St Francis Health Centre – A personal reflection

A polite titter reverberates around the dining room when the therapist mentions the Monday dose of Epsom salts first thing in the morning. No-one is quite sure whether this is a joke, or a dire prediction of things to come.

And while the fifteen of us gathered in the pale blue dining room on this Sunday evening huddle over our dessert of cold apple – sliced, boiled and served in its watery juice – dark clouds rush in over the deep green valley beyond the window where I sit alone. I don’t want to talk. I am here for solitude and a break from the grinding monotony enforced on me by my only child’s school-going routine. Making polite conversation at the table is quite literally the last thing I can stomach at this point.

Staring out at the fast-gathering dusk, I hear the chatter in the background fade and become aware of my feelings. I long for my Sunday-night ritual at home: an extravagant bath where I exfoliate and titivate, scrub and shave, while sipping away at a G&T (easy on the tonic). This is followed by the family’s favourite pizza and our weekly fix of the current television series of choice (sadly, we have just finished In Treatment and Season 2, though on order, will take a while before landing on our shores). What the hell am I doing here, I wonder, having travelled for almost eight hours today – the last bit on a gravel road which I am sure did the Michelins on my car no good.

But I know exactly why I am here. My weight, the bane of my life since my early teens, has hit a new record and recent blood work uncovered an alarmingly high cholesterol count. So, I have come running to Anneliese Cowley and this place of holistic healing, the St Francis Health Centre in the Eastern Cape, hoping to kick-start a weight-loss programme and chase away the dark cloud of a looming depression, which daily stresses will undoubtedly aggravate.

Now that I am here, I have surrendered control. Obligingly I stay for the talk that follows dinner: one of the guests wants to know whether this was dinner, to which the therapist answers laconically, “If you’ve had the first course, and the second course, then you’ve had dinner” (the first course was half a boiled mealie). I join the queue, like one more sheep, for the ominous-sounding “body stats”. The nurse on duty remarks that the scale (one of those old-fashioned ones with little weights that slide on a rod) is slightly heavier and wants to know whether this is my normal weight. “This is not my normal weight; it is what I weigh at the moment,” I reply – more than just a note of defensiveness there, I realize. The fact that my body fat percentage is way too high and my water ratio is almost half of what it should be, only add to my gloomy mood.

I escape to my room. My lovely all-green room in the Emerald Wing. I light some of the Himalayan incense I brought with me, and it dawns on me: it is so very very quiet here.

I sleep fitfully and am awakened from an inchoate dream by a sing-song voice outside. It is stalwart Audrey with the promised Epsom salts and my programme for the day. I tap myself all over with the short rod of bundled reeds that our tai chi master William brought for us from his recent visit to Machu Picchu and then Audrey is at the door again. She thought I had requested breakfast in my room – I had not, but I am quite happy to sip my breakfast of hot water and ginger in my room on my own.

My cell phone is mute, the battery having expired during the night. I “forgot” the charger for the cell phone at home and last night left a message on my voice mail saying that I am unavailable for the week. This thought, coupled with the realization that last night’s nagging headache has disappeared unaided, suddenly fills me with buoyant energy.

I set off for the labyrinth, taking a photograph along the way of the Centre’s patron saint – St Francis of Assisi – captured on a small pillar, his face set serenely against the backdrop of green foliage through which the columned entrance to the Centre is just visible. The reason for naming the Centre after St Francis eludes me, given that he is the patron saint of animals, and my later efforts to find out why this is the case prove to be unsuccessful.

I have looked forward to experiencing this labyrinth, having caught a glimpse of it shrouded in shadow in photographs. I have an abiding interest in labyrinths and labyrinth walking as a form of moving meditation and so I recognize its pattern as the classic 11-circuit of the Chartres labyrinth. It is early, and the many warbling birds are my only company as I take my first steps. I remain still at the entrance, asking for nothing more than the blessing of the people who do their healing work here, and for myself to be accepting of this process. When I start walking the labyrinth, I am surprised at how restrictive I find the narrow circuits which have been laid out with upright brick pavers. I long to take off my shoes, as I have often walked grass labyrinths in the past, but I am bothered by the concrete powder and pebbles on the intricate paths – typical Virgo that I am, I don’t want to get my feet dirty. I hear my intestinal orchestra starting up and I realize that this morning’s dose of Epsom salts was a hefty one; I manage just a quick bow in the direction of the labyrinth before I rush off.

My mood has swung and I crawl into my bed, ignoring the sunlight streaming across the floor, an odious taste in my mouth. I am too drowsy to continue reading Coelho’s Zahir. This is about the time I would be gearing up for coffee at Mugg & Bean back home, and although I can recall vividly that first hit of steaming milk and Wiener Mischung, I can honestly say that I don’t have a craving for it at this point. Not yet. I know from past experience that during the course of this week I will miss my mid-morning coffee more than my chardonnay at night.

I hover on the brink of sleep, alert to the fact that I have a massage at 11:00. Later I collect a cup of tea on my way to the therapy rooms which are decorated in pink. Oh joy! It is honey bush and mint, a welcome respite from the hot water we’ve been having until now. During former visits to health farms and hydros (before they all became spas ), I quickly became enslaved to the various flavoured teas set out every morning for us to enjoy throughout the day. Health is a serious issue here at St Francis, and the holistic approach incorporates established mind-body principles.

This morning’s massage is a no-nonsense affair, much like the orthopaedic sandals worn by the therapists: there are no floating petals, stones or crystals in a pretty dish to look at when I position my nose in the opening at the head of the massage table. I hate this part. It makes me nauseous, and I ask for a pillow. But Oyzey’s firm movements soon detract me. Her soft brown hands glide over my back and I remember that during last night’s talk we were advised to wash off the oil a maximum of two hours after the massage – otherwise the toxins dislodged by the massage are reabsorbed. (This information was new to me and never, in the untold number of massages I have had, has this obvious fact been pointed out to me.)

Oyzey’s hands wake me up. And although my tongue feels thick and furry, my mood has swung – yet again. I head for my room and light some pamplemousse extract in my burner. I am seized by sudden inspiration. I want to write. And I want to write this St Francis experience while it is all still fresh.

I break for lunch briefly: a tall glass of carrot juice – fresh, of course, and mixed with something which tantalises my tongue without yielding its name. The juice is cold and sweet. Should I sip it slowly, or just gulp it down and take in its lushness all at once? Then I am reminded of the short refresher over dinner last night on the importance of cheeeewwwiiiiiiiing. Not only our food, but also what we drink. After a few sips, I gulp the carrot juice down like a wilful child.

Later, I have a steam bath and almost fall asleep – a first for me – while Siğnet kneads my feet during an intensely relaxing reflexology. But all this is a mere preamble. The highlight of the visit is the first consultation with Mrs Cowley. And it was for this reason that I called ahead of time to make sure that she would be at the Centre during my scheduled stay.

For me, Anneliese Cowley radiates unconditional love, reminiscent of a Teutonic unlined version of Mother Teresa, although I’m sure that this metaphor would not sit comfortably with her. The dusty pink blouse, a colour she seems to favour, complements her complexion. In fact, her skin has a dewy sheen, no doubt a testimony to the success of the detoxification programme she is renowned for. Although her manner is brisk, she emanates empathy. On an emotional level I respond to her immediately. I trust her implicitly, having experienced her intuitive abilities once before, some 14 years ago – albeit at a time in my life when the concept of the body’s inner wisdom and the idea of energy medicine were wholly foreign to me.

According to the Centre’s website Mrs Cowley has studied specialised kinesiology, homoeopathy, naturopathy and many of the energetic disciplines. Sitting in front of her now, the way she goes about her treatment comes back to me with sudden and startling clarity: I remember my fascination the first time, seeing her fingers hovering for a moment over the numerous bottles of various shapes and sizes on her desk before coming to a rapid decision.

She works incredibly fast, her right hand acting as pendulum. Overwhelmed I battle to keep up with the information that comes pouring from her mouth like a rippling stream. My impression is that she has honed her intuitive and healing skills to a level far beyond my limited understanding. Suffice it to say that she is immediately able to identify the physical reason for my vague, non-specific symptoms and my general malaise of late, while mentioning an underlying emotional stressor – all this by looking at me, and touching my outstretched right arm ever so lightly.

Later, when the aftermath of dinner has settled down – I retreat from my solitude at the table in the corner to my room where all is quiet, wishing to resume my writing. But my heart is not in it. I am dejected. Knocked off balance by the strong medicine Mrs Cowley meted out this afternoon: no milk in my coffee – no, no coffee – for 15 weeks! And no wine. Also, I feel intense frustration at not having been able to keep track of the information she gave me this afternoon. Already I can feel the subtle connections she made between symptoms slipping away. Not even the small thermos of vegetable broth “for later”, brought to my room by a friendly face, can lift my sagging spirit. It is early and the crickets are still shrilling outside when I give up on my writing …

Friday dawns, a glorious day with the sky washed clean and the sun shimmering hot. Because of the long drive home tomorrow, my check-out consultation with the resident doctor has been scheduled for today. And the scales bring good news: I weigh 5kg less than I did on Sunday evening. I am exuberant. I feel that I can take on the world. Over the course of five days, my stomach gradually lost its familiar bloatedness. And as my stomach deflated, my energy level surged. Although the whites of my eyes are still not as clear as I can remember, they have certainly lost most of their yellowish, murky undertone. The puffiness along my cheekbones has vanished and my complexion is clear. My sinusitis has disappeared completely, no doubt because of the dairy-free diet. And my sense of smell and taste has improved remarkably. I don’t think I have ever tasted papino as sweet and pink as that which we were served for lunch one afternoon. I craved salt, though, and by Thursday I had persistent cramps in my legs, so much so that I hardly slept that night. This was obviously a familiar sign and Mrs Cowley had tissue salts on hand after Thursday’s breathing relaxation, making an intuitive selection to give each of us. She calls these “sweeties”, and dishes them out while smiling benignly.

On an emotional level, the weather these past days has reflected my inner mood. There were greyish days with fiendish wind while I battled my inner demons – realizing that as a child I had learnt to make myself “feel better” by means of food. I have never had an anorexic or bulimic relationship with food, but here at St Francis I began to understand, for the first time, that food determines my mood – not only physiologically speaking, obviously, but also emotionally. And that most of my everyday experiences are interlaced with an eating or drinking ritual of some sort, whether it is my mid-morning coffee, an early Friday evening drink with my husband, or dinner to celebrate an occasion.

My one disappointment is my last session with Mrs Cowley on Friday afternoon. My mind is buzzing with questions seeking clarification on one or two issues. But the polarity therapy, which she conducts mostly in silence, is over all too soon. My time is up.

Driving back home, I ponder the question: why would people choose to visit
the relatively isolated St Francis Health Centre? The names and addresses in the guest book indicate that visitors hail from beyond South Africa’s borders and even from all over the world. Given the plethora of popular spa destinations in this country, to my mind there can be one reason only: Anneliese Cowley, founder of St Francis Health Centre and “medical intuitive”, as refers to her.

As the director and holistic health consultant of the Centre, Anneliese Cowley – “Mrs Cowley”, as she is referred to reverently, seems to be personally involved in every aspect of the centre and its management. She is the one who selects the individual blend of aromas for our aromatherapeutic massages and I heard the young consultants tell of having to “practise” on her so that she is sure that they use just the right touch and pressure. She prescribes a combination of different therapies to treat the clients who flock to see her – reiki, shiatsu and polarity therapy, in my case. I witnessed her re-arranging the couches in the lounge because something about the ambience unsettled her every time she walked past, and noticed her checking on a wall decoration which she felt strongly about. And she clearly finds quiet pleasure in conducting the Thursday evening ritual where a state of balance and relaxation is achieved through her chakra and colour meditation. Come to think of it, the subtle chakra palette throughout the Centre, and the jugs of water in the dining room – labelled jasper, rose quartz and crystal quartz after the stones nestling at the bottom – are the sort of details which a stickler like me, too, would demand.

Under the guiding hand of Anneliese Cowley the emphasis at St Francis is on inner balance and a long-term change in lifestyle, rather than on outward beautification and short-term results. Located in the beautiful Kleinemonde Valley, the St Francis Health Centre also subscribes to the idea that a nature setting brings healing in and of itself – and the tranquillity there is singular.

Fact file

• The St Francis Health Centre is situated 13km from Port Alfred, approximately 15 minutes’ drive on a gravel road.
• Port Alfred is a seaside resort and residential town along the Sunshine Coast of South Africa. It is situated on the east and west banks of the Kowie River, exactly halfway on the R72 coastal road between Port Elizabeth and East London, 150km from each city and 58km south of Grahamstown on the R67.
• Visitors to the Centre can fly in via either East London or Port Elizabeth airports, or by private aircraft to 43 Air School, which is a mere 5 minutes out of Port Alfred. The Centre offers transport from the airport.of
• The St Francis Health Centre was established in 1992 and specializes in stress relief, weight control and natural healing, while offering the ultimate in relaxation.
• The recommended minimum stay is six days, beginning on a Sunday afternoon, with arrival between 15:00 and 17:00, and ending on a Saturday after lunch (lunch travel packs are happily provided). However, a much deeper healing, cleansing and de-stressing effect is achieved in the 10-day or two-week stay starting on Sundays or Wednesdays.
• The daily treatments include one therapy (massage, aromatherapy or reflexology), one aquarobics class, a steam bath and passive toner, a bicycle ride and rebounder exercises. There are ample walking trails, but no gymnasium – the element of competition is deemed to be stressful.
• The Centre follows a vegetarian detoxification diet, with only liquids on the first day.
• Hydrotherapies include steam baths, jet baths, sitz baths, a flotation tank, a heated indoor pool (where aquarobics is offered) and a lovely outdoor pool.
• A full range of complementary therapies is offered, including energy therapies, massage therapies, Moor therapies, shiatsu, reiki, acupuncture, specialised kinesiology, polarity therapy and colon hydrotherapy.
• Contact details:
o Telephone 046 625 0927
o E-mail:
o Website:

Zarine Roodt
26 October 2009