Monday, 30 March 2015

Why I love swimming - wherever I travel

My latest essay for Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald is about something close to my heart (like In praise of quiet travel, my previous essay): my love of swimming, something I never leave home without.

I can't help myself. No matter where I'm travelling to, I pack goggles, ear plugs and a swimsuit, just in case. You never know when, or where, you might find your next fix: water time.

The story ran last weekend - while I happened to be swimming with sea turtles off Heron Island (more on that soon) - with this sublime illustration (left) by Michael Mucci.

Here's an excerpt, and a link to the full story at the end of this post:

Wet, wet, wet
Have swimsuit, will travel. That's my mantra, finding windows of time and places to swim, no matter where I am, my semi-secret mission when I'm on the road.

It starts when I'm packing and I fall for swimming's minimalism all over again. Togs, goggles and I'm good to go. What other sporting equipment can be scrunched into a shoe in your suitcase?

Of course you need a pool, but I use the term loosely. Which brings me to the real reason I swim. It's not just that swimming is good, portable exercise and the best way I know to unfold one's limbs after a long-haul flight. It's this: nothing wakes you up to your surroundings and commits you to really being where you are like full-body contact with water.

Swim and you are literally, immediately, immersed in the landscape, particularly in natural places.

I've swum in mountain tarns surrounded by 3000-metre peaks and the grey-white tongues of glaciers in New Zealand. With so many tropical fish in Palawan, in the Philippines, it was like swimming in a free-range aquarium. I'll never forget my first dip in Tanzania after crossing sub-Saharan Africa on an overland truck: as soon as we rattled to a stop at the first beach we'd seen in two months, I sprinted into the sea's embrace like a long-missed lover.

Read the full story

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Beyond Earth Hour: the Earth Night experiment

With Earth Hour 2015 fast approaching - 10 sleeps to go! - I decided to revisit one of my favourite ways to extend the idea of turning off the lights for action on climate change.

Electricity-free in 2011
Four years ago, almost to the day, I had my first electricity-free night, an Earth Night so to speak. 

It became a weekly habit during my No Impact month, which began on Earth Hour 2011 and was inspired by No Impact Man Colin Beavan's one-year, no-environmental-impact experiment in New York City. (See Why "No Impact Girl"? for more on that.) 

For something so simple - spending one night, from sundown to bedtime, without any electric lights, devices or appliances - it was a revelation. 

"It was like camping, with comforts and your own bed," I raved the morning after in one of my first-ever blog posts. I loved that the house was silent but for the hum of the fridge. I loved playing Scrabble by candlelight. I loved the Wuthering Heights-like shadows that flickered on the walls when I carried candles from room to room like a Bronte sister.

Best of all, it was intensely calming, an island of quiet in an otherwise ordinary working week.

Christmas Island Earth Hour
Pic by Carla Grossetti
I was hooked. (What's the point of it, you might be wondering? Read this post: Candle power.) Then I lapsed. I kept celebrating Earth Hour: my most memorable one happened on tropical Christmas Island during a media trip when my fellow writers and I swam by candelight in a sea cave. Priceless.

The last time I did an electricity-free night was last northern summer when I had two whole weeks of them in an electricity-free cabin in Norway, although I use the term "night" loosely; it didn't get properly dark until 11pm. 

So I was long overdue for another. Last week, I ordered a box of beeswax candles, the world's most environmentally friendly candles, from Northern Light, based here in northern NSW. When they arrived, I picked a night and turned off the lights - or rather didn't turn them on when the sun set. 
"Night" in Norway

I didn't turn on the tv to watch the news. I turned off my phone, iPad, computer and Kindle - and tuned in. For the first time in a long time I was aware of the gathering darkness. The sounds of night coming. I lit a few candles, and peace descended. 

Everything looks more beautiful and more rustic by the honey glow of a few beeswax candles. I made dinner using the electric stove (I don't have a gas stove this time; at least my electricity comes from solar panels all over the roof) and ate by candlelight. I read an actual book and wrote with a pen and paper, went outside to look at the stars, carried a candle into the bathroom to brush my teeth. The night seemed long, in a good way. 

Just an ordinary Thursday night - suddenly made simple, spacious and timeless. It also reminded me how fortunate we are to have lights to turn off: 1.2 billion people on our planet live without electricity every night.

Earth Hour is a great start - it's on Saturday March 28 this year, 8.30-9.30pm wherever you are - an incredible social movement that started in Sydney and now connects hundreds of millions of people in more than 160 countries every year. Watch the video here.

But why not keep the candles burning? Have an electricity-free night once a month, do it solo or with someone you love, pack a picnic and dine under the stars or the streetlights or on the beach, have a moonlit swim, invite friends over for candlelit conversation... More ideas here.

Happy Earth Hour, everyone!

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Why I love the Northern Rivers (and Lennox Head)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

All aboard...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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