Monday, 20 August 2018

A win for sustainable travel

This is a sneaky short post to make an announcement, if you'll forgive me for blowing my own conch shell. I won an award at the annual Australian Society of Travel Writers awards night in Bangkok last weekend, for Best Responsible Travel Story of 2018. Yay!

I (heart) Jordan
My winning story is about the extraordinary, other-worldly Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan. I stayed for just one night - the first night of a six-day trek I did last year - but was so bowled over by the place, by its solid sustainable and ethical credentials, I managed to rave for 700 words about it. Here's the story link.

But this post isn't just about me. It's also about the rise of sustainable thinking in travel since the ASTW first introduced this award more than a decade ago.

Award sponsor Intrepid Travel, which has been carbon-neutral since 2010 and last week became a certified B Corp (by putting purpose before profit, see link for more info), is one operator committed to making the world a better place through travel.

Tread lightly, travel barefoot
Another is World Expeditions, which runs forums on responsible travel and put together its own free Thoughtful Traveller guidebook. I mentioned others reducing single-use plastics in a story I wrote for Escape recently, 8 tips for plastic-free travel.

It's also heartening to see more of my fellow travel writers sidestepping the gloss to cover travel experiences that raise awareness and make a difference; my mate Chris Retschlag is one of them - see her recent post about human trafficking in Nepal.

With more than 8 billion of us travelling overseas each year now, travelling thoughtfully is more important than ever. How about you - got any tips for making travel more sustainable?


Big thanks to Intrepid for sponsoring this award again, to Fairfax Traveller for publishing my story, and to Experience Jordan and the Adventure Travel Trade Association for hosting me in incredible, wonderful Jordan.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Changing the world, one Boomerang Bag at a time

Now that we're in neck-deep in Plastic Free July, which is all about reducing our use of single-use plastics, it seems timely to write about a project I've been involved in for the past year (but which launched last month): Boomerang Bags.

Aren't they beautiful?
What are Boomerang Bags? 
They're reusable shopping bags made with love by volunteers from recycled fabric and given away or sold at local shops to reduce the use of plastic bags (one of the Big Four plastic evils of modern life along with coffee cups, plastic straws and water bottles).

I first heard about them early last year on Norfolk Island, which is big on low-impact living. Each bag had a distinctive boomerang-shaped logo on it and a label that said, "Sustainably sewn on Norfolk Island". How cool, I thought. Then: if this little island (population 1600) can do it, maybe our little seaside town could too.

I'd been wanting to get involved in a local environmental project and as a surfer living by the sea I loved the idea of doing something to help reduce the use of plastic bags, which often find their way into our waterways and from there into the bellies of seabirds and turtles and other marine animals.

Team Boomerang: Monica,
me, Shaun and Kelly
Meanwhile Monica Wilcox, president of Lennox Head Residents' Association, was looking for a positive community project. We got talking, with Kelly Saunderson and Shaun Eastment, two other inspirational women who care deeply about community and the natural environment, and Boomerang Bags Lennox Head was born.

The last time I sat
at a sewing machine
No sewing required!
Not only is this the first time I've helped set up a community group, I'm no sew-er (despite the fact that my late mum made all my clothes when I was growing up; sorry, Mum!).

I have actually sat down at a sewing machine once or twice, under close supervision, at a couple of our sewing bees, but I still feel more at home in front of a laptop.

Fortunately there are plenty of other things to do at our twice-monthly sewing bees, such as ironing, sorting and cutting fabric, screen-printing and counting bags - we've made about 700 since we started the sewing bees in September last year.

And it's not just about making bags. It's about being part of a global Boomerang Bags movement set up in 2013 by friends Tania Potts and Jordyn de Boer in Burleigh Heads, south-east Queensland. There are now more than 775 Boomerang Bags communities all over the world and together we've made more than 200,000 Boomerang Bags!

Boomerang Bags HQ helps people set up these communities and supports us all in various ways, providing everything from bag-making patterns to logos to moral support. Their website also has a map to help people find their nearest BB community.

We've got BOTH kinds of bags
Borrow or buy?
The original idea was that people would return the shopping bags, like boomerangs, to the shops they had borrowed them from, but Boomerang Bags HQ has tweaked that model (because the bag-return rate was low in some communities).

So we're making two kinds of bags: Borrow & Reuse (available for free in four small grocery shops in Lennox*) and Bought to Support (sold for $5 so that customers can keep them*).

Old jeans become new bags!
And everyone seems to love them. When we launched at last month's Love Lennox festival, we sold 104 bags (!), all different patterns, colours and styles.

We even have bags made out of jeans (thanks to the talented Mr Spider, our only male sew-er).

It was accidentally perfect timing, with IGA, Coles and Woolworths supermarkets across Australia phasing out single-use plastic bags around the same time and with #plasticfreejuly just around the corner.

People power
What really blows me away about Boomerang Bags, however, is that it involves so many parts of the community - and everyone is so positive about it. The shop owners who distribute the bags, the library staff who have supported us from day one and still collect fabric donations, the local businesses donating pre-loved curtains and cushion covers. Ballina Shire Council funds our room hire for the sewing bees; local media outlets such as the Lennox Wave and Ballina Advocate have helped us spread the word.

Of course none of it would be possible without our wonderful volunteers. We have about 15 regulars and they all seem to really love being part of it. Many turn up at a sewing bee with an armful of bags, sometimes as many as 20, they'd made at home in their spare time.

Jacqui in action
"I love going to the sewing bees in Lennox because it's social, good for the environment and creative all at once," says Jacqui Lachmann, who has been sewing for us from the start and has been doing her own Plastic Free July Challenge this month, summing it up perfectly.

As for me, I love that this has connected me with like-minded people I might not have met otherwise, given me a taste of "craftivism" (doing creative work for a good cause) and renewed my faith in people power. Oh, and it's fun!

Our next challenge is to make sure we don't run out of bags or turn into a bag-making co-op - or sweatshop. We keep reminding ourselves that the bags are a catalyst, a means to an end. It was never about making sure every Lennox local has a Boomerang Bag (though I would love to see Lennox plastic-bag free one day). It's about rethinking how we use plastic in our daily lives and changing the world, one reusable shopping bag at a time.


Our first bags for sale at Love Lennox
*Our Borrow & Reuse bags are available at the following shops in Lennox Head: Seagrass, Seed & Husk, Nixon Bulk Foods and Jordan's Farm. Bought to Support bags are available for $5 at the Lennox servo (The Station Grocer) and, from this week, IGA Lennox Head and The Lennox Hotel.

As a not-for-profit, any money we earn covers expenses such as thread and sewing machine repairs and the rest is donated to charities such as Australian Seabird Rescue.

For more info see our Boomerang Bags Lennox Head Facebook page and

Monday, 18 June 2018

Rising from the rubble: Two weeks on an affecting trek in Nepal

Did it make me cry? That's a question I often ask myself when I come back from a trip, when I'm deciding if it was a good one and when I'm searching for the moments that touched me, the highlights I want to share with others when I tell friends or write about the trip.

Trekking over the Langtang landslide
To me, that's the point of travel: to be affected, changed, even in a small way, to have our world shift on its axis, or turned upside down, by the places we visit.

All sorts of things have made me cry when I travel. I cried the first time I saw Everest, from a plane the first time I flew to Kathmandu, after reading so much about it. When sitting next to my dad in a jeep in South Africa watching a pride of lions devour a buffalo. Shaking hands with an old man in Cambodia who had survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Leaving Japan after living there for 18 months, knowing that was a moment in time and place that will never be repeated.

Girl on the trail,
near Tatopani
By this measure, my recent trip to Nepal was a good one. Three years after the devastating earthquake, it's a country still in recovery. Every day, in Kathmandu and on the two-week Intrepid trek I did to one of the regions hardest hit by the 'quake, I saw or heard something that touched my heart, sometimes without warning. Here's an excerpt and the link to my story about the trip, published last weekend in Fairfax Traveller:

High hopes in the Himalayas

"Namaste!" It's so faintly chirped I almost don't hear it, until I stop walking and look around. Then I see her, a child no older than five standing in a nearby potato field in tattered clothes, her hands pressed together in front of her chest. She smiles. I smile back. "Namaste," I say, and walk on. 
Tamang woman in
front of her home
Big mountains might lure us to Nepal, but it's small moments like these, encounters with the people who live in the landscapes we've come to see, that keep us coming back.
This is my third visit to Nepal, my first since 2015 when the country was rocked by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks. More than 9000 people died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. An estimated eight million people were affected, according to the UN. 
When I first arrive in Kathmandu the city seems much as I remember it, but with more dust, from roadworks and reconstruction. Scratching the surface, however, it's clear that three years isn't long in a place like this. Some of Kathmandu's World Heritage-listed landmarks remain caged in scaffolding, off-limits to visitors. And the earthquake is still very much in people's minds.
Pre-dawn view from Kyangjin Ri
Everyone has a story about where they were at 11.56am on April 25, 2015, and what, and who, they lost. It's in my mind too, because I'm here to do a new trek run by Intrepid Travel in one of the regions hardest hit by the earthquake, the Langtang Valley just north of Kathmandu. Read full story.
With thanks to Intrepid Travel for an affecting trek and for all they do to give back and remind us that travel can be a force for good. I did the new Tamang Heritage & Langtang Valley trek, which runs March-May and October-December. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Plastic free: 5 ways to avoid bottled water on your next trip

A few weeks ago I got back from Nepal, where I did a 15-day trek* in the Langtang Valley (story coming soon) - and thought about plastic. Specifically plastic bottles of water that save us from dying of dehydration in countries like Nepal where tourists can't drink the tap water.

Kids on the trail
north of Kathmandu
Of course most of us would rather die of dehydration than buy a bottle of water at home.

We all know it's bad for the environment in terms of the resources it takes to produce the bottles, the depletion of aquifers to fill them and the pollution problem of disposing of them.

We know bottled water is bad for us; the World Health Organisation just launched a review of bottled water, in fact, after a study in New York found microplastics in 90 per cent of 259 bottles from nine countries. (The Story of Stuff has a great 8-minute video about The Story of Bottled Water.)

But when we travel we often do things we wouldn't do at home.

What happened to serving water
on flights in refillable jugs?
Who hasn't bought plastic 2-litre bottles of water in Thailand or Morocco, because we can't drink the tap water and, well, bottled water is cheap and convenient? Or cracked open a tiny 300ml bottle tucked into the seatback pocket on a plane? Or said yes please to an ice-cold water bottle on a tropical tour bus? I know I have.

Sure, plastic bottles are often re-used in countries like these, in creative ways. I've seen them used as hanging pots for plants, cut down to make lamps, turned into pipes on mountain streams.

Plastic bottle pots in the Philippines
But the first rule of reducing plastic pollution is to, er, reduce (before reuse and recycle).

What was heartening on my Nepal trek was that, with the exception of a couple of my fellow trekkers who bought plastic bottles of water every day (adding up to 50 or 60 empty bottles by the end of the trek), everyone in the group treated their drinking water in a variety of ways, to avoid buying plastic bottles.

Here are five of them, all simple, cost-effective ways to avoid bottled water on your next trip:

Clean water in pill form
1. Aquatabs. I used these tiny water purification tablets on the trek and they worked a treat. Filled my one-litre stainless steel water bottle from any tap, dropped in a pill, shook the bottle and waited 30 minutes before drinking. A pack of 50 Aquatabs costs about $10; I bought mine in Kathmandu (the city, not the outdoor store).

The Lifestraw in action
2. Lifestraw. Designed by Swiss company Vestergaard in 2005 for use in countries where people don't have access to clean drinking water, the Lifestraw is basically a fat drinking straw that lets you safely drink from almost any water source. One straw can filter up to 4000 litres of water before it has to be replaced and costs about $40 from Macpac. There are also steel straws now and bottles with built-in Lifestraws.

3. SteriPEN. This one uses ultraviolet (UV) light to sterilise water; just fill your water bottle, stir it with the SteriPEN for 90 seconds (a green light signals when it's done) and you're ready to drink.

CamelBak's UV glow
Cities all over the world have long been using UV light to sterilise public water supplies, but US brand SteriPEN was the first to create a handheld UV device to purify water, in 2001. They start at $89 but the light lasts for 8000 litres.

4. CamelBak All Clear. CamelBak has taken things a step further by putting a UV filter in the lid of a BPA-free bottle, plus an LED screen that counts down the 60 seconds it takes to purify the water. It can be recharged by USB port, and a single charge purifies 60 litres of water. It's pricey at $199, but at least it's built into your bottle.

Purification in two small bottles
5. Chlorine dioxide. This one's my least favourite as it's a bit fiddly (I'd rather use Aquatabs). You add 12 droplets of Lifesystems chlorine dioxide solution to water and wait 20 minutes. The water tastes slightly better (less chlorine-y) than with Aquatabs, but there's always a risk the bottles could crack or leak their contents through your backpack. Costs about $30 from Trek&Travel.

Remember to pack your reusable water bottle to use with all of these except #4 and you're good to go. Preferably stainless steel - it's better for you than even BPA-free plastic, more durable than most plastics and recyclable when you're finished with it. Two brands I've used and loved are The Source, which donates $2 of every sale to Sea Shepherd, and Sydney-based Cheeki.

Happy plastic-free travels. (There'll be another post on more plastic-free-travel tips soon.)

*Big thanks to Intrepid Travel for encouraging us all to reduce our use of bottled water on this amazing trek, in line with their strong sustainable travel stance, and for hosting me on the 15-day Tamang Heritage & Langtang Valley trek, which runs Feb-May and Oct-Nov every year.