At first, the nudists warmly welcomed a clothed journalist to their private winter holiday haven. Then things turned chilly …
Some people might have been disappointed to see one of Australia’s oldest and best known nudist colony resorts for sale. Not me.
I’m embarrassed to confess I know the place well. And, in return, it also knows me rather more intimately than I’m truly comfortable with. Because it’s seen me bare all … and yes, even in the middle of winter where any and every appendage is at dire risk of turning blue within minutes.
So when I heard that the River Island Nature Retreat near Mittagong in the Southern Highlands is now being offered for sale for a cool $4.75 million, I was delighted.
River Island Nature Retreat is on the picturesque Wollondilly River about two-and-a-half hours from Sydney. Photo: Supplied
It’s a gorgeous chunk of commercial real estate and maybe a new owner will turn the 570-hectare slice of secluded wilderness with its own accommodation, spa and pools into a lovely rural retreat. Alternatively, it could make a great outdoor activity centre, conference hub or high-class resort.
And all – with the exception of what individual guests might choose to do behind closed curtains in the privacy of their cabins – with their clothes firmly on.
So why do I feel so strongly about this? Well, journalists are sent on some interesting assignments at times and that was one of the most memorable. I was told to go check out the resort and talk to some of the regular nudist guests about their perplexing passion for getting their kit off.
Obediently I went along, rugged up for a highlands winter weekend with perhaps even an extra layer of clothing, just in case. All went well in the beginning. It seemed a nice place, if a little rundown, and it was certainly busy.
Four-wheel driving, bushwalking, fishing, canoeing and swimming are all on offer at River Island Nature Retreat – clothing is optional. Photo: Supplied
In fact, it was so busy there wasn’t much space left for a journalist writing a story on the resort. I was dispatched to an old caravan to sleep in, along with my partner whom I’d dragged along against all his better instincts and protestations.
I’ve never been colder in my life. It was a freezing July night, with the temperature dipping below zero, and the single bar heater didn’t work. The only thing that did was the old gas cooker next to the seat that folded into a narrow bed. Sitting at 3am, dressed in every single piece of clothing we had, trying to defrost our hands and faces over the flames, does not a good night’s sleep make.
But on the plus side, the people seemed perfectly nice. The next morning, over breakfast, I did a number of interviews and all the subjects were all terribly intelligent, had good jobs back in Sydney or Canberra and were keen to communicate the joys of doing everyday things with their bits unshackled by the strictures of clothing.
I concentrated hard on my notebook during these exchanges, trying desperately not to ever look at said bits.
As the day wore on, it got even colder and some even put on the odd piece of clothing. Yet weirdly – to me, at least – that clothing constituted beanies and socks for women, and jumpers for men.
Those parts of the body usually considered too rude for public display were still being determinedly flaunted.
Some of them happily also posed for pictures, although on my insistence with legs strategically crossed, arms hiding specific areas of the body or at an angle that would tastefully expose far less than a few wanted to.
As evening closed in, however, the weekend went decidedly pear-shaped. I was summoned for drinks in the lounge, by the fire. So far, so good. Again I found myself chatting to everyone while staring fixedly into their eyes to avoid any stray glance. I overheard one of them commenting later about how “intense” I was.
But I now had a more pressing problem at hand. “We’ve had a meeting,” the man who seemed to be their leader informed me towards the close of the evening and the approach of another freezing night in front of the cooker. “We’ve decided you can’t write about nudism without trying it yourself. And it’s not fair to be interviewing us with your clothes on. We’re not going to co-operate any further unless you take your clothes off tomorrow.”
I left their company that night with a heavy heart. Back at the caravan, my partner – who’d refused to leave its safety all day – laughed when I told him. Out loud. I blanched. Would he consider coming with me as moral support when I disrobed? I asked him. “Not on your life,” was his curt reply.
The next morning, I was told to report to the outdoor jacuzzi. There, everyone stood around waiting and, to my horror, I realised I was actually expected to take off my clothes in front of them too. There was nothing else I could do. I took a deep breath and took off everything – damn those extra layers! – as quickly as I could, and leapt into the spa.
The River Island Nature Retreat spa where journalist Sue Williams had to bare much more than she’d planned. Photo: Supplied
Then they joined me there. I know we’re now used to seeing such regular exploits on TV shows like Big Brother and Geordie Shore but, by God, it’s a weird experience being naked in a spa with six naked strangers chatting jovially naked as if it’s as normal as having cupcakes with friends. And it’s not one I’d readily recommend.
It’s one thing jumping nude into a spa; it’s quite another getting out.
I stayed in that water until my hands and feet shrivelled like prunes, and I was dizzy with the heat. “Enjoying it, are you?” some of the onlookers asked me, puzzled at how I could possibly stay there so long. “Have you never been in a spa before?”
My plan to stay there until they all went away backfired spectacularly. As word spread throughout the resort about this odd journalist sitting in the spa, a larger and larger crowd gathered to witness my tilt at the Guinness World Records. Finally, I realised they weren’t going to go away. Nudists are simply much more resolute and patient than ordinary people, I learnt.
There are about 90 annual tenants and 176 registered sites at the resort, as well as houses for an owner and manager. Photo: Supplied
So I leapt suddenly from the spa, made a wild grab for my clothes in a pile nearby and slipped flat on my face. Instead of a rush into my clothes, it was instead an ungainly hoist up from members of the concerned crowd, who insisted on then watching me dress – like some bizarre reverse striptease – to check I wasn’t more badly hurt.
By the time I’d reached the haven of the caravan, my partner was ready to leap into the car and whisk us both away. Which he did, only narrowly averting a collision with a dozy (naked) wombat in our haste on the way out.
I was later invited back in a private capacity to enjoy River Island Nature Retreat in my own time, which I politely explained I was far too busy to possibly do, ever.
My partner, however, received his own payback.
As a TV writer, he was asked to work on a great new show, which turned out to be the happily long-forgotten Nude Moments and, amazingly, its sequel Nude Moments II. On the second, an exploration of nudity filmed inexplicably on a boat sailing around the harbour, he encountered some of the very same people we’d met at the Mittagong resort.
Being trapped by one large naked woman, carefully placing her breasts on the table behind which he was squeezed with his laptop, was a lowlight of his life, he says. But listening to her then complain about the unsatisfactory outcome of a recent threesome pushed him lower still.
I’m not saying she was representative of the usual guests at the resort, far from it. They all seemed nice upstanding people – just with an unusual hobby.
And it’s one that I hope the next buyer of the River Island Nature Retreat doesn’t necessarily favour.