Monday, 18 June 2018

Rising from the rubble: Two weeks on an affecting trek in Nepal

Did it make me cry? That's a question I often ask myself when I come back from a trip, when I'm deciding if it was a good one and when I'm searching for the moments that touched me, the highlights I want to share with others when I tell friends or write about the trip.

Trekking over the Langtang landslide
To me, that's the point of travel: to be affected, changed, even in a small way, to have our world shift on its axis, or turned upside down, by the places we visit.

All sorts of things have made me cry when I travel. I cried the first time I saw Everest, from a plane the first time I flew to Kathmandu, after reading so much about it. When sitting next to my dad in a jeep in South Africa watching a pride of lions devour a buffalo. Shaking hands with an old man in Cambodia who had survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Leaving Japan after living there for 18 months, knowing that was a moment in time and place that will never be repeated.

Girl on the trail,
near Tatopani
By this measure, my recent trip to Nepal was a good one. Three years after the devastating earthquake, it's a country still in recovery. Every day, in Kathmandu and on the two-week Intrepid trek I did to one of the regions hardest hit by the 'quake, I saw or heard something that touched my heart, sometimes without warning. Here's an excerpt and the link to my story about the trip, published last weekend in Fairfax Traveller:

High hopes in the Himalayas

"Namaste!" It's so faintly chirped I almost don't hear it, until I stop walking and look around. Then I see her, a child no older than five standing in a nearby potato field in tattered clothes, her hands pressed together in front of her chest. She smiles. I smile back. "Namaste," I say, and walk on. 
Tamang woman in
front of her home
Big mountains might lure us to Nepal, but it's small moments like these, encounters with the people who live in the landscapes we've come to see, that keep us coming back.
This is my third visit to Nepal, my first since 2015 when the country was rocked by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks. More than 9000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. An estimated eight million people were affected, according to the UN. 
When I first arrive in Kathmandu the city seems much as I remember it, but with more dust, from roadworks and reconstruction. Scratching the surface, however, it's clear that three years isn't long in a place like this. Some of Kathmandu's World Heritage-listed landmarks remain caged in scaffolding, off-limits to visitors. And the earthquake is still very much in people's minds.
Pre-dawn view from Kyangjin Ri
Everyone has a story about where they were at 11.56am on April 25, 2015, and what, and who, they lost. It's in my mind too, because I'm here to do a new trek run by Intrepid Travel in one of the regions hardest hit by the earthquake, the Langtang Valley just north of Kathmandu. Read full story.
With thanks to Intrepid Travel for an affecting trek and for all they do to give back and remind us that travel can be a force for good. I did the new Tamang Heritage & Langtang Valley trek, which runs March-May and October-December. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Plastic free: 5 ways to avoid bottled water on your next trip

A few weeks ago I got back from Nepal, where I did a 15-day trek* in the Langtang Valley (story coming soon) - and thought about plastic. Specifically plastic bottles of water that save us from dying of dehydration in countries like Nepal where tourists can't drink the tap water.

Kids on the trail
north of Kathmandu
Of course most of us would rather die of dehydration than buy a bottle of water at home.

We all know it's bad for the environment in terms of the resources it takes to produce the bottles, the depletion of aquifers to fill them and the pollution problem of disposing of them.

We know bottled water is bad for us; the World Health Organisation just launched a review of bottled water, in fact, after a study in New York found microplastics in 90 per cent of 259 bottles from nine countries. (The Story of Stuff has a great 8-minute video about The Story of Bottled Water.)

But when we travel we often do things we wouldn't do at home.

What happened to serving water
on flights in refillable jugs?
Who hasn't bought plastic 2-litre bottles of water in Thailand or Morocco, because we can't drink the tap water and, well, bottled water is cheap and convenient? Or cracked open a tiny 300ml bottle tucked into the seatback pocket on a plane? Or said yes please to an ice-cold water bottle on a tropical tour bus? I know I have.

Sure, plastic bottles are often re-used in countries like these, in creative ways. I've seen them used as hanging pots for plants, cut down to make lamps, turned into pipes on mountain streams.

Plastic bottle pots in the Philippines
But the first rule of reducing plastic pollution is to, er, reduce (before reuse and recycle).

What was heartening on my Nepal trek was that, with the exception of a couple of my fellow trekkers who bought plastic bottles of water every day (adding up to 50 or 60 empty bottles by the end of the trek), everyone in the group treated their drinking water in a variety of ways, to avoid buying plastic bottles.

Here are five of them, all simple, cost-effective ways to avoid bottled water on your next trip:

Clean water in pill form
1. Aquatabs. I used these tiny water purification tablets on the trek and they worked a treat. Filled my one-litre stainless steel water bottle from any tap, dropped in a pill, shook the bottle and waited 30 minutes before drinking. A pack of 50 Aquatabs costs about $10; I bought mine in Kathmandu (the city, not the outdoor store).

The Lifestraw in action
2. Lifestraw. Designed by Swiss company Vestergaard in 2005 for use in countries where people don't have access to clean drinking water, the Lifestraw is basically a fat drinking straw that lets you safely drink from almost any water source. One straw can filter up to 4000 litres of water before it has to be replaced and costs about $40 from Macpac. There are also steel straws now and bottles with built-in Lifestraws.

3. SteriPEN. This one uses ultraviolet (UV) light to sterilise water; just fill your water bottle, stir it with the SteriPEN for 90 seconds (a green light signals when it's done) and you're ready to drink.

CamelBak's UV glow
Cities all over the world have long been using UV light to sterilise public water supplies, but US brand SteriPEN was the first to create a handheld UV device to purify water, in 2001. They start at $89 but the light lasts for 8000 litres.

4. CamelBak All Clear. CamelBak has taken things a step further by putting a UV filter in the lid of a BPA-free bottle, plus an LED screen that counts down the 60 seconds it takes to purify the water. It can be recharged by USB port, and a single charge purifies 60 litres of water. It's pricey at $199, but at least it's built into your bottle.

Purification in two small bottles
5. Chlorine dioxide. This one's my least favourite as it's a bit fiddly (I'd rather use Aquatabs). You add 12 droplets of Lifesystems chlorine dioxide solution to water and wait 20 minutes. The water tastes slightly better (less chlorine-y) than with Aquatabs, but there's always a risk the bottles could crack or leak their contents through your backpack. Costs about $30 from Trek&Travel.

Remember to pack your reusable water bottle to use with all of these except #4 and you're good to go. Preferably stainless steel - it's better for you than even BPA-free plastic, more durable than most plastics and recyclable when you're finished with it. Two brands I've used and loved are The Source, which donates $2 of every sale to Sea Shepherd, and Sydney-based Cheeki.

Happy plastic-free travels. (There'll be another post on more plastic-free-travel tips soon.)

*Big thanks to Intrepid Travel for encouraging us all to reduce our use of bottled water on this amazing trek, in line with their strong sustainable travel stance, and for hosting me on the 15-day Tamang Heritage & Langtang Valley trek, which runs Feb-May and Oct-Nov every year.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The life aquatic: A new liveaboard sea kayak trip in Raja Ampat

Whenever an assignment comes my way that has an opportunity to swim, there's no decision to be made. I just say yes and pack my togs (Aussie for swimmers).

That's what happened on my most recent trip to remotest Indonesia: a new sea kayaking trip run by Southern Sea Ventures amid the karst limestone islands of Raja Ampat.

That's us paddling northern Raja Ampat,
drone pic by our guide Matt Edwards
If you've never heard of Raja Ampat, it's no wonder. Only divers ventured there until recently (it's said to have the highest marine biodiversity on the planet).

It was a 10-day trip that seemed to last a month, in a good way.

When we weren't paddling, we were stand-up paddleboarding or snorkelling over pristine coral reefs or doing long ocean swims or drip-drying on deck or hiking through dense rainforest to swim under secret waterfalls or climbing the ship's rigging for a frigate bird's-eye-view of this incredible place.

Here's an excerpt and the link to my story about it, published in yesterday's Traveller in The Sun-Herald:

The life aquatic

From a distance, Equator Island is a chunk of shark-grey limestone with a stubble of rainforest, ringed by water as blue as a bottle of Bombay gin.

Our beautiful boat, off Equator Island
(Yours truly paddleboarding at left)
As we launch the kayaks from our boat and paddle closer, details come into view: kaleidoscopic coral gardens, fanning whitewater where sea meets reef, frigate birds tracing circles in the sky and a white-sand beach surrounded by high rock walls, secluded as a pirate’s hideout.

What’s most remarkable about Equator Island, however, is that it’s just one of about 1500 karst limestone islands that make up Raja Ampat, an archipelago off the remote north-western tip of West Papua, the western half of the New Guinea island (formerly called Irian Jaya).

Approaching Quoy Island
like buccaneers
Don’t let its location put you off.

Although the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website advises “reconsidering your need to travel” to West Papua, that’s because of regular clashes between Papuan pro-independence activists and Indonesian authorities on the eastern side of this vast province, hundreds of kilometres from the serenity of Raja Ampat.

If you’re a diver, you’ve probably heard of this group of islands whose name means “four kings” (referring to its four largest islands).

Snorkelling in whaleshark-print
leggings I bought from Waterlust
It’s often ranked as one of the world’s best dive destinations, for good reason: it’s an oceanic Amazon with the highest recorded marine biodiversity on the planet including more than 1700 fish species (among them whale sharks and manta rays) and three-quarters of the world’s corals (about 600 species).

Flying in to Sorong from Jakarta, via Sulawesi, I’d seen dozens of liveaboard dive boats anchored offshore.

I’m on a liveaboard boat too, not to dive but to test-paddle a new way to experience Raja Ampat: by sea kayak.

Matt with Rio,
the ship's cockatoo
Our Australian guide on this 10-day trip, Matt Edwards, pioneered liveaboard kayaking trips in Raja (as it’s often called) in 2015. 

He’d been running camping-based trips in southern Raja for four years when he heard about a northern island called Wayag, which sounded perfect for paddling. So he hired a local fishing boat to take him there, with four intrepid friends.

“I remember pulling into Wayag and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is the most amazing place I’ve ever been’,” he tells us on our first day. Read on...


Big thanks to Southern Sea Ventures, the best sea kayaking operator one could hope to travel with. I've been doing their trips in some of the world's most beautiful places since 2003 - in Fiji, Panama, the Philippines, Croatia, Indonesia - and I'd do another in a heartbeat.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

2017: A year in search of simplicity

Here we are again at the end of another journey together around the sun. How was it for you? Strange to think that no matter how settled we might feel, we're all constantly in transit, glimpsing milestones as we go, pausing at moments like these to ponder what we've experienced along the way.

Barefoot at Blinky Beach,
Lord Howe Island
For me, it's also a time to wonder if I spent the past 365 days wisely. Did I love well, let go, reduce my impact, do my best?

As always, there was a roll call of destinations. This year my trips seemed to have a common thread, by accident or design: a search for simplicity. Whether it was a chance to go barefoot, travel low-impact or just shrug off the home-fire routines for a week or two of being in the moment (and taking copious notes so I could write about it later).

Here's a bit of a highlights reel...

It started with a new "digital detox" trip through northern Morocco, where I went offline for nine days (bliss) and had company doing it.

Then came an Earth Weekend (not just an Earth Day) on beautiful, earthy Norfolk Island and, soon after, the inaugural Seven Peaks Walk on my other favourite little Australian Island, Lord Howe.

Jordan rocks (really)
Jordan, in May, was a highlight for me: six days of heat-wave hiking and camping in out-of-this-world landscapes on the new Jordan Trail (my Walking to Petra post was the second most popular post I've ever written). Big thanks again to the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Association for inviting me to their inaugural conference in the region; it was my first visit to the Middle East and won't be my last.

In July I swapped the southern winter for a chilly northern summer - in Iceland, a place that impressed me in unexpected ways (see More than "fire and ice": 10 reasons to love Iceland). I even got to have a quick dip in the North Atlantic. (Any trip that includes a swim is a good one, in my book.)

Torres del Paine #nofilters
Then I went to the opposite side of the globe, to Patagonia. An all-too-brief media trip that left me yearning to return to spend a month in a cabin or go trekking in the too-beautiful-for-words Torres del Paine country.

My last trip of the year a few weeks ago was closer to home: a sea kayaking adventure in Raja Ampat, an archipelago of about 1500 limestone islands off the north-west tip of West Papua.

Paddling West Papua
It felt more like a holiday than any other trip this year, probably because we were in and out of the water the whole time like kids at a pool party. When we weren't kayaking, we were snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding, walking to waterfalls or relaxing on the traditional Indonesian boat we called home for nine tropical days. (Blog post coming soon.)

As always, I feel truly privileged to be able to experience all these places and write about them and want to take this opportunity to thank all the tour operators, tourism organisations, editors and PR people who made this year's travels possible.

First sunrise of 2017, Lennox Head
Meanwhile, in northern NSW... this month marks my third year in little Lennox Head, a place that makes me love coming home more than anywhere else I've lived.

Every time I'm offered a trip, in fact, I weigh it up against the joys of my non-travelling life: surfing with friends, beach walks, late afternoon lake swims, moonrises over the sea, winter whale-watching, planting trees.

One of my at-home highlights this year was helping to set up a Boomerang Bags community in Lennox: we make cloth shopping bags from recycled fabric and will soon be giving them away at local shops to reduce plastic bag use. Loved this chance to meet and work with a bunch of like-minded locals on a good-news project.

Barefoot with Boomerang Bags
Oh, and I got to see Jane Goodall speak in Sydney, interviewed two other inspiring women about travelling and living simply ("soul trekker" Laura Waters and Jo Nemeth who lives without money) and won another Australian Society of Travel Writers award: Best Responsible Tourism Story, for a piece about a solar-slum tour I did in Kolkata, India, last year.

But looking back on all this, what makes a year (or a life) feel well-lived I think isn't how many trips we do or what we achieve.

Barefoot again, in Raja Ampat
(in Waterlust whaleshark leggings)
It's the connections we make - with each other and with the world we live in and on, and they happen more easily when we slow down and simplify things. That's what I'm most thankful for, because it's what reminds us we're all in this together, all hurtling around the sun at an incredible 108,000 kilometres per hour.

So happy simple new year, my friends, and thanks for your company. May our next 365-day trip be full of adventures of all kinds. See you back here in 2018!