Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Top 10 adventure movies (PS: Wild isn't one of them)

Seeing Wild recently, the story of Cheryl Strayed's 1700-kilometre hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon in 1995, got me thinking about my favourite adventure movies - because Wild isn't one of them.

I expected to love Wild. After all, its lone-woman-in-the-wilderness theme is one I'm always drawn to, like a fly to sticky paper. Instead, it left me cold. It didn't move or inspire me. I found it hard to relate to Strayed, at least as she was 20 years ago: she wasn't into nature, had never been hiking and had tumbled into a pit of self-destructive despair after losing her mother when she was 22.

The movie is also a nerve-wracking ride (even without the harrowing flashbacks); predatory men and other dangers lurk around every tree. For added drama, I guess, but it's not true to the book (which I enjoyed more) and it's artificial, in the same way directors shooting mountaineering blockbusters make the climbers carry vials of look-at-it-and-it'll-explode nitroglycerin to amp up the adventure. (I'm looking at you, Vertical Limit.)

The main let-down in Wild for me, however, is that nature is reduced to being a dropsheet against which the "real" (that is, human) action takes place.

Which brings me to the adventure movies I don't have to try to love.

A lot of them are true stories. Many involve solitary wilderness experiences. In all, the natural environment looms large, reminding us what being "wild" really means (hint: it has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol) and that spending time in it reconnects us to the wild in ourselves. Here's my top 10:

Mia and her camel co-stars
1. Tracks (2013). Tracks does the solo-woman thing far better than Wild. The story: in 1977, Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) spent nine months walking 2700 kilometres from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with four camels and her dog. One reviewer called it "achingly beautiful". It's also incredibly moving; I cried an outback river of tears when I first saw it. It's also very Australian. Even the trailer is amazing.

2. Out of Africa (1985). You had me at "I had a farm in Africa..." Sydney Pollack's multi-Academy Award-winning story of Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep with a Danish accent) in Kenya, with a rugged Robert Redford as Denys Finch-Hatton, still makes me swoon. I visited Blixen's house in Nairobi a couple of years ago and got lost in the adventure of her story all over again. Blixen remains one of my heroes and Out of Africa one of my all-time favourite movies, and books. A true classic.

3. Kon-Tiki (2012). Norwegian scientist-explorer Thor Heyerdahl sets off across the Pacific with five companions on a balsa-wood raft, in 1947, to prove that it was possible for early Polynesians to have done the same thing, led by their god, Kon-Tiki. Adventure and a noble cause, what's not to love?

4. Touching the Void (2003). Two British climbers, a Peruvian mountain, a fall, one must cut the rope connecting them or they will both die. Joe Simpson's epic survival story, which led to his best-selling 1988 book, is the stuff of legend and this re-enactment is loaded with real-life drama, suspense and true grit. No nitroglycerin required.

5. The Way (2010). Another hike, this time into father-son territory. The Way, made by actor/director Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, is about an American doctor whose estranged son (played in flashbacks by Estevez) dies while walking the Camino de Santiago, also called the Way of St James, in France/Spain. Father travels to Europe to retrieve the son's remains and decides to finish the pilgrimage his son started, which has a profound effect on him.

6. Cast Away (2000). No man is an island, but Tom Hanks was stuck on one for this tropical adventure. Despite being "made in Hollywood", Cast Away is a fascinating study of what it might be like to strip life back to its essentials. Hanks' journey from overfed Fed Ex analyst to resourceful castaway is believable and powerful stuff.

7. Into the Wild (2007). Jon Krakauer's 1996 book is one of my favourite adventure reads (stay tuned for my next Top 10 post). It's about Chris McCandless, an idealistic college graduate in search of an authentic life, but Krakauer also explores why we humans have a need to take ourselves off to wild places. McCandless died in Alaska in August 1992 but he survived for 100 days first, until a simple, fatal mistake. Sean Penn's movie makes McCandless cocky and opinionated, but it's hard to look away.

8. Moon (2009). Into outer space now: the debut feature by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, Moon is about an astronaut miner on the moon (Sam Rockwell) who is coming to the end of a 3-year solo posting when something strange happens. Despite being shot mostly inside the "space station", this sci-fi adventure is really about being alone in space-wilderness without the comfort of other people, nature and, um, breathable air.

9. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). Who doesn't love this movie? Two best friends - one of whom, Ernesto Guevara, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, would later become the infamous "Che" - take a road trip across South America, in the days when that was a real, raw adventure, finding their future selves in the process. It's uplifting, it's beautiful to watch (and not just because of Bernal) and it has one of my favourite travel quotes in it, by Che: "Let the world change you, and you can change the world."

10. Seven Years in Tibet (1997). Based on the book by Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt), this one is unique for being set in a place that no longer exists. Harrer was on his way to climb Nanga Parbat in Pakistan when WWII broke out. He and Peter Aufschneiter escaped internment in India to trek over the Himalaya into Tibet, where Harrer befriended the young Dalai Lama before he was forced to flee his homeland.

There are others, of course: White Squall, The Thin Red Line (if we're including war movies, I'd have to add The Hurt Locker, Apocalypse Now and The Killing Fields) and two I've reviewed here before: Norwegian eco-odyssey North of the Sun and 180 Degrees South.

Which ones have I missed?

Monday, 29 December 2014

2014: My year as a digital gypsy

Where did this year take you? Was it, as punk-poet Henry Rollins once said about life, a “long trip, kind of scary and wonderful”?

I feel as if I’ve been around the world, as well as around the sun, seeking simplicity, searching for home, and finding both in a few special places.

There's Wally! In Germany
Along the way I've managed to notch up an entire “Where’s Wally?” year of no fixed address. 

Though being “on the road” is a kind of home to me, I know some of you have wondered at various times where I am, and I want to thank everyone who kept a virtual tracker on me by calling, emailing, messaging and tweeting to me (a special thanks to my dad for venturing into the badlands of facebook and learning how to use Skype to virtually visit me).

Some of you might even have been wondering "Why, Wally?" The short answer is, "Because I'm a travel writer", but that's not the whole truth.

This way to paradise, Laos
I have been writing about my travels - even launched my first ebook, Adventures on Earth (that's the cover, in the left margin), from a hotel room in Chiang Mai, Thailand - but I've also been not-writing (except in my diaries), in order to wander, revive my love of travel and see where life (instead my next assignment) might take me.

It's been interesting, enlightening and exhausting - not just moving from tent to bungalow to cabin and dealing with the logistics of constant solo travel, but always thinking "Where next?" And it ain't over yet. 

So, in the tradition of the year-end post - remember last year's wander down 2013th avenue, A year in the life of an eco-travel writer? - I thought I'd share a few highlights of 2014, if only to remind myself where on Earth I've travelled, stayed and called home this year.

Thanks, 2014, for (in chronological order) the:

Learning the ropes with Kaud
1. Climbing in Krabi. The best part of my two months in Thailand/Laos in Jan/Feb was my three-week stint in Railay on the Krabi peninsula including a 3-day course I did with King Climbers (and wrote about: Climbing the Walls in Thailand). Big thanks to my lovely instructor, Kaud, who even lent me his climbing shoes when my rental ones didn't fit (so kind).

Beautiful Koh Laoliang
I also had a few idyllic days on nearby Koh Laoliang, possibly the last of Thailand's island idylls. It has no bungalows, no resorts, no longtail speedboats. Just 20 tents on the beach, gin-clear water for swimming and great climbing walls.
(Here's my post about Thailand's last paradise.)
Meanwhile, back in Australia...
2. Hotel living, Manly. After Thailand, I spent three months as an unofficial travel-writer-in-residence at Manly Lodge, a quirky (and a bit run-down) boutique hotel right in the heart of Manly, within spitting distance of the beach, but still quiet. It was good to be back in a country with a largely pristine natural environment, which motivated me to join a protest to help save the Great Barrier Reef and write 10 eco-issues every Australian should know about.

Home is where the tipi is
3. Yoga in Portugal. At the end of May, I flew to Europe for three months. (I'd won an airfare at last year’s ASTW awards - my prize for being, ahem, 2013 Travel Writer of the Year). First stop: the western Algarve, for a one-week yoga and surfing retreat at the very sustainable Tipi Valley (see Yoga, surfing and the "vida simples" in Portugal). Amazing experience, in a wild part of the world, in the company beautiful women, my fellow yoginis and surfer girls. I vow to return to Portugal very soon. 

Kayaking in tropical Croatia
4. Kayaking in Croatia. This was an assignment, but a beautiful one: 10 days of island-hopping by sea kayak, camping each night, in the Northern Adriatic. One of my all-time favourite kayaking trips, because of the rugged landscape, Croatia's convoluted history and our creative and resourceful guide, Jogi. Read all about it: Paddle in paradise, in Traveller.

Free: mountain views in Switzerland
5. Simple pleasures in Switzerland. This was one of those “pinch me, am I dreaming?” stays, even for me: three weeks housesitting a friend's three-storey Swiss chalet-mansion and its little backyard cabin with mountain views.

My New Yorker friend Janet came to stay and we celebrated her big 5-0 birthday by tandem paragliding in the Swiss Alps and swimming in Lake Geneva – priceless! Actually it is possible to holiday on a budget in Switzerland, as long as you keep to a strict diet, as we did, of fresh baguettes, Swiss cheese and chocolate and The best things in life are free – even in Switzerland.

The lovely Lofotens
6. Revisiting Norway. I'd wanted to return to Norway ever since I first went there as a backpacker in 1989. This year I did. A highlight was returning to the Lofoten Islands, ruggedly spectacular mountains in the sea north of the Arctic Circle, with little red fishing villages at their bases. 

Norway is also where my love for photography was born - which led me into travel writing - so it was sort of ironic that my Canon DSLR stopped working within a few days of arriving. Fortunately I had backup: a waterproof compact camera and my iPhone.

"My" Norwegian cabin in the woods
7. Cabin fever. Still in Norway (I had a month there, mid-June to mid-July), I did something I’ve always wanted to do: stayed in a cabin in the woods, alone, for two weeks. It was one of the best, and simplest, experiences of my life (here's why). It was peaceful, I swam in a lake almost every day, I chopped wood and carried water, and I had unlimited time to read, write, listen, wander and wonder. It was also the inspiration for my essay In praise of quiet travel, published in Traveller in October.

Mum, aged 23, in 1956
8. Berlin and the Wall. Visiting Berlin, my new favourite city, in August, was another trip back in time, in more ways than one. In 1989, I visited East Berlin, just before the Wall came down. Back in Sydney this year, I found my late mum's travel diary: she went to Berlin as a backpacker too, in 1956, five years before the Wall went up. It's all in my Traveller cover story, Berlin: Falling in love again.

Somewhere on the Australian coast
9. Surfing NSW. Back "home" in September, I bought a car. Much as I enjoyed (and would love to continue) living car-free, Australia is a hard place to get around without one. 

My first mission was to get my tent and surfboard out of storage and take off on a long-overdue surf trip from Sydney to Byron Bay, camping in some of my favourite spots and visiting friends en route. It was unbelievably reviving, so good to surf and live simply and wake up every morning in my little green tent.

Sunset on Lord Howe
10. Lord Howe Island, again! A dream assignment this one: in November I spent a week ocean swimming every day at my favourite little island, hosted by the wonderful Pinetrees Lodge and inspired daily by former world champion Ironman Trevor Hendy. Read all about it.

Where’s Wally now? For the first time in a year and a half, I'm taking a break from constant travel to spend some time around Byron Bay. I love this area. Even in busy Byron, everyone is so relaxed, happy to chat, open-minded. It's a mix of country-town friendliness and hippie soulfulness with a dash of worldliness from the international tourists - which makes me feel right at home.

Thanks for following No Impact Girl this year and, as always, may the gypsy spirit be with you all in 2015. Happy new year!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

New to Lord Howe: Ocean swimming with Trevor Hendy

Just when I think nothing can top my last trip to Lord Howe Island (click here to read my story on its inaugural Adventure Week last year, run by Pinetrees Lodge), it pulls a shiny new ace from its green sleeve, and I get to fall in love all over again.

My favourite little
island in the world
(For a little background, see 10 reasons to love Lord Howe - my most popular No Impact Girl post, ever.)

This time, I dived into Lord Howe's sea-side on Pinetrees' first Ocean Swim Week, led by Gold Coast-based former Ironman Trevor Hendy - who is now an wholistic life coach (check out his online Bootcamp for the Soul course) and something of an aquatic centaur (half man, half fish), so at home is he in the water.

Trevor Hendy: half man, half fish
On paper, it looked relatively simple: five days of morning ocean swims at various spots around the island, with afternoons free to do as we liked - which meant riding our rental bikes around, bodysurfing champagne-clear waves at Blinky Beach, going on impromptu hikes, and taking (ahem) "accidental" afternoon naps back at Pinetrees.

Taking a break, off Ned's Beach
Pic by Luke Hanson
It was a dream assignment: I love the water even more than I love Lord Howe.

Any water will do, but the sea is my true home. It's where I go to reconnect with the natural world and with myself. I have cried into it, laughed in it, shared surfs and swims with friends in it. When I'm in the water, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

Which is not to say I didn't find this week challenging. I did.

I haven't done much ocean swimming and I'd been travelling right up to the start of Ocean Swim Week (my life is one long trip these days), so a few sessions in the pool before I flew to Lord Howe was all the training I could manage.

Gliding through the blue
Pic by Luke Hanson
Being Lord Howe, of course, it was always going to be an adventure. Most of our swims were about 2km (more if you counted our zig-zags) in deep water far from shore.

Some days we'd leap like lemmings from a glass-bottomed boat into the blue. One day we bushwalked 2km up and over a hill to our launch spot. We'd glide (or thrash) over coral in midday sunshine and morning rain, seeing turtles or curious Galapagos sharks that would cruise by below us.

Twin peaks in this season's colours
Wherever we were, we'd only have to stop and lift our eyes above sea level to see Lord Howe's two 800-metre-plus peaks, Gower and Lidgbird, rising volcanically out of the water at the island's southern end.

Did I mention that all but one of my eight Ocean Week comrades were salt-seasoned ocean swimmers? Six of them were lifesavers too, from up and down the east coast (come on down, Marcoola!).

But here's the thing: I didn't have to keep up with them.

Happy swimmers: Ross, Lou & Jude
Beautiful, and testing, as the swims were, a highlight of the week for me was exploring meta-physical, as well as physical, places - with Trevor as our guide.

"I wanted Ocean Swim Week to be not only a chance to swim and explore these incredible grounds of Lord Howe," he told us, "but to let go of something while we’re here. To let go of the need to be someone and do something and get to the next place. And experience each moment as it goes, and take that back into life."

Lord Howe's underwater world
To this end, before breakfast every day Trevor would lead us in a series of qigong moves called Ba Duan Jin (also called "yum cha" by the very amusing Ross Pike, pictured above). He'd also give us elite swimming tips before every swim.

Most importantly, he was just very present, honest and down-to-earth all week, which inspired us all to experience whatever we were experiencing, on land and sea.

Lord Howe always seems to find me where I am, and know what I need - and what I needed this week was to be in the sea, to move, to rest and to live simply for a week. Mission accomplished.

Gratuitous fan-shot: thanks, Trev!
I've written about treks and sea kayaking trips all over the world as ways to tread lightly when we travel, but ocean swimming just might be the lowest-impact kind of travel there is. You might take only photographs (if you can be bothered swimming with an underwater camera), but you sure don't leave any footprints.

And all you need is deep water, a pair of goggles, something to wear (and even that's not entirely necessary, though we did all keep our togs on this week). Oh, and a sense of adventure - to step off the beach and into another world, one where gravity doesn't apply to you and you're suddenly, utterly free.


Newsflash: Pinetrees' resident videographer Andy Lloyd has just finished his amazing video of our Ocean Swim Week, narrated by Trevor Hendy. Check it out: 

Want to go? Pinetrees Lodge is running two Ocean Swim Weeks in 2015, in March and November. Click here for more details. For more about Lord Howe Island, see

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Girl vs Wild: Claire Dunn's solo year in the Australian bush

I love adventure stories, particularly when they have, as the best ones do, an in-built reminder about the transformative power of wild places.

While I was in "my" cabin in Norway recently, I read My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild by Claire Dunn. And, without gushing too much, it's my new all-time favourite book.

I probably would have loved My Year Without Matches for its subject matter alone: solo woman spends a year in the Australian bush and, as well as learning survival skills, finds the wildness in herself.

A bit of background: Burned out by her work as an environmental campaigner, Claire joined an experimental, year-long Wilderness Studies Program on a 100-acre block of bushland halfway between Grafton and Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast.

For six months, she and five others learned how to build their own shelters, make baskets and pots, understand bird-talk, track animals, find bush tucker and, most critically, make fire with sticks. Then they had six months to apply these skills.

Claire gathering bush tucker
All pics by Australian Geographic
But what I really loved about My Year Without Matches is Claire's luminous and vividly clear writing. There are so many well-observed and beautifully described details you feel as if you're right there with her, as barefoot and wild-haired as she was.

And I'm not the only one: the book has had an incredible reception worldwide, which Claire puts down to a "hunger for intimacy with the wild, and for wildness in ourselves".

A couple of weeks ago, I got to meet Claire in Newcastle, where she now lives - in a house, though she often still sleeps on the floor in her swag. We spent one of the loveliest afternoons I can remember, swimming, hanging out by the beach and talking.

Here are the highlights of our rather lengthy "chat"...

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson
in Tracks, the movie
What inspired you to spend a year in the bush? 
I think the seed was planted quite a long time ago when I read Robyn Davidson’s Tracks in my early 20s [Claire's now 35] and that really spoke to me – just the experiences she describes of the spaciousness and the rawness of being in the desert, and confronting parts of herself that she never knew existed, and the sense of empowerment that can come from those kinds of challenges. 

Also I felt intrigued by what it would be like to be alone in that vast landscape and what that could do to you, for you, how it could transform you.

What did you miss most, out there?
In summer, air-conditioning! When it was cold, anything hot - kettles, hot water bottles. I missed my friends and family. And matches - though that was the challenge I'd set myself, could I live without matches for a year? And simple things like walking down the street, getting a chai latte and reading the paper. But in the end I loved the things I had during that year more than the things I missed.

Claire making fire, in front of her shelter
What did you love most?
I didn't expect to love my shelter so much but I really did. It was my friend, my ally, my confidant. It was where I felt safe.

I loved my sit-spot [where Claire sat for an hour a day, just listening and taking in her surroundings] - it was like a doorway into this magical land. I was mad with curiosity, so I would hear or see things then want to know: What was that? Where do birds go when it rains?

And [despite being a forest campaigner for The Wilderness Society for many years] I wasn't ready for how much I'd fall in love with the forest.

Did you have any home comforts?
I had toothpaste and a toothbrush, a few knives, a mosquito net. But I survived without soap and shampoo (my hair got really shiny from the tannins in the river) and I never wore sunscreen or moisturiser; I didn't have a mirror either. 

In fact, another thing I loved was getting into camouflage: smearing mud on my face and arms and legs, adding leaf litter, it was like putting on a costume, then becoming invisible; it really makes you feel close to the earth like nothing else.

Claire's hands, dreaming of matches
A year in nature sounds so simple - was it?
Before I went, I did picture myself having a very simple time and wondered: how am I going to fill an entire year? But I often struggled to find that simplicity, partly because we had workshops the first six months and were given this suite of wilderness survival skills, each of which is a lifetime study in itself. 

So part of me wanted to make the most of this fantastic opportunity to learn how to track, tan hides and do all these crafts - even while another part of me wanted to sit around doing nothing. Time can so easily be filled up. It’s much more of a challenge to un-fill time, to empty yourself of obligations and plans.

What was simple about it?
One thing I really liked about that year was the simplicity of my social network. I could have ample time alone, which I love, and yet I had these other people that I shared the property with, going through the same thing [each living on his or her own patch, but near enough to be summoned by a loud cooee]. That was actually enough for my social needs, and it has given me a yearning for a life that is very simple, and deeply connected to a small group of people.

Did you have much of a culture shock when you left the bush?
In hindsight I did. The “four walls” thing was difficult, not sleeping outside, and the shift in priorities. I still wanted to live simply and to be connected to the outside, but I needed to make money, I was thinking about “What next?”, my outdoor time got squeezed into the start and the end of the day. 

So the culture shock wasn’t really the running hot water or things like that. I just really missed the simple social life, and it felt much more difficult to feel a sense of belonging and safety, and easier to get overwhelmed.

Claire at home,
in a tree, in the bush
How did the year change you?
It really shifted my awareness from the head to the heart, towards the eco-psychological and exploring this nature-human psyche relationship. I think we’re in a really interesting phase at the moment, of realising that there’s something very out of balance with our relationship with nature. 

I’ve had that experience of what it’s like to connect deeply with the natural world and the elements and I have a strong sense that that’s my purpose now, to be a bridge, to remind people and give people the opportunity to find that for themselves. [Claire now runs courses and workshops like this week's Ecological Encounters Retreat in northern NSW.]

At the same time, breaking down the sense of who I am has created this fluidity which is great in some ways, because I’m much more willing to go with where the energy is and follow where I’m drawn, but things also feel a lot more groundless and uncertain. 

Friends are often the best barometer sometimes of how you’ve changed – and they tell me that I am softer and more present and I give them more time, I’m less task driven, more available; that’s the best feedback I’ve had.

What did you learn from the experience?
One of my favourite quotes, and it's in the book too, is by Harold Thurman

“Don’t ask what the world needs. 
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. 
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

I think that’s really true, that what we really need to do is come alive to what our passions are, to wake up, wake up our senses – we can so easily be dulled when we live within four walls and on computers, and it takes constant vigilance really to reawaken and to keep cultivating that sense of aliveness. I had that experience of what it feels like to feel really alive in my senses and in my body and I really want that to continue.

Any advice for others feeling inspired by your book?
I think if people read my book and feel inspired, it’s probably an inspiration to do something that is reawakening and re-enlivening, and to ask: What would that be? If I could do anything… What really calls to me?

I do believe we all have a unique relationship to the natural world; my relationship to certain plants and animals is going to be completely different from yours, and if the book spoke to you in that way, maybe it’s time to look at your relationship with the natural world and figure out some ways to deepen and widen that, and look to others with knowledge of plants and skills.

It’s a beautiful thing to feel comfortable in the bush, and to spend the night alone, it’s liberating and it’s something that we often don’t have or make time for, so I would encourage that relationship in any way, and work your way up to spending chunks of time… not necessarily alone. Even camping. We’re lucky enough to have national parks all around us. Just pack up a tent, a stove and a sleeping bag and go. And reduce the gear; try to go with as few mod cons as possible.

What was your favourite part of the year? 
I think my time at the sit-spot every morning, and walking and wandering, without time or destination. Being barefoot on the land, wandering around, I can’t imagine anything more joyful, in fact I’m going to go and do that right now.

My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild was published in June 2014 by Black Inc Books and is available in print and as an ebook.