Backroads to Buddha in Ixopo

Posted on 27 November 2012

There tend to be two things people think about when they hear the town name of Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal – Alan Paton’s description from Cry the Beloved Country; or images of a Buddhist Retreat Centre, perched high on the felt-green hills, a brilliant-white stupa acting as a landmark for travellers winding their way along the D67. It’s an intriguing space that has welcomed visitors from around South Africa, and the world, for over three decades now, and from the popularity of its extensive retreat programme, will continue to intrigue the next generation of the spiritually-curious. Or maybe just the plain-ol-curious too.

Offering everything from bird watching to drawing, drumming to meditation, the Buddhist Retreat Centre prides itself on its accessibility. You don’t need to a Buddhist proficient in prostrations or mantras to attend any of the retreats. It’s what centre founder, Louis van Loon calls Ubuntu Buddhism – the only prerequisite is to be mindful of yourself, your space, and surroundings – a simple practice that is easy to forget in day-to-day city living. And don’t worry, there are many ways to practice this new mindfulness, from early morning chi kung, where each movement is beautifully deliberate, to the meditation sessions where even the weight of your tangerine robe becomes significant. Depending on the retreat you choose, the rest of the day is usually made up of classes, discussions, maybe an afternoon walk or reading in the dell with a mug of hot chocolate and Jemima, the cat, for company.

And then, there’s the food. Mouthwatering ovo-lacto vegetarian dishes that’ll keep you hovering outside the kitchen long before meal times just to catch a whiff. Dinner is a spread of homemade soup, the now legendary BRC breads, cheeses and crackers. Breakfast gets you out of bed with muesli, yoghurts, fruit salad, and a generous selection of nuts and seeds. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and the skilled cooks fill bowl after Anthony Shapiro bowl, with deliciousness. To top it off, dessert is served on retreat days, and if you’re inclined to feel guilty after your second helping of ‘Sweet Potato Lagaan’, there are plenty of walks and trails to stretch your legs and ease your conscience. Bird enthusiasts are also spoilt for choice, and the months of October and November usually welcome the endangered Blue Swallows to the grounds.

Louis and his wife, Chrisi van Loon, pride themselves on the centre’s natural aesthetics, as well as those personal touches that keep visitors returning year after year. Snug blankets stacked next to a roaring fire are a welcome find in Winter, or on a rainy Summer’s night. Delicate flower arrangements catch your eye in every room, and Chrisi’s pride and joy, the BRC Shop, is more of a boutique than an esoteric den. From hauntingly beautiful Tibetan singing bowls, to cotton Nepalese scarves and Charlotte Rhys products, you’ll find a bit of something for everyone. The honey, harvested from the nearby Byrne Valley, is a big seller, and few moms can resist taking home a sock monkey lovingly made by local women, and powered by Woza Moya, a community centre neighbouring the BRC.

Accommodation options and budget considerations are as varied as the scenery, with choices ranging from a single room in the ashram-styled Lodge (R380 a night), to the hillside Chalets with their own private balconies (R1330 a night for two persons). The accommodation costs include all meals and lectures. A once-off surcharge, which varies from retreat to retreat, covers the visiting teacher’s travel and materials costs. A concept foreign to our Western minds is that of Dana, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘generosity’. As a practice, teachers are not paid for their teachings as these are considered ‘priceless’ – instead visitors are encourage to leave whatever Dana they feel is appropriate so it’s worth taking that into consideration when budgeting.


Buddhist Retreat Centre

To find out more visit  The current retreat schedule runs until the first week of February, with the new 2013 one available online from the end of November. Emails can be sent to [email protected], or you can give the office a call on 039 834 1863.

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