Monday, 12 November 2018

Adventure + Sustainability = Jon Muir

Here's something surprising about the man often called Australia's greatest living adventurer: sometimes he'd rather talk about chickens than big mountains he's climbed.

Jon on the farm, in the flesh
That's how Jon Muir opens his latest public speaking event, in fact, with an anecdote about swapping sustainable farming tips with fellow Australian mountaineer Tim McCartney-Snape at an awards dinner a few years ago.

I saw Jon speak in Brisbane last week, part of a national tour to promote a new World Expeditions trip he's running (more on this below) and it was enlightening in so many ways.

If you haven't heard of Jon Muir (not to be confused with the Scottish-American naturalist/conservationist John Muir, who died in 1914), here's a pocket-sized resume of his considerable achievements.

Left school at 16 to pursue a life of adventure. Started sailing then rock climbing and in 1988, at the age of 27, climbed Everest solo and without Sherpa support. Then climbed a bunch of new routes on mountains most of us have never even heard of, like the 6864-metre Changabang in northern India.

North Pole stroll
He has walked alone and unsupported across Australia, hunting and gathering en route, trekked to the North and South Poles, tackled various sailing expeditions, paddled more than 6000km in a sea kayak - and made award-winning films about some of his adventures.

Last year he received Australian Geographic's Lifetime of Adventure Award, which honours those who have not just lived extraordinary lives but given back and inspired others in the process.

He is also very much his own person. For the talk I went to at the University of Queensland, he wore a kilt (it's comfortable, he says), accessorised with a black singlet and several necklaces made from crocodile teeth and/or boars' tusks. His trademark mop of brown hair and beard might be grey now, but at 57 he still looks very, very fit.

Suzy & Jon Muir + chickens
He's a great storyteller, generous, witty and so utterly unpretentious it's like listening to a mate telling you what really happened on the extreme adventures he talks about.

What shines through brightly, too, is his love of simplicity and the wild, natural world that sustains us, which has led him and his wife Suzy to start sustainable farmstays on their property near Grampians National Park in western Victoria.

I could have listened to him for hours and wanted to share a few snippets from his talk. So here are 9 more surprising things you (probably) didn't know about Australia's greatest living adventurer:

1. He has peed on top of Mount Everest. Let's get this one out of the way first. One thing that sets Jon apart from other public speakers is his boyish honesty. So unlike other accounts of scaling the world's highest peak, his ends with relief of a different kind: from being able to finally pee after holding on for so long on the ascent (it's not easy with a down suit, harness and other gear at altitude).

Harvest time at Inanna
2. He grew up around backyard farmers. Wollongong in the 1960s, pre-television, was full of migrants growing food and sharing their crops with each other, which sparked Jon's lifelong desire to live close to the land.

3. He's afraid of water. Yes, despite completing more than 50 solo sea kayaking expeditions. He can swim of course, but he recognises that although we might enjoy being in and on water, we're land animals. "I'm not a marine mammal, I'm not a fish, it's not my natural environment," he says.

4. He's not particularly goal-oriented. This might seem counterintuitive for someone who has racked up so many summits and expeditions that just wouldn't have happened without at least some planning. To clarify: he does plan, he just doesn't get hung up on getting where he planned to go. "When you're at the cutting edge of what you're doing, you're not going to hit your objective most of the time. I love that," he explains. "To me the objective is the cherry on top of the pie. I'm more interested in the pie."

Yoga in the Coorong, Sth Australia
5. He meditates - with a gun. To keep himself physically and mentally in tune, he does yoga every day and meditates in the bush surrounding his property, often with a gun by his side so he can return home with dinner (perhaps a feral rabbit) as well as a clear mind.

6. Short trips are good too. You might think an extreme adventurer would sniff at a day trip or a "weekend escape" but Jon loves them. So while he and Suzy have done plenty of epics together, they also love weekends away, for the chance to be playful and try things you could never do on a long trip.

7. He has 76 chickens. An "empire" rather than a flock, he says. They provide him and Suzy with meat, eggs, chicken poo for the vegetable garden and hours of entertainment. His prize rooster is Enzo the Magnificent and apparently quite the gentleman, often finding worms for the hens.

8. Solar batteries are optional. Who knew? When Jon and Suzy took over their property, Inanna, it had an ageing solar battery system that soon konked out. In the spirit of adventure, they decided to see if they really needed batteries so for 18 months used electricity only when the sun was shining and spent their nights by candlelight. That'll get you in tune with nature's rhythms.

Big-sky-mind adventures
9. Adventure is all about psychology. People think it's all about physical strength and endurance, Jon says, but it's more about inner strength, attitude, maturity and a whole lot of other stuff, whether you're adventuring alone or with others.

During question time after his talk, thinking about all the trips Jon and Suzy have done together, I asked if he had any tips for adventuring as a couple. Know each other's strengths, he said, listen to each other (and have regular "councils" using a "talking stick") and take turns taking the lead.

Inspiration, a window on an epic life AND relationship advice from one of the world's great modern-day adventurers, what more could you hope for from a 2-hour talk? Maybe a few last words. For Jon, life is "just a series of moments" and "having a go IS success".

Big thanks to World Expeditions for hosting me at this event. The new 5-day "Off The Grid with Jon and Suzy Muir" sustainable farmstays in western Victoria are on 16-20 March and 2-6 November 2019 and will be an amazing hands-on way to learn some real life skills from Jon and permaculture guru Suzy - natural building, organic farming, aquaculture, energy harvesting, sustainable food systems, bush tucker and more.

There's also a doco about the couple, Suzy and the Simple Man, released late last year. You can watch the trailer here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Small is beautiful: How to build a tiny house

It probably started with my first cubbyhouse. Dad built it for my brother and me, onto the paling fence in the backyard of the first house we ever lived in, in leafy northern Sydney. It was so small you could reach out and touch both walls without even trying, it had tiny stairs leading up to its tiny porch and two windows with curtains (made by Mum) and I loved it. 

Tent living in the Philippines
My love of small dwellings soon leaked out in other ways. I've always loved sleeping in tents, the simplicity of having everything you need within arm’s reach and a world of spaciousness just outside. I loved the long summers our family spent living out of a campervan at Trial Bay on the NSW mid-north coast.

When I started travelling further afield, my love of cosy spaces was expressed by staying in felted gers in Mongolia, a tipi in Portugal, safari tents in Africa, mountain huts in New Zealand, and ship’s cabins everywhere from the Amazon to Antarctica. 

My cabin away from home
south of Oslo, Norway
Then, in 2014, I spent two weeks in a cabin in Norway, alone. My tiny-house heart had found its way home. 

My tiny house obsession
Since then I’ve become slightly obsessed with tiny houses, I think because, for me, they marry simplicity, low-impact living (a small footprint means low energy use) and freedom (from mortgage or rental servitude), with a dash of earthy minimalism and Scandinavian "hygge"-ness (a Danish word referring to a feeling of cosiness, comfort and simple pleasures). It doesn't hurt that they're also cheaper to build than a regular house.

A tiny house for writers!
Pic by Inhabitat
"Tiny houses" aren't just extra-small dwellings, by the way. Most are built on trailers, to allow them to sidestep council regulations that cover fixed structures. 

They tend to be about 7m long, 2.5m wide and up to 4.3m high - to allow space for a loft bed over the living area or kitchen, to maximise floor space - with a footprint of 30-40 square metres (considerably less than the 189 square metres of the average new home in Australia). 

I’ve watched countless Living Big in a Tiny House clips on YouTube and the beautiful Small is Beautiful doco about the tiny house movement in the US (Minimalism is also great, and on Netflix). I've subscribed to Cabin Porn and read their first book (a new one is in the works, on cabin interiors). My web browser is bursting at the seams with bookmarked links to earthships and treehouses and kit cabins and shipping container houses. 

With tiny house guru Fred Schultz 
How to build a tiny house
Last weekend I took another step forward on the path that seems to be leading me towards tiny house living: I did a weekend workshop run by Fred Schultz of Fred’s Tiny Houses

It was a revelation. Fred is a talented teacher, a generous soul and a passionate tiny house advocate. A true believer in the liberating power of tiny house living, he's keen to share all he's learned (the hard way) through years of building and living in his own tiny house, with his partner Shannon and their children, in Castlemaine, Victoria. 

Fred's tiny house with awnings
in Castlemaine, Victoria
There were four 3-hour workshops over two days, covering everything you need to know about trailers, making your tiny house off-grid, where you can legally build and live in a tiny house (in Australia) and how to build one (including how to speak "builder" at the timber yard). Here are just a few things I learned last weekend:

8 things I learned from Fred
1. Humans have always lived in small dwellings (think igloos, gunyahs, yurts, tipis), well until the recent rush of consumerism and the desire for big houses. We're built to live in small houses that keep us connected to nature.
2. The recent tiny house movement began in North America, led by Jay Shafer and Dee Williams, where tiny houses mostly need to protect their inhabitants from snow and cold; Australian tiny houses, by contrast, need to be insulated against extreme heat and cross-ventilation.
3. Tiny houses are so new there aren't any regulations covering where you can build or live in them. No council in Australia has a permit system for tiny houses but it's coming soon; Casey Council in Victoria might be the first, and Fred has been working with them about it
4. Until then, tiny houses on wheels are legally classified as caravans - so they have to be registered and road-worthy. Of course they're better than caravans, mainly because tiny houses are built to last.
5. Tiny houses have to be built to withstand being towed behind a vehicle; as a result, they're often (or should be) more solid than cabins or fixed foundation homes.
6. Living off-grid, not dependent on mains electricity or town water, is easier than it sounds. It's all about solar batteries, building near a water source if you can - and composting toilets!
7. Weight is everything in tiny house land - which means weighing all your building materials and everything you own so you don't exceed the maximum legal towing weight of 4500kg.
8. You can design and build your own house, and plenty of sane people have. Fred gave us a brief introduction to Sketchup 3D modelling software (he also designs and builds tiny houses for a living).

Last Sunday also happened to be Sustainable House Day, when people all over Australia welcome strangers into their passive solar, low-impact, sustainable homes. And there happened to be a tiny house on display just down the road from where we were doing the workshop, built by Brisbane Tiny Houses.
Not the tiny house we visited
(this one is from an ABC article)

It was the first time I’d actually been into a tiny house. The one we visited wasn’t as earthy as I’d like, but it was surprisingly spacious, gave me a few ideas; it was also interesting to hear Fred’s take on its design features.

Inside Fred's tiny house
(family not included)
Tiny houses are everywhere
The next step for me is to actually stay in a tiny house, to really feel how I might use the space and what features I might (and might not) need. First stop: the tiny off-grid house that Fred built (available through Airbnb, see Fred’s TinyHouse), the next time I'm in Victoria. 

In a sign of the times, there are more ways to do a tiny house stay than ever before: Unyoked has six beautiful tiny houses in secret bushland locations within a 2-hour drive of Sydney and Melbourne, Cabn has (so far) one off-grid tiny house in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia; and In2thewild has 10 cottage-like tiny houses close to Sydney, Canberra and Wollongong.

Brendan, Tas, Christian
and their (very) tiny house
There are Tiny House Real Estate agents, websites where you can buy Tiny House Plans and dozens of tiny house builders. There's aAustralian Tiny House Association based in Melbourne.

My friend Brendan's son Tas even designed and built a tiny house model for a school project.

Liberate yourself*
If you've ever daydreamed about tiny house living, about liberating yourself from the burden of stuff and mortgage payments and paying rent and having more time to do the things you love, do yourself a favour and sign up for one of Fred's weekend workshops. (This is not a sponsored post, incidentally; I paid my own way.)

One of Unyoked's tiny houses
south of Sydney
Not only will you learn more in two days than you ever could by doing your own research, you'll get to meet Fred and become part of a supportive community (with its own Facebook page), both of which will be invaluable when you're ready to take the leap and build, design and/or buy your own tiny house.

They might seem offbeat now, but tiny houses are the future, if we’re all to share this planet in harmony with each other and the natural environment and our fellow earthlings. Watch this space.

Fred runs tiny house workshops in various towns and cities across Australia, and you can do just one 3-hour workshop or a whole weekend of them. See Fred's Tiny Houses for the 2018/19 schedule. 

*Fred's Tiny Houses' motto

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

My (imaginary) Non-Fiction Book Club

I've never been in a book club. I read too slowly and for me reading is as solitary as writing and I like it that way. (Also, I don't like wine.) But if I were in one, it'd be a non-fiction book club.

Three of my favourite things
As much as I love a good story, I'm curious about the world. I studied zoology and psychology at uni - when tertiary education was free and you could study whatever interested you - and I still love learning about how the natural world works, and the human mind, how people and nature interact, how to live a rich and true life.

It's not about accumulating knowledge. A good non-fiction book is like a trip to a place you've heard about but never been to.

The Indian Ocean of wonder
It takes you out beyond the breakers of what you could ever know to a bottomless ocean of understanding and wonder, helping you see everything from this new vantage point and changing you in the process.

So welcome to my (virtual) Non-Fiction Book Club. Let's talk about books we've loved and learned from. I'll start.

Here are 8 of my favourite non-fiction reads this year (so far):

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - by Yuval Noah Harari
Written by an Israeli historian, this is hands-down one of the most extraordinary and enlightening books I've ever read. It "spring cleans" your mind, as one reviewer put it, enlisting some of history's sisters - anthropology, biology, economic theory, theology, sociology and other disciplines - to explore where we came from, what makes us human and can "progress" make us happier?

It's astounding in its scope too, starting 2 million years ago when there were six species of humans (Homo sapiens became dominant about 70,000 years ago), passing through cognitive, agricultural and scientific revolutions (as Harari calls them) and ending with the current capitalist and climate crises. Translated from the Hebrew first edition, the writing is surprisingly clear and bold. It's a book to be read slowly, letting the ideas sink in and reframe the world we live in.

Eating Animals - by Jonathan Safran Foer
You might recognise Foer's name; he wrote Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). This book was his first foray into non-fiction and it's powerful. Inspired by the birth of his son and a desire to choose foods that nourish him, Foer spent three years researching how meat comes to our tables, then used his considerable creativity to craft a compelling argument for not eating animals (he became a vegetarian in the process).

Foer doesn't hold back from detailing the brutality and cruelty of factory-farming and although the book is US-centric, America is not alone in the way it treats the animals it eats, particularly at the slaughter end of their short lives. (There's a new doco, Dominion, about the way we treat animals in Australia; just watching the trailer made me cry.) A must-read for anyone who eats any kind of meat (yes, including fish).

Cabin Porn - edited by Zach Klein
If you haven't heard of this one, it's not what you think! What began as a communal project in 2008 whereby anyone, anywhere in the world, could post a photo of a cabin -or a shack or a treehouse - in a wild setting to the website, has grown into a beautiful little book subtitled "Inspiration for your quiet place somewhere".

As well as 10 inspiring stories about people who have built their dream cabins, or yurts or converted grain silos, the book features more than 200 incredible cabin pics from the website (hand-picked from more than 12,000 images, and counting).

I love this quote at the start: "Inside each of us is a home ready to be built. It takes a supply of ambition and materials to construct a cabin, but the reward is handsome: a shelter for yourself somewhere quiet and a place to offer warm hospitality to friends."

First, we make the beast beautiful - by Sarah Wilson
I didn't expect to love this book as much as I did. Didn't expect to like Sarah Wilson's writing as much as I do (because she used to edit women's magazines and has become a bit of a health and wellbeing guru). But this is a beautiful book, "a new story about anxiety", hers and ours, told with unflinching honesty, curiosity and kindness.

It's a book for anyone who has ever felt a twinge of anxiety or self-doubt, and who hasn't? It's raw and real, confessional and creative, hopeful and helpful and playful, with chapters and exercises called, for instance, "back the fuck off" and "sit on a small bench with yourself". I've dog-eared so many pages, as breadcrumbs to lead me back to bits I loved, it looks like origami.

Utopia for realists - Rutger Bregman
I loved the title straight away, but didn't expect to love a book about economic theory. This bestseller by a young Dutch historian and author is about the concept of a Universal Basic Income, whereby a government gives every citizen a basic living wage (say $1,000 a month) to cover essential expenses such as food and housing, regardless of their means or whether they work or not, replacing complicated welfare systems in the process.

Bregman explains everything in such a clear and entertaining way it's fascinating and uplifting: trials in countries such as Canada and England show that when given enough money to live on most people don't just sit on the couch all day binge-watching Netflix series; they work (doing what they love) and volunteer, become healthier and more creative and community-minded.

Here's a shorter read about why UBI costs less than you think and a link to Bregman's TED talk "Poverty isn't a lack of character, it's a lack of cash".

10% Happier - by Dan Harris
This one kept me company while I was trekking in Nepal earlier this year - via my Kindle, the best way to read in teahouses and tents without bedside lamps. It's written by an ambitious American news journalist and anchorman who stumbles onto meditation after having a nationally televised panic attack, but is sceptical at first because he thinks it's all woo-woo and doesn't want to lose his "edge". So he starts asking hard questions to find out what it's all about.

I've read dozens of books about meditation, most by meditation teachers, but what makes this one fresh, funny and inspiring is Harris' matter-of-fact style and the fact that he's looking at meditation from the outside and demystifying it. He's now a convert to mindfulness-based meditation taught by the likes of Joseph Goldstein and has a website, a podcast and an app: 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Sceptics.

Changing Gears - by Greg Foyster
Jo Nemeth (aka Jo Low Impact) recommended this one to me when I interviewed her last year; she found it so inspiring she gave up using money, for good, three years ago. It's about Greg Foyster, a journalist working in advertising who decides to quit his job to live more simply and sustainably.

But first, he and his like-minded girlfriend Sophie decide to ride their bikes from Melbourne to Cairns; along the way, they arrange to meet people who have chosen to simplify their lives in various ways, from tree-dwellers to barefoot monks.

The cartoon cover doesn't do this book justice; it tackles big questions about how we live, and how we could live. It also feels like two books in one: the simple-living stories they encounters, which are all fascinating, and Foyster's own joys, realisations and struggles as they head north then back to Melbourne. An inspirational resource for your inner minimalist.

Woman in the Wilderness - by Miriam Lancewood
Is there anything better than an adventure story that's true? Don't be fooled by this book's cover, the photo of Miriam Lancewood, a statuesque Dutch beauty wearing a possum-skin vest she made herself (possums being pests in New Zealand), one hand on the hunting knife in the belt of her shorts. She's the real deal.

Originally from Holland, she met her husband Peter in India and together they spent seven years living simply and close to nature in the wilds of NZ, his home country, including: a year in wilderness huts, a year driving off track to various forest campsites and a year walking Te Araroa (the 3000km hiking trail that runs from one end of NZ to the other).

It's an incredible story, about what we are capable of, how far we have drifted from living natural lives, the mental as well as physical challenges of living wild, and she and Peter are deep-thinkers; some of the most interesting bits are about their relationships to their surroundings and to each other.

It seems I do love talking about books. Who knew? Now it's your turn. What books have you loved lately, non-fiction or fiction?

Monday, 20 August 2018

A win for sustainable travel

This is a sneaky short post to make an announcement, if you'll forgive me for blowing my own conch shell. I won an award at the annual Australian Society of Travel Writers awards night in Bangkok last weekend, for Best Responsible Travel Story of 2018. Yay!

I (heart) Jordan
My winning story is about the extraordinary, other-worldly Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan. I stayed for just one night - the first night of a six-day trek I did last year - but was so bowled over by the place, by its solid sustainable and ethical credentials, I managed to rave for 700 words about it. Here's the story link.

But this post isn't just about me. It's also about the rise of sustainable thinking in travel since the ASTW first introduced this award more than a decade ago.

Award sponsor Intrepid Travel, which has been carbon-neutral since 2010 and last week became a certified B Corp (by putting purpose before profit, see link for more info), is one operator committed to making the world a better place through travel.

Tread lightly, travel barefoot
Another is World Expeditions, which runs forums on responsible travel and put together its own free Thoughtful Traveller guidebook. I mentioned others reducing single-use plastics in a story I wrote for Escape recently, 8 tips for plastic-free travel.

It's also heartening to see more of my fellow travel writers sidestepping the gloss to cover travel experiences that raise awareness and make a difference; my mate Chris Retschlag is one of them - see her recent post about human trafficking in Nepal.

With more than 8 billion of us travelling overseas each year now, travelling thoughtfully is more important than ever. How about you - got any tips for making travel more sustainable?


Big thanks to Intrepid for sponsoring this award again, to Fairfax Traveller for publishing my story, and to Experience Jordan and the Adventure Travel Trade Association for hosting me in incredible, wonderful Jordan.