In the mountains above Machynlleth, MARK GIFFORD discovers the peace that comes with living in a teepee, showering under freezing water and launching a tirade of abuse at screeching owls.
“OK, so how does my aura feel?” The woman with the formidably side-split skirt manages to sound commanding even while lying on her back, eyes closed in a large multi-coloured play tent. “Um I think… wait a minute,” I mumble, desperately playing for time while moving my hands around in the air about two feet above the pentagram tattoo on her lower torso.
“And?” she questions, with what could be described as spiritual impatience.
“Well, I think it’s sort of bendy in the middle,” I gush, hoping this sounds suitably insightful.
“Bendy? Right, let’s try something else, shall we?” Wobbly auras just don’t cut it.
The crystal meditation session is part of an eco retreat taking place in some of Wales’ most stunningly untouched scenery – the middle of Dyfi forest in the mountains above Machynlleth. For three days, you and your eco partner stay in a Native American teepee, the idea being to escape from the cut and thrust of everyday life, sip some organic wine, chuck a log on the brazier and find your pagan soul under sticks and canvas.
After trekking down dirt tracks and forest roads used by the RAC Rally of Wales, we’d emerged in an enclosed valley with lush pasture, skeins of hill streams and the sight of our first teepee. We were met by founder Mark Bond, who decided to set up the retreat having spent several years living in teepees and tents as part of the west Wales hippie movement. The area has been a draw for ‘alternative’ lifestyle-types since the ’60s, with the nearby Centre for Alternative Technology being founded around that time.
The teepee itself stands around 20 feet high, with stripped boughs supporting heavy marine canvas and miles of lashed rope. Inside, there’s a log-burning brazier, small cooker, double futon and more sheepskin than a shearing shed at teatime. Mark showed us how to position the two outer poles so that the smoke flaps would vent the fire properly, thus avoiding eco immolation. In Native American mythology, each part of the teepee had a spiritual identity, with these two ‘helper’ poles representing the life force of the owner and the door poles the spirit of the lion and bear to protect the inhabitants and their dwelling.
It all seemed too cosy to be true, but there were a couple of surprises in store. The first was the Swedish-designed non-flush toilet, designed to ‘separate’ waste for further use as garden compost and fertiliser. Resembling a traditional dunny, this was a small lean-to with a well-appointed viewing hole in the door, a basic seat and a bag of muesli-type wood chipping to cover things up with. Despite early misgivings, it worked, didn’t stink and the view beat floral wallpaper hands down.
On the edge of the dunny shack was a ‘solar heated’ shower. This meant the sun would heat the water running from the nearby spring through overground pipes for a truly ambient flow of warm water. Good theory. One slashing burst of ice-cold Welsh mountain water was enough to inspire naked fear, loud cursing and a Benny Hill-type dash back to the teepee.
So far, so eco-friendly – but what’s the agenda? There isn’t one. You get a reiki massage from a visiting practitioner and the aforementioned crystal meditation, but the main idea is simply to leave your car, civilisation and cares behind, relax, unwind and contemplate. We managed pretty well, aided by large quantities of candles, incense, logs (all provided) and organic wine. After dark, with an array of nightlights burning and the brazier spitting flame and sparks, the teepee’s inner peak resembles a canvas cathedral spire wreathed in smoke.
There were a couple of minor interruptions to the contemplative calm. The first was a sheep that had stuck its head through a nearby wire fence and was about to choke. This meant legging it up and down several hillsides, getting help (from Cath the reiki lady) and finally pulling a bedraggled woolly mass rear first out of its predicament.
The second was a family of screech owls who spent the entire night strafing the teepee and perpetrating a ghastly banshee banter. The nature boy syndrome wore off around 4am, with the owls receiving a barrage of footwear, firewood, curses and Basil Fawlty-style raised fists. They raised a cumulative eyebrow, winked and carried on screeching. Bastards.
Although there are a few short cuts – such as the gas cooker and futon – the basic theory is pretty sound and, after only two nights in these surroundings, you certainly do begin to feel more mellow, philosophical and distanced from the hubbub of everyday life. Given another week or two maybe I could even learn to love psychotic owls and suicidal sheep. My aura felt in pretty good shape.
• Mark Gifford’s two-night Eco Retreat was organised through Red Letter Days (0870-444-4004; www.redletterdays.co.uk). The teepee site is based near Esgairgeiliog (between Machynlleth and Dolgellau). Retreats are held between March and September and cost £399 (including free entrance to the Centre for Alternative Technology).