Friday, 30 December 2016

2016: The year of walking barefoot around the sun

It's that time of year again, when we glance back over our shoulders at the year that's been before striking out into a new one brimming with possibilities.

Barefoot on Bruny Is, Tasmania
How to measure a year? For each of us it's one lap around the sun, another birthday, a cocktail of losses and lucky breaks.

Where I live, the passing seasons are marked by blooming jacarandas, autumnal offshore winds, the winter whale migration. Numbers can help: I spent two and a half months away and three months not surfing (after a knee injury), had 50 stories published, wrote 15 blog posts.

Lately I've realised there's one constant however (well, two) whatever happens and wherever I go: my feet.

I don't wear shoes much these days, since moving to the NSW north coast two years ago. It's often too hot, and going barefoot is just easier and freer when you live near the beach (and I can live with my car being full of sand).

But I've been going barefoot when I travel too.

I've heard that taking off your shoes and walking on grass is a good remedy for jetlag when you arrive at your destination (possibly just because it gets you outside into natural light).

Bare feet are infinitely practical: all-terrain, weatherproof and amphibious. They're cool in summer; in winter I swaddle mine in sheepskin (ugg boots, worn with shorts - it's a north coast thing).

Barefoot in the Maldives (last year)
But there's a less rational reason I kick off my sandals whenever I can: it makes me instantly happy. Just to feel the air on my toes and solid earth under my feet is enough; if I can make contact with water - a stream, a pool, a puddle, the sea - even better. It calms me, slows me down, brings me home.

Now I seem to have developed a new habit: taking pictures of my feet in various locations - like the globetrotting garden gnome that sent selfies back to its owners.

My feet are my constant companions after all (see what happens when you travel solo too much?).

So I'm looking back at this year by looking down. These are a few of my barefoot highlights of 2016 (with links to my stories about them):

Barefoot in the Amazon with
citronella anti-malarial anket
In the Peruvian Amazon I sat on the deck of the beautiful Delfin II expedition vessel, dangling my feet over the muddy water while getting tips from Lindblad's resident photographer on how to snap the pink river dolphins cavorting in front of us.

Sometimes my bare feet were clad in hiking boots (walking the secret mountains of the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia) or in fins (while snorkelling with sharks, turtles, manta rays and elusive humpback whales on Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia).

Atlantis Pool in the Kimberley
If there's anything better than an outdoor shower, it's a wild swim, and in the north-east Kimberley I had both. I stayed in low-key luxury at Berkeley River Lodge on a media trip and one afternoon our guide led us barefoot over sun-warmed sandstone to one of the most perfect (croc-free) swimming holes I've ever swum in.

I had both at Bruny Island in Tasmania too, last month (see pic at top): showering in a forest of the tallest trees I've seen in a long time then relaxing barefoot in my tent after walking all day.

Bare-pawed cat in Lima, Peru
I even had barefoot (or near-barefoot) moments in cities, which I seem to enjoy a lot more now I don't live in one. I kicked off my sandals at a cat park in Lima, Peru, to hang out with dozens of friendly, stray felines.

And looked down during an Art Deco walking tour of gorgeously retro South Beach, Miami, just in time to see some footpath graffiti (see below).
Footpath wisdom, Miami

And there have been countless barefoot days on home soil and sand: surfing with friends, walking on the beach and along grassy headland trails, swimming in the sea, going barefoot in local cafes.

One of the most memorable was a lonely winter's Sunday when I had a small adventure, crossing the Richmond River by car ferry to South Ballina and a neverending beach I'd never set foot on.

South Ballina blues
But my barefoot beach walk was cut short when I saw a piece of sky poking out of the sand. That tiny bit of Mount Franklin-blue plastic was just the beginning; I spent the next couple of hours beachcombing the high tide mark, picking up as much plastic as I could carry. A good deed is surely better when done barefoot?

My new year's resolution for 2017? To have more barefoot time, at home and away, and to remember my favourite Kahlil Gibran quote: "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."

Happy barefoot new year, everyone.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Sharing the gift of travel on Christmas Eve

Last week I was one of six travel writers asked to write about "The gift of travel" for Fairfax Traveller. We also had to say where on Earth we'd send someone we love, if money (and holiday leave) were no object.

Kids playing on the jetty
at... Christmas Island
I love assignments like this: one brief, six totally different stories. They were all published today as a cover story called A gift that keeps on giving.

Here's mine, my gift to you. Happy giving-season, everyone. Be kind to each other.

Stepping into the unknown
by Louise Southerden

It happens every time. Boarding a flight, to anywhere, I feel the rush of possibility I felt the first time I travelled overseas alone.

You cross a threshold when you leave home soil. Step into the unknown. It doesn’t matter if you’ve booked hotels, made reservations, arranged tours.

Just as an obituary is not a life, an itinerary is not a trip and even the most demanding schedules have room for unplanned encounters, unchaperoned moments and other cracks for the light of chance to shine through.

That’s one of the gifts of travel. Another is freedom, the opportunity to shrug off our lives back home, for a few days or forever, and face the world just as we are.

Travel gives us simplicity, by stripping life back to basics. You don’t have to go trekking with everything you need in a pack on your back or spend two weeks alone in a cabin in Norway (though I highly recommend both). Just staying in a hotel can be simplifying (no cooking, no cleaning!).

And aren’t the days so much longer when you’re somewhere else? When time resumes its natural dimensions and there’s suddenly enough of it to “waste” lingering over a coffee and writing notes in a journal, getting lost in the lanes of a strange city and embracing the magic of everyday life that passes us by at home?

Travel can give you a dose of human kindness or natural wildness when you need it most. And landscapes so grand they break your heart. It can make us more at ease with the world and our place in it, even while that place shifts under our feet. Nothing lasts forever anyway. When you understand that, hotel rooms and departure lounges aren’t so different from houses and driveways.

For all these reasons and more, travel is the greatest gift we can give ourselves – and our offspring. I don’t have any of my own, but from the moment I held my newborn nephew in my arms 11 and a half years ago, I’ve been mentally bookmarking trips for him and his two younger siblings. Trips that would widen their eyes and impress upon them the bare beauty of the world.

Where to start? Perhaps with a road trip between Uluru and Alice Springs to show them what most of Australia looks like and meet some of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Or a homestay in Japan, a place at once otherworldly and, outside its megacities, incredibly earthy. Or a trek across the Mongolian steppe to remind them we all depend nature, and each other, to survive.

In the meantime, this might be the year I slip three copies of Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt into their Christmas stockings.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Oh, Kolkata: Big yellow taxis and solar slums

I didn't expect to love Kolkata. It was the surprise highlight of 2016 for me. After my first trip to India in 2009 I'd longed to return - to see the beaches and houseboats of Kerala in the south, the Taj Mahal, Darjeeling's tea plantations and Himalayan views, but not the city nicknamed the "Black Hole of Calcutta".

Kolkata's earthy chai cups
But I soon learned Kolkata has another nickname: City of Joy, after a 1985 novel by French writer Dominique Lapierre (later made into a Patrick Swayze movie).

And that's how I remember it now, because I fell hard for this city of 14 million on the Ganges in far eastern India. It was a brief affair, just two days.

That's how it is with some places (and people). That's all you need.

I loved Kolkata's friendliness, its big-crowded-city-but-everyone-just-gets-on-with-it buzz and its bookishness: there are bookshops everywhere, even booksellers on trains. I went to the world's largest book market, where you can buy anything from a doorstopper on anatomy to the latest shade of grey at a roadside stall; I bought a book about Kolkata's writer-hero, Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913.

Brightness at the Indian Museum
I loved how untouristy it is; I barely saw another Westerner. At landmarks like the stately Indian Museum, girls in pink saris swirled along marble corridors and asked to take selfies with me (making me wish I'd worn something pretty too).

There's more in this Three-minute guide to Kolkata, the first of four (!) stories I've now written about the city.

But my three favourite things about the city were:

1. Chai in clay cups. Milky sweet tea spiced with ginger and cardamom is an Indian institution, but in Kolkata it's served in espresso-sized clay cups called "khuli" (pictured above). They're hand-made and completely biodegradable. In fact when you finish your tea, you just toss your cup on the ground - if it smashes, it's good luck - returning it to the earth.

Taxi driver-surfers waiting
for their next fare
2. Big yellow Ambassador taxis. Nothing says "I'm in Kolkata" like riding in the back of a rattling old Ambassador taxi with the windows down, seatbelts optional.

Modelled on the UK's Morris Oxford, they were first made in India in 1957. The last Ambassador rolled off the production line in 2014, but they're still going strong, keeping mechanics in business and resisting the siren song of the scrap heap.

I loved them so much I put some of my pics together for this photoessay, An Ode to Kolkata's Ambassadors. It includes my favourite photo (above): taxi drivers lounging on their cars like Californian surfers circa 1960 hanging at the beach between waves.

King of the world
Pic by Urban Adventures
3. The solar slum tour. My first night in the city, I visited a community living near the river on a new tour run by Urban Adventures.

It's not "slum tourism"; the tours help an Indian-Australian social enterprise called Pollinate Energy provide portable solar lights to slum dwellers in Kolkata (and other Indian cities), which improves their lives and reduces air pollution and carbon emissions at the same time.

It was inspirational to meet people working together to make a difference to others and to the planet. My story about the tours and the project, Lighting up Kolkata's slums, went live this week.

Back seat of an Ambassador:
my new happy place
(There's one more Kolkata story still to come.)

Oh, Kolkata. I missed you as soon as I saw your lights dissolve into the night from the plane that brought me home. But I'll see you again, I promise.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Extreme camping in the Kimberley

One of the things I love about travel, apart from the way it temporarily simplifies your life, is that it opens your eyes to different ways to live. Lately I’ve been meeting people who live simply in various ways, whether by design or as a means to other ends.

Still life with frypans, the Kimberley
There was Harry and his mission to cycle from Canada to Patagonia, Simone who escaped a Dutch winter to surf for a month on a remote NZ island, James who “longgrasses” in Darwin's sand dunes.

It fascinates me. I could be the Marie Kondo of travel writing (she wrote the New York Times best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, among other odes to simple living).

Now meet Bruce Maycock, a guide at Berkeley River Lodge in the north-east Kimberley, where I stayed last month (see my previous post, about sea-houses and Timor Sea sunsets). He knows this part of the Kimberley probably better than anyone alive – because he has spent much of the past 15 years “extreme camping” out there.

In 1993, he and a friend spent five months camping above King George Falls, near the northern tip of Western Australia. They were just two young Aussie blokes from Melbourne in search of an adventure.

Bruce in guide mode
But Bruce became hooked on the bush lifestyle and kept returning to the Kimberley, first for several months every Dry season with just his dog for company (1995-2000) then during the Wet (between 2000 and 2012 when Berkeley River Lodge opened and he started working there).

He showed us his current campsite on Atlantis Creek and we all swam in "his" swimming hole. He still stays out there on his days off and spends about a month there at the start of every year now, before the lodge re-opens for the Dry season. 

To give you an idea how remote this place is, and how much he loves its wildness, in a video Bruce made during the 2003-4 Wet season, during which he lost his camp and his boat during a cyclone, he says, "I’ve got a 150-kilometre radius around me where there’s no people, no roads, not even a fence. It’s just wilderness and that’s why I come here and why I selected this spot. It’s just beautiful."

Here's the interview I did with Bruce at Berkeley River Lodge about how he came to live this way and what he loves about it:

Where did the bush-camping idea come from?
I don’t know exactly, but when I turned 18 and got my drivers license in Melbourne, I travelled around Australia with a friend and the big eye-opener for me was that up north, it never gets cold. Once I figured that out, I ended up migrating north pretty regularly and on the odd occasion I’d come across a roadside stop or a little creek and there’d be no one else there, I always remember how exciting that was. And how easy it is to live outdoors when it’s warm all year; you just need some sort of shelter, a tarp or something.

That inspired me to think, Australia’s a pretty big place, surely there’s some rivers and creeks that haven’t got anyone living on them that I could find and maybe go out and camp.

Atlantis Creek in the Dry season
How did you end up in the Kimberley?
I started thinking about it and I never thought I’d ever do it until I was discussing it with my friend Chris in Melbourne over a few beers one time and he said "Well, if you want to try and do it, I’ll come out and help you."

So we bought a heap of camping gear and an ex-Army Land Rover and started looking at maps trying to decide where we were going to go. We ruled out north Queensland and the Northern Territory because there are a lot of people up there, and we started looking at the Kimberleys.

Then I was watching a Bush Tucker Man episode and he was swimming across a waterhole up there and when he got to the other side he said, "The reason I can swim across this waterhole without worrying about crocodiles is because there’s a big waterfall between me and the ocean, and saltwater crocodiles can’t get up a waterfall."

A "small" saltie we saw
That’s how we ended up at King George Falls, which is massive, it’s like 90 metres high, 70km up the coast [from Berkeley River Lodge]. It wasn’t easy to get to but we managed to find a spot on the river and set up camp about 10km above the falls and lived there for five months. I was just totally hooked after that.

When did you start camping solo?
Well, after that first year Chris had to go back to work in Melbourne so I went over to the east coast and worked on a prawn trawler for a year out of Southport, fantastic job.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what we’d done. So the following year [1995] I said to Chris, “I’m going to go back out there.” He had work commitments, but he came up for three weeks and helped me set up my camp and I stayed there for six months, on my own, and learned a hell of a lot about living up there.

What kinds of things?
The most important things are what to take and what not to take. You’re so limited with how much weight you can take in a vehicle, and you want to be out there for as long as you can. With this spot, I could drive right to where my camp was. So I would take out maybe 80 kilos of flour to bake bread (the first time we went out, we had FOUR kilos) and 10 or 20 kilos of rice, a 20-kilo bag of onions, a 20-kilo bag of potatoes.


Bruce, in situ
What made you start camping in the Wet?
I spent every Dry season up on the King George until 2000 when I started getting work with a mining company in diamond exploration. I used to see them out on the tracks and they kept offering me work so I thought I might as well do that. So I started working for them in the Dry season and going out to my camp in the Wet season.

It took me about five years of living out there in the Dry season to feel confident enough to do it in the Wet season, because once you’re there in the Wet, you can’t get out. All the roads are cut off.

What’s it like bush camping in the Wet?
It’s so exciting, because you get all these thunderstorms and all the vegetation is green, there’s a lot more stuff to eat as far as bush tucker goes, the fishing’s heaps better. It’s just exciting. The river starts lifting and flooding...

Bruce's Atlantis Creek camp
Why did you move to Atlantis Creek?
When I’d been camping near King George Falls, I realised that when you get to the coast, there’s so much more food: you’ve got oysters, the fish are bigger, there’s just so much more to eat.

So in 2000 when I had some time off from the mining job, I had a look around for a spot that had a freshwater pool with easy access to the saltwater so I could come in with my little boat, my tinny, and then walk up the creek to my camp.

Eventually I found that spot where we went today. Everyone used to refer to it as Bruce’s Creek, and I thought that doesn’t sound right, so I said let’s just call it Atlantis Creek, because it comes out right next to Atlantis Bay [which is named after a seaplane that crashed offshore in the 1930s].

Did you have to get permission to camp there?
When I was on King George, I used to get a [free] six-month permit from Kolumbaru Aboriginal Corporation. Atlantis Creek is managed by a different community, Oombulgurri, with a different Aboriginal corporation, so I used to go into their office in Wyndham, that’s where I’d put my boat in.

The first time I went there, I took in a huge map and said, "This is where I’m going" and that I’d like a permit for six months. They said that’s fine. I kept going back for the next four or five years but I got the impression I was being annoying, so on the fifth year the guy in charge just said, "Bruce, we know exactly where you are, you can go there whenever you want." That was a huge relief.


Dugong rock art found by Bruce
Does surviving take up most of your time?
No, not at all. You can go down and catch a fish in half an hour and it’s like, I’m done! I also grow a few veggies – zucchinis, some tomatoes – and look for bush food. But mostly I would go swimming or read or look for [Aboriginal] art.


What’s it like being out there for months on end?
I spend a lot of time making my camp more user-friendly. I paved the floor [in my old camp] with sandstone and river sand, just collected pieces of flat sandstone, because there was a dip in there that would fill up with water when it rained. And I do a lot of leatherwork, tanning kangaroo, goanna and barramundi skins. 

What have you learned that you can live without?
I can live without refrigeration, that’s the biggest thing. I just use evaporation. If I’m staying out there for a long time, I’ll have five tubs of margarine, to go on the bread I bake. I’ll sit those one-kilo tubs of margarine in some water at the bottom of a plastic tub and put a wet sack over the top and the sack draws the water out and keeps everything cool.

The mouth of Atlantis Creek
So you live without electricity?
Well, I’ve got a 12-volt battery like a car battery and a solar panel so I can charge my GPS, my iPod – I was going to say my Walkman, I had a Walkman when I was first out there! And I’ve got a little car stereo with some speakers so I can play some music or listen to the cricket.

You're not completely Stone Age then?
Not at all. I’ve got a satellite phone. I didn’t when I started, they were too expensive, but it gives me a bit of peace of mind and I can ring my family and let them know I’m ok. I also carry a personal EPIRB now in my backpack at all times.

Do you enjoy the solitude?
I do, yeah.

But you had your dog with you for a while?
Yeah, Doogsy. Once I lost her [she ran away during some fireworks for Territory Day in Darwin], I did two years without a dog and I really missed her. Now I bring a friend’s English staffy out sometimes. They keep you entertained. They think they’re on an endless walk, like every morning you wake up in your swag and they’re sitting there going, “C’mon, let’s go! Where are we going to go today?”

Is there anything you miss about town life?
Probably pizzas! And a cold drink, a refrigerated drink. I might take out a two-litre cask of red wine, for the odd special occasion, but I can’t bring out beer, it’s too heavy. Although I usually bring a couple of tins of braised steak or something because if things are really full on, if there’s a low pressure system or a cyclone comes through, I won’t be able to catch fish.

Stone tools he showed us on the beach
Do you feel any connection to the people who once lived in the Kimberley?
I wouldn’t say I feel a connection, but I’m forever wondering what it was like for them, like when you find the art.

Some of the caves I walk into have still got stone and hand axes and spears and all of their tools in there. You can’t help but think, wow, who was that last person who was in here? What did he or she look like? Was it a family group?

What do you love about being out there?
I feel different when I’m out there. There’s so much time to think about life, I look at the stars a hell of a lot. And the endless exploring. Because it’s remote, all these little creeks I go to, you’re pretty confident of being the first white person to walk up some of them, which is really cool, and you just want to see what’s around the corner. You might walk 10km and it’s like, but what’s around there?


This is one of my longer posts, so thanks for making it this far. Keep exploring, and asking what living simply means for you. I'm still working on it myself, with a little help from Marie Kondo.

Big thanks to Bruce for his time and for the inspiration, and to Berkeley River Lodge and Tourism WA for getting me to the Kimberley. It's a special part of Australia.