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

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.


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.

Friday, 8 January 2016

On being an un-tourist in Tuvalu

It’s not every day you have to Google a country you're about to visit to find out where in the world it is. 

"Tuvalu" means "eight standing up"
(though there are now nine islands)
All I knew about Tuvalu before going there a couple of weeks ago was that, along with other low-lying island nations (come on down, Kiribati and the Maldives), it's in danger of being one of the first places to be wiped off the map by rising sea levels. (Tuvalu's prime minister was quite vocal about this at the Paris climate conference last month.)

And that’s precisely why I wanted to go: to step off the map into un-tourist territory, and write about it. 

So where is Tuvalu and what's it like? Two hours north of Fiji and just south of the Equator, tiny Tuvalu is made up of nine islands - well, three true islands and six coral atolls (rings of islands of various shapes and sizes). 

A tropical horizon of
cargo ships and fishing boats
It's so tiny that flying in to the main atoll, Funafuti, is slightly unnerving. It feels as if you're about to ditch in the satin-blue sea. Then, seconds before landing, you see whitewater breaking on coral reef, the mop-heads of coconut palms and something I haven't seen in ages: people standing outside their houses WAVING at the plane (that really makes you feel as if you're in the middle of nowhere).

There are no tour guides, organised activities or dive operators. Cruise ships don't stop there (thank goodness). Tourism is a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go, tag-along-with-the-locals deal, which makes for an authentic un-tourist experience.

My "guide", Paufi,
and her little red bike
The day I arrived, for instance, Paufi, the tourism officer, picked me up at the airport and took me on an "island tour" - on the back of her motorbike. 

We rode the island's palm-lined roads, talking and feeling the cool breeze in our hair (I hadn't wanted to ride without a helmet, but no one wears one and there aren't any to rent, and at least everyone rides at a sedate 20kph). 

"Public transport":
carts towed by motorbikes
I stayed in family-run guesthouses, got lifts on the back of more motorbikes (it's too hot and humid to walk anywhere), learned how to weave a basket from palm fronds, went to church (Christianity is big here) and a big family Sunday lunch, was invited to Christmas parties. Around sunset, I'd hang out at the airstrip, which becomes a cross between a public park and a sports ground at the cool(er) end of the day.

The closest thing to a tourist attraction was the Tuvalu Post office, where I perused special issue stamps created for every random occasion from the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Anderson to Charles and Diana's royal wedding.

Tropical bible
A few other fun facts: the local currency is the Australian dollar; there are no ATMs or credit card facilities so you have to carry wads of cash; the people speak Tuvaluan and English (Tuvalu used to be a British colony called the Ellice Islands); and did I mention that it's extremely hot? 

In my pre-trip daydreams, I'd imagined Tuvalu to be a smaller, less developed version of the Maldives, a cluster of jewel-like islands minus the luxury resorts. The main island in Funafuti atoll, Fongafale, was disappointingly not like that: it's densely populated (about 5000 Tuvaluans live there) and polluted (James Michener, who wrote South Pacific, called it "a truly dismal island" when he was stationed there during WWII).

A castaway islets in
Funafuti Conservation Area
But there are perfect uninhabited little "motu" across the lagoon, about 30-40 minutes from "the mainland" by boat. The prettiest of these lie within Funafuti Conservation Area: castaway islands no bigger than a clump of palm trees inhabited by black noddies and crested terns, where you can swim and snorkel in swimming-pool-clear water.

At one motu, my boat driver found a turtle hatching - with two heads, dead. Biological anomaly or consequence of pollution, who can say? We saw adult green turtles in the water too. And two islands on their way to disappearing, not directly due to climate change, but perhaps indirectly: all their trees were knocked down by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, and without them the sand is washing back into the sea.

Two-headed turtle hatchling
I can't see Tuvalu becoming the next “must-visit” destination anytime soon (unless they start running “see it before it’s gone” tours), for a few reasons: it’s not easy to get to (it's a two-day trip from Australia, with an overnight stop in Suva, Fiji, and the outer islands are accessible only by fortnightly ferries), it’s expensive (two very basic rooms I stayed in cost $120 a night) and there’s not much to do.

There's talk of starting up "climate change tours" - there were all sorts of foreign aid-funded climate change adaptation and mitigation projects underway when I was there: earthmovers putting sand back on the beaches of Fongafale, coral reef regeneration (after bleaching events), brand new solar panels on the government building and the power station, and solar street lights even on small islands.

Girls outside church
People were friendly, if a little unsure about what to do with a tourist. More than once I was asked, point-blank, "What are you doing here?" At first I was surprised, but by the end of the week I understood their attitude, because in five days I didn't see another tourist. I did meet some interesting expats though: two British and Australian helicopter pilots working on tuna fishing boats, a Japanese anthropologist who spends up to a year at a time on the outer islands, two Kiwi solar electricians, a Japanese marine biologist and a Solomon Islander fisheries officer.

Learning to weave with Lita,
owner of Afelita Island Resort
Tuvalu won't be everyone's idea of an ideal holiday spot. It's not another Fiji or Vanuatu, and that's a good thing. It's for those with time, curiosity and a sense of adventure, the kind of place that makes you feel like a traveller again and reminds you that we're all dependent on the natural world - whether we live at sea level or not. And the world needs more of those.

(Big thanks to the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, GTI Tourism and Tuvalu Tourism for organising my trip.)

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: A year of living simply (sort of)

End-of-year greetings to you, my fellow travellers. For even if you went nowhere this year, we all went somewhere: around the sun in 365 days. How was your trip?

What could be simpler than
an island in the sun (in Tuvalu)?
People often say life is speeding up, and that every year goes by too fast, but whenever I do these end-of-year posts, I'm reminded of how long a year really is. (Did all that happen in just 12 months?)

Most nights, before I close my eyes to sleep, I think of the highlights of the day, to ground myself in my own experience of it and remember all I have to be thankful for.

Now I seem to have got into the habit of doing this at the end of the year too.

2015 was a year of trying to live as simply as possible - without living out of a duffel bag - which is a bit of an ongoing mission for me. Of course life loves to mess with our plans, teaching us lessons along the way, but most days the simple things are my highlights, particularly: spending time in the sea and with people I care about, and doing work I love.

To be more specific, a few of my favourite simple things from this year:

Colourful street art in Lennox
1. Living in one place. This was a bit of a novelty for me, particularly after my year and a half as a digital gypsy. It was also new to live in regional Australia. I'll always love Sydney, but I love my new hometown, Lennox Head, too, because living in a small town does simplify life to some extent. The pace of life is different, it seems as if there's more time and space, and fewer distractions. Here are 10 more reasons I love the Northern Rivers.

2. Hatchlings at Heron Island. I fed my travel bug with a few domestic trips this year including, in late March, a few days on Heron Island, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. I first went to Heron as an undergraduate Zoology student in about 1985, and I've been there twice since, but this was the first time I saw turtle hatchlings emerging from a nest, en masse, which is a humbling thing to see:

Earth-rendering a
strawbale wall
3. Learning to build a cabin. In June, I did a 4-day natural building course, in a big shed at The Farm, in Byron Bay. In my travel-starved state, it felt like taking a short trip - to a place I'd never been before, but had long been curious about - and it was fun to learn about something completely new to me. I learned the basics of strawbale building and inched a little closer to my dream of one day building my own cabin (or tiny house).

4. Turning Japanese. In the spirit of keeping things simple, and local, I wrote a bit about northern NSW this year - about Byron Bay, about hotels like Rae's at Wategoes, about beekeeping and, most memorably, about Japanese culture in the Northern Rivers, which reconnected me to a headspace I was in when I lived in Japan 20 years ago and had a year and a half of surfing and teaching English.

Outback sunrise
5. Uluru sunrises. There's nothing like the centre of Australia to strip life back to its essential elements; light, space, existence. And there's nothing like an outback sunrise to make you feel connected to the earth and cosmos all at once; they're always worth getting up in the dark (and cold!) for. It was also great to see my travel mates again at the Australian Society of Travel Writers conference and to touch the Rock with my bare hands (one of my top 10 ways to "do" Uluru).

Immersed in the Maldives
6. Swimming in the Maldives. Finally, some international travel! Having not been overseas for a year (Dear world, I miss you - 13 reasons to love travelling), going to the Maldives on assignment was a real treat. I've long wanted to go there, and it's even more beautiful than it looks in the pictures, the water even more turquoise, and you get to swim with turtles and manta rays without even trying. Here are 8 more watery reasons to go to the Maldives.

(I helped paint this banner!)
7. Beach-walking for Change. On Sunday 29 November, I walked barefoot with 300 others along Lennox's Seven Mile Beach for action on climate change, our local People's Climate March, the day before the start of the Paris climate talks on 30 December. I loved helping to organise it and felt so proud to be part of this community that cares about the natural environment we all depend on, wherever we live in the world.

Girls outside church, Tuvalu
8. From here to Tuvalu. My last trip of the year, just before Christmas, was to the small island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific. It was exciting to visit a place most people know little about (except perhaps that it's threatened by climate change) and where life is fairly rustic: I got around on the back of a motorbike, stayed on a couple of islands, went to church... (Blog post coming soon!)

Of course every year has troughs and valleys in between its peaks, but that's the way life is, and for all its craziness, to paraphrase Desiderata, it is still a beautiful world. Thanks for following my travels this year and I hope 2016 brings you all peace, love and new adventures of all kinds.