THE rumour spread through the camp on the first day - if you were tempted over the fence for an illicit cup of cappuccino, you would not be allowed back. Whether it was true or not, it joined the storehouse of tall tales which circulated among the Camp Eden health farm guests; that the cooks would barbecue steaks for dinner one evening as a treat, and on the final night the staff would open a crate of beer to celebrate another completed course. Perhaps the cappuccino story was true, as I found a nametag for someone called Geoffrey who was never seen; either he had been through the course, or else he had an insatiable caffeine addiction. But the other stories proved to be wishful thinking; in my six days at Camp Eden in the beautiful, lush Currumbin Valley in southern Queensland, Australia, there was neither the sniff of red meat nor the comforting hiss of a beer can opening. In retrospect that would have been no surprise to anyone who had read the the promotional material provided by the owners, Phillip Wain Australia: ''The management and staff are committed to inspire the guests by sharing tools and techniques for achieving a balanced, healthy lifestyle.'' Quite simply that meant no booze, no cigarettes, no chocolate, no meat, a 5.30 am wake-up bell and an exercise schedule that ran from dawn to dusk, and sometimes beyond. Ostensibly, the regime of fitness programmes and weight loss techniques was not dissimilar from other health farms. What was different was the strong emphasis, hardly referred to in the brochures, on honing the minds, as well as the bodies, of the guests, using the sort of pop psychology techniques adopted by ''New Age'' aficionados. Such enlightenment was still to come as I drew up at the gates of Camp Eden at the end of a twisting country road almost two hours south of Brisbane. The stout wooden entrance gate was firmly shut, and the only sign of life was the unblinking eye of a video camera to scrutinise visitors; glancing at the wall that encircled part of the 105-hectare site, I wondered if it had been built to keep intruders out or guests in. The first thing issued to the new camper was a tag with their name elegantly written in large, italic script to match those worn by the staff. The instructions were to wear it at all times, so everyone could be greeted effusively by name from the first day simply by gently inclining your head to one side and glancing down. My bags were humped into a van and driven 500 metres up the steep hillock where the cabins were sited in a cluster around the dining hall - the last time a guest would be offered any mechanical assistance to make the climb. After that, each guest was nudged, prodded and made to ride an exercise bike to assess their fitness at the gym hall. Fingers were pricked for blood to test cholesterol levels, measuring tapes were bound over torsos to mark their outward migration, and sharp-edged calipers were used to grip the multifarious folds of skin on our mid-sections to test how much fat lurked under the surface. All this activity built up an appetite and the supper bell came as a welcome interlude, until we realised the spread laid apparently to feed a passing rabbit was actually meant for us. At lunch and supper the table would be piled high with foliage, raw vegetables and a mixture of brown rice and other high-fibre foodstuffs which were delicious, nutritious and horribly unsatisfying to stomachs craving fats, sugars and a choice selection of E-numbers. The diet was all about cleansing, we were told - purging our systems of all those nasty toxins that lurked in the liver and sinuses and in all those crevices where we stored our supplies of beer, wine, coffee, nicotine and other sundries. Our exercise programme was clearly designed not only to get us fit, but also to kick-start the grisly process of detoxification. Next morning at 5.45 am we stood on the grass outside the huts for early-morning tai chi and stretches, with the pungent odour of former good times leeching from every pore - by mid-afternoon, the homeopathic practitioner who kept aspirin as an emergencyback-up was busy mixing herbal potions to combat headaches and migraines brought on through detoxification, and the smell emanating from my armpits was vile enough to be outlawed by an international convention. The ever-smiling and pneumatic aerobics instructor, Coral, would assist in the detox process, leading the campers through all sorts of strange muscular configurations with phrases such as ''a sneeze is getting rid of your aura - it's a great release of energy''. After breakfast it was time to do something about our spiritual pollution through the Forum seminar programmes which would run for 21/2 hours. Conducted by Paul, a qualified acupuncturist, immaculate in white like all the staff, Forum operated on the premise that modern living had made most of our souls dysfunctional morasses of inhibition, self-doubt and angst. Naturally Forum's purpose was to put all of this to rights; those who regarded themselves reasonably balanced sort of people such as Ferrie, the Dutch-born ski-tour operator who had come to keep his wife company, were sometimes tempted to invent some mental agony, if only to have something to say. Each morning the guests would be confronted with questions and homespun philosophising such as: ''What is your pain? What is your investment in your pain? What would you have to do to release your pain?''; ''I cannot discover new oceans until I have the courage to lose sight of the shore''; and ''If I always do what I have always done, I'll always get what I have always had.'' ''This is all a bit too bloody herbal for me,'' hissed Nichola, an advertising agency secretary, who had looked to Camp Eden as a way of losing the weight she had gained while on holiday in the United States and seemed surprised at having to take Forum at all. For one third of the class Forum opened a Pandora's Box of confessions, a process which started after we were asked to comment on what it felt like staring fixedly into a classmate's eyes for five minutes while standing practically nose-to-nose. As some people glanced at their watches wondering how long it was until lunch, a young woman burst into tears as she said how she had been raped 18 months earlier; meanwhile, another woman was quietly crying as she recalled the death of one of her twins at birth six years earlier. In an astonishing series of emotional purges, different individuals related their feelings on their bisexuality, violence in their marriage, their violent loathing of colleagues and how one man's wife had left him for another and taken their children after 20 years together. To confront these demons from the past Paul supervised bizarre exercises such as battering a pillow with a plastic cricket bat while we shouted at the tops of out voices ''don't you ever, ever, ever, do that to me again'' repeatedly - an occasion which led to more sobbing from several participants. What was for some a fairly fatuous, if not downright silly, exercise, was for others a welcome and seemingly priceless catharsis of feelings they had never shared before. Away from Forum, catharsis was still on people's minds as we shared reports of our bowel movements and stool quality with little inhibition by mid-week. Over cups of caffeine-free ersatz coffee after supper we would gaily compare the laxative effect of the different herbal teas and how consuming muesli and fresh fruit at breakfast was a recipe for wind for the rest of the day. The fact that I was in the company of plain-speaking Australians was not enough to account for frank conversations. Quite plainly we were all feeling rather fond of each other in a ''huggy'', ''New Agey'' kind of way; our closeness honed in afternoon games of softball or water polo, over long nature walks through the lush rainforest, and through massaging each other's backs and buttocks during the early-morning exercise warm-ups. Even the most die-hard misanthrope would have their reserve overwhelmed in the face of such a hands-on onslaught on their bottom. The pinnacle of co-operation-building was the afternoon the instructors took us on the Flying Fox - a 120-metre-long wire ride from 60 metres in the air to ground level while strapped into a harness, followed by abseiling down a 45-metre rock face. The fearful and the furtive were either cajoled, encouraged or subtly threatened into taking part in both activities. By the end of the afternoon even the refusniks were ''punk-running'' or abseiling, with their chest facing the ground, down the wall andwondering if there was time for another run down the Flying Fox before dark. Watching our progress paternally were those who had been through the basic Camp Eden programme before, and were now returning for more advanced courses where you could decide if you wanted more or less spiritual re-alignment and where you would be taughtto improve your breathing by novel techniques such as running for six kilometres with a mouthful of water to make sure the air went in and out of your nose. By the last morning I felt like an ageing car engine that had been throughly decoked: I had sweated or flushed away a mini-mountain of toxins, lost three kilograms and the tenuous foundations of a post-Christmas paunch, and felt fitter than I had for ages. Waiting at nearby Coolangatta Airport for a connecting flight to Hongkong I was full of fine intentions - to cut down on alcohol consumption, watch my diet, stub out even my intermittent smoking habit and stay fit. I CAN keep it up I proudly thought - and ordered another cappuccino and a Danish pastry.