I am a dog and not a cat person. We weren’t allowed cats growing up because my brother was allergic and as an animal lover, I had tried to over enthusiastically pet a feral cat once, and was bitten. But I have recently interacted with some of my friends’ cats who are soft, gentle and cuddly and now have a somewhat idealised view of cats. So, I was far more eager to look after a cat for few days while staying at the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) in Ixopo, KZN. The cat, whose name was Lily, was an apparent feature of the accommodation I had booked. I imagined snuggly with the cat sitting gently on my lap while reading my book.
But when I arrived, I met Lily the cat, and with one glare I could tell that it hated me. It sat on its chair throughout my visit, only mewing at me for its food and would run away from me if I tried to pet it. I would let it out during the day and then spend ages trying to find the cat because it would disappear for hours. And with every cat, comes a crazy cat lady, who was in this case not me, but an older lady in her 80s who was a past-her-retirement -date employee having worked at the BRC since the 1908s. On my first morning, she knocked on my door at 6:45am, while I stumbled around in my robe, to talk to me about the proper care of the cat even though I had been given detailed written cat-care instructions on my arrival. She then proceeded to stalk the cat during my stay and could be seen creeping around outside my house looking for the cat, and then would ostensibly disappear if I appeared outside without acknowledging me.
Ignoring the weirdness surrounding the cat, the BRC itself is on an incredible piece of land on top of a ridge in the Umkomaas river system in Ixopo, KZN. You can spend your time as part of a guided retreat attending classes but I did a self-retreat and spent my days walking up and down the rolling hills, through indigenous forests, sitting on rocks meditating, swimming in the dam and reading my books. I must have finished 4 books during my 4 days. The cellular reception is also bad so it really offers a chance to reconnect and unplug. And the scenery is absolutely breathtakingly spectacular.
The BRC does not have any curtains on its windows which I assume is to set your body clock to the natural rhythms of the day. I am a light sleeper and very sensitive to light so in retrospect should have brought an eye mask. But I tried to embrace the full experience, as one does, and found myself going to bed soon after 8pm each night and waking up at about 5:30am each morning. They also practice the philosophy of “noble silence” which means no talking from 9pm each night until after breakfast. Personally, I quite enjoyed not having to make any small talk during my breakfast and could have continued without talking throughout the day. But other than these eccentricities, and buddha statues everywhere, I did not find that the Buddhist philosophy and agenda was too strongly emphasized. In fact, it felt very warm and embracing of all cultures and types of religious persuasions.
In addition to the cat, I had other animal encounters with monkeys at each and every turn throughout my walks. I left my bag on the side of the dam to go swimming and one particularly brazen monkey tried to rifle through it but he soon disappeared when I shouted at him. I was initially more enthusiastic about the dam until I came upon something pulling on the reeds of the dam and then saw a pair of eyes as it dropped slowly down into the brown and murky waters. Initially I thought it was a crocodile but now I am convinced it was a hippopotamus. It also wasn’t helped by the fact that no-one else ever swam. But I am a swimmer. So, I conducted a series of experiments by dropping rocks of varying sizes to mimic someone getting into the dam. And seeing that nothing came up to the surface to attack, I decided it was safe enough to get in but I was too terrified to swim far out.
Ultimately I left the retreat feeling completely relaxed and rejuvenated. Being an introvert the time alone had centred me and allowed me to feel like myself again.
There are a variety of different accommodation options available at the BRC and they are all lovely. I chose to stay in the small house with one bedroom which was beautifully decorated and had sweeping views down to the valley. It also comes with that cat.
The other well-known highlight of the BRC is the food which is vegetarian. But I advised them that I was plant-based and ended up with heavily starched lunches such as a meal of just beetroot, potatoes and rice for one lunch. I was warned about this from another vegan and was able to take my own chickpeas to supplement my meal with some protein and some salad and veggies from the vegetarian side.
The BRC is about a 2-hour drive from the King Shaka airport in Durban. You can drive yourself or you can take a pre-organised personal shuttle. I personally was very relieved to have a shuttle driver as there was heavy mist on both my drives and some of the roads were quite steep with hair-raising turns.
To book or for more information please see: https://www.brcixopo.co.za/