On a recent trip to Switzerland I surprised myself by baring it all.
It must have been due to some weird alignment of stars that I - the woman who used to say I only appear in a bathing suit in public during a solar eclipse - decided to make use of an opportunity to take part in the ancient Roman-Irish spa treatment at the Walliser Alpentherme & Spa in the Swiss Alpine village of Leukerbad.
Leukerbad is situated at 1 411m above sea level. It is known for its hot springs, the history of which dates back to Roman times. Even during those ancient times people were already aware of the therapeutic effect of the thermal water.
The two hour Roman-Irish ritual is described as one of antiquity’s most pleasurable and deeply relaxing nude bathing rituals. Yes, nude.
In the spa brochure I read that bathers pass through a series of eleven stations, including saunas, steam baths and thermal pools heated to different temperatures.
The process is designed to gradually bring the body up to what is described as a healthy level of perspiration (read: sweating like a pig) and then gently cool it down again (read: jumping shrieking from an icy cold water tub).
Hot spring outdoor pool at Walliser Alpentherme & Spa in the Swiss Alpine mountain village of Leukerbad.
My initial reaction when hearing about the Roman-Irish ritual option was "no way am I going naked in front of other members of the public". Thoughts of cellulite, sagging boobs and unshaven strategic parts flashed through my mind.
But then I took a moment to pause and thought to myself: "When will I ever have this opportunity again. Just go with it. You won't know any of the people and, more importantly, you will probably never see any of them ever again."
“Be daring” became my motto and I signed up.
Having discarded my trusted and demure black one piece bathing suit in the locker room, I took a deep breath and pressed the lift button for the top floor of the spa building.
There I entered a tranquil paradise featuring soft lights, peaceful music and a giant swimming pool in the centre. Through the high windows I could see glimpses of the snowy mountain peaks surrounding the village.
The pool was divided in two by 'n yin-yang line to create separate pools with different temperatures.
The yin yang pool forms the centre of the facilities for the Roman-Irish bath ritual.
Hugging a bright orange towel tightly around me, I tried to figure out what to do next. On the far side of the pool I spotted a couple of naked buttocks moving around.
Suppressing a feeling of (naked) fear, I headed over to a relaxed nude couple and asked what I am supposed to do. All the while I tried very hard to keep my eyes at their...uhhmmm....eye level and to appear blasé, as if I do this kind of nude activity on a regular basis.
The sweet couple motioned toward a board on the wall. Still cocooned in my tightly held towel, I trotted over to the wall and things started to fall into place.
The first step was taking a shower - goodbye dear orange towel. Then I had to head into the first sauna - I tried to keep my private parts private while my body started the heating up process. When another couple entered the sauna - note: they were not heavily into hugging their towels - I got my next eye full of naked butts some boobs. I used the 15 minutes in their company to refine my this-is-everyday-stuff-to-me poker face.
The next step was 5 minutes in an even hotter sauna - 68 degrees Celsius. By the fourth minute I was feeling so hot and bothered that I really could not care less which parts of me were visible and which not. I rushed out of there to have a cool shower.
Next came a self-applied soap scrub and the steam room. By now I was getting into this whole naked tradition (the nudity is apparently for greater hygiene): Just be yourself and most of all, enjoy yourself and relax. The naked body is just that - a naked body. Don't judge and you shall not be judged. (These were some of the thoughts now streaming through my mind).
Like a regular nudist I glided into the first of the yin-yang pools for a relaxing 15 minute float. Then it was time for the jacuzzi, followed by the cooler of the two yin-yang pools (still a comfy 26 degrees if I remember correctly).
The only step I did not complete entirely was number 10: One minute in a tub with 12 degree Celsius water. Well, 12 degrees might sound not too cold, but believe me it felt like ice forming around my body. After about 20 seconds I jumped out (wobble wobble) and headed over to the peaceful resting room. Snuggled up on a cosy day bed I rested for the suggested 30 minutes and then had some herbal tea brought by one of the attendants.
Hot spring indoor pool at Walliser Alpentherme & Spa in the Swiss Alpine mountain village of Leukerbad.
The treatment did not just leave my body feeling relaxed and super alive and tingling at the same time, it also left me with the wonderful feeling of liberation of having pushed my boundaries for a change - or as a friend once said: You don't have boundaries, you have brick walls!
I realised that nakedness lies in the eye of the beholder and the beholden. In an atmosphere of naturalness where people are not out to judge or ogle each other, it becomes normal, liberating and very enjoyable. (Just a quick note, I won't be heading to Sandy Bay soon at this point.)
The next morning at the breakfast table in the hotel I became aware of two people talking to me. I did not regocnise them at first. Then if dawned on me that it was the very naked and towelless couple I shared the first sauna with.
They wanted to know how I had enjoyed the Roman-Irish bath treatment.
"Sorry," I said. "I did not recognise you with your clothes on."
Carin Smith was a guest of Leukerbad Tourism and Edelweiss Air. For more info on spas you can visit in SA and the rest of Africa, check out this list.