Monday, 26 September 2016

Outback mountains: Walking the Larapinta

My favourite assignments are the outdoor ones. Like the six days I spent recently on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia.

Ridge with a view, day one
It was a week of connecting the dots between swimming holes and shaded gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges. We slept in swags (in tents or under the full moon), ate fine meals prepared over campfires by our multi-talented World Expeditions guides and slowed life down to the pace of a stroll.

I love the simplicity of walking across a landscape like this, noticing things you'd miss travelling any other way, but the surprise highlight of the trip was how mountainous Central Australia is.

Here's an excerpt from my story that ran in Fairfax Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald and other publications this month, or click here to read it all:

Namatjira Dreaming
Waking up at 2am to climb a mountain by torchlight is not something you expect to be doing in the dusty, red-earthed middle of Australia. Yet here I am, with 12 others and our guides, walking in silent single file in the dark to reach Mount Sonder’s 1350-metre summit by sunrise.

Rocky road: red earth &
an outback-blue sky
It’s not the only mountain-moment on this six-day Larapinta trek. All week as we walk west from Alice Springs through West MacDonnell National Park, we travel not across this semi-arid landscape, but up and down it.

It starts on day one when we amble up the back of an escarpment and suddenly find ourselves on Euro Ridge, facing a precipitous drop and forever views – of neighbouring ranges running roughly east-west, all part of the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Who knew Central Australia – beyond the monoliths of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, 400 kilometres to the southwest – could be so mountainous? Read on

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Beyond "Plastic Free July": 12 ways to live with less plastic

If you're into minimalism, as I am - travelling light, simple living - sooner or later you find yourself staring at your rubbish bin. I've been a bit fascinated by the idea of Zero Waste for a while. Probably since I first heard about Lauren Singer, a young New Yorker who fit all her garbage for an entire year into a mason jar. 

I love it when people take simple, sustainable living to its extreme (it's why No Impact Man inspired me to start this blog). 

Plastic bag as art,
by Hendrik Kerstens
I also love ideas we can all have a go at, like last month's Plastic Free July

Plastic is the great leveller. We all touch hundreds of pieces of plastic every day - from chairs and keyboards to credit cards and kettles - and probably couldn't live our 21st century lives without it, but no matter who we are or where (or how) we live, nobody on Earth wants plastic pollution.

The problem with Plastic Free July is that it doesn't go far enough for long enough. It focuses on single-use plastic (coffee cups, plastic bags and straws, and bottled water) and it's over as soon as you get the hang of it. 

I know, it's about raising awareness. But what if we could extend Plastic Free July into August, September and beyond?

It's a neverending process anyway, finding ways to live with less plastic that work for each of us in our daily lives.

So here's my own progress report, of sorts: 12 things I'm now doing or have learned about my relationship with plastic, starting with the Big 4, those single-use plastics...

Stormy hot chocolate
in a tea cup
1. Reusable coffee cups. Disposable coffee cups aren't recyclable, no matter how brown-paper they look (they're all plastic-lined to withstand hot liquids), even if you forgo the plastic lid. So I've made a pact with myself: if I want coffee but I've forgotten my reusable coffee cup, I have to sit in the cafe or go without. It helps that I don't drink coffee every day. 

I also try not to use hotel Nespresso machines when I travel; convenient as they are, those coffee pods are killing the environment (as one former Nespresso CEO said this month).

2. Cloth shopping bags. Most of us turned our backs on flimsy supermarket plastic bags years ago, but Australians still dispose of about 4 billion plastic bags a year. My local council (Ballina in northern NSW) recycles soft plastic packaging such as shopping and bread bags, but that's no reason to use them with abandon. Biodegradable bags aren't much better, says Planet Ark, because they can still be ingested by marine animals and take a long time to break down. 
What if every shop had
a sign like this?

Besides, it's so easy to just say "no". The trick is to have a reusable bag when you need it. Some supermarkets charge you for bags (come on down, Aldi!). Others offer customers free cloth Boomerang Bags. Last month Mullumbimby IGA (also in northern NSW) became the first IGA in Australia to go plastic bag-free, largely because of its partnership with Boomerang Bags, which is now in 40+ communities around Australia: locals use scrap fabric to make the bags, and shoppers bring them back the next time they're shopping, hence the "boomerang". A great concept.

I've started lining my kitchen bin with newspaper, which removes another argument for getting the occasional plastic bag. Need more reusable bags? Brisbane-based photographer and travel writer Kara Murphy has tote bags printed with her beautiful underwater pics of turtles.

3. Say "no" to plastic straws. Smoothies (and iced coffees, mmm) have a lot to answer for. Straws are so lightweight they seem to fly of their own accord onto our streets, into drains and down to the sea as soon as the glass is empty. The solution: say no (that's where I'm at), carry a stainless steel straw or ask your favourite cafe to start using paper, stainless, glass or bamboo straws. 

4. Stainless steel water bottles. Is anyone in the known world - in places where we can drink tap water without dying - still buying water in plastic bottles? Apparently so. Bottled water is an environmental nightmare on so many levels: it's resource-hungry (it takes 3L of water and 250ml of oil to make a 1L bottle), bottle-manufacture produces CO2, there are transport emissions to think about, and plastic leaching into the water you're drinking, and billions of bottles end up in landfill or our oceans every year. 

I rarely go anywhere without my stainless steel water bottle - usually filled with filtered water (because of chemicals like fluoride in my local tap water, but that's another blog post).

My pre-loved teapot
5. T is for teapot. The big problem with plastic is that it never breaks down - or if it does, it breaks into microplastic. Even when we diligently recycle, most plastic is actually "downcycled" into poorer quality products. 

So I've been trying to phase out packaging and plastics around the house, especially for things I do every day - like drink tea. I just bought a cute little teapot at an op shop and some Madura organic leaf tea to reduce my use of tea bags. I also try to buy products in glass (which can be endlessly recycled and is healthier for us) or wood (check out Planet Ark's Make it Wood info). 

Beeswaxed sandwiches
6. Bless the bees. Another plastic alternative I'm in love with is reusable beeswax wraps. Honeybee Wraps are made from beeswax-coated organic cotton so they're pretty as well as practical; I use them to wrap leftovers, sandwiches for picnics, cut avocados... I've also started wrapping cut pumpkin in a tea towel to keep it fresh in the fridge; it lasts much longer than in plastic.

7. Dress naturally. Most of us don't get around in polyester shirts or vinyl jackets, but there's a lot of plastic lurking in our clothes. Nylon, acrylic, lycra, even polar fleece, once heralded as the great recycler of PET bottles, turn out to be not so good for our oceans.
My new leather Birkenstocks: bought
online, delivered in a canvas bag

Synthetic fibres get into our waterways from our washing machines (fleece alone can shed 2000 fibres per wash!) and into marine organisms and the oceanic food chain. The best way to reduce this is to wear natural fibres as much as possible - wool, (organic) cotton, hemp, bamboo, leather - which feel so much better anyway. And some online retailers are shipping in canvas bags now instead of plastic.

8. Glass is good. The same goes for the things we use. When there's a choice, buy things in glass instead of plastic containers or made from natural materials rather than plastic, for the environment and for your health. I'm now using a bamboo toothbrush and chopping board, wooden spoons and bamboo dishcloths (washable and biodegradable), among other things.

9. Shop local. I try to do all my food shopping now at local farmers markets rather than supermarkets, which helps the farmers and reduces plastic: most food-growers are happy to re-use egg cartons or re-fill jars and often don't provide plastic bags. 

10. Clean & green (or: How amazing is baking soda?!). I went to a Green Cleaning workshop recently (run by Self Seed) and now have a shelf under the sink full of baking soda (which cleans just about anything), white vinegar, soap flakes, borax, recipes for making my own cleaning products, and assorted essential oils (eucalyptus, lavender and tea tree are the stars). There are also loads of green-cleaning tips on the interweb.

11. Natural beauty. This is a bit of a stumbling block for me. I don't wear makeup or use many beauty products and never buy microbeads, but most of what I use (moisturiser, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste) comes in plastic. Maybe one day I'll wash my hair in apple cider vinegar and use a Juju menstrual cup and Moonpads, but for now I'm trying for natural, organic products in recyclable packaging and consulting Everyday Roots for home remedies. As Lauren Singer says in her How to have Zero Waste Sex video, it's about weighing things up: an STD is a lot more unsustainable than a non-reusable (obviously) rubber condom... 

Winter beach-combing
at South Ballina
12. Make a positive impact. Living with less plastic is about building sustainable habits - like picking up plastic whenever I'm on the beach, or anywhere - and supporting grassroots, community initiatives like Two Hands Project and Take 3 for the sea, which encourage people to pick up rubbish. 

I've started talking to shopkeepers about going plastic bag-free, and have contacted a couple of companies about the plastic they use - which can be as easy as posting something on social media (when I Tweeted about passengers receiving tiny 250ml water bottles on a domestic flight, I got a response from Qantas saying they'd look into it). And there are always petitions to sign. 

I've got a long way to go before I can fit a year's worth of rubbish in a jar, but I do believe individual action helps. There are seven billion of us on the planet after all. As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

For more inspiration, check out these blogs for tips on reducing plastic and waste of all kinds: by Melbourne-based Erin Rhoads, by Lauren Singer in NYC and by Bea Johnson in California.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Adventures in simple living: "Longgrassing" in Darwin

A few weeks ago, I walked for six days on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, sleeping in a swag at night, sometimes outside under the torch-bright full moon (which outshone the outback stars, but you can't have everything).

Simple beauty: an outback sunrise
I love having a good book to read before bedtime on trips like this. I lost myself in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (one of my favourite books) in Madagascar. Alone in a cabin in Norway, I was adrift on Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl.

On the Larapinta, I had the pleasure of meeting a book I'd never heard of, brought along by one of our guides, Chelsea. It was Longgrassing with a Laptop: The Art and Science of Homelessness by James Murray.

It's a modest book, 162 pages held together by a spiral of wire, about living simply; "longgrassing" is "sleeping rough" in the Top End. But what started as a submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Darwin in 2012, has evolved into one man's observations of life and how he lives, and how we all live, in short pieces and poems with a few pictures.

From the back cover
Words by James Murray
And it's beautiful. Full of delight and deep insights. There are sadnesses, honestly explored, but there's also compassion, joy and a sense of fun (e.g. chapter headings such as Longgrassing for Beginners, Extreme Longgrassing and The Longgrass School of Economics).

Running through it all is a soulfulness and contentment, and inspiration for others willing to turn their backs on the conditioned, over-regulated life to find freedom, happiness and a truer, richer way to be.

James lives on the beach, in the long grass on the dunes, in Darwin in the Northern Territory. He's in his 50s, and has been doing this for about 20 years. He has a bike, a laptop, a drum, a phone, a radio, swimming goggles and a few other essentials, but no shoes (one story in the book is called The War on Feet). He uses the showers at the university, writes in libraries. When it rains, he puts stuff in plastic bags and stands out in it ("Housed, you miss out on storms," he writes, "which are about as good as you can get."). He lives this way by choice. As he explains in the book, "I believe in peace, love and understanding, rather than economic growth."

Chelsea gave me the book at the end of the trip (so kind) and when I got home I contacted James to tell him how much I loved his work and he kindly agreed to an interview. Here's our emailed conversation in 13 questions:

Where are you from, and what brought you to Darwin? 
I was born in Melbourne and grew up in Queensland. I visited Darwin lots in the 1980s, sleeping on the beach, and I came to live (with my ex and our one-year-old) in 1994. Because my kids are here I’ve been stuck here. Darwin has its good points, but it’s very expensive and is basically a redneck wonderland, a vanguard of capitalism, of the end of the world. 

Is "longgrassing" a Darwin term? I've only heard it there. 
Yes, it seems only Darwin people use the word. The vast majority of longgrassers – there must be a few thousand at any time – are Aboriginal, who hang in small groups in the bush and foreshore regions of the Darwin sprawl, much like people have lived for 60 thousand years. I’m a whitefella, and solitary, and I rarely spend any time at my sleeping spot in the day. I get there, lie down and sleep [then] I get up at dawn and go and don’t come back ‘til sleep time.

Sleeping space
Pic by James Murray
How did you get into longgrassing? 
I grew up in a house by the beach north of Brisbane and had an affinity with the ocean, with the beach, with the oceanic bush. In the mid ‘70s, when I was 14 and 15 years old, on each full moon – religiously, I see now – I’d hitchhike 50km to Bribie Island and sleep on the beach or on the dunes by the beach. I loved it, I was comfortable and there were no problems, and it’s what I do now, every night. 

You can call it "camping", but I think of it as sleeping. I’ve travelled wildly, lived rough, bushwalked heaps. I’ve never used a tent, but am happy to sleep on the ground, having a space blanket or small tarp in case of rain.

What do you love about it? 
It liberates me from the cycle of work and consumption. I live with dignity, purpose and meaning. I enjoy the sky, the bush, the sea. I take my time. 

What are the hardest things about it? 
It’s basically very easy. My current lifestyle is highly refined. I used to worry about how my kids saw me, but now they’re both adults I think they are proud of my courage, my gumption.

Is there anything you miss about a “homed” existence? 

Can anyone longgrass? What does one need, to begin? 
Anyone can longgrass. One might need to let go of one’s upbringing.

Is it harder for women (with fears about personal safety, say)? 
Women might worry more, and have more to worry about, I guess. I’ve never had any trouble, touch wood. I sleep in a quiet dark place, but I usually have my bike with me, which is harder to hide.

A few weeks ago I woke in the middle of the night and heard two men talking a few metres from me, talking about me. I felt no threat. I pretended to be asleep and was back asleep in seconds, and don’t know how long they stayed there. A lot of people, men and women, couldn’t handle that. 

Barefoot on the beach
Pic by James Murray
What are some of the misconceptions people have about longgrassing? 
People think all longgrassers are drunks or drug addicts or mentally ill, or they think they are "disadvantaged" "victims".

What would you most like people to understand about it? 
I don’t much care what people think about longgrassing. However, the world would be a better place if they lost their misconceptions/delusions about everything, if they woke up.

What’s a typical day like for you? 
I wake at dawn, shower at the Uni. I spend my day within a couple of ks of my sleeping spot, coming and going from libraries (where I write on my laptop), and my drum (I stash it in the bush and go to it to play twice a day). I go to the shops, I walk on the beach, I swim, I have a nap, I sometimes see my kids. In the evenings, if I’m not in the library, I might be somewhere watching a DVD on my laptop, or playing chess against it.

What have you learned about what you really need, by living so simply? 
I need food and water and oxygen, and a hat because I have fair skin, and shorts in public to keep the cops happy. I need to (ahem) use the toilet. I don’t need to fit in; I don’t need to run on the hamster wheel just because everyone else is. I need to not run on the hamster wheel. I need to not salute the Queen. 

A simple book about simple living
Any tips for aspiring longgrassers? 
I’ve got one word to say to you, Kimmy: Stuff minimisation. Also, work it out for yourself. And read my book – there’s a lot in there [including these three tips for downsizing demand: make a list of all the things you want, cross them off one by one (not when you get them, when you stop wanting them) and when you've crossed off everything, make a new list and start again. Simple!].

"I upgraded my contract. Initially it had me being stupid, competitive and insecure, but I upgraded to living in the bush, beholden to no one, and laughing." ~ James Murray

Longgrassing with a Laptop: The Art and Science of Homelessness by James Murray (2015) is available for $30 including postage direct from James; email him at