In August 2018 I led a group of around 20 people to La Rochelle in Zimbabwe’s pristine Eastern Highlands. During the three day break we spent most of our time sitting in well-established botanical gardens among the most uniquely beautiful in the world; learning something about meditation and Buddhism; being led through some gentle yoga stretches and, most of all, enjoying each other’s company. It was such a wonderful experience that some of us are keen to do it all over again!
A Personal Journey
The visit to La Rochelle was especially meaningful to me, as a Zimbabwean who has spent all of my adult life outside the country. Growing up, the Eastern Highlands were regarded as a special place by my parents who, like many of their generation, had honeymooned in the mountains, and found echoes of their beloved Scotland in the crisp, Nyanga air.
As a teenager I was a keen musician, and on an orchestral trip to Mutare we once stopped at La Rochelle. That first encounter remains vivid in my imaginative memory. There was a magic about the gardens, especially the orchid houses, a wonderment about Sir Stephen Courthauld’s magnificently curated collections, and I will never forget the delightful fresh scones with jam and whipped cream! The light and energy of La Rochelle has a particular vibrancy which I hope may be suggested by some of the images in this blog.
Fast forward several decades and when Harare-based Nola Dollar, who I’d never met, emailed to ask if I might like to do a few days of Mindful Safari-style outdoor teaching and meditating with her own group of fellow practitioners, La Rochelle immediately surfaced in my mind as the perfect venue. Little did I know that Nola had herself, only a short time before, gone to the re-opening of La Rochelle, and was eager to take other people there.
The planets lined up. The bush telegraph was cranked into action. Pretty soon all the rooms at La Rochelle were fully booked.
What happened last year, which we plan to repeat in 2019 was pretty much as follows. People drove up from Mutare, Harare or elsewhere in the morning and checked into their rooms. Lunch was available on the veranda of La Rochelle for those who wished.
Gathering in the sitting room at 2.30 pm, we made our way down into The Dell, where staff had arranged chairs. Most people chose to use these, while others brought their own meditation cushions – the important thing is to be physically comfortable.
I introduced the group to some of the key concepts of mindfulness and meditation and we had a couple of brief sessions before tea. With groups like this, a session is never longer than 15 minutes. Unless you are a very seasoned practitioner, that period is quite enough time. I’m of the firm conviction that 15 minutes of focused concentration is of far greater value than 45 minutes of mental meandering.
La Rochelle staff bring tea to us at the pagoda overlooking the mountains. It is really wonderful simply being able to spend most of our time outside. There is now a gathering wave of scientific evidence showing how beneficial it is to reconnect with nature.
Even on a purely physiological basis, research has shown that, when among trees, breathing in the phytocides they produce to repel fungus, our own immune systems are dramatically boosted and the number of Natural Killer Cells in our system increases by 40%
If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out my blogs: The Fascinating Science Behind Mindful Safari: https://davidmichie.com/the-fascinating-science-behind-mindful-safari/ and Recommended Reading for Mindful Safari: https://davidmichie.com/recommended-reading-for-mindful-safari/
After tea on Day 1, we have another session of teaching and meditating, before heading back up to the house. As you’d hope of any stay in a country house, there are pre-dinner drinks in the bar, sitting room or outside, followed by a buffet dinner, where we all sit together at a long table running the full length of the veranda.
While some people knew just about everyone there, others of us knew nobody to begin with. Not that that was an impediment to conversation! One of the wonderful things about having sole occupancy of a place like La Rochelle for a few days, is that you feel like you’re all on the same team. Kindred spirits enjoying the same thing. We may come from many different backgrounds and ideas about what constitutes normal life. But in a more important sense we share the same values.
The following day we had morning and afternoon sessions in The Dell – with well-catered tea and coffee breaks, naturally. And on day three, a pre-breakfast session only. After breakfast on day three, we all went on our separate ways.
During the course of these sessions I covered topics such as the physical and psychological benefits of meditation. In particular, how meditation is the only way we can observe, and begin to manage, our own mind. I shared different techniques from well-known breath based practices, to less well known visualisations and analytical meditations. And mind-watching-mind meditation, my own personal favourite, was there in the mix too. I also shared some of the key concepts of Buddhism, which provoked some thought-provoking discussions.
We were very fortunate having Ali McDonald with us, to guide us through yoga stretches – helping ensure we felt supple and relaxed before each meditation.
The Property and its legends
The program allowed time for everyone to explore the beautiful house and grounds of La Rochelle. This included a guided tour of the orchid house, a truly astonishing place which houses a variety of exotic plants including one which is the only specimen of its kind in the world.
There was also a visit to the Organic Herb Farm, and the testing beds prolific with a wide variety of herbs including Lemon Verbena, Peppermint, Chilli, Chamomile, Fennel, Stinging Nettle, Calendula, Ginger, Turmeric Anise and many others. La Rochelle Organics is one of the success stories of recent years, with its European customers eager for the organic herbs grown in such pristine conditions.
As for the house itself, I don’t think it’s only me – a lot of other people who visit say they feel something special here. Perhaps it is the surrounding mountains and the many ways that nature and architecture are so beautifully aligned. Or the guiding spirits of Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courthauld, who built this property, and then bequeathed it to the nation – their remains interred at the base of a tower you can climb for a panoramic landscape view. (For more images of the house and its grounds, go to: http://www.larochellecentre.com/#facilities).
Or maybe we are simply responding to that same intuition that guided them here in the first place. One of the intriguing stories about La Rochelle tells of how the Courthaulds bought the land on which they planned to build their home from an Afrikaans farmer, who had in turn had bought it from someone else. They had the name La Rochelle clearly in their minds, as a reference to the town in France that was Sir Stephen’s ancestral home (the tower at La Rochelle is a visual reference to the French port of La Rochelle). When the Courthaulds came to register the land, they discovered that the person from whom the Afrikaans farmer bought it had, years before, named it … La Rochelle. What are the chances?
A more recent La Rochelle legend comes to us from 1981 when twenty men, returning from a day’s work, saw a fire ball roll up the lawn, then scale the side of the tower before entering via a window and bursting into flame. Later, the fireball continued to the roof of the nearby Fantasia suite. When the foreman of the group, Clifford, reached the Fantasia building, he saw three men, one of whom he mistook for his supervisor. Calling out his name “Mr Connolley! Mr Connolley!” when the men, slowly, turned, Clifford and his mates fell to the ground, unable to look at them. It was not Mr Connolley standing there but three beings from whom such powerful lights radiated that the workers couldn’t look at them. When finally, they picked themselves up from the ground, the men had vanished. (http://www.exopoliticssouthafrica.org/news/close-encounters/62-encounter-in-la-rochelle-near-mutare-zimbabwe-on-12-august-1981)
La Rochelle may have its part in the much more wide-reaching and intriguing phenomena surrounding the 31⁰ longitude line that runs from North to South through the continent of Africa. This is the line on which the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. And, “coincidentally”, Great Zimbabwe. It runs close to La Rochelle and straight through to Timbavati, home of the unique white lions, the living leonine counterparts in the South to Egypt’s famous sphynx. Curious things have historically happened along this line. Not least among them, the now globally-famous UFO sighting at Ariel School in 1994 – Ruwa’s GPS coordinates are 31.2⁰. For more on this, check out: https://youtu.be/Kr_remi7qgQ (In case you haven’t guessed, I am a collector of 31⁰ East stories – if you have any to share, please send them to me!)
So, La Rochelle is an extraordinary place, significantly located, which has attracted enlightened and unusual visitors over a long period of time. What a privilege to be able to enjoy its magical energy for a few days again among kindred spirits.
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