Monday, 10 October 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Extreme camping in the Kimberley

One of the things I love about travel, apart from the way it temporarily simplifies your life, is that it opens your eyes to different ways to live. Lately I’ve been meeting people who live simply in various ways, whether by design or as a means to other ends.

Still life with frypans, the Kimberley
There was Harry and his mission to cycle from Canada to Patagonia, Simone who escaped a Dutch winter to surf for a month on a remote NZ island, James who “longgrasses” in Darwin's sand dunes.

It fascinates me. I could be the Marie Kondo of travel writing (she wrote the New York Times best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, among other odes to simple living).

Now meet Bruce Maycock, a guide at Berkeley River Lodge in the north-east Kimberley, where I stayed last month (see my previous post, about sea-houses and Timor Sea sunsets). He knows this part of the Kimberley probably better than anyone alive – because he has spent much of the past 15 years “extreme camping” out there.

In 1993, he and a friend spent five months camping above King George Falls, near the northern tip of Western Australia. They were just two young Aussie blokes from Melbourne in search of an adventure.

Bruce in guide mode
But Bruce became hooked on the bush lifestyle and kept returning to the Kimberley, first for several months every Dry season with just his dog for company (1995-2000) then during the Wet (between 2000 and 2012 when Berkeley River Lodge opened and he started working there).

He showed us his current campsite on Atlantis Creek and we all swam in "his" swimming hole. He still stays out there on his days off and spends about a month there at the start of every year now, before the lodge re-opens for the Dry season. 

To give you an idea how remote this place is, and how much he loves its wildness, in a video Bruce made during the 2003-4 Wet season, during which he lost his camp and his boat during a cyclone, he says, "I’ve got a 150-kilometre radius around me where there’s no people, no roads, not even a fence. It’s just wilderness and that’s why I come here and why I selected this spot. It’s just beautiful."

Here's the interview I did with Bruce at Berkeley River Lodge about how he came to live this way and what he loves about it:

Where did the bush-camping idea come from?
I don’t know exactly, but when I turned 18 and got my drivers license in Melbourne, I travelled around Australia with a friend and the big eye-opener for me was that up north, it never gets cold. Once I figured that out, I ended up migrating north pretty regularly and on the odd occasion I’d come across a roadside stop or a little creek and there’d be no one else there, I always remember how exciting that was. And how easy it is to live outdoors when it’s warm all year; you just need some sort of shelter, a tarp or something.

That inspired me to think, Australia’s a pretty big place, surely there’s some rivers and creeks that haven’t got anyone living on them that I could find and maybe go out and camp.

Atlantis Creek in the Dry season
How did you end up in the Kimberley?
I started thinking about it and I never thought I’d ever do it until I was discussing it with my friend Chris in Melbourne over a few beers one time and he said "Well, if you want to try and do it, I’ll come out and help you."

So we bought a heap of camping gear and an ex-Army Land Rover and started looking at maps trying to decide where we were going to go. We ruled out north Queensland and the Northern Territory because there are a lot of people up there, and we started looking at the Kimberleys.

Then I was watching a Bush Tucker Man episode and he was swimming across a waterhole up there and when he got to the other side he said, "The reason I can swim across this waterhole without worrying about crocodiles is because there’s a big waterfall between me and the ocean, and saltwater crocodiles can’t get up a waterfall."

A "small" saltie we saw
That’s how we ended up at King George Falls, which is massive, it’s like 90 metres high, 70km up the coast [from Berkeley River Lodge]. It wasn’t easy to get to but we managed to find a spot on the river and set up camp about 10km above the falls and lived there for five months. I was just totally hooked after that.

When did you start camping solo?
Well, after that first year Chris had to go back to work in Melbourne so I went over to the east coast and worked on a prawn trawler for a year out of Southport, fantastic job.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what we’d done. So the following year [1995] I said to Chris, “I’m going to go back out there.” He had work commitments, but he came up for three weeks and helped me set up my camp and I stayed there for six months, on my own, and learned a hell of a lot about living up there.

What kinds of things?
The most important things are what to take and what not to take. You’re so limited with how much weight you can take in a vehicle, and you want to be out there for as long as you can. With this spot, I could drive right to where my camp was. So I would take out maybe 80 kilos of flour to bake bread (the first time we went out, we had FOUR kilos) and 10 or 20 kilos of rice, a 20-kilo bag of onions, a 20-kilo bag of potatoes.

Bruce, in situ
What made you start camping in the Wet?
I spent every Dry season up on the King George until 2000 when I started getting work with a mining company in diamond exploration. I used to see them out on the tracks and they kept offering me work so I thought I might as well do that. So I started working for them in the Dry season and going out to my camp in the Wet season.

It took me about five years of living out there in the Dry season to feel confident enough to do it in the Wet season, because once you’re there in the Wet, you can’t get out. All the roads are cut off.

What’s it like bush camping in the Wet?
It’s so exciting, because you get all these thunderstorms and all the vegetation is green, there’s a lot more stuff to eat as far as bush tucker goes, the fishing’s heaps better. It’s just exciting. The river starts lifting and flooding...

Bruce's Atlantis Creek camp
Why did you move to Atlantis Creek?
When I’d been camping near King George Falls, I realised that when you get to the coast, there’s so much more food: you’ve got oysters, the fish are bigger, there’s just so much more to eat.

So in 2000 when I had some time off from the mining job, I had a look around for a spot that had a freshwater pool with easy access to the saltwater so I could come in with my little boat, my tinny, and then walk up the creek to my camp.

Eventually I found that spot where we went today. Everyone used to refer to it as Bruce’s Creek, and I thought that doesn’t sound right, so I said let’s just call it Atlantis Creek, because it comes out right next to Atlantis Bay [which is named after a seaplane that crashed offshore in the 1930s].

Did you have to get permission to camp there?
When I was on King George, I used to get a [free] six-month permit from Kolumbaru Aboriginal Corporation. Atlantis Creek is managed by a different community, Oombulgurri, with a different Aboriginal corporation, so I used to go into their office in Wyndham, that’s where I’d put my boat in.

The first time I went there, I took in a huge map and said, "This is where I’m going" and that I’d like a permit for six months. They said that’s fine. I kept going back for the next four or five years but I got the impression I was being annoying, so on the fifth year the guy in charge just said, "Bruce, we know exactly where you are, you can go there whenever you want." That was a huge relief.

Dugong rock art found by Bruce
Does surviving take up most of your time?
No, not at all. You can go down and catch a fish in half an hour and it’s like, I’m done! I also grow a few veggies – zucchinis, some tomatoes – and look for bush food. But mostly I would go swimming or read or look for [Aboriginal] art.

What’s it like being out there for months on end?
I spend a lot of time making my camp more user-friendly. I paved the floor [in my old camp] with sandstone and river sand, just collected pieces of flat sandstone, because there was a dip in there that would fill up with water when it rained. And I do a lot of leatherwork, tanning kangaroo, goanna and barramundi skins. 

What have you learned that you can live without?
I can live without refrigeration, that’s the biggest thing. I just use evaporation. If I’m staying out there for a long time, I’ll have five tubs of margarine, to go on the bread I bake. I’ll sit those one-kilo tubs of margarine in some water at the bottom of a plastic tub and put a wet sack over the top and the sack draws the water out and keeps everything cool.

The mouth of Atlantis Creek
So you live without electricity?
Well, I’ve got a 12-volt battery like a car battery and a solar panel so I can charge my GPS, my iPod – I was going to say my Walkman, I had a Walkman when I was first out there! And I’ve got a little car stereo with some speakers so I can play some music or listen to the cricket.

You're not completely Stone Age then?
Not at all. I’ve got a satellite phone. I didn’t when I started, they were too expensive, but it gives me a bit of peace of mind and I can ring my family and let them know I’m ok. I also carry a personal EPIRB now in my backpack at all times.

Do you enjoy the solitude?
I do, yeah.

But you had your dog with you for a while?
Yeah, Doogsy. Once I lost her [she ran away during some fireworks for Territory Day in Darwin], I did two years without a dog and I really missed her. Now I bring a friend’s English staffy out sometimes. They keep you entertained. They think they’re on an endless walk, like every morning you wake up in your swag and they’re sitting there going, “C’mon, let’s go! Where are we going to go today?”

Is there anything you miss about town life?
Probably pizzas! And a cold drink, a refrigerated drink. I might take out a two-litre cask of red wine, for the odd special occasion, but I can’t bring out beer, it’s too heavy. Although I usually bring a couple of tins of braised steak or something because if things are really full on, if there’s a low pressure system or a cyclone comes through, I won’t be able to catch fish.

Stone tools he showed us on the beach
Do you feel any connection to the people who once lived in the Kimberley?
I wouldn’t say I feel a connection, but I’m forever wondering what it was like for them, like when you find the art.

Some of the caves I walk into have still got stone and hand axes and spears and all of their tools in there. You can’t help but think, wow, who was that last person who was in here? What did he or she look like? Was it a family group?

What do you love about being out there?
I feel different when I’m out there. There’s so much time to think about life, I look at the stars a hell of a lot. And the endless exploring. Because it’s remote, all these little creeks I go to, you’re pretty confident of being the first white person to walk up some of them, which is really cool, and you just want to see what’s around the corner. You might walk 10km and it’s like, but what’s around there?

This is one of my longer posts, so thanks for making it this far. Keep exploring, and asking what living simply means for you. I'm still working on it myself, with a little help from Marie Kondo.

Big thanks to Bruce for his time and for the inspiration, and to Berkeley River Lodge and Tourism WA for getting me to the Kimberley. It's a special part of Australia.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

"Sea-houses" and wild swims in the north-east Kimberley

This time about two weeks ago, give or take the east-west time difference, I was lying in bed watching the sun rise over the Timor Sea for the last time at Berkeley River Lodge in the north-east Kimberley.

Timor Sea sunrise
It was the end of a four-day media stay (I was there with four other writers and a PR) though I confess to feeling more "on holiday" than "on assignment" for most of that time. It's that kind of place. Remote, wild and intensely beautiful.

I'd never been to this part of the Kimberley. Not many people have. It's much less visited than the Kimberley coast around Broome in north-west Western Australia (spectacular as that is - see my Why you should go to the Kimberley post), mainly because it's so far away.

To get to the Berkeley River from, say, Sydney, you have to fly across Australia to Perth, north to Broome, east to Kununurra, which is only 35km from the Northern Territory border, then north again for an hour in a light plane until, finally, you land at a dusty private airstrip. Which makes you feel well off the map when you get there - in a good way.

The Berkeley River, looking west
From the air, Berkeley River Lodge's 20 villas are strung out along the ridge of a high sand dune at the mouth of the river like the skeleton of a long-dead dingo.

Up close, they're airy, architect-designed corrugated-iron cabins on stilts, "sea-houses" that rest lightly on the landscape.

The lodge opened in 2012 and though it's not eco-certified, it is sustainable in all sorts of ways.

Sky-villas on a sand dune
Each villa is oriented to catch the sea breeze and minimise the use of aircon, for instance; with all the louvres open in mine, I barely even needed the ceiling fan. They have composting toilets, solar hot water (solar panels generate 30 per cent of the lodge's power), sustainable bamboo floors (so smooth under bare feet) and recycled plastic decking.

My blue-sky bathroom
They also have open-to-the-sky bathrooms, one of my favourite features. I showered in the sun (all the lodge's water comes from an underground spring), bird-watched while brushing my teeth (and from the toilet - that's a first) and one night took a bath under the star-spangled Kimberley sky (another first).

It's a five-star lodge, with five-star rates to match (see below), but the real privilege of staying at Berkeley River is having the opportunity to experience in this incredible place, with few reminders of the outside world. (There's no tv or mobile reception, and WiFi only in the main lodge.)

There's plenty of room to roam: the lodge leases 5000 hectares (50 square kilometres) in Oombulgurri Aboriginal Reserve from the local Indigenous land council. Not that you want to wander too far without a guide. This is remotest Australia after all.

And croc country, of course. The only two "rules" at the lodge are actually survival tips: don't swim in the sea (there are tiger sharks, too) and stay at least five metres from the water's edge when walking on the beach.

A pool with a view
That doesn't mean there's no swimming (good news when it's 39 degrees, though the sea breezes kept us cool).

The lodge has one of the most beautiful hotel pools I've ever swum in: 20 metres, saltwater, with shade umbrellas at both ends and views across the river mouth to a sandstone escarpment that changes colour with the changing light.

And there are croc-free swimming holes. On our second day we cruised the coast in a small boat with guide Bruce Maycock, who has probably spent more time exploring this coastline than anyone, even camping for months at a time during the Wet season (an interview with Bruce is my next post). We landed on beaches striped with croc-tracks, rock-hopped up gorges to see ancient rock art and explored mangrove-lined inlets, but the highlight was our last stop, Atlantis Creek.

One of my comrades at Atlantis pool
Named after a seaplane that crashed off this coast in the 1930s, it's where Bruce's camp is and what he reckons is "the best waterhole on the coast". It's probably the most perfect wild swimming spot I've seen: a deep green swimming hole the size of two Olympic pools side by side surrounded by walls of Kimberley sandstone, filled with water fresh enough to drink.

All afternoon we swam, jumped off rocks and played in the water like kids at a pool party, until it was time to walk back to the boat and head home to the lodge.

We had other day-trips: beach drives to see turtle nests and stone tools used by long-gone indigenous locals, a river cruise up the Berkeley, a little fishing (not my thing, but a drawcard for a lot of guests) and an amazing (and not very no-impact, I confess) heli-sunset trip to the nearest peak, Mt Casuarina. And there was still time to do nothing in scenic splendour back at the lodge occasionally.

Yours truly, loving her work
One morning during a sunrise beach walk, the dunes pink in the early morning light and the sea a limpid grey-green, I realised there was no washed-ashore rubbish, not even a speck of microplastic, thanks to a lack of sea traffic and favourable ocean currents. You can't say that about many beaches these days.

I really didn't want to leave, but Berkeley does even that well, giving us a "rock star" departure.

Our private twin-prop (for an hour)
After a last swim and a leisurely lunch Berkeley's owner, PJ, drove us down the red-earth road to the airstrip where we found our pilot leaning against his Piper Chieftain, both ready to go whenever we were.

Before I knew it, we were buckled in and speeding down that dusty runway, rewinding the tape to the start of our trip. Was it really only four days ago? Maybe it was all just a dream.


Berkeley River Lodge is open between March and November every year and villas start at $1488 per couple per night, including all meals and most activities. Plus air transfers from Kununurra or Darwin with Kimberley Air Tours, best booked through the lodge.

Big thanks to Berkeley River Lodge and Tourism WA for an incredible experience in a must-see part of Australia and to Fairfax Traveller for the assignment (I didn't really forget I was working. Well, not often).

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, in the Northern Territory.

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 Fairfax 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 (UPDATE, 28 Sept: most disposable cups are plastic-lined, but there are now compostable cups made from "bioplastic"), 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.