Saturday, 22 April 2017

The unbearable lightness of Morocco, unplugged

A short post today, and an ironic one: to share a link to my Morocco unplugged story (about a new "digital detox" trip I did earlier this year) while en route to an accidental digital detox on beautiful Lord Howe Island (well, there is WiFi at the small museum, when it's open, but not at Pinetrees Lodge, apparently by popular request.)

Djelleba phonetime, Meknes
The concept behind the Morocco trip, one of Intrepid Travel's three new "digital detox" adventures, was that everyone in our small group would sign a pledge to not use their smartphones or any other devices for nine days.

Living in northern NSW now, where some of my friends don't even use email let alone Facebook, I didn't find it too hard. In fact it was a relief to forget my life back home and immerse myself in Morocco. I wrote postcards, read a real book (instead of my Kindle), played cards, got used to not knowing the time or what was happening in the world and listened to our guide telling folk stories instead of disappearing into my headphones. It was a lighter way to travel, somehow.

A moment in the holy hill
town of Moulay Idriss
I think my four companions liked it too, though two 20-somethings admitted they use apps back home to manage their use of social media (one is called Forest: if you succumb to the call of the online world, a virtual tree dies).

"The only thing that makes life worth living is the possibility of experiencing now and then a perfect moment," wrote American writer Paul Bowles, Tangier's best known expat, who lived there for 52 years.

"And perhaps even more than that, it's having the ability to recall such moments in their totality, to contemplate them like jewels."

Others might disagree, but surely the only way to experience anything is to "look up" from our devices. In fact, remember Look Up, that spoken-word short film by Gary Turk? It's had more than 60 million views since it was uploaded to YouTube in 2014. If that's not ironic, I don't know what is.

As always, thanks for reading. Now let's all go outside, and look up at the sky.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Earth Weekend: 12 natural things to do on Norfolk Island

This time last week, I was driving around Norfolk Island in a flapping tent. At least that's how it felt in my rental Mini Moke (for the uninitiated, that's a small jeep). I loved it.

I was there to find out about outdoorsy things to do on this small Australian island, but I didn't expect getting around would be one of them.

Norfolk Island pines
where they belong
I'd hoped to do Earth Hour there, even packed a beeswax candle. That didn't happen; there didn't seem to be any Earth Hour events on, so I joined a lantern-lit ghost tour of Kingston, the island's eerie convict settlement.

But I ended up having an Earth Weekend instead, because Norfolk Island is one of the most natural, and naturally beautiful, islands in the South Pacific.

How could you not love a place whose emblem, which flies proudly on its flag, is a tree? None other than the Norfolk Island pine, which is all over the island (the main township is even called Burnt Pine), except on the bits that are rolling green hills.

In fact from the air -- Norfolk is a two-hour flight from Sydney and Brisbane, an hour and a half from Auckland -- it looks like one big dairy farm in the middle of the sea.

Norfolk Island Tourism's
earthy media kit
Forget about the 100-mile diet. On Norfolk you can have a 100-metre diet. It's ridiculously easy to "eat local" there. 

All its fruit and vegetables are grown on the island, which is just 5km by 8km. There's locally caught fish, local beef and fresh milk of course, but also coffee, goat's cheese (from The Hilli Goat), even wine (from Two Chimneys winery). 

And everyone drinks rainwater (aka "cloud juice"), which comes straight out of the tap.

Best of all, the island is a nature-lover's playground. Here's my list of the top natural things to do on Norfolk Island:

Nature's pool at Emily Bay
1. Swim at Emily Bay. Unlike Lord Howe Island, which is also about two hours from the east coast of Australia, Norfolk doesn't have many beaches. But it makes up for that with Emily Bay, a perfect crescent of white sand that wraps itself around a bay of gin-clear water. There's even a floating pontoon you can swim out to, Mediterranean-style, and green grass shaded by towering pines to relax under.

2. Breathe fresh air - or buy some. If you're there on a Sunday, head to the craft market outside the Tourist Information Centre where you can buy a tiny corked bottle of fresh island air for a couple of bucks. Priceless.

3. Snorkel Slaughter Bay. It's hard to imagine a less inviting name for this low-tide snorkelling spot on the island's south coast, but this lagoon hemmed in by coral reef has a dazzling array of marine life. I snorkelled there one afternoon with Karlene Christian, a diver and Norfolk Islander (they don't call themselves Australians), who picked "sea grapes" that we ate in a salad of lime-cured kingfish on the beach afterwards. Best post-swim snack ever.

Norfolk's north coast "apostles"
seen from the walking track
4. Walk the coastal cliffs. On the north coast, about 20 minutes' flapping drive across the island, I spent a scenic couple of hours walking along a cliff-hugging track looking down on Twelve Apostle-like islets such as Bird Rock and a rock pool called The Chord and didn't see another soul - on a Sunday! (Only about 1600 people live on the island.)

There's also a half-day guided trek on Phillip Island, 6km off the south coast, said to be amazing, but the seas were too rough to get to the island when I was there.

5. Go surfing. Speaking of rough seas... Norfolk isn't an easy place to surf, there being no surf shops or surf schools. The trick is to find a local who can lend you a board and show you where to paddle out. I found two: Emily (who runs the Hilli Goat Farm) and Zach (a surf photographer), who took me surfing at Bumboras early one morning. The waves were wild, and the board not quite what I'm used to, but it was one of my favourite experiences of the trip, a glimpse of islander life.

Foraged food by the sea
6. Have a picnic. Driving around, you'll see roadside produce stalls, with honesty boxes (and bananas for 10c!). Or Island Nectar can put together a hamper of sustainable and traditional island foods (think smoked kingfish, goats cheese, guava paste) you can take to any of Norfolk's beauty spots, maybe Emily or Anson Bay or Rocky Point.

7. Go foraging. Food isn't just grown by human hands on Norfolk; it's growing wild by the road, in paddocks, beside streams. I spent a delightful couple of hours with chef-historian Rachel Nebauer-Borg picking guavas, wild spinach and watercress on one of her foraging tours.

Emily Bay by Adam Jauczius
8. See natural art. A small gallery on the main street opened last month: Norfolk Art, which showcases Adam Jauczius's beautiful paintings of Norfolk's natural side, its pine trees and beaches and coastal cliffs. You can even pick up a print or a few postcards, for souvenirs and to support a local artist.

9. Watch the sun set over the sea. When you live on the east coast of Australia (or anywhere), seeing the sun set over the sea is a treat. On Norfolk Island you can do that at several spots, but Puppies Point is my pick (see below), a grassy reserve under the pines where it's just you, the cows and the soaring seabirds.

Orange sky at night, tourist's delight
10. Buy a Boomerang Bag. Like other forward-thinking places around Australia, Norfolk Island has free reusable cloth bags for shoppers to use, to reduce plastic bag use. Buy one at the airport for a great sustainable souvenir.

(They're called Boomerang Bags because ideally you bring them back to the shop where you got them, on your next visit. It's a worldwide movement that started in Australia; Boomerang Bag HQ is at Burleigh Heads. See for more info.)

Barefoot tree-hugging
10. Hug a Norfolk Island pine tree. It's almost impossible to snap a photo on Norfolk Island without one of its endemic pine trees being in it. These trees have made themselves right at home up and down east coast Australia, but they all came from here. And how cool is this: it's an island tradition to plant 100 pine trees for every islander who lives to 100; there have been three so far, all women.

11. Look out. Norfolk has more than its fair share of lookouts. Two of the best are Mount Pitt, where you can get a 360-degree view of the island; and Captain Cook lookout (Cook was the first European to spot the island, in 1774) where you can sit at the cliff edge watching terns, boobies and tropicbirds ride the updrafts.

Mokes are always ready when you are
12. Rent a Moke. You need a car to get around Norfolk and car hire is often included in accommodation rates. Why not make it a Moke? They might not run on biodiesel but they're the epitome of simplicity: no locks, no electric windows (no windows!), no power steering. Just hop in and feel the wind in your hair.

Natural beauty is a wild hibiscus
And I haven't even mentioned swimming in sparkling natural rock pools, sea kayaking along the coast, twilight walking tours or star-gazing (excellent because there's little light pollution) -- none of which I got to do this time. Which is a good thing; now I have another reason to go back.

Big thanks to Norfolk Island Tourism and Air New Zealand for a work trip that almost felt like a holiday.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Travels with Henry: new travel advice website launches today

I've just finished reading John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, an allegedly non-fiction account of the almost-three months he spent driving across America in 1960 with his eponymous poodle, in search of the soul of his country.

Steinbeck was 58, had been living in Europe, then New York, which isn't really America, and wanted to reacquaint himself with the people and places he'd once known so well. So he packed up a truck with a camper on the back and started driving. Just like that.

It's a beautiful read, brimming with insights about travel from the very first page:

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch... Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye..."

Steinbeck didn't think much of trip-planning, but the world has changed since 1960 and so have we.

Even the most naturally nomadic among us still look to others, talk to others, for inspiration and ideas, in person and online. If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked, "So what's your favourite place?" I probably wouldn't be writing this post in a few scrounged minutes between deadlines.
But I want to give a shout-out to Nugggit, a new travel advice platform launched today, the first of its kind to connect travellers with travel writers.

It works like this: travellers peruse the website for someone who has been or knows about where they want to go next. Then they contact the travel writer - by chat messaging - to get some tailored, thoughtful travel advice, for a small fee. (See How it works for more info.)

It's win-win: the traveller gets independent, unbiased travel information from a real person who travels for a living; the travel writer supplements her/his income and can be reached anywhere in the world.

Like all the best things, it started with a simple, personal quest: Henry Talbot, an adventurous Brit now living in Sydney, wanted to take his sons fly-fishing in the mountains. Since then, the idea has grown like a sea-monkey well beyond family travel while staying close to its roots.

As Henry puts it, it's all about "helping people get the information they need to explore bravely".

Yours truly on the job
in Papua New Guinea
There are more than 200 travel media professionals in 70 countries on Nugggit so far (including yours truly; here's a link to my profile), with expertise in more than 600 destinations. That's a lot of travel know-how.

And the name? It's a variation on "nugget", something small, natural and precious because, as Henry says, when you're planning a trip, thinking about where to go and what to do, "often it's those small nuggets of advice that encourage exploration off the beaten track, where to turn left when the crowds turn right".

To celebrate today's launch, the first 50 contacts are free to you, the traveller. (Travel writers will still be paid, by Nugggit.)

Steinbeck would be proud. Happy exploring.

Friday, 30 December 2016

2016: The year of walking barefoot around the sun

It's that time of year again, when we glance back over our shoulders at the year that's been before striking out into a new one brimming with possibilities.

Barefoot on Bruny Is, Tasmania
How to measure a year? For each of us it's one lap around the sun, another birthday, a cocktail of losses and lucky breaks.

Where I live, the passing seasons are marked by blooming jacarandas, autumnal offshore winds, the winter whale migration. Numbers can help: I spent two and a half months away and three months not surfing (after a knee injury), had 50 stories published, wrote 15 blog posts.

Lately I've realised there's one constant however (well, two) whatever happens and wherever I go: my feet.

I don't wear shoes much these days, since moving to the NSW north coast two years ago. It's often too hot, and going barefoot is just easier and freer when you live near the beach (and I can live with my car being full of sand).

But I've been going barefoot when I travel too.

I've heard that taking off your shoes and walking on grass is a good remedy for jetlag when you arrive at your destination (possibly just because it gets you outside into natural light).

Bare feet are infinitely practical: all-terrain, weatherproof and amphibious. They're cool in summer; in winter I swaddle mine in sheepskin (ugg boots, worn with shorts - it's a north coast thing).

Barefoot in the Maldives (last year)
But there's a less rational reason I kick off my sandals whenever I can: it makes me instantly happy. Just to feel the air on my toes and solid earth under my feet is enough; if I can make contact with water - a stream, a pool, a puddle, the sea - even better. It calms me, slows me down, brings me home.

Now I seem to have developed a new habit: taking pictures of my feet in various locations - like the globetrotting garden gnome that sent selfies back to its owners.

My feet are my constant companions after all (see what happens when you travel solo too much?).

So I'm looking back at this year by looking down. These are a few of my barefoot highlights of 2016 (with links to my stories about them):

Barefoot in the Amazon with
citronella anti-malarial anket
In the Peruvian Amazon I sat on the deck of the beautiful Delfin II expedition vessel, dangling my feet over the muddy water while getting tips from Lindblad's resident photographer on how to snap the pink river dolphins cavorting in front of us.

Sometimes my bare feet were clad in hiking boots (walking the secret mountains of the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia) or in fins (while snorkelling with sharks, turtles, manta rays and elusive humpback whales on Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia).

Atlantis Pool in the Kimberley
If there's anything better than an outdoor shower, it's a wild swim, and in the north-east Kimberley I had both. I stayed in low-key luxury at Berkeley River Lodge on a media trip and one afternoon our guide led us barefoot over sun-warmed sandstone to one of the most perfect (croc-free) swimming holes I've ever swum in.

I had both at Bruny Island in Tasmania too, last month (see pic at top): showering in a forest of the tallest trees I've seen in a long time then relaxing barefoot in my tent after walking all day.

Bare-pawed cat in Lima, Peru
I even had barefoot (or near-barefoot) moments in cities, which I seem to enjoy a lot more now I don't live in one. I kicked off my sandals at a cat park in Lima, Peru, to hang out with dozens of friendly, stray felines.

And looked down during an Art Deco walking tour of gorgeously retro South Beach, Miami, just in time to see some footpath graffiti (see below).
Footpath wisdom, Miami

And there have been countless barefoot days on home soil and sand: surfing with friends, walking on the beach and along grassy headland trails, swimming in the sea, going barefoot in local cafes.

One of the most memorable was a lonely winter's Sunday when I had a small adventure, crossing the Richmond River by car ferry to South Ballina and a neverending beach I'd never set foot on.

South Ballina blues
But my barefoot beach walk was cut short when I saw a piece of sky poking out of the sand. That tiny bit of Mount Franklin-blue plastic was just the beginning; I spent the next couple of hours beachcombing the high tide mark, picking up as much plastic as I could carry. A good deed is surely better when done barefoot?

My new year's resolution for 2017? To have more barefoot time, at home and away, and to remember my favourite Kahlil Gibran quote: "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."

Happy barefoot new year, everyone.