gruel.
He wanted the BRC to be different from other retreats, where cooking and eating were as much a meditation process as the actual sitting. The retreat has since published three books of "inspirational cooking", inspired by the paleo, vegan recipes cooked up in their kitchen.
Guest teacher Stephen Coan spoke of his experience of spending six months in silent retreat at the BRC, where he would end up writing Chant of the Doves, a volume of poetry.
"You begin to look forward to mealtimes as an occasion when you are silent for so long. My favourite part of the day would be the pudding after lunch.
"On one particular afternoon, I eyed an enormous round cake with white icing. I raced through my lunch, hardly tasted a thing. And when I got to pudding I discovered the big cake was in fact Colin's hat! Disappointment followed."
There's a lesson in there, I think.
NO FIRE FOR US
The Wesak ceremony has changed since the first time I visited. Like many such ceremonies around the world, it is celebrated by releasing a lantern with blessings, or wishes for the year. This practice has not taken place at the centre since 2014.
"We realise we are in the Southern Hemisphere. It is winter. It is dry. We thought Buddha would disapprove of our burning down a whole village in his name," says Coan.
I've never met Buddha, but I suspect he may be right. Instead participants circumambulate the 5m-tall Buddha statue on the main lawn, created by Van Loon, chant and eat delicious cake. The Ufafa Valley will be safe for another year.
The next morning starts with the 5.30am gong, followed by chi kung and meditation, and a long drive back to Johannesburg.
As I leave the BRC, I wave goodbye to Colin, he lifts the side of his floppy hat and smiles a broad smile. The lawnmower starts up again.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
The Buddhist Retreat Centre is off District Road D64, which branches off the R56 between Pietermaritzburg and Ixopo, 5km from Ixopo.
Accommodation is from R750 per person per night.