Friday, 20 May 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Harry rides to Patagonia

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of nights at a lighthouse hostel at Point Montara just south of San Francisco. It had its own beach, though it was too cold and wild to swim, and at night I could lie in my bunk and listen to the North Pacific smashing itself against the cliffs outside.

One of the reasons I love staying at hostels when I travel (in Australia too) is that you never know who you're going to meet over your morning muesli.

All pics by Harry Allen
At Point Montara, while I was checking-in, I met 52-year-old Harry Allen, from Canada. On seeing his fully laden bike leaning up against the wall outside, I asked him where he was headed. His one-word answer created Patagonian mountains and glaciers in my mind: "Ushuaia."

Naturally my curiosity pricked up its ears (I've never been to that part of the world) and started asking questions.

Turns out my new friend had left Vancouver a month earlier and was planning to spend a year riding to the southern tip of the Americas, the last stop before Antarctica.

There's a lot to love about Harry's expedition. It's the epitome of slow, low-impact travel (he's fuelled by the food he eats, not fossilised hydrocarbons). He's doing it for its own sake, for the adventure of it, not to break a record or prove anything or raise money for a cause, which keeps things simple. He certainly seemed content to just let the trip unfold and enjoy what each day brings. And he's funding his trip the old-fashioned way (no corporate sponsors to keep happy), with money he saved (remember saving?).

Two weeks later, when I emailed him for this post, I was home and Harry was... 800km further south, about to cross the border into Mexico.

You can follow Harry's expedition at 365daystoushuaia.wordpress.com

In the meantime, here are 10 questions I asked him about what it's like to ride from Vancouver to Ushuaia, so far:

Day 0: Vancouver
1. Where did the idea for this trip come from? 
Actually I think the idea of cycling to Ushuaia came to me when I was a child. Obviously I didn't know where Ushuaia was back then, but I can remember getting my first two-wheeled bicycle. It was just, freedom! I would cycle to the end of the block and back for hours. When I was old enough to cross the busy street by myself, I would ride as far as I could, exploring the neighbourhood and on the weekends and after school my friends and I would ride the trails alongside the river that ran through the city where I grew up. 

Ushuaia was a convenient choice. I didn't have to fly or travel anywhere to start the trip, just step outside my door, turn south and keep riding for 20,0000km or so. It's ultimately the end of the block!

2. Is this your first big cycling trip?
I did a 6-month cycling trip in Europe about 20 years ago, but other than that, I just rode my bike around Vancouver, where I live. I sometimes joke that this trip is a mid-life crisis of sorts. Maybe it is. 

3. What was the hardest thing about preparing for it? 
The most difficult part was trying not to plan at all. I became obsessed with other people's bike blogs and cycle touring videos on Vimeo. I would spend hours reading gear reviews and bike reviews. I stopped planning the day I came across a blog by a guy named Tom Allen (no relation). He said, "The best way to plan a bike trip is to not plan at all." Too many choices equals too much stress. 

4. What’s a typical day like for you now? 
I get up as early as possible (I start to lose my motivation for riding around 3pm, so the earlier I get started the more distance I can put behind me). Fire up the camp stove. A bowl of oatmeal, fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. Tear down the tent and load the bags onto the bike. I stop two or three times a day for a short break and a snack. I also stop to take photos. There's no shortage of scenery on this ride! 

I'll generally ride for 6 to 8 hrs a day, depending on the terrain. Mid to late afternoon, I'll stop riding, set up my tent, eat dinner (always pasta and sauce), read for an hour and listen to music then it's off to bed around 8pm. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The California coast
5. You're travelling so simply, what have you learned about what you really need? 
Travelling by bike, like hiking, is definitely simple; you're pretty much self-contained, self-supported. I've met a few cyclists along the way, older guys, who actually live on their bicycles; all they have is what they carry on their bikes. I'm not quite as streamlined. For one thing, I have about 4.5kg of cameras, hard drives and a laptop. Equipment that I could do without, but I want to document the trip as well as I can. But other than that, what I'm carrying is what I'll live with for the next year. I don't even carry a coffee pot; Starbucks or an independent coffee shop works for me.

6.  What do you love about travelling like this? 
There are so many things I love about travelling by bicycle, but one of the big ones is the health aspect. My diet has improved 100 per cent since I started this trip. No more processed food; everything I buy at the grocery store, aside from oatmeal and pasta, has to be consumed within a day or two. No more Friday night Chinese takeaway binges (although I have had McDonalds a couple of times). 

7. What have some of the highlights been so far? 
There are so many! All of the wonderful people I have met: people in campgrounds or RVs inviting me in for dinner, locals giving me advice on which road has the least elevation gain, other cyclists and hearing their stories, travellers at youth hostels with great stories to tell and travel tips. 

I also love the speed at which I am travelling; the horizon unfolds much more slowly for me [than if I were driving] and I have more time to see, hear and smell what's around me. I’ve seen whales breaching off the coast. Foxes with their dinner hanging from their mouth as they scurry across the road. Herds of elk. Rabbits, birds of prey. The ride along the Big Sur coast [in California] has to be the biggest highlight so far. Huge elevation gains and losses and dramatic views around every turn. Unforgettable!

Bike + beach
8. What’s the hardest thing about it? 
There’s nothing really difficult about it. The first hour of riding is not very pleasant physically, but after that my muscles warm up and I get into a rhythm and everything is good in the world.

9. What has surprised you? 
The fact that every day I feel more and more motivated to ride. Even if I'm riding through an industrial setting like parts of Los Angeles or if it's pouring rain like the first seven days. It’s a curiosity thing. What's around the next corner?

10. What are you most looking forward to? 
Ultimately my final destination, Ushuaia. But until then I look forward to each new country that I enter. South America is a whole new continent for me, so exciting! 

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Big thanks for the inspiration, Harry. I wish you tailwinds and friendly faces all the way to the end of the world. 


Monday, 9 May 2016

8 ways to save the bees (and why they need saving)

One of the things I love about writing for a living is that it gives me an excuse to find out about stuff and a way to share what I've learned with others and hopefully spark conversations and changes. That's how I came to write about bees for the latest issue of WellBeing magazine (issue #162). 


Drone honeybee, pic by Flow
Like most people, I knew that bees are in trouble worldwide. But I wanted to find out why, how bad is it in Australia and why do we need bees? 

All super interesting, but the highlight was meeting three passionate beekeepers (is there any other kind?) in northern NSW, where I live, who have been thinking outside the hive to come up with three innovative ways to save the bees. You can read all about it in Where are all the bees? (a link to the full story). 

Something else I learned from the beekeepers I talked to: what we can all do to help. These tips are in the story too, but I've expanded on them and wanted to share them here too to spread the word further, and for easy reference. 

Most are simple things, some take a bit of planning, but all of them put us back in touch with nature and remind us that we're all connected, even when we forget that. Go the bees!

1. Buy organic. By supporting pesticide-free farming, you’re supporting healthy bees free of the effects of neonics, aka neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides toxic to bees in a multitude of ways. You'll be helping the earth and improving your own health and wellbeing too. You can also support pesticide-free food by shopping at farmers' markets and talking to the people who grow your food (e.g. some can't afford organic certification but don't use pesticides or artificial fertilisers).

Bees love cut flowers too
2. Make your garden bee-friendly (even if you live in an apartment). By planting wildflowers, in fact any flowers, herbs and vegetables - just make sure you use organic seeds (almost all other seeds are neonic-coated). You can find bee-friendly seed packs at Eden Seeds and Melbourne City Rooftop HoneyHappy Flame, which makes beautiful organic beeswax candles, also gives its online customers free organic seed packs. 

Other ways to have a bee-friendly garden: let parts of your garden go wild, mow less often and use only natural pesticides such as neem oil.

3. Get bee-wise. Watch docos such as More than Honey (2012), Queen of the Sun (2010) and The Vanishing of the Bees (2009) and TED talks such as No Bees, No Food by John Miller (2014) and Why Bees are Disappearing by Marla Spivak (2013). Some of these movies you can watch online, or through Netflix. Or think bigger and host a community screening in your local cinema or town hall. 

4. Avoid household insecticides. This is a big one. Even flea treatments for your pets contain bee-toxic neonics. Use natural insecticides around your home, such as citronella or neem oil, or make your own (the simplest is 30ml of biodegradable soap in a litre of water, with optional extras such as garlic and onion and oils such as tea tree or eucalyptus for fragrance). And "live and let live" a little. A screen door is a better way to cope with mosquitoes than nuking them with harmful chemicals.

Happy Flame's beeswax candles
5. Support your local beekeepers. Beekeepers do it tough in Australia, which makes them dependent on pollination work to make a living, which puts their bees at risk (learn how here). 

You can help by buying local honey (which can also reduce the effects of hay fever, apparently), organic beeswax candles (my two favourites are Northern Light and Happy Flame) and beeswax-based products such as Burt’s Bees lip balm. 

6. Support a government ban on neonics in Australia. Don’t just sign a petition, write to your local MP and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and spread the word on social media to get others to do the same. 

7. Learn how to be a backyard beekeeper. The world needs more bees, but it's a good idea to get some training before you buy a hive. Crowdfunding sensation Flow Hive has a new kind of hive that makes collecting honey safer for bees and easier for humans, and training videos to help you get started. Milkwood runs natural beekeeping courses in Sydney and beyond. The Australian Native Bee Company can teach you how to keep native bees anywhere on the east coast north of Bega.

8. Support bee-friendly businesses. Such as: Humble B, a new eco-cleaning company that uses only ethical, earth-friendly products and gives 50 per cent of its profits to local environmental and community projects. You can also learn to make your own eco-friendly cleaning products; I went to a fantastic green-cleaning workshop run by Self Seed a few weeks ago, and they have lots of recipes and tips on their website.

That's a (beeswax) wrap
Let me know if you think of other ways. I've just started using reusable, washable beeswax food wraps made by Byron-based Honeybee Wrap - for wrapping sandwiches and leftovers instead of plastic cling wrap - with the happy side-effect of reducing plastic use and waste. The learning journey never ends.



Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Travels in Amazonia - Why the Amazon is surreal

Amazonia? Sounds like a made-up place (even though that's the Spanish name for the Amazon Basin) and there were times on my recent trip there -- a week of river-cruising up and down two tributaries that merge to form the world's largest river -- when it felt like it.

In fact, that's why it's taken me a few weeks to post this; I needed time to put the puzzle pieces together, to make some sense of this surreal, wild place.

Amazonian doll-necklaces 
What makes it feel surreal? Its size, for one thing. The Amazon is unimaginably vast. The river runs through nine countries, its catchment covers 40 per cent of South America and it has more than 200 tributaries, 17 of which are more than 1600km long (!).

Then there are its inhabitants. Not only is the Amazon home to 20 million humans, its biodiversity is off the charts -- 20 per cent the world's bird species, 40,000 kinds of plants, 2.5 MILLION different insects (that we know of) -- and many of the animals you see could have flown or crawled out of a Philip Pullman novel.

The closest I got to a piranha
Three avian examples I saw: horned screamers (a sort of unicorned goose), hoaxin (which can climb and swim better than they can fly) and sand-coloured night hawks we drifted quietly past one afternoon, sleeping en masse during daylight hours.

On our first day, we put on gumboots, covered up with long pants and sleeves (there's malaria in these parts) and went ashore to walk in the rainforest. (Rookie tip: always carry a straw fan in the Amazonian rainforest to keep cool and ward off mozzies.) I'd expected to see an anaconda on every tree, but the Amazon is not like that.

The Goliath bird-eater
(a type of tarantula)
The wildlife is there, you (or your local guides) just have to know where to look. And when you do, wow. For instance: Before the trip, my biologist friend Matt asked me to please bring back a photo of a bird-eating spider. Sure, I thought, like we're going to see one of those... And it was the very first animal we saw, our guide having (somehow) coaxed it out of its burrow and onto a banana leaf. The photo doesn't do it justice. This tarantula was enormous, definitely big enough to eat small birds, though they generally eat other insects and frogs.

Then there were the mammals. Howler monkeys with eerie black mask-like faces lazing on branches. Squirrel monkey troupes travelling at speed, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-like, through the treetops. A spider monkey called Eduardo in a wildlife sanctuary.

Eduardo the pensive spider monkey
The other thing that gave this trip an other-worldly vibe was our accommodation. The Delfin II, chartered by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, resembles a paddle steamer from the future. More accurately: a three-storey floating hotel with 14 Scandinavian-chic cabins -- each with timber-panelled walls, white bed linen, cinema-screen windows to gaze out at the river and thoughtful eco-touches such as biodegradable shampoo in refillable bottles and glass carafes of filtered water to reduce plastic waste.

The Delfin II tied to the riverbank
Every meal was a gourmet delight and some nights there was after-dinner entertainment too, thanks to our talented crew, including head waiter Pedro who plays guitar like Santana.

A few more dream-sequence highlights:

1. Swimming with pink river dolphins in tannin-stained, piranha-free waters -- well, close enough to hear them exhale and see their small dorsal fins. (We saw no live piranhas all week, incidentally, only their jaws made into jewellery in local markets.)

Gentle sloth and child
in Puerto Miguel
2. Patting a sloth in the village of Puerto Miguel. Wild animals are often kept as pets in Amazonian villages, for better or worse, though sometimes they've been orphaned by poachers. What struck me about this young sloth was that its fur was soft as a kitten's. And it was incredibly gentle.

3. The Delfin II had three incredibly knowledgeable naturalists on board, but my favourite was Ericson, whose enthusiasm for every living thing was infectious. He was like a cross between a Latin American David Attenborough and a game show host, exclaiming as he directed his green laser-pointer into the trees, "There! Up a bit, along that branch... Can you see it? Look at his be-you-ti-ful face!"

4. Having a (free!) full-body mud-pack treatment, courtesy of the Ucayali River. A small group of us stood on the riverbank in our swimming costumes, smothered ourselves and each other with thick mud, let it dry then washed it off in the river. My skin and hair never felt so soft...

The only jaguar I saw
Pic by Carlos Romero
5. Making accidental donations to local communities by buying pretty straw dolls and other things hand-made from local materials (pan pipes, a musical shaker) only to have them confiscated by Australian customs when I declared them back at Sydney airport.

6. Seeing a jaguar... made of balsa wood. One of the few souvenirs Australian customs let me keep, it was carved by an elderly woman called Doris, who told me she has seen only two jaguars ("tigre" in Spanish) in her life. Still you never know your luck, as our expedition leader Carlos Romero said, “I’ve seen one and a quarter jaguars in 40 years, but people can be here three days and see one. The Amazon is like that.”

Built for grazing: the 
eating end of a dugong
7. Hand-feeding three rescued manatees (dugongs) at a wildlife refuge in Iquitos before our flight back to Lima at the end of the trip. As gentle as sloths, with skin like grey rubber and tiny eyes, they have the oddest mouths: when you hold out a leaf of water-lettuce, two finger-like mouthparts grasp it from each side and feed it into the mouth.

8. Half an hour after leaving the wildlife rescue centre, while waiting at Iquitos airport, a woman approached Michael the photographer and me to ask in Spanish if we wanted to, um, buy a turtle -- and there it was, a wallet-sized live turtle imprisoned in a clear plastic pouch in her bag. I almost cried, and there was nothing we could do to free it. That's life, I suppose, wherever wilderness and poverty collide.

Sunset safari: dusk from
one of the Delfin II's skiffs
A week in Amazonia was never going to be enough but, like a homeopathic dose of a powerful substance, it was enough to affect me and to leave me even more in awe of the vast wildness of that part of the world.

Maybe that's what's so intoxicating about a trip like this, the fact that it swirls you around and forces you to temporarily lose your bearings before returning you safely to your regular life where you find yourself wondering, did that really just happen?

With big thanks to Lindblad Expeditions which runs 10-day Upper Amazon on the Delfin II trips departing from Lima year-round. See au.expeditions.com

Monday, 25 January 2016

Travels with my eyes: Top 10 adventure books

There are adventures in faraway lands for which you need no passport, no planes, trains or automobiles, no luggage. Just eyes, the ability to read, a little imagination and words with wings.

Mongolia through my camera lens
(Read my words about it here)
“We read to know that we are not alone,” said C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia novels, which offer adventures of a different kind). But we read to remember the world, too, to escape our local lives and explore places we've never been, and perhaps never will - as when we read about times long past.

A confession: I’m a little bit addicted to adventure books, particularly first-person accounts of extended stints in wild, natural places. 

The problem with books like this is that they satisfy and stir in equal measure. They take me up mountains and out to sea and back to Afghanistan in 1948 when I'm curled up in my comfortable bed AND they make me want to pack up my duffel bag, walk out my front door and leap into my own unknown. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, that tension between vicarious enjoyment and uncomfortable restlessness is possibly what makes for great adventure writing - to me, anyway.

So I thought it was high time I wrote an ode to some of my favourite adventure travel books. Just be aware that they should all come with warning labels saying, "May cause wanderlust."

1. Consolations of the forest - Sylvain Tesson
Reading about a cabin is the next best thing to reading in one, while the snow swirls outside and a wood fire crackles under a pot of billy tea. But Consolations of the Forest takes this genre up a notch. I would have loved it for its setting alone: French travel writer spends six months in a cabin on the edge of Lake Baikal, Europe's largest lake, in Siberia. But his writing is sublime and poetic, while still waking us up to how it really might be to live in the wilds for a time. 

“To attain a sense of inner freedom," he writes, "one must have solitude and space galore. Add to these the mastery of time, complete silence, a harsh life and surroundings of geographic grandeur. Then do the maths, and find a hut.”

I loved this too: “A hermit expends intense physical energy. In life, we have the choice of putting machines to work or setting ourselves to the task. In the first instance, we entrust the satisfaction of our needs to technology. Relieved of all impetus towards effort, we devitalize ourselves. In the second case, we activate the machinery of our bodies to provide for all necessities … Backwoodsmen are power stations glowing with dynamic force. When they enter a room, their vitality fills the space.” 

2. Trawler - Redmond O'Hanlon
I read this one last month in Tuvalu in the South Pacific, where I escaped the tropically humid heat by mind-travelling to the North Atlantic - in January, during a Force 11 storm. O'Hanlon is the best kind of storyteller: witty, generous and with a broad knowledge of the natural world from all his other expeditions (to Borneo, the Congo...). 

In fact the book is a marine science lesson as much as a rollicking yarn. Also on board is his marine biologist mate Luke from Aberdeen who, in between stints at the gutting table, collects deep sea creatures as unlikely as sea bats and rabbitfish for his doctorate, and introduces us to a fantastical world out of reach of human interference (so far). 

At one point, Luke says to Redmond, "... we're off into that two-thirds of the earth which is covered by sea - and the real point, the really exciting thing is this: 90 per cent of that two-thirds lies beyond the shallow margins of the continents... and most of that lies below 2 kilometres of water - or even more! And 99 per cent of that is unexplored... the deep sea is totally unknown! It's another planet!" It’s also about tough, lonely lives of trawlermen, men with tree trunks for legs, and gives you new respect for the sea and those who work on it.


3. The Road to Anywhere - Peter Pinney
This is time travel as well as adventure travel and a purer, freer travel than most of us will ever know. My good friend John Borthwick (himself a beautiful travel writer) put together this compelling anthology of writings by Australian Peter Pinney (1922-92), author of Dust on My Shoes among other books, who spent 15-odd years crossing Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Pinney is a natural writer; his tales bound from the page, inviting you to join his free-spirited wanderings. I also love that he travelled truly light, often with just a string bag and no money, thumbing his nose at bureaucracy and border crossings. An excerpt:

"Each day [in Spanish Guinea, Africa, 1954] was a leisurely idyll of small adventures and new friendships in new and pleasant places; sometimes we slept on the beach, sometimes in village huts; we went fishing on the sea and hunted crabs in rivers, and shoals of delighted youngsters taught us how to ride their frail canoes through heavy surf." 

4. Kon-Tiki - Thor Heyerdahl
You might remember I have a thing for Norway (Exhibit A: 10 green reasons to love Norway), including Heyerdahl – I loved his Kon-Tiki "adventure with a purpose", the fact that he and his crew sailed a balsa-log raft with no engine, no support boat and no working radio, halfway across the Pacific in 1947 to prove that Polynesia might have been settled from South America, not Asia. He couldn't even swim! I had seen movie versions of this story before I picked up the book at the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo, and was expecting his writing to be a bit dated and dry. It was neither, and everything I love in adventure books: a wild ride through an awe-inspiring oceanic landscape.


5. Four Corners - Kira Salak
I read this probably 10 years ago when I was on assignment in Cape York, that jungled finger of land that points north and almost touches Australia’s nearest neighbour. And it has stayed in my mind since then, for the brutal beauty of Salak's writing and her courage in crossing the neck of Papua New Guinea from south to north, a young American woman alone, often travelling in a dugout with a machete across her lap, her only protection from men with primitive intentions. 

It’s a personal story too, as she tells how she came to be doing this journey partly as an escape from a predictable, well-mapped life. I loved this line in particular: "It always amazes me how intrusive beauty becomes when the mind allows itself to rest." 

6. My Year Without Matches - Claire Dunn
I've written about Claire here before (Girl vs Wild: Claire Dunn's solo year in the Australian bush), but I couldn't let a chance go by to mention her again. Not only am I in awe of her year-long survival adventure in the harsh Australian bush (she was about halfway between Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay), which taught her the value of reconnecting to the wild in ourselves as much as to the "wilderness" out there, her writing is beautiful, honest, open-hearted and searching, never settling for easy answers. Must read it again soon.

7. Voyage for Madmen - Peter Nichols
An adventure with a finish line, this one is about the first solo around-the-world yacht race in 1968, at a time when no one even knew it was possible to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly. It's a chilling character study as much as a seafaring tale, in which (spoiler alert) not all the nine protagonists survived. (Another exciting sea-story is Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish by Bruce Knecht, about an Australian customs pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel across the Southern Ocean, even into Antarctic sea ice.)


8. Desert Solitaire - Edward Abbey
My favourite outdoor books are so vividly written they slow your reading to the pace of a stroll, all the better to take in your surroundings through the words on the page. Desert Solitaire, published in 1968, is one of those. It's about Abbey's six months as a summer park ranger in Arches National Park, Utah, and all that he observed and felt and thought, but also about the struggle between people and natural places, and how best we should experience them.

9. The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen
Another classic, published in 1978. From the outside, it’s a book about a man in limbo in his life who joins a two-month scientific expedition in search of blue sheep, and snow leopards if they’re lucky, in Upper Dolpo, Nepal. But it's also a thoughtful reminder that sometimes the greatest and most interesting journeys are internal ones.

10. Eiger Dreams - Jon Krakauer
Before he wrote Into the Wild (another great adventure story, about Chris McCandless' search for freedom and his tragic end in an abandoned bus in Alaska) and Into Thin Air (about the devastating 1996 Everest season), American climber and writer Krakauer wrote these short, true stories about his formative years in the vertical world. A rock climber I was dating first gave me this book, years ago, hoping to inspire me to climb more. But Krakauer's prose got me excited about writing instead, by showing me what was possible - in terms of subject matter and style. I'm still a Krakauer fan.

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There's an avalanche of others, of course, including The Last Season by Eric Blehm (the true story of a California park ranger who goes missing), Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales (subtitled: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why), Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. Even beautifully written essays on the outdoorsy topics, from freezing to death (As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow... by Peter Stark) and The art of tour guiding by Robert Skinner. Writers are always climbing on the backs of those who have written before them. The trick is not to be so awestruck you never write another word. I'm working on that.