What does a name mean? For many places, the name of an establishment is rooted in the history of a property or location. Sangoma, meaning Witch Doctor is a retreat nestled amongst bushland at Bowen Mountain. It's part of the Blue Mountains and a little over one hour's drive away from Sydney. The story behind how South African owners Michael Podles and Zenga Butler chose the name is one steeped in the land's history.
Successful in their respective fields and living in Sydney, Michael was an art gallery owner and consultant while Zenga was an international make up artist. They both owned a weekend getaway at Bowen Mountain while their primary residence was in Sydney's Potts Point. Their careers meant that they spent most of the time overseas and rarely together. The resolution point came one day when Zenga was returning from overseas in a taxi and Michael got into the same taxi to go to the airport. They knew something had to change.
Thinking about their weekend retreat, they saw a site had come up for sale in Bowen Mountain. At the time it was owned by a notorious war criminal and Nazi sympathiser Lyenko Urbanchich. There was just a single brick tower. Not even fully understanding Ubanchich's history they bought it and demolished the tower.
They knew something was amiss and the site underwent a cleansing using an Aboriginal spiritual cleansing ceremony. Michael recalls "There were no birds, but two weeks after the ceremony, we had birds" and lightness returned to the site. The Mabbung or Medicine Woman who performed the ritual stayed in their mind as a possible name for the retreat and they decided to give it a South African twist as befitting their heritage and renamed it Sangoma, Zulu for Witch Doctor.
The two new hoteliers harnessed their skills - Michael with design and Zenga with cooking. He sees cooking as no different from make up artistry. The food served at Sangoma is healthy often dairy and gluten free with an emphasis on vegetables with a side portion of meat.
There are five suites to choose from and the retreat is extraordinarily popular being booked for weeks and months ahead. At times groups take all five suites - the advantage is that all of the suites are fantastic and there is truly no "dud" suite. The five suites range from a tent suite, a glamorous version of an actual tent with luxurious features to the split level Chief's Suite.
You'd never know that the city were so close and high heels really aren't needed. The entrance to the main house features an enormous rock shaped like the mainland of Australia. The rock was a significant find on the land. Their Siamese cat is shy while Punda the Rhodesian Ridgeback is part of the welcoming process. As we drive in Punda and Zip who takes cares of Sangoma during the week are waiting.
Behind the African inspired furnishings beats the heart of a sustainable retreat. The water used is rainwater, power is from the solar panel system supplying the LED bulbs and the waste is processed through a Biolylix system (like a worm farm) and the water pumped through to the garden. Heating is through wood fired slow combustion fireplaces and a wood fired boiler or gas heater heats the water.
A resort pool is bordered by a lush green manicured lawn with an adjoining sauna and showers. There is an honour based mini bar where guests can help themselves and add each item to the tab. There are plenty of comfortable chairs and lounges to sit on. With a maximum of 10 guests and a no children rule, nobody ever need to feel as though they are sitting on top of one another. The idea is to relax and retreat from the clamour of the nearby city.
Did I mention that check in on week days is 11:30am and check out is also 11:30am giving people a complete day? On weekends, check in is 11:30am and check out is 3pm which is one of their most popular features.
We enter our room, the Chief's Suite. It's a spacious split level structure that measures 95.35 square metres. Upstairs leads to the bedroom where a king sized bed awaits. Surfaces and furnishings are tactile. It reminds me of being on safari at a lodge. The panoramic views look out towards the city of Sydney.
After staring at the view, the eyes go straight to the Philippe Starck bathtub to the left of the bed. Topped with a crystal chandelier it sparkles with the morning sun. An open two headed shower is next to the bath.
Privacy partitions ensure that neighbours can't see you. In the bathroom Aesop products are provided from shampoo, conditioner, soap, shower gel and body lotion. You'll need to take shower caps and slippers although robes are provided.
Downstairs is the living area. A modular leather lounge is the perfect place for two people to snuggle in front with the fireplace roaring. Or if the sun is out, there is always a heated plunge pool outside - the Chief's suite is the only villa to have its own private plunge pool. There are two types of sun lounges and the floor to ceiling windows can open up completely to let in the breeze.
Tea and coffee, still and sparkling water are also complimentary in the mini bar during the mid week package but a fully stocked complimentary mini bar is provided on weekends. For extra supplies, the nearby town of Kurrajong is a ten minute drive away. There is also free internet but this is only really in the main house. Telephone and your own wifi signals are medium strength in this area.
Which brings us to the reason for our visit. It is Mr NQN and my eight year wedding anniversary and we spend the afternoon curled up on the couch wrapped up in the snuggly throw contemplating dipping a toe into the pool. It's rainy and a little cold outside but the pool is warm. Mr NQN suggests that we make like snow monkeys and jump in. I'm transfixed by the Oscars telecast and I guess it's true love when your husband sits with you through the whole show.
Later that evening at 7pm we join the retreat's other guests in the main room for drinks and then dinner. Breakfast and dinner are included in the room tariff. We order a drink (these are charged separately) and chat to Michael and the other guests who are staying here for the second time to celebrate a birthday.
Variation on miso soup
We take a seat at our table - each couple gets a table for two and our first course comes out. It's their take on a miso soup but with added ginger and leek which lifts the usually salty soup. There are three types of mushrooms served in it including enoki, shiitake and nameko. It is served with a slice of fabulous 7 grain Iggy's bread and butter. We overhear everyone asking about the bread which is served warm with a crunchy thin crust. Not a drop of soup goes back to the kitchen.
Slow roasted chicken
I mentioned before that the food has a healthy bent but that doesn't mean spartan. The main meal is enormous and they bring out a slightly larger serve for Mr NQN. Zenga is influenced by Yotam Ottolenghi and their focus on vegetables. The main is a show roasted chicken thigh topped with a spicy orange and aniseed crust baked on fennel. To the side is a salad made up of Brussels sprouts, zucchini flowers, zucchini and lemon with shanklish (a Middle Eastern cheese). It's an enormous serve and it's hearty and wholesome and I particularly like the amount of spice in the dish.
As he sets down the dessert Sam the chef explains that it is a dairy, gluten and egg free maja blanca which is like a chai panna cotta. To the side are white chia seeds as well as tapioca with cinnamon and white chocolate. There are also slices of white nectarine and a crispy wafer made up of coconut and sesame in agave syrup. All together it's a good combination and it's a fortuitously light dessert because of the hearty main.
That evening, our stomachs full, we sink into the bath and watch the moths flicker towards the windows and listen to the sound of the wildlife.
The next morning, after a terrific night's sleep on the bed, the morning sun streams in through the side windows. I awake just as Mr NQN comes back from a morning bike ride where he proudly tells me that he has "climbed the steepest hill I have ever climbed!" He even managed to see a peacock on the side of the road. I open an eye skeptical about the peacock sighting. I roll over and contemplate breakfast.
I'm always curious about what breakfast will hold and here at Sangoma. It is available at any time between 9am-11am. We take a seat and they offer us a refreshing watermelon and aloe drink. The night before chef Sam had promised to make me a herbal concoction for the morning using lemons and he delivers a fabulous blend of lemon, lemon verbena and ginger sweetened with Manuka honey.
The first course is the breakfast parfait. There is a cast of thousands in this from fresh mango, ticale, spelt and oats soaked in hazelnut milk with cocoa and feathered palm sugar. In the centre is what they term "the heart of darkness" which is a rich mix of medjool dates steeped in espresso with orange blossom and dark chocolate. On top is Greek yogurt with cinnamon, leatherwood honey, orange oil, pomegranate seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds in coconut water. The mix is coloured purple with beetroot juice and sweetened with carob molasses. Despite having so many components, all for goodness and flavour, it works well and is sweet but not overly so and leaves one not feeling weighed down but with a good, healthy start to the day.
For all of the cost and waste that a buffet breakfast at a regular hotel, I think many customers would be satisfied with one freshly cooked but delicious offering. The shakshuka is an example of this. It's richly flavoured egg dish with a base of feta, sausages and tomato with spicy chilli punch which adds a good hit of flavour and aroma. The eggs are baked on top with a slightly runny yolk and despite knowing that we are going out to lunch in a couple of hours, we finish it all. It must be the country air...
After coming back from lunch, all grand plans to use the sauna and pool come crashing as we collapse on the lounge for a nap. Who says that doing nothing isn't tiring? I wake up with the sounds of Mr NQN tapping on his computer and suggest a little dip in the pool before dinner as the weather is warmer today and the afternoon sun casts a welcoming orange glow.
Michael off duty with Punda
Nearby we hear the soft chatter of other couples and the occasional laugh. We have new neighbours next to us. We jump from the pool to a hot shower and get dressed for dinner and make our way to the lounge. We chat to the other guests - one couple are film makers from Sydney while a new couple have just arrived from Canberra.
Lemon cured salmon
We take a seat at a different table and our entree is served. It is a lemon cured Atlantic salmon with garlic chives, soy sauce and samphire salt. Mr NQN is making moon eyes at me hoping for the rest of my entree. Not a chance!
Slow roasted lamb with Mahadra rice
The slow roasted shoulder comes with heirloom beetroot and carrots. The lamb has a meltingly soft texture and the preserved lemon gives it some zing to counter the richness. The Mahadra rice has five types of rice and three types of lentils as well as sesame, turmeric, vinegar, pomegranate and eggplant and they're fantastic when combined together as the rice adds a sweet nuttiness to the lamb.
Belgian chocolate gelato
We are told that this is the closest thing to an unhealthy dessert on the Sangoma menu. It's a frozen Belgian chocolate parfait with pistachio oil. There are hazelnuts and crumbled cookies on the bottom as well as sliced star fruit.
As we have an early morning departure we don't expect anything for breakfast but Michael and Zenga are up and ready to serve us something light to eat. We start with some home made cocoa muesli and a glass of the sweetest freshly squeezed orange juice.
The main is creamy scrambled eggs and sliced tomatoes and bread. Michael, Zenga and Punda wave us farewell as our car slowly crunches over the bushland driveway, the sound to be ruefully replaced by the beeping of city car horns and highway.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you have a favourite nearby retreat? And do you believe that a land's former owner or activity can leave energy on it? Do you like the idea of an a la carte breakfast or do you prefer a buffet?
NQN and Mr NQN stayed at Sangoma as guests of Sangoma Retreat
70 Grandview Lane, Bowen Mountain, NSW
Tel: +61 (02) 4572 2592
Mobile: 0411 36 89 36