By KIMBERLEY PATERSON
In a corner of Te Anau so remote that the cellphone dies and the the nearest house is 30 minutes' drive away is an eerie compound calling itself one of New Zealand's newest exclusive health retreats.
Takaro Lodge is run by Chinese "Grandmaster" Aiping Wang, 50, and her Croatian businessman husband, Aleksandar Fulepp, 54.
They say they have New Zealand citizenship and are busy training 45 mostly young Slovenians and Croatians who live fulltime on the 400ha ranch and central compound, which locals tell me features a huge underground bunker.
There are a number of young children living there with their parents.
Takaro Lodge, a former hunting and fishing lodge, is headquarters and research centre for a burgeoning group. Since setting up here in late 1998, Wang and her team have established The Energy Bank in London and have just opened a branch in Lausanne, Switzerland. There is a centre listed in Zagreb, Croatia.
The young adherents at Takaro spend a huge part of each day working - building and refurbishing the lodge or working on the farm.
The young woman shovelling a mound of soil on my arrival was serving dinner two hours later and the next morning seemed to be submissively serving tea during a discussion I had with Fulepp, whom the students call Sasha.
For most students the day starts about 4.30am, when their energy level is said to be at its peak, with walking and meditation. Long hours of physical work follow, broken up by "energy sessions", listening to truth dialogues, a main meal at midday and a light snack of fruit, yoghurt, rice and vegetables at 6.15pm, followed by more training and energy sessions late into the night.
As I drive through the imposing gates and up the long gravel drive to the lodge, the compound area opens to a spread of 70s-style dark wood and stone buildings with a hill behind.
Maybe it's the darkness of the gathering autumn evening, but a heavy pall of energy seems to hang over the complex.
In stark contrast to the other buildings, a modern mirrored-glass structure encases a large indoor heated pool. Farther up the drive is a stadium for indoor basketball, with a studio out the back to record Wang's audio- and videotapes for worldwide distribution.
Local farmer John Smart later tells me that it is under this stadium he has seen a bunker "so large you can drive trucks and tractors in there with huge silos to store grain and other supplies".
I hear conflicting stories about what it costs young people to study at the 603 Phenomena Academy. The two women obviously assigned to stay close by my side say students pay $1500 to $3000 each.
Later Fulepp, who describes Takaro Lodge as "my business", says students pay what they can afford.
Smart, who tells me he has helped a number of young people who have wanted to leave, gives me different information again. He says he has been told by former adherents they paid US$800 ($1635) a day.
What 603 Phenomena Academy general manager Sarah McCrum is particularly proud of is that the group has received official New Zealand Qualifications Authority recognition for its student-training courses - the year-long Phenomenist course and the two-year Sphere Vision course.
McCrum, an Englishwoman, tells me the visiting NZQA official was assured "that people could leave of their own free will if they wanted".
A call to the NZQA office in Wellington confirms the registration.
Besides student training, it is clear that the lodge is also intended for clients paying high fees. When the health resort opens in September, clients will pay US$1000 to US$2000 for a night's stay, or a general figure of US$25,000 for a month. That will include a personal assistant, massage, energy work, five-element reading and organic cuisine.
Higher-level packages will also be available where Grandmaster Aiping Wang will act as personal consultant.
McCrum sees potential clients as desperate people with serious health problems who have unable to be helped by conventional medicine. She says the cost will be worked out individually, depending on people's ailments and how long they stay.
The resort's showcase is four partly finished luxury suites, each specially designed along Feng Shui principles. Takaro Lodge will be able to accommodate 10 guests at a time, and the website suggests some people may want to stay up to eight months.
By September students will be moved from their crowded bunk rooms in the main Takaro compound to another, more secluded, area yet to be built, so they will be out of the way of the big payers.
To win over the local population, Takaro is giving $1.1 million to build a new health centre in Te Anau - $400,000 cash and labour and engineering work estimated to be worth about $700,000.
The energy work students at Takaro are trained in has its roots in what is described as Shen Qi or Qi Gong and Taoist philosophy and seems in essence to comprise "energy sessions" where group members sit around and talk, with a designated leader supposedly transmitting energy to the others.
Other healing techniques offered include the five-person massage and a "five element reading", where students are designated as being out of balance in water, earth, fire, air or metal quadrants which they can remedy in part by wearing different colours or putting themselves in different environments.
Students say the two-year training programme will eventually allow them to do the "energy work" themselves - for paying clients, they hope, although I spoke to a number who kept talking about needing "additional training" even though they had already completed the prescribed stretch.
Group member Nenad said many passed the basic level of training "five or 10 years ago".
The group believes Wang has such incredible powers that she can heal others simply by being in the same room.
Apparent successes include a young girl who had a severe peanut allergy that has disappeared since her stay.
The group's website (www. takarolodge.co.nz) lists cures from manic depression, chronic fatigue, infertility, internal bleeding, ulcerative colitis, cocaine addiction and a complete cure of hepatitis C.
Children have apparently been cured of "two holes in the heart", depression and epilepsy, paralysis and complications from a liver transplant.
Wang and her daughter Lele Sun were in Europe opening the Swiss centre when the photographer and I visited, and Wang is now in the United States.
Jenny Hill, an Englishwoman in her late 30s, and young Slovenian woman Lina Vbrancic list a host of ailments they say have been cured, including food and general allergies, skin problems and asthma.
Vbrancic says she was once so debilitated with pollen allergies that she had trouble walking outside. "My eyes were so swollen, I could almost not see."
She says she had visited numerous doctors and specialists without success, but after she discovered Aiping in Slovenia, her problem disappeared in four months.
Recently married to another group member, she says her cardiologist father was initially very suspicious about her involvement with the group, then became more open when he saw the difference in her health.
However, since she disappeared into the wilds of the New Zealand countryside, she says her father's old suspicions have been rekindled.
Hill, originally from Totness in Devon, describes herself as a former trained actor and performer. She tells me her involvement in the group has helped her sort out her many problems.
"I had felt lost. The work helped me realise I had a lot of problems."
Pressed, she says she had suffered from irritable bowel syndrome and also used to be very unconfident and nervous. All this changed after four months with the group.
The most forceful group member I met is the general manager, 42-year-old McCrum, a former teacher and BBC radio producer whose lifelong frustration at the lack of quality education offered to teenagers eventually led her to the "energy work".
A search for the deeper meaning of life was also sparked by the death of her sister from a brain tumour 12 years ago.
Independently wealthy, McCrum says there are no pressures on her to earn and she is happy to devote herself fulltime to Takaro Lodge and the group's larger aims.
Hill admits to me that a certain degree of Chinese toughness also helps people to heal at Takaro.
She adds: "People who are ill are often self-indulgent, they hold on to their illness and have become lazy. Here you get the opportunity to be involved."
That includes one middle-aged woman who had not worked physically for seven years who was soon out working around the lodge.
That evening I experience an "energy session" for myself. This consists of a group of eight members sitting in a semicircle with Nenad, 31, a former civil engineer from Croatia, "on stage" in the centre.
The session opens with Nenad asking the group how they feel, and the hardworking soil shoveller and food server, who I learn is called Sasha, responding: "I am feeling tense and unpeaceful inside."
What follows is a rambling lecture by an obviously tired Nenad to an equally tired group explaining that the energy blockage Sasha is suffering is due to her reacting to situations.
Later, after a long group meditation, we sit around chatting and I discover a very pleasant bunch of young Europeans.
Nenad explains that he was drawn to the group when, as a stressed student, he heard a radio ad inviting people to a free session to improve memory and learning skills.
He went on to form a chapter in Zagreb which attracted many businesspeople in their 30s and 40s.
J UST why these young Europeans travel across the world to work hard in a remote Fiordland settlement becomes clearer on chatting with the group.
They say that after 40 years of communism young people in Slovenia and Croatia are searching for spiritual beliefs and philosophies.
"Young people are looking for something else, says a young Croat, a former factory manager. "Something else apart from university and jobs and the expectations of parents."
The group's energy work was introduced to Croatia and Slovenia about 12 years ago through Wang.
Others in the group, who range in age from 20 to 37, describe being introduced by their parents.
Says Sasha: "My whole family is involved, my mother, my father, it is like a chain reaction."
Why it works, they can't explain.
Says Nenad: "We don't have a handle on it either. We go with the mystery, else it's all about control."
The next day I meet Fulepp, a large, confident man. Unlike others in the group, he enjoys his sleep-in and tells the photographer he also enjoys his daily two-person massage.
In another aside to the photographer, he says: "There will come a time when people will want to get in here, but they will be unable to."
Fulepp, who once owned a printing business in Croatia, says he met Aiping Wang there at a business fair and was impressed with her healing abilities.
"It began with my cousin. He was a warrior in the Second World War and was always sick - he was on 20 medications a day. Aiping came to his apartment and began healing. He lived on the fourth floor and it used to take him a half hour to get down the stairs, but after a couple of weeks he was running down to the grocer's."
He says Wang then healed another family member, a young man with cancer. When word of the young man's miraculous recovery went out, she was soon besieged by people wanting to be healed.
Wang was soon working from an old hotel healing hundreds of people, while he took care of business matters.
In 1998, Wang and daughter Lele Sun travelled to New Zealand in search of a pristine piece of land with pure energy to set up home.
"We have found that for the energy field which we need, the best place so far in the world is New Zealand," says Fulepp.
He describes his wife's abilities as like "a starter engine of a car. She helps people get their battery up and running." He is adamant the work is not a religion.
"People discover themselves here. They find out what work is most suitable for them. One guy who was an engineer is now a plumber. No one pushes them, they find out for themselves."
D ESPITE the rosy picture painted by 603 Phenomena members and the promised medical centre, John Smart says many locals have reservations.
"A lot of locals didn't do too bad out of work out there -though a lot of outside contractors were brought in, which annoyed a lot of people too.
"They've spent millions and millions of dollars up there."
The group also engendered bad feelings when they refused to let a couple of hunters whose radio equipment had failed use the lodge phone to tell police where they were.
For many years Smart was general manager of the Landcorp farm bordering Takaro Lodge and says he helped people who wanted to leave Takaro on a number of occasions.
He tells of the activity after Wang bought the lodge: "The next we know we saw a lot of trucks and people arriving from all over the world. One day a truck broke down and I went out to give the guy a hand, it was an English guy and I got talking to him.
"He told me he was paying US$800 a day to be there to learn Shen Qui so he could teach it.
"He said he was basically working from 5am till late at night ... He told me he was getting ready to get out.
"Two weeks later it was a Sunday morning and I was coming home from shifting some sheep. It was pouring with rain and this guy is walking past my house now to be walking past my house going to Te Anau was probably 12km from Takaro Lodge and this was 8am.
"I pulled aside and asked if I could give him a lift somewhere and he said, 'Anywhere mate would be better than where I've been.'
"I took him inside for a cup of tea and a chat and organised a lift for him into Te Anau.
"He ate half a loaf of bread and six eggs, a packet of bacon, all the food I cooked for him he kept eating, he was absolutely starving and once I got him full he started telling me what was going on.
"He was about 35, a carpenter, his name was Paul, he was a really nice, down-to-earth kind of guy. He said he'd left his fiancee - they'd been together for seven years and engaged for two - up at Takaro, had left everything and just gotten out.
"He said there were some ex drug addicts up there and quite a lot of Americans. Some Americans are sending their kids down there, they can't handle their problems and hope this lady Aiping will sort them out. People have prepaid for up to two years' training."
On another occasion Smart says he helped two young group members cross his farm and organised a lift for them.
"All of a sudden I had some people from Takaro arrive on my doorstep asking if I'd seen some people walking up the road - they said they'd been out for a walk and had gone missing.
"I told them I hadn't seen them and funny enough I saw every single vehicle from Takaro out looking for them, there must have been 40 or 50 people out looking."
He adds: "They must have had someone out looking for them in Queenstown, because the next day I saw those two same people being brought back up here, though I've got a sneaking suspicion they buggered off again later.
"What they'll tell you is that these people had very serious drug problems or they are alcoholics, but the people I've spoken to personally had none of these sort of problems.
"They were there to learn the Shen Qui way, they didn't like what they were learning and they were told they could leave any time, but they had to walk out, but if you are hungry and mentally low walking out of there would like being held in Colditz."
On another occasion a man knocking at Smart's door one night was trying to find his way out to the lodge.
"He was from an Auckland company taking in this huge truck full of satellite transmission gear. He said he'd never done an installation job of this scale before and that the group had to pay $120,000 just as a down payment on the contract.
"We've also had the big cheese from Internal Affairs down at the gateway taking photos, with their surveillance gear and everything," says Smart.
"It was like the FBI, it was unbelievable what was going on there for a while. They are obviously keeping a very very close eye on the place, they called into see me and asked me to call a number they gave me if I saw anything suspicious."
Later he says of Wang: "I have seen her heal someone. I saw this guy in a Te Anau cafe and thought, 'You poor bugger'.
"He was about 30 and he couldn't walk properly, he seemed all buckled at the knees. I saw him go in and a week later I saw him walking without any problem.
"I heard that his family had offered Aiping $20,000 to fly over to Australia to heal him, but he ended up coming to Takaro himself."
By KIMBERLEY PATERSON