At 2am, a convoy of buses with windows covered in black plastic leaves the University of Queensland for a mystery destination, what some call the camp from hell.
Inside the buses are 80 to 100 people, uncertain of the coming humiliation they have paid $2300 to endure. Eighteen-year-old girls and 60-year-old men, many complete strangers, will individually stand stark naked on a table and critique their bodies. Over the next seven days, they will watch pornographic movies, pick up cow and horse dung, walk across hot coals in bare feet, and endure punishments such as holding a rock above their head if they are caught falling asleep.
Some will average less than three hours sleep a night. All will follow a vegan diet. They will hand in their identification, money, credit cards, mobile phones _ anything that could help them escape the camp. The course, "The Final Step'', is among many run by self-styled metaphysical guru Natasha Lakaev, a woman formally qualified in agricultural science. She also offers a course for children.
A man, 50, who attended the course said it was "sick''. A teenage girl said stripping naked in front of older men was "humiliating''. She said a parent had paid her to go. She had moved interstate to avoid the group. Ms Lakaev denies her northern New South Wales-based organisation, Life Integration Programs, with its squad of volunteer support staff and counsellors, is a cult that tries to ensnare course participants and their money.
Participants on "The Final Step'' attend a preliminary $990 course at one of several venues in Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Coffs Harbour, Lismore, Armidale or Johannesburg, South Africa. But some said this did not prepare them for the ordeal ahead, a claim Ms Lakaev disputes. Ken Jacobi, of Brisbane, and his former wife spent $40,000 attending Lakaev courses over 51/2 years.
He said watches and even aspirin were left behind. Essential medication was given to a staff member to dispense. The group's induction starts in a hired room at the university with black plastic over the windows. It includes agreeing to a 59-point statement which says they will continue on the course even if injured.
Before leaving, participants are videotaped while being questioned about their most intimate secrets. Then it's time for the 10-hour ride in the blacked-out bus to the mystery destination _ ``Boolabinda'', a rented holiday farm near Glen Innes, NSW.
On arrival, the already weary attendees are greeted by Ms Lakaev's army of volunteer staff, all dressed in white shirts, black tights, white shoes and black baseball caps. People are told to expect a week of ``life-threatening activities''. Then it is time for a ``genital rub''.
"About eight people form a congo line, you get up close to the person in front, and rub with your body or hands. You turn around and do it to the person behind,'' one participant said.
Ms Lakaev said the rub was ``a laughing activity, not stressful''. Mr Jacobi said participants were "confused and disoriented'' before being "rebuilt''. "You don't sleep. You're in a marquee attending lecture after lecture, you don't have a watch. You could have dinner at 1am.
"They first picked out certain people they wanted to get tough with. The first night, your gear may disappear, or your clothes, or your sleeping bag, and it won't turn up for a couple of days.'' Ms Lakaev denies sleep deprivation is used. "People go to these programs to get out of their comfort zones, to overcome their fears and limitations,'' she said.
Everyone is told to strip naked and swim together in the property's ice-cold dam daily. One complained to The Sunday Mail of leeches; Ms Lakaev said leeches had been reported only about 10 times over seven years.
Participants said they were asked to pick up cow and horse dung. Ms Lakaev disputed participants' claims they were ordered to do it by hand. But the most humiliating experience was the ``fashion parade'', according to one teenage girl. "You go up in pairs, maybe threes,'' she said. "You strip naked, stand on a table on the stage and spin around. You rub your hands over your body, you tell everyone what you like and dislike about your body.'' She was "spooked out'' standing naked in front of 80 people.
Ms Lakaev said it helped people resolve issues about their bodies. There was also pornography. "They'd get people in the marquee and show porn films: male-female, male-male and female-female,'' Mr Jacobi said. "The staff would stand where they could view everyone watching the show.'' Ms Lakaev said the films helped free people to discuss their homosexual and bisexual experiences. One NSW participant said the group was so "sleep deprived'' they looked "like zombies'' watching the porn. "A lot of people cried,'' she said.
Sonja Hooper, a staff member at the 1996 camp, said she was ordered not to give out food for two days as punishment because the group was "naughty''. Part of the group deemed ``good'' was allowed to eat after 24 hours while the others watched. Ms Lakaev denied this happened. Mr Jacobi said there was no escape if you wanted to leave the camp. "The whole group would be set on them like a lynch mob. Some of the people would want to kill that person. And anyway, where would they go? They don't know where they are, they have no money, credit cards, ID, nothing.''
He said punishment could be dozens of push-ups for forgetting your hat. "They also might humiliate a person by dredging up their past. If you fell asleep, you had to stand up at the back and hold a rock above your head.'' Mr Jacobi said later activities like abseiling were more pleasant. "When you come back, you have a party at a motel. All the staff cheer you, you have a hot shower and put on nice clothes.''
Ms Lakaev denied graduates of "The Final Step'' were pressured to pay more and attend more courses. But many visit her certified counsellors, who charge at least $40 a visit.
Ms Lakaev offers an $8000 personal mastery course for her self-styled counselling certificate, a $15,000 instructor's certificate, and a $3850 survivor's course "for the 21st century''. She offers an "intuitive'' race betting tips service for those willing to invest $1000 to $10,000. Some said they took out loans and went into debt to continue the programs.
One man told The Sunday Mail he spent thousands to attend a "personal mastery'' course only to quit when he was offered cannabis while on it. Former participants said cannabis helped potential counselors understand the influence of drugs. Ms Lakaev would not comment on this claim, but said she was "anti-drugs''.
Mr Jacobi said some participants worked as volunteers on Ms Lakaev's property at Burringbar, 16km south of Murwillumbah in northern NSW. "In the personal mastery course, one of the major tasks is to make $10,000 for a worthwhile cause. You later find the cause is a project on her property. We spent about $13,000 building a huge dam and putting a pier over the dam on her property.''
Ms Lakaev said she invited participants to use her land and profit by it. Murwillumbah police said they had received complaints involving neighbours and claims of "general harassment''.