Just before Christmas I booked myself onto a thing called the African Savannah Transformation Retreat. This was a ten-day getaway in South Africa that promised to transform people through a combination of starvation, sunshine, and psychedelic drugs.
The drugs we would take were ayahuasca, mescaline, and iboga, though the participants on the retreat didn't call them by their real names, they called them the Mother, the Father, and the Grandfather, which was confusing for a minute.
"Have you done Mother before?"
I beg your pardon?
There were 25 people on the retreat, mostly from North America and Europe. They ranged in ages from 22 to 50. When I fell into conversation about why they were there, they first answered that they were just curious, but as the retreat wore on and we became more comfortable tales about heroin addiction, child abuse, and repeated failed suicide attempts crept out. By that I don't want to say that the people on the retreat were especially damaged, but you don't book yourself into a highly experimental, vaguely legal, and potentially dangerous drug-therapy retreat because you're tired of package holidays. Many of them had been through rehab and traditional therapy before and had arrived at a stage of their lives where they were so used to feeling like shit all the time that a ten-day psychedelic boot camp didn't seem so outlandish.
A confession: While I've tried many drugs, I've never managed to get addicted to any. I can't even get truly hooked on cigarettes. I buy packets, forget about them, find them in a coat pocket weeks later, and chide myself: Must try harder.
In less than 24 hours we'd be vomiting in front of each other and sobbing uncontrollably.
On the first day, in glorious sunshine, we arrived at the retreat center in the countryside a little over an hour from Johannesburg. We were fenced in by giant walls and CCTV cameras: standard South African design for any property not held together by cable ties and sand. Everyone was a little bit nervous, as if it were the first day of school, the first day at Psychedelic High. In less than 24 hours we'd be vomiting in front of one another and sobbing uncontrollably and all that nervousness would be as foreign to us as sleep, good-smelling breath, and a regular source of food.
Fabian is the brains behind the retreat. He's a German who made a killing working in finance in London, only to spend it all becoming a shaman in the Peruvian jungle. Fabian has taken ayahuasca so many times, he says, that it doesn't work on him anymore. Imagine that: The first time I ever took ayahuasca I thought I might die. It's so strong that people sometimes shit themselves. So strong that you imagine you're back in the womb, pressure on all sides as you shoot down the canal and pop back into life. For Fabian, there's more buzz to a mug of Rooibos tea. You get to a point where the Mother has told you everything you need to hear, he says, and won't tell you anymore.
Fabian is quite the cult hero in psychedelic circles, and he looks the part with long hair, a beard, and a T-shirt he wears day after day, turning it inside out rather than washing it. People on the retreat love him. His energy is monumental, so much so that you often find yourself captured in the orbit of one of his many lectures.
"He sure can talk a lot," I say to Jana, a German girl with a tattoo of her dead cat on her shoulder ("Renate 1996–2012").
"I wish he'd never stop talking," she says, and walks away from me.
Jana, I'll discover some time later, has given up her house to spend the last half a year attending Fabian's ceremonies all over the world. Her dream is for Fabian to take her on as an apprentice.
Fabian and his wife, Nicole, have set themselves up in South Africa because they love the country, but also because it's an awful lot safer to operate here than in Europe or North America. Mescaline is illegal in the US and considered a Class A drug in the UK. And ayahuasca's active ingredient, DMT, is considered just as illegal as heroin in North America. Fabian hasn't once had a brush with the law. That's because he's smart but also because most countries haven't caught on to the rise of plant drug usage yet. (In South Africa, DMT is a Schedule 7 drug, meaning it is a controlled substance with the same legal status as heroin or heavy prescription drugs.)
Fabian grows some of the plants to make the drugs himself—although he calls it medicine. The rest he ships across the ocean in UPS boxes from a connect he has in the Peruvian jungle. When not in South Africa, Fabian's performing ceremonies in New York, London, Berlin, and wherever else there's a demand. In 2014, he did almost 250 of these events.
I've passed through to the other side and I'm smoking a cigarette out on the lawn wondering what will get to me first: the drugs, the hunger, or the spotty Wi-Fi.
The first night we go into the ceremony room, which is normally a yoga studio, lie on mattresses with puke buckets at the ready, and take our first dose of ayahuasca while Fabian plays a soundtrack of jungle noises from a pair of tiny speakers. I'm a little familiar with ayahuasca and know what to expect. Within half an hour I can see fractals, Aztec patterns, and the music, annoying up until now, has become as integral to me as my own heartbeat. An hour later, I've passed through to the other side and I'm smoking a cigarette out on the lawn wondering what will get to me first: the drugs, the hunger, or the spotty Wi-Fi.
The next morning over breakfast, people talk about their experience. Some feel a little let down by the first night. They've all paid a few thousand dollars to be here. One guy, Bill, is particularly gung-ho about the whole thing. He suffers from extreme back pains as a result of a car crash he had 20 years ago. The doctors have told him he's cured but Bill has somehow held onto the feeling of pain.
"Something in me wants me to feel bad," he says. "And I don't know what it is, but this medicine better fix it."
I ask Bill what he does. "I live in a converted garage and pay hardly any rent so I don't do that much," he says. "I used to do more, he goes on, but then my back and well…" He goes silent. This is hard, he whispers into his hands, I haven't spoken to so many people in a long time.
That night, we all take ayahuasca again. Bill takes double and then triple shots. It's impossible to tell how much because I'm high and experiencing a type of emotional incontinence. I'm crying and then laughing at the same time. But I'm sure I see Bill get up from his mattress at least two more times to get refills from Fabian. He has the walk of a boxer who's been slapped hard for nine rounds. I can't stop laughing. Fabian's laughing too. He runs around the ceremony room giggling. At one stage I ask for more ayahuasca but when Fabian comes over, all giggles, his face exactly like the Richard D. James masks in "Windowlicker," I'm right back in the deepest of hallucinations and fall down on my mattress.
My hallucination: I'm falling through thick banana leaves chasing after a fox who is actually just a wood cutting. Every time I get close to him, the banana leaves change into branches, or long grass, or huge wings and I loose the fox. My mother's in there too. She's power-walking on the street where I grew up, which is strange because she'd never do anything like that. Then the fox comes back, and then I puke.
l have a horrible thought: I've joined a cult and don't have enough WiFi signal to RoutePlanner, Airbnb, and Skyscanner my way to safety.
In the morning we take mescaline. The theory behind this back-to-back excess is that both drugs compliment each other. One's the Mother, the other's the Father. Ayahuasca is a deep, immersive, dislocating experience while mescaline is pure joy in a greasy shot glass. Fabian explains that it can actually make you feel like the cactus plant it comes from and for the rest of the afternoon all us pale-skinned North Hemisphere escapees sit out under the hot African sun lifting our arms, branch-shaped, into the air.
Beyond the swimming pool, where the compound joins a farm, I can see Jana. She's carrying a stone in the cradle of her arm and petting it. Further away is another guy called Keith. Earlier he'd mentioned to me that he wanted to go talk to the cows. Topless and barefoot with a bald head that looks like a circumcised penis, he's walking back and forth into the electric fence and getting shocked. He's giggling just like Fabian was. Next to me, a girl who I haven't been introduced to yet is dry-heaving on the grass. She's German. Her hair is blond, and she's wearing Thai fisherman's pants and can't really be older than 25. Between heaves, she turns to me and says with a mouth festooned in vomit, spit, and perspiration, "This is some really great healing."
I have a horrible thought: I've joined a cult and don't have enough Wi-Fi signal to Routeplanner, Airbnb, and Skyscanner my way to safety.
We don't eat all day. There are two reasons Fabian does this: One, voluntarily starving yourself teaches you discipline. Two, hungry people are more malleable. If you've got nothing in your belly the drugs take effect more easily and your resistance breaks down. I have a stash of nuts and chocolate and rice crackers in my bag. I've decided I can take the medicine but I really can't starve myself. In order to not arouse suspicions, I carefully transfer the nuts from my suitcase to my pockets and then eat them in the bathroom with the shower running.
Every morning and evening, before we take our next dose of medicine, either Fabian or Nicole give us a lecture. The lectures are long. They talk about breaking down the ego, ceding control to the Mother or the Father. The power of the medicine to cure disease and break addiction.
"We haven't met a nut yet that we can't crack," Nicole says and everyone laughs, even though she's called them all nuts and she's threatened to crack them.
That night the ayahuasca comes on the way it always does at the beginning: fractals, sound distortions, and the connected feeling that you get on MDMA and mushrooms, where objects take on a mutable, liquid quality and you feel that you're you, you're the people in the room, you're the moon in the sky, and you're even the dry-heave in the bucket between your legs.
Back when we spent all our money on pills and all our Tuesdays on the brink of suicide, we used to get this feeling we called "pill wisdom." It was the moment when you were high and all your anxiety tuned out and you sensed that everything around you was somehow illusionary and not important and you blissed out, danced, fell home and listened to Since I Left You for so long the neighbors formed a committee, wrote to your landlord, and sent you a notice to vacate.
In a more overwhelming way that's what the ayahuasca does too. But then it also plays on your memories and brings to life images from your past, things you'd rather not think about. An ex-girlfriend jumps into my head one night and I feel a strong inclination to write her an apology letter that I never get around to.
We wake up and take mescaline again. You get a really fun high off mescaline and while Fabian instructs us to stay in the ceremony hall and meditate on the drug's healing effect, most people don't. It would be easier to give a child a toy and tell him he can't play with it. Ayahuasca is connected to death, entombment, the past; mescaline is sunshine and light. Most of us go outside and get into after-party conversations. You know the type, where two people manage to focus intensely on some micro-topic for so long they don't notice the room emptying and everyone going home? I spoke about Addis Ababa Airport with a girl from Toronto for at least an hour, even though neither of us had ever been there—to top it all off, her closing statement on the subject was, "It's in Mali, right?"
Back in the ceremony hall, Jana, with the dead cat tattoo, is going through hell. She's on her knees with her face and hair inside her puke bucket. The rest of us are outside laughing, staring at our hands or petting the rocks. Mescaline is the most wonderfully upbeat drug I've ever taken and it's really heartbreaking to see someone not enjoying it. And really indicative of how unwell they must be.
By the fifth day, the retreat is in full swing. With no food in their bellies and two doses of psychedelics every day, people are very strange. Bill is lying on his back on the grass. He's waving his arms and legs in the air like an upturned beetle. Bill took what looked like a whole pint of mescaline this morning. I ask him if he needs a hand getting to his feet and he smiles back up at me. "It works," he says. "This whole beautiful, fucked-up thing really works."
I go for a cigarette with a guy from London named Mark. He caught me earlier in the day coming out of the shower with a mouthful of rice cracker. He laughed and offered me half a banana. So I figure he can be trusted.
"Aren't you a little worried that maybe we've joined a cult?" I say to him.
"We have joined a cult," he says. "But that's how these things have to be. They only work when you believe completely in the system. If you're not into it 100 percent, then you may as well not even be here. It's just like NA."
Mark knows. He was so heavily addicted to cocaine that there are areas of London that he won't even travel through for fear of being sucked into a binge again, meaning getting to the airport for this trip required a one-hour detour.
"I'm cynical like you," he says. "But I also know I'm pretty fucked up and I want to believe this will work."
I decide I'm not that fucked up, I'm just a hopelessly curious journalist. While the rest of them file into the ceremony hall, I sneak out of the compound and hitchhike to the nearest village. I flag a car down and ask the driver if he can drop me anywhere there's food. He brings me to the door of a a Wimpy's. I order a veggie burger and fries and a chocolate and banana milkshake. A deserter's spoils. I eat and get stomach cramps. Outside on the street, Africans are coming home from work, welcoming in the evening, walking through the market with baskets full of potatoes. A kid goes by on a bicycle, too fast, too close. He brushes past an enormous woman and she screams blue murder at him. Life.
I hitch back to the compound. Jana's out on the lawn wandering in the darkness. During the ceremonies it's customary to wear white. That's so the shaman can see you in the dark. But the problem with white is it does very little to conceal vomit or grass stains. The back of Jana's long white dress is covered in muddy dog prints. She looks like a runaway bride. She walks up to me and with the utmost sincerity says, "The Mother just spoke to me. She says you need to come back into the ceremony room. You shouldn't be afraid anymore, Colin. It will all be OK."
"The Mother called me Colin?" I ask. She nods. I go to the bathroom and turn on the shower and stuff my face with trail mix.
At this stage there are two types of people on the retreat: those who can barely stand anymore and those who are skipping around the place. The first are suffering from a lack of food. They walk with all the purpose of someone who's been trapped under rubble for weeks. Their tongues hang out of their mouths. They go to speak and the noise that comes out is not language. The second group run around them with ear-to-ear smiles, bragging that they don't feel hungry, don't feel tired, have never felt so good, so free, so alive. But they'll be just as fucked as the first bunch when the mescaline finally wears off.
I'm far and away the only cynic at the retreat. I speak to Fabian about it and explain that maybe this isn't for me. That the thought of going back into that ceremony room, the vomit, the bodies, the wailing and crying is too much to take anymore. Fabian is in complete understanding. "Some people need more," he says. "We're not going to force you to take the medicine."
And when he says that I feel relieved because even though I always knew he wouldn't force me to take drugs, the group pressure and the exhaustion and the gentle paranoia that is to be expected when you spend almost an entire week in an altered state of mind hadn't left me entirely convinced that I could opt out.
"But you still want to try iboga?"
"Yes, I do," I say.
So the following day, as the rest of the group goes into the ceremony room, I sit on the lawn in the shadow of a tree and take iboga on my own. Like all the plants we've ingested this week, iboga tastes like something you wouldn't feed a stray dog. Fabian stirs it up in water and I down it. Iboga is known as a wonder heroin cure. Something in its psychoactive makeup resets opiate receptors in the body. Taken properly, it can put you out for over a day. The Grandfather, as everyone else is calling it, is the showpiece drug of this retreat. It leaves you in a type of waking dream. Some people claim they can actually talk to the drug, can ask it questions and get feedback on their life choices. Tommy, a young guy from Berlin, has taken it five times. Each time, he says, the grandfather gives him another nugget of information about the girl of his dreams.
"Do you know her?"
"Oh yes, I've met her," he says.
"And have you spoken to her?"
"Yes," he says, "I told her what the Grandfather said."
"She thinks it's strange."
"And that I'm a bit weird, but then the Grandfather said she would."
Away from the ceremony, out on the lawn, the iboga starts to come on and it feels like really good cocaine. I'm sharp. My eyes can focus in on everything at any distance. My hearing, too. Somehow I'm able to tune in to specific bird calls. I feel like there's something bionic going on inside my head. This isn't the gentle sensation of oneness that you get from ayahuasca; iboga makes me feel like I'm the most powerful being in the universe, that if I want I can do everything and anything. But then the munchies come on really strong so I hitchhike back to Wimpy and eat veggie burgers and fries again. This time I order a tutti frutti milkshake. When I go to take a leak my piss comes out in actual golden flames, but I've been hallucinating on and off for eight days now, so this doesn't bother me as much as the fact that the white tourist in the black village has just dribbled all over the clean tiled floor.
The noise of dry-heaving is louder than a ship's horn. It doesn't let up until the next afternoon.
Back at the compound, things are beginning to look like the Dawn of the Dead. Some people are still in the ceremony room, the rest are dragging their bare feet across the lawn or are slumped in the garden chairs, trying to make cigarettes from butts and tobacco dregs. No one's having a good time. The noise of dry-heaving is louder than a ship's horn. It doesn't let up until the next afternoon.
On the last day, we get to eat again. This moment should be very special but everyone seems a little down. The Grandfather apparently didn't show up. Fabian tries to cool things by saying that the plant keeps working long after the retreat but for those who've given up homes, quit jobs, and spent upwards of $3,000 to be there, that's not the answer they need.
Jana comes out and says that she hasn't felt anything all week. She hasn't managed to hallucinate even once. "I think it's because I puke as soon as it touches my mouth," she says. "Even the thought of it makes me puke."
Some people do feel a genuine transformation. One young kid from New York, the youngest on the retreat, had never done anything harder than alcohol in his life before he came here. He told me that the reason he came along was because he felt disconnected from the world. I answered that I'd never met anyone in their 20s who didn't feel disconnected. He's got this look on his face like he'd just fallen in love. "I don't know how I'm going to tell my family about this," he says. "They're never going to believe me."
And to be honest, I don't know how I'm going to tell people about it either. My overriding impression is that there's something not quite right about it, that Fabian is taking advantage of the long-term fucked-up—by calling the drugs Mother, Father, and Grandfather he's built a troika of authority figures for those who would rather not take responsibility for their own lives. And that is the perspective I have when I begin to write this article. But then a couple of weeks later I start receiving emails from the other participants.
There was this one:
All that was blocking me from being truly happy and from allowing me to move onto becoming the woman I am meant to be has released me and I am grateful in my very heart of hearts.
I was on 60mg of Prozac and anywhere up to 80mg of Ritalin as all my life I was 'adhd' and had depressive tendencies which really was just me acting out to a very difficult relationship with my mother who is bipolar and an alcoholic. Since the retreat I've given up all medication and have never felt better.
And then this:
I feel reborn
The first time I ever took acid we were in a bedroom. We were teenage friends, it was probably cold, I can't even remember the music but I do remember thinking that nothing would be the same after that. I remember feeling transformed but also remember feeling we could get caught or that the acid might never wear off, or that one of us would truly lose his mind and flip out. What the psychedelic bootcamp offered was an amplified, holistic version of that in a safe environment, conducive to introspection, and as advertised, transformation.
The one recurring comment people made was how they'd been released from anxiety, and this meant a release from fear and, well, a new sense that they had autonomy over their own lives. The "complete all-American de-anxietized man," as William Burroughs called it.
Of the 25 people who took part, almost everyone felt something shift inside them. Whether that was from overcoming hunger, or taking a time out from their regular routines, being part of a group, or the actual healing effect of taking psychedelics for nine days straight. And even though I cheated, ate burgers, and skipped out on a couple of doses of medicine, I could see how it reduced a lot of unnecessary anxiety from my own life. Although I was raised Catholic so, you know, I feel a comfortable attachment to persistent, needless guilt and suffering.
And then there was Jana, who weeks later still complained that she couldn't sleep, that she was depressed, that she had discovered some magical palindrome which had outlined her new mission and that she had found another shaman who incorporated hashish into his ceremonies. She said she would go try that instead.
Follow Conor Creighton on Twitter.