Thursday, 5 March 2015

Why I love the Northern Rivers (and Lennox Head)

Three months ago, I drove north of Sydney and took a long-overdue solo surf trip. For two weeks I camped at my favourite beaches, visited friends and dawdled north.

It was only when I reached northern NSW that I realised something: after living as a "digital gypsy" for 18 months, I really needed to stop moving and "be" in one place for the summer, maybe longer.

Like Goldilocks, I tried out three spots: Byron, Mullum (local for Mullumbimby; same goes for Brunswick Heads, affectionately known as "Bruns") and, finally, Lennox Head, which feels "just right".

After living in Sydney all my life (when I've been in Australia), it's a breath of fresh air to live in regional NSW. I feel as if I have more time, fewer distractions, less stress. Life seems simpler, somehow. As I told the Northern Star reporter who interviewed me a couple of weeks ago - "Travel writer tours the world and chooses to live here" - I seem to be falling for the Northern Rivers.

I've spent most of my working life getting to know new places, so being here feels a lot like travelling - I'm meeting new people, exploring and learning every day - with the unexpected bonus that the longer I spend here, the more I feel at home.

(The "northern rivers", by the way, are: the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence, which meet the sea at Tweed Heads, Ballina and Yamba, respectively.)

Why I love Lennox
Where to start? Lennox ticks a lot of boxes for me. I love that...

~ It's by the sea: all the shops and cafes on the main drag, Ballina Street, are right across the road from the beach
~ It has a spectacular natural setting: the sweep of Seven Mile Beach between Broken Head in the north and Lennox's distinctive headland to the south
~ It's quieter and less busy than Byron, which is still only 15-minutes north.

Most importantly, it's great for surfing. In fact, I'm still daydreamy from two surf sessions earlier this week: beautiful waves, just a few of us out, gentle offshore winds, sunshine, warm water (26 degrees!) and dolphins!

I love that surfing is a way into a community like this. I've met so many interesting, friendly people already - we get chatting while we wait for waves, or stand around in the sun afterwards, boards on the grass, car windows down, just hanging out. I'd forgotten that people still do this: hang out, oblivious to the time, with no plans, nowhere to hurry off to.

One of the first people I met was Vic. When he told me he writes for The Lennox Wave, our version of Annie Proulx's Shipping News (one of my favourite books), I asked him if he’s a journalist.

“Nah,” he said, “I’m a Gemini!” I laughed. That’s so Northern Rivers. (He's also an artist; that's Lennox Head by Vic Leto, left.)

After living in Manly for the past 15 years, I love that you don't have to pay for parking anywhere in Lennox (and in Byron, a NSW National Parks gives you free parking at The Pass, Wategos and Tallows - a local tip). And that it's so safe you can leave your surfboard on the roof of your car while you go to the shops or linger over a post-surf coffee.

I love swimming in Lake Ainsworth, a freshwater lake fringed by paperbarks that was a sacred women's place in Bundjalung culture - which could explain why I love swimming in its dark, tannin-stained waters, and why a few of my male surfer friends don't.

Another thing I love about Lennox is its proximity to Byron (aka "the bay"), the epicentre of all things Northern Rivers.

You've gotta love Byron
There's nowhere like Byron. Sure, it's touristy and but it's also magical and big-hearted; everyone's welcome in Byron, partly because most people there have come from somewhere else.

Its Arakwal name Cavvanbah actually means "meeting place" (I learned that recently), so it figures that Byron is still a place for people of all stripes to gather, exchange ideas, enjoy each other's company and drift away again.

It's the kind of place where babies are called Bodhi, every second car has a "Lock the gate" or anti-CSG bumper sticker and people still hitchhike. Where there are no traffic lights, and every electricity meter box or bare wall is decorated with earth-loving, consciousness-raising street art.

I love the road sign on Byron's northern outskirts: "Cheer up, slow down, chill out". Right on.

You don't just bushwalk in the Northern Rivers, you do "heart walks" (guided meditative walks to tune in to nature's wisdom). It's not uncommon to walk forest trails barefoot and in silence with like-minded friends; I've done that a couple of times up here.

I love that I can get my hair cut for $25 by a salon-trained hairdresser with full-arm tatts and a ponytail in a hole-in-the-wall barber shop on Jonson Street. No products, no blow-dry, no trying to talk me into getting "a few foils". I'd rather get my highlights from the sun - he gets that. In fact, he’s the first hairdresser to tell me to swim in the sea as soon as I leave his chair and to condition the ends with a bit of virgin organic coconut oil.

And you still get a dose of "country" every time you open the Echo (Byron Shire's newspaper) and see job ads for sugar cane harvesters and long-distance drivers alongside ads for organic breads and yoga classes.

I love Byron's Farmers' Market (Thursdays, 8-11am)? And I get a lesson in local geography every time I buy something: blueberries from Brooklet, brown jasmine rice from the Nimbin Valley, organic apples from Stanthorpe.

Sometimes I meet friends there and we treat ourselves to Myocum coffee and freshly baked pains au chocolat from the Mullum bakery stall, then sit at a plastic table covered with a hand-embroidered linen tablecloth - only in Byron.

I love Bay FM, Byron's one and only radio station, whose tagline is "the heart and art of Byron". I love their "sexy voice weather reports" when the presenter puts on his best Barry White baritone and reads, “Byron Bay… 28… sunny with a chance of… showers.” Oh yeah. The other day I heard this intro to a segment: “Let’s talk a bit of politics, before we get onto sex and consciousness”. So Northern Rivers.

Local "secrets"
I've had a few Sunday drives lately to explore my new backyard: north to Murwillumbah, west to Alstonville, south to Evans Head. I love the names of hamlets around here: Possum Creek, The Pocket, Woodenbong.

There are hidden gems around every corner. Unsignposted waterfalls, rickety roadside produce stalls with honesty boxes, secret beaches. The southern hemisphere's only Buddhist stupa, built in 2012 at the Crystal Castle (near Mullum) and blessed by the 14th Dalai Lama no less. Australia's first solar-powered electric-vehicle charging station, at the Macadamia Castle (of all places), right on the Pacific Highway, just south of Byron. The amazing Tweed Regional Gallery, which has views of Mt Warning and a recreation of artist Margaret Olley's "yellow room" home studio.

My favourite find was a massive Kon-Tiki-style balsa-wood raft in Ballina's maritime museum. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's 100-day journey from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, a multi-national team of 12 men spent 178 days (almost six months!) sailing three Las Balsas rafts from Ecuador to Ballina in 1973. Who knew?

"Perhaps I am romantic," said Spanish expedition leader Vital Alsar before setting off. "And the men who sail with me must be romantics too, for it is my idea they are risking their lives for. But they are practical romantics, not just dreamers. It is childish to just sleep and dream of doing something. But to make something a reality ... is wonderful."

Adventure and inspiration in a hangar-like museum in downtown Ballina - how very Northern Rivers.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

10 (updated) eco-issues you need to know about - now

In February last year, I made a list of the top 10 eco-issues facing Australia thanks to the then newly elected Abbott government. Of course there are many more; these are just the ones caused by the change in leadership.

The people have spoken...
A year on, I thought I'd see how our coral reefs, forest and fish are doing. What's changed, which issues have been resolved, which are ongoing?

The good news: some things are better than they were a year ago. Not because Abbott and his "conservative" government have done anything positive, but because the Senate and the public have stepped in to stop them messing things up.

That's the other good news: we can all be a force for positive change. As Canadian communications guru Marshall McLuhan once said: "There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew."

All aboard...

1. Dredging, dumping and coal ports on the Great Barrier Reef
This is as big and as bad as it gets. Last year, the Queensland and Abbott governments gave the go-ahead to industrial-scale dredging for the world's largest coal export terminal right on the doorstep of Australia's World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, to service the $15 billion, Indian-owned Carmichael coal mine in the Gallilee Basin, western Queensland.

The problem: the mine will increase pressures on the already vulnerable reef and the risk of oil spills from the shipping superhighway through this iconic area.

Now: Things are looking up for the Reef. Adani said in December they'd dump dredge spoils on land instead of at sea, and, more importantly, Queensland's Coalition government was dumped in a political landslide last weekend and the new ALP government has pledge to stop dredging, ban dumping on the Reef, and remove state subsidies of the Gallilee coal and associated rail projects. Thanks, Queensland voters, you saved the Reef.

2. Tasmania's World Heritage forests - saved
This time last year, Abbott was planning to de-list 74,000 hectares of World Heritage listed Tasmanian forest that were only listed in June 2013, to allow logging in the Upper Florentine, Styx and Weld Valleys. It would have ended the hard-won peace deal brokered between industry and conservationists in 2013 and opened the way for other World Heritage areas such as Kakadu to have their boundaries changed to suit logging and mining interests.

I speak for the trees, 'cause
the trees have no tongues...
Now: Tasmania's forests, these ones at least, have been saved. At the World Heritage Committee meeting in June 2014, committee members took less than 10 minutes to reject the government's "feeble" proposal. End of story.

3a. The ex-carbon tax
The Abbott government kept one pre-election promise: despite overwhelming evidence that the carbon tax introduced by the Gillard government was efficiently reducing carbon emissions, the government repealed it in July last year. Australia became the first and perhaps only nation in the world to UNDO an existing carbon pricing scheme.

In its place, we got Abbott's Direct Action policy, which pays big polluters to NOT pollute. (The carbon tax forced polluters to pay the government, generating revenue for renewables.) Whether or not it will reduce emissions remains to be seen; it will certainly cost the government and us, the taxpayers.

Next, Abbott plans to scrap the Renewable Energy Target, which might finally kill off Australia's ailing wind and solar industriesReneweconomy has more up-to-the-minute news on this.

People power in NYC, Sept 2014
3b. Action (or lack of it) on climate change
Related to the carbon tax issue is the fact that the Abbott government is stubbornly ignoring the urgency of climate change, despite increasingly alarming evidence that 2014 was the hottest year on record and ocean temperatures are soaring off the charts, and overwhelming public demand for action on climate change - remember September's People's Climate Marches all over the world, including a record 300,000 people in New York City?

A few examples: Abbott tried to keep climate change off the agenda at the G20 summit in Brisbane in November and has repeatedly refused to send high-level ministers to climate talks in Warsaw, Lima and Abu Dhabi. Australia did belatedly pledge $200 million over four years to the UN Green Climate Fund, but even that's not as proactive as it seems (follow the link for more).

The only consolation is that Abbott's climate-denial bullying isn't working where it counts.

At the G20 in Brisbane, Obama pointedly talked up the need for action on climate change, to high acclaim. The Abbott government is now internationally regarded as so destructive to worldwide efforts to act on climate change we won't even be invited to the all-important Paris climate talks later this year. Climate warrior Al Gore has said Tony Abbott needs to "change or get out of the way. Because Australia wants to have the kind of sensible policies that the rest of the world is moving toward."

And voters in Victoria and Queensland have recently tossed out their Coalition governments. Could Abbott himself be next? With rumblings of a leadership crisis, we probably won't have to wait until the next federal election in 2016 to find out...

4. Is the government anti-science? Um, yes
Let's count the ways the current Australian government is anti-science. Abbott still doesn't have a science minister (which is a first since the science portfolio was created in 1939). He shut down the Climate Commission, axed jobs and funding to Australia's leading scientific institution, the CSIRO, and appointed former oil exec Dick Warburton to oversee the Renewable Energy Target review which, surprise, surprise, has recommended trashing the RET.

The good news: Former head of the axed Climate Commission, Professor Tim Flannery, almost immediately set up the community-funded Climate Council. The Senate saved two other organisations Abbott wanted to shut down: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority, which is now undertaking an 18-month review into an emissions trading scheme and what our emissions reduction targets should be after 2020.

And the Baird government in NSW recently became the first conservative Australian government to join The Climate Group (Labor governments in Tasmania and South Australia are also members). The Climate Group is an international not-for-profit that brings together business, government and community to promote renewables and cut emissions. Based in London, it closed its Australian offices in mid-2013 due to "an increasingly challenging political environment for action on climate change".

Save the fish (and other marine life)
5. Marine sanctuaries in danger - still
There are two issues in one here. First, a state issue. A year ago, the O'Farrell government began allowing recreational fishing in NSW marine sanctuaries, despite huge public support for those marine reserves, even from people who fish.

The good news: Premier Baird (who replaced O'Farrell as NSW leader in April last year) restored protection at 20 out of 30 mainland marine park sanctuaries in December.

Then there's the national issue. In 2012, Australia had the largest network of marine reserves in the world. In December 2013, after 10 years of scientific assessment and extensive community and stakeholder consultation, Abbott inexplicably suspended all new federal marine parks and ordered a costly and unnecessary review of them.

Now, many marine reserves are in danger from fishing and mining interests, particularly remote reserves such as our "other" great barrier reef, Ningaloo in north-west WA.

But it ain't over yet. Stay informed and support organisations working on behalf of our marine ecosystems such as Save Our Marine Life.

6. Hunting in NSW national parks - ongoing
A year ago, in February 2014, as part of a deal struck between Premier Barry O'Farrell and the Shooters and Fishers Party to pass electricity privatisation laws, a three-year trial began that allows amateur shooters to kill feral animals in 12 national parks and 200 state forests.

A year on, the trial hasn't been a great success: fewer than 200 feral animals, mostly rabbits, were killed between February and August last year, at a cost of $1.4 million dollars. Nevertheless, there are now calls to introduce recreational hunting in WA's national parks. And there's still another two years to run on the NSW trial - unless NSW Opposition leader Luke Foley is elected as Premier in March; he seems more eco-aware and has even promised to create a koala sanctuary in northern NSW.

(Thanks for the pic, Craig Murdoch)
7. Culling sharks in WA - stopped
In January 2014, in response to six fatal shark attacks in the previous three years, federal "environment" minister Greg Hunt gave the Western Australian government an exemption from federal laws that protect great white sharks.

Despite marine scientists saying a cull was unlikely to reduce the number of attacks, and huge public opposition, the WA government began catching and killing great white, tiger and bull sharks longer than three metres found within a kilometre of the WA coast.

During the initial three-month trial last year, 68 sharks were caught or shot off Perth's and south-west WA's beaches, none of them great whites.

Good news, sort of: In September the shark cull was stopped, after advice from the EPA on how it might affect shark populations. But the exemption from the federal government means that WA can still hunt sharks it considers a "serious threat" - which the Greens say could harm more sharks than the cull.

Keep the Kimberley mine-free
8. Mining the Fitzroy River - aborted
Last year, a foreign-owned investment group was proposing a coal mine in and around the largest river system in the Kimberley and King Sound on the coast, which looked like polluting waterways, destroying this iconic natural landscape and paving the way for other oil, coal and gas developments in the Kimberley.

Good news, really: Just as the James Price Point gas hub on the Kimberley coast was found to be uneconomical and canned, plans for the Fitzroy River coal mine were shelved late last year for at least the next 10 years.

9. Coal seam gas in regional NSW - ongoing
A year ago, it was full-steam ahead for CSG mining in regional NSW - specifically around Gloucester, Camden and the Pillaga - despite it causing environmental problems. Just last week, work on AGL's coal seam gas operation in Gloucester, north of Newcastle, was suspended when elevated levels of toxic BTEX chemicals were found in two of its wells.

A year on, there are glimmers of good news, but they may be just that. The Baird government put a year-long freeze on new CSG license applications (expiring in September this year) and cancelled 16 pending applications - but did an about-face last week approved three new mines or extensions, in northern NSW (Maules Creek), Muswellbrook and Mudgee.

A common sight in northern NSW
Baird won't reveal his new Gas Plan until after the NSW state election on 28 March this year. The Greens maintain we need a Gas Ban. Labor sits in the middle, wanting to ban CSG in water catchment areas and the Northern Rivers.

The best news is that Lock the Gate, the fastest-growing grassroots environmental organisation in the country has galvanised support from farmers, conservationists, indigenous communities and urban residents to fight this thing. Check its website for updates and to lend your support.

10. Whaling in the Southern Ocean - ongoing
To be fair, Abbott is only an accessory to the slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean - by doing little to stop it. In December 2013, it broke a pre-election promise by sending a plane instead of a purpose-built Customs vessel to monitor Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. (A Customs vessel can apprehend illegal fishing vessels; planes can only observe.)

Things were looking brighter in March, 2014, when the UN's International Court of Justice upheld Australia's bid to stop whaling in the Southern Ocean (launched by the Rudd government in 2010; opposed by Abbott) and ordered Japan to stop its so-called scientific whaling.

Eye to eye with a minke whale
Japan initially agreed to abide by the ruling as "a responsible member of the global community" and stayed away from the Southern Ocean this summer - until early January, when it returned to conduct non-lethal research.

Japan also intends to return in the 2015-16 season, and said it will take 4000 minke whales over the next 12 years. (It has killed 10,439 minkes and 15 fin whales in the 27 years between the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling and the end of the 2013 season, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.)

The only good news: Sea Shepherd last week received 8.3 million euros ($12 million) from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, which gives 50 per cent of its proceeds to charities, and will use it to built a fast, new "dream ship" to stop whaling and illegal toothfish poaching (an even bigger issue than whaling) in the Southern Ocean.

~

So, it's Environment: 4, Government: 6, which is an improvement on the situation this time last year and it's not over yet. For more on any of these issues and to get involved, see Sea Shepherd, Lock the Gate, GetUp!, RenewEconomy, Earth Hour and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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!