Friday, 5 May 2017

Adventures in simple travel: Soul trekker Laura Waters

This is starting to become a habit: I can't resist interviewing people I meet who have had an adventure that strips life back to its essence. 

Mountain RnR: Laura resting
somewhere in the South Island
This latest instalment is about Laura Waters, who spent five months walking the length of New Zealand in 2014.

Before I knew better, I'd assumed she was a Kiwi, tackling the 3068km Te Araroa Trail to better understand her home country. Turns out she’s from this side of the ditch (as we Australasians call the Tasman Sea), which made her trek even more intriguing. 

What makes a young Australian woman do a long-distance walk in the first place, solo, and why New Zealand?

Just thinking about it makes me long for mountain trails and endless beaches and the simplicity of putting one boot in front of the other, taking each day's sunrise as it comes and each night's hut companions as they are. 

But beyond the romance of solo trekking, what was it really like? I asked Laura a few questions to find out: 

Happy tramper: Laura on the trail
How did this all start? Where did the idea come from? 
I’d had the urge for an adventure lurking in my mind for years. I wanted to stretch myself and see what I was capable of and when I stumbled across the Te Araroa in a hiking magazine I knew immediately it was what I’d been looking for. A stunning country with varied terrain, navigational challenges, river crossings, a trail 3000km long - it seemed to have the right balance of challenge without being so difficult I might inadvertently kill myself. 

Thankfully the idea arrived at a time when I most needed it. I’d been struggling with a very low emotional state for about a year before I set off on the hike. The over stimulation and stress of city life had become overwhelmingly difficult to deal with and I was desperately in need of a change of environment.

How did you prepare for such an epic trek? 
I’d probably done about a dozen multi-day hikes before attempting the trail, but none over 65km! I knew my mind was already strong, but I spent eight months working with a physio to strengthen my core and gluts, weaknesses that made me prone to sore knees. I walked two hours a day for three months before departure on my daily commute to work and carried a fully loaded pack for the last month of it (no doubt to the amusement of the other corporate workers in the high rise building in Melbourne where I worked).

Lone ranger: crossing the
Richmond Ranges
Why solo? 
I actually started the trek with a girlfriend who pulled out on the second day [due to injury]. I didn't know if I could do the walk solo but I decided I'd just keep going, take it one day at a time and see how far I could get. 

Were there any little luxuries you couldn’t leave home without? 
Music, a massage bar and a diary. I had wondered before I left whether I should leave the tunes at home and just listen to the sounds of nature, but music has a great capacity to uplift and transport your mind to another place, which comes in handy when you're having a challenging day. I took a small chunk of Lush massage bar too. Massaging your legs and feet not only feels great, but helps your body recover after the constant daily pounding. And the diary was a must-have to record the journey I was on, both external and internal.

Tree time: the Raetea Forest 
What were your days like?
It's not an easy trail. It’s very physical at times, bush-bashing through overgrown forest, rock-hopping boulders, climbing over logs and falling down holes hidden by waist-high tussock. On average I walked about eight hours a day, six days a week. Some days were much longer and sometimes I didn’t get a break for nearly two weeks. 

I also hiked faster than I would on day hikes back home, conscious of the need to finish within five months, before winter set in. It was really a whirlwind of walking, eating, setting up camp, cooking, washing clothes. I would aim for one rest day a week during which I could have a proper shower, launder my clothes, resupply on food and share my journey and photos with the outside world.

Tackling scree: Near the Waiau Pass
Were you ever afraid? 
Not of people. I had one slightly creepy guy invite me to stay at his place during the first 100km of beach, but other than that I didn't see many people at all, just a few hard-core hikers. 

But I regularly felt completely intimidated by the weather and the terrain: the precipitous drop-offs to the side, the ridiculously steep 'trails' where you could easily fall backwards and tumble to the bottom. My scariest moment was getting caught in a sudden snowstorm on the last day of summer in the South Island. I was only half an hour from a hut, but my core temperature plummeted like a stone. And I nearly got blown off a ridge in the Tararua Range in the North Island. The wind sounded like a jet engine. You realise your insignificance over there.

What did you love about life on the trail?
The simplicity of daily life: walk, eat, sleep. Washing my body in a river, collecting drinking water from dripping moss, eating simple food, listening to rivers rushing or owls hooting from my tent at night. No makeup, no mirrors, no media, no advertising, one outfit, one bag of belongings. I’ve never been happier.

What did you miss, if anything? 
Nothing. I realised you actually need very little to be blissfully happy. Nature filled me up.

The end is nigh: Tussock grass
What else did you learn about yourself and life?
Oh gosh, where to start? I learned I am capable of much more than I realised. That most fears are largely imagined and often it’s the thought of something that gets in the way of life more than the thing itself. 

I learned to listen to my intuition and trust my judgement. Without the constant noise of modern life, I gained clarity of thought. I discovered who I really am, free of any outside influences such as society and media and I had a blank slate on which to rebuild myself. I realised how much unnecessary noise and drama humans create and decided to opt out of that in future. I realised that if you just try, things generally work out – just head in the direction you want to go and you will find a way.

Views: Fresh snow and Lake Tekapo
Did the trek make you want to walk more, or hang up your hiking boots? 
I finished the hike feeling bulletproof and super fit. I could easily have kept walking. In fact I did, down to Stewart Island [at the bottom of the South Island]. I actually felt quite traumatised when it was all over; I didn’t want to go back to ‘normal’ life and everything that went with it. I’d discovered a new world – a better one, to my mind – and no longer felt I belonged in modern society.

How did it change your life?
It’s been three years now since I finished the hike. After six months back at my old job I quit the corporate world, sold a lot of my belongings and started wandering with my backpack and a laptop, working on a book about my hiking journey. 

I keep my expenses down by living simply, volunteering in exchange for accommodation and writing articles for magazines. I’ve roamed in the Solomon Islands, Thailand, New Zealand and around Australia, even spent six weeks sailing up the Queensland coast. I buy very little these days besides the essentials - food, wine and travel - and though I don’t have a lot of spare cash I have freedom and that makes me feel rich. I live inspired, doing things I love and going wherever opportunity leads me. Life is good.

Laura's book, tentatively titled Soul Trekking, is due out later this year. You can read more about her love of simplicity, nature and walking at her website Soul Trekkers.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The unbearable lightness of Morocco, unplugged

A short post today, and an ironic one: to share a link to my Morocco unplugged story (about a new "digital detox" trip I did earlier this year) while en route to an accidental digital detox on beautiful Lord Howe Island (well, there is WiFi at the small museum, when it's open, but not at Pinetrees Lodge, apparently by popular request.)

Djelleba phonetime, Meknes
The concept behind the Morocco trip, one of Intrepid Travel's three new "digital detox" adventures, was that everyone in our small group would sign a pledge to not use their smartphones or any other devices for nine days.

Living in northern NSW now, where some of my friends don't even use email let alone Facebook, I didn't find it too hard. In fact it was a relief to forget my life back home and immerse myself in Morocco. I wrote postcards, read a real book (instead of my Kindle), played cards, got used to not knowing the time or what was happening in the world and listened to our guide telling folk stories instead of disappearing into my headphones. It was a lighter way to travel, somehow.

A moment in the holy hill
town of Moulay Idriss
I think my four companions liked it too, though two 20-somethings admitted they use apps back home to manage their use of social media (one is called Forest: if you succumb to the call of the online world, a virtual tree dies).

"The only thing that makes life worth living is the possibility of experiencing now and then a perfect moment," wrote American writer Paul Bowles, Tangier's best known expat, who lived there for 52 years.

"And perhaps even more than that, it's having the ability to recall such moments in their totality, to contemplate them like jewels."

Others might disagree, but surely the only way to experience anything is to "look up" from our devices. In fact, remember Look Up, that spoken-word short film by Gary Turk? It's had more than 60 million views since it was uploaded to YouTube in 2014. If that's not ironic, I don't know what is.

As always, thanks for reading. Now let's all go outside, and look up at the sky.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Earth Weekend: 13 natural things to do on Norfolk Island

This time last week, I was driving around Norfolk Island in a flapping tent. At least that's how it felt in my rental Mini Moke (for the uninitiated, that's a small jeep). I loved it.

I was there to find out about outdoorsy things to do on this small Australian island, but I didn't expect getting around would be one of them.

Norfolk Island pines
where they belong
I'd hoped to do Earth Hour there, even packed a beeswax candle. That didn't happen; there didn't seem to be any Earth Hour events on, so I joined a lantern-lit ghost tour of Kingston, the island's eerie convict settlement.

But I ended up having an Earth Weekend instead, because Norfolk Island is one of the most natural, and naturally beautiful, islands in the South Pacific.

How could you not love a place whose emblem, which flies proudly on its flag, is a tree? None other than the Norfolk Island pine, which is all over the island (the main township is even called Burnt Pine), except on the bits that are rolling green hills.

In fact from the air -- Norfolk is a two-hour flight from Sydney and Brisbane, an hour and a half from Auckland -- it looks like one big dairy farm in the middle of the sea.

Norfolk Island Tourism's
earthy media kit
Forget about the 100-mile diet. On Norfolk you can have a 100-metre diet. It's ridiculously easy to "eat local" there. 

All its fruit and vegetables are grown on the island, which is just 5km by 8km. There's locally caught fish, local beef and fresh milk of course, but also coffee, goat's cheese (from The Hilli Goat), even wine (from Two Chimneys winery). 

Everyone drinks rainwater (aka "cloud juice"), which comes straight out of the tap.

Best of all, the island is a nature-lover's playground. Here's my list of the top natural things to do on Norfolk Island:

Nature's pool at Emily Bay
1. Swim at Emily Bay. Unlike Lord Howe Island, which is also about two hours from the east coast of Australia, Norfolk doesn't have many beaches. But it makes up for that with Emily Bay, a perfect crescent of white sand that wraps itself around a bay of gin-clear water. There's even a floating pontoon you can swim out to, Mediterranean-style, and green grass shaded by towering pines to relax under.

2. Breathe fresh air - or buy some. If you're there on a Sunday, head to the craft market outside the Tourist Information Centre where you can buy a tiny corked bottle of fresh island air for a couple of bucks. Priceless.

3. Snorkel Slaughter Bay. It's hard to imagine a less inviting name for this low-tide snorkelling spot on the island's south coast, but this lagoon hemmed in by coral reef has a dazzling array of marine life. I snorkelled there one afternoon with Karlene Christian, a diver and Norfolk Islander (they don't call themselves Australians), who picked "sea grapes" that we ate in a salad of lime-cured kingfish on the beach afterwards. Best post-swim snack ever.

Norfolk's north coast "apostles"
seen from the walking track
4. Walk the coastal cliffs. On the north coast, about 20 minutes' flapping drive across the island, I spent a scenic couple of hours walking along a cliff-hugging track looking down on Twelve Apostle-like islets such as Bird Rock and a rock pool called The Chord and didn't see another soul - on a Sunday! (Only about 1600 people live on the island.)

There's also a half-day guided trek on Phillip Island, 6km off the south coast, said to be amazing, but the seas were too rough to get to the island when I was there.

5. Go surfing. Speaking of rough seas... Norfolk isn't an easy place to surf, there being no surf shops or surf schools. The trick is to find a local who can lend you a board and show you where to paddle out. I found two: Emily (who runs the Hilli Goat Farm) and Zach (a surf photographer), who took me surfing at Bumboras early one morning. The waves were wild, and the board not quite what I'm used to, but it was one of my favourite experiences of the trip, a glimpse of islander life.

Foraged food by the sea
6. Have a picnic. Driving around, you'll see roadside produce stalls, with honesty boxes (and bananas for 10c!). Or Island Nectar can put together a hamper of sustainable and traditional island foods (think smoked kingfish, goats cheese, guava paste) you can take to any of Norfolk's beauty spots, maybe Emily or Anson Bay or Rocky Point.

7. Go foraging. Food isn't just grown by human hands on Norfolk; it's growing wild by the road, in paddocks, beside streams. I spent a delightful couple of hours with chef-historian Rachel Nebauer-Borg picking guavas, wild spinach and watercress on one of her foraging tours.

Emily Bay by Adam Jauczius
8. See natural art. A small gallery on the main street opened last month: Norfolk Art, which showcases Adam Jauczius's beautiful paintings of Norfolk's natural side, its pine trees and beaches and coastal cliffs. You can even pick up a print or a few postcards, for souvenirs and to support a local artist.

9. Watch the sun set over the sea. When you live on the east coast of Australia (or anywhere), seeing the sun set over the sea is a treat. On Norfolk Island you can do that at several spots, but Puppies Point is my pick (see below), a grassy reserve under the pines where it's just you, the cows and the soaring seabirds.

Orange sky at night, tourist's delight
10. Buy a Boomerang Bag. Like other forward-thinking places around Australia, Norfolk Island has free reusable cloth bags for shoppers to use, to reduce plastic bag use. Buy one at the airport for a great sustainable souvenir.

(They're called Boomerang Bags because ideally you bring them back to the shop where you got them, on your next visit. It's a worldwide movement that started in Australia; Boomerang Bag HQ is at Burleigh Heads. See for more info.)

Barefoot tree-hugging
11. Hug a Norfolk Island pine tree. It's almost impossible to snap a photo on Norfolk Island without one of its endemic pine trees being in it. These trees have made themselves right at home up and down east coast Australia, but they all came from here. And how cool is this: it's an island tradition to plant 100 pine trees for every islander who lives to 100; there have been three so far, all women.

12. Look out. Norfolk has more than its fair share of lookouts. Two of the best are Mount Pitt, where you can get a 360-degree view of the island; and Captain Cook lookout (Cook was the first European to spot the island, in 1774) where you can sit at the cliff edge watching terns, boobies and tropicbirds ride the updrafts.

Mokes are always ready when you are
13. Rent a Moke. You need a car to get around Norfolk and car hire is often included in accommodation rates. Why not make it a Moke? They might not run on biodiesel but they're the epitome of simplicity: no locks, no electric windows (no windows!), no power steering. Just hop in and feel the wind in your hair.

Natural beauty is a wild hibiscus
And I haven't even mentioned swimming in sparkling natural rock pools, sea kayaking along the coast, twilight walking tours or star-gazing (excellent because there's little light pollution) -- none of which I got to do this time. Which is a good thing. Now I have another reason to go back.

Big thanks to Norfolk Island Tourism and Air New Zealand for a work trip that almost felt like a holiday.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Travels with Henry: new travel advice website launches today

I've just finished reading John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, an allegedly non-fiction account of the almost-three months he spent driving across America in 1960 with his eponymous poodle, in search of the soul of his country.

Steinbeck was 58, had been living in Europe, then New York, which isn't really America, and wanted to reacquaint himself with the people and places he'd once known so well. So he packed up a truck with a camper on the back and started driving. Just like that.

It's a beautiful read, brimming with insights about travel from the very first page:

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch... Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye..."

Steinbeck didn't think much of trip-planning, but the world has changed since 1960 and so have we.

Even the most naturally nomadic among us still look to others, talk to others, for inspiration and ideas, in person and online. If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked, "So what's your favourite place?" I probably wouldn't be writing this post in a few scrounged minutes between deadlines.
But I want to give a shout-out to Nugggit, a new travel advice platform launched today, the first of its kind to connect travellers with travel writers.

It works like this: travellers peruse the website for someone who has been or knows about where they want to go next. Then they contact the travel writer - by chat messaging - to get some tailored, thoughtful travel advice, for a small fee. (See How it works for more info.)

It's win-win: the traveller gets independent, unbiased travel information from a real person who travels for a living; the travel writer supplements her/his income and can be reached anywhere in the world.

Like all the best things, it started with a simple, personal quest: Henry Talbot, an adventurous Brit now living in Sydney, wanted to take his sons fly-fishing in the mountains. Since then, the idea has grown like a sea-monkey well beyond family travel while staying close to its roots.

As Henry puts it, it's all about "helping people get the information they need to explore bravely".

Yours truly on the job
in Papua New Guinea
There are more than 200 travel media professionals in 70 countries on Nugggit so far (including yours truly; here's a link to my profile), with expertise in more than 600 destinations. That's a lot of travel know-how.

And the name? It's a variation on "nugget", something small, natural and precious because, as Henry says, when you're planning a trip, thinking about where to go and what to do, "often it's those small nuggets of advice that encourage exploration off the beaten track, where to turn left when the crowds turn right".

To celebrate today's launch, the first 50 contacts are free to you, the traveller. (Travel writers will still be paid, by Nugggit.)

Steinbeck would be proud. Happy exploring.