As the NSW lockdown lifts, we go bush to find a new form of isolation. Fortunately, we don’t have to venture far to get completely off the grid.
The NSW government has been encouraging me to isolate in my cramped Sydney apartment for weeks. And yet, on my first blissful weekend out of the COVID-imposed lockdown, isolation is exactly what I’m craving.
With the lockdown lifted and intrastate travel given the green light (just don’t think about heading to the Victorian border), I have a window of opportunity to escape the realities of 2020. I don’t want to see another person, screen, news alert or socially distanced toilet paper queue for an entire weekend.
My road to freedom is the M2 motorway. It gobbles up my four wheels on Parramatta Road and spits me out near Richmond in Sydney’s northwest, as I surge towards the base of the Blue Mountains. Buildings grow sparser as the farming plots of Windsor yawn and stretch before me.
My destination is Spicers Sangoma Retreat, an all-inclusive luxury lodge on the south-eastern fringe of the Blue Mountains National Park. It’s about an hour and a half from the Sydney CBD, and a similar driving distance from Katoomba. You can approach from either side; however, a scenic but slightly longer option is to drive northeast from Katoomba, rimming the oval-shaped National Park on the northern side via its teetering escarpments and panoramic mountain passes.
Spicers Sangoma promises “complete rejuvenation” and is named after the Zulu word for healer. It had to do its own healing after closing during the bushfires of December and January, which came terrifyingly close to the resort’s bushy boundaries. Soon after the resort reopened, the pandemic forced Sangoma’s doors shut; it only begun accepting guests again in June. Fortunately, General Manager Sam Giles tells me there’s been no shortage of bookings. Guests – myself included – are feeling quite shattered after the first six months of 2020. A weekend of healing is just what the doctor ordered.
My vehicle bumps down a corrugated dirt road to pass through Spicers’ sliding security gate. I am late for lunch and, with stomach grumbling, I am dreading the check-in process that has become standard for hospitality businesses post-COVID. This can include waivers, temperature checks, and requirements to surrender personal details despite having offered them up in the online booking process. Mercifully, Giles can either read minds or hear loud stomachs. Forget parking the car – staff will do that – his priority is to park me immediately at a dining room table.
Sangoma accommodates just eight couples and no children, so the restaurant really is more like a dining room. The rest of the lodge spills out from this central arena in hues of rust, bone and wood. There’s an Africa-meets-Australian-bush vibe: animal furs, eucalypts, leather lounges and crackling fireplaces. Outside, a tranquil pool belies the chilly June temperature. It’s unheated; but comes with a sauna that wraps me in warm steam after an invigorating dip.
Food and beverage manager John Vanderlinde pours a Tasmanian sparkling to kick off my isolation in fancy new digs. It is one of an extensive wine list made simpler by the helpful descriptor “(inc.)” to signify wines covered by the all-inclusive accommodation package.
I’m too hungry-tired to peruse any food menu, which is fine, because there is no such thing at Sangoma. Head Chef Will Houia prepares a daily assortment of dishes according to season and availability of local ingredients. Today, lunch is share plates of slow-braised lamb, thrice-fried potatoes, roast radishes with spiced hummus and green salad leaves. Dinner is a multi-course tasting affair with ingredients like swordfish, creamed cauliflower and miso-poached onion. The plates are delicate and plant-focused; great for COVID waistlines if it weren’t for the moreish house sourdough, which is impossible to refuse.
Between meals, I retreat to my “room” – a veritable castle called the Lodge Suite that dwarfs my Sydney flat. Each corner is new and exciting: should I first curl up on the lounge in front of the fire, flop onto the fur-festooned bed, or sink into the freestanding tub in the cavernous bathroom? One person per four square metres should be doable.
In fact, social distancing is a breeze throughout the resort. 10 acres of bushland is interrupted only by a few walking tracks favoured by trail runners and mountain bikers. Every rise has a view of gumtrees swarming rugged highlands, looking like little heads of broccoli from a distance. It’s an epic environment to broaden your horizons beyond the next Zoom call.
There’s one meeting I must endure while out of office at Sangoma: a harsh reality check with my lockdown fitness levels as I attempt to spin a resort mountain bike up the sharp inclines of Bowen Mountain. This ends with me flopped on my animal-fur bed in the most serene slumber I have experienced all year. Ah, nature is healing. And I’m a willing patient zero.
Get there: Spicers Sangoma Retreat is a 1.5-hour drive from Sydney CBD on Bowen Mountain, with free parking on site.
Stay there: Rooms start from $1429 per night on an all-inclusive basis. There is a two-night minimum stay on Friday and Saturday nights.