Saturday, 30 December 2017

2017: A year in search of simplicity

Here we are again at the end of another journey together around the sun. How was it for you? Strange to think that no matter how settled we might feel, we're all constantly in transit, glimpsing milestones as we go, pausing at moments like these to ponder what we've experienced along the way.

Barefoot at Blinky Beach,
Lord Howe Island
For me, it's also a time to wonder if I spent the past 365 days wisely. Did I love well, let go, reduce my impact, do my best?

As always, there was a roll call of destinations. This year my trips seemed to have a common thread, by accident or design: a search for simplicity. Whether it was a chance to go barefoot, travel low-impact or just shrug off the home-fire routines for a week or two of being in the moment (and taking copious notes so I could write about it later).

Here's a bit of a highlights reel...

It started with a new "digital detox" trip through northern Morocco, where I went offline for nine days (bliss) and had company doing it.

Then came an Earth Weekend (not just an Earth Day) on beautiful, earthy Norfolk Island and, soon after, the inaugural Seven Peaks Walk on my other favourite little Australian Island, Lord Howe.

Jordan rocks (really)
Jordan, in May, was a highlight for me: six days of heat-wave hiking and camping in out-of-this-world landscapes on the new Jordan Trail (my Walking to Petra post was the second most popular post I've ever written). Big thanks again to the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Association for inviting me to their inaugural conference in the region; it was my first visit to the Middle East and won't be my last.

In July I swapped the southern winter for a chilly northern summer - in Iceland, a place that impressed me in unexpected ways (see More than "fire and ice": 10 reasons to love Iceland). I even got to have a quick dip in the North Atlantic. (Any trip that includes a swim is a good one, in my book.)

Torres del Paine #nofilters
Then I went to the opposite side of the globe, to Patagonia. An all-too-brief media trip that left me yearning to return to spend a month in a cabin or go trekking in the too-beautiful-for-words Torres del Paine country.

My last trip of the year a few weeks ago was closer to home: a sea kayaking adventure in Raja Ampat, an archipelago of about 1500 limestone islands off the north-west tip of West Papua.

Paddling West Papua
It felt more like a holiday than any other trip this year, probably because we were in and out of the water the whole time like kids at a pool party. When we weren't kayaking, we were snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding, walking to waterfalls or relaxing on the traditional Indonesian boat we called home for nine tropical days. (Blog post coming soon.)

As always, I feel truly privileged to be able to experience all these places and write about them and want to take this opportunity to thank all the tour operators, tourism organisations, editors and PR people who made this year's travels possible.

First sunrise of 2017, Lennox Head
Meanwhile, in northern NSW... this month marks my third year in little Lennox Head, a place that makes me love coming home more than anywhere else I've lived.

Every time I'm offered a trip, in fact, I weigh it up against the joys of my non-travelling life: surfing with friends, beach walks, late afternoon lake swims, moonrises over the sea, winter whale-watching, planting trees.

One of my at-home highlights this year was helping to set up a Boomerang Bags community in Lennox: we make cloth shopping bags from recycled fabric and will soon be giving them away at local shops to reduce plastic bag use. Loved this chance to meet and work with a bunch of like-minded locals on a good-news project.

Barefoot with Boomerang Bags
Oh, and I got to see Jane Goodall speak in Sydney, interviewed two other inspiring women about travelling and living simply ("soul trekker" Laura Waters and Jo Nemeth who lives without money) and won another Australian Society of Travel Writers award: Best Responsible Tourism Story, for a piece about a solar-slum tour I did in Kolkata, India, last year.

But looking back on all this, what makes a year (or a life) feel well-lived I think isn't how many trips we do or what we achieve.

Barefoot again, in Raja Ampat
(in Waterlust whaleshark leggings)
It's the connections we make - with each other and with the world we live in and on, and they happen more easily when we slow down and simplify things. That's what I'm most thankful for, because it's what reminds us we're all in this together, all hurtling around the sun at an incredible 108,000 kilometres per hour.

So happy simple new year, my friends, and thanks for your company. May our next 365-day trip be full of adventures of all kinds. See you back here in 2018!

Friday, 24 November 2017

Adventures in simple living: How to live without money

This time last week I was having a cup of low-impact tea with a woman who has simplified her life in an intriguing way, a way I'd only read about before (in The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle): she lives without money.

Jo and her "little blue wagon"
Jo Nemeth, aka JoLowImpact, doesn't live on savings or welfare payments or income from a rental property or a husband and has been since April 2015. Not because she's anti-money (she's not), but to minimise her impact on the world.

"Climate change made me do it," she says. (More on this later.)

When I found out she was living less than an hour's drive away, I knew I had to meet her.

I find her "little blue wagon" (a shed on wheels) in the backyard of her friend Kim's house in Lismore, northern NSW, where she's been living for six months. We'd only spoken on the phone before meeting, but she greets me with a warm hug. She looks earthy, healthy, happy.

Then she gives me a tour of her domain: her wagon has a bed inside, plastic tubs of clothes, photos pinned to a bit of clothes line, and not much else.

Inside her tiny home
The whole set-up is off-grid; Jo lives without electricity, has no running water (just rainwater). She's made a composting toilet and uses a camp shower. There's a solar panel she bought with the last of her cash in December 2014. She grows some of her own food; the rest is excess or waste donated by friends, and she accepts only food that is environmentally and socially low-impact.

She's built a small porch on one side - that's where she boils the kettle over a twig-fuelled "rocket stove" made of bricks (one of the most efficient and least polluting ways to cook, she says) and we settle into cane chairs while Kim's cat sits nearby in the morning sun.

For two hours we talked, rambling over common ground related to living simply, connecting to nature, minimising one's negative impacts on the planet.

Here's the abridged version, a spoonful of "How to live a moneyless, low-impact life" according to Jo Nemeth:

Jo's eco-efficient "rocket"
Where did the idea for your "no money" experiment come from? 
It was my birthday, in February 2014, and I was sick in bed with the flu and Mum and Dad sent me this book - Changing Gears by Greg Foyster. My Dad's a cow cockie turned greenie [Jo grew up on a cattle farm in central Queensland] and both Mum and Dad are incredibly frugal people; they run on the smell of an oily rag, they're just amazing.

But the book set everything in motion; it's about a couple who cycle from Melbourne to Far North Queensland trying to simplify their lives and meeting interesting characters along the way. One of those people lived without money. That was my lightbulb moment.

What happened next? 
I was working in Casino at the time [as a community development officer] and feeling pretty messed up about the climate and environmental impacts and supply chains, and all of that was starting to affect me.

I actually didn't have a choice, because I'm alive in this particular point in human history when we have these particular things going on and I'm the kind of person I am and I want to help and make a difference. I just decided that this was what I needed to do, so in November 2014 I quit my job, I got rid of my car in December and I was living without money by Easter 2015.

Why was it important to go "no money" and not just live with a little money?
I’m not doing it because I’m anti-money; I do this because I want to be low-impact, reduce my environmental and social impact. Having a little bit of money and having no money are really different states of being, I think.

If I had any little bit of money, firstly it would change the dynamic between me and the people around me where I would feel more obliged to be paying rent, for example, so I’d have to earn money. And secondly, I don’t trust myself to not buy stuff that has an impact. Maybe some people could do this with money, but I know I can’t. So I’m consciously limiting my choices.

What are the "rules"? 
The composting "ensuite"
The main rule is: minimising my impact. I'm always asking myself: what would have the least impact? Just because I’ve got no money doesn’t mean that my impacts are automatically minimised. 

For example: people offer to buy me stuff all the time. I’ve had friends offering me their cars with a full tank of fuel – they say, "Why don’t you go for a holiday somewhere, take my car?" [Jo doesn't fly.] I’ve had people offer me gas cooking equipment. People are so generous and want to help, but I’ve had to decline many offers because it would increase my impact. 

I also try not to use any new resources for me - so if someone is driving somewhere already, I can hitch a ride. Or if someone needs me to drive them somewhere, I'll do that, as service. Because I can't help people if I'm saying no to everything. And sometimes staying with people I'm serving them by helping them to live with less impact - by inspiring them to eat less meat, say, or use their washing machine during daylight hours.

What do most people get wrong about the way you live? 
Every now and again I meet someone who'll say, you're just bludging off other people, you're not really living without money. It started with the ABC North Coast TV interview I did in 2016; when it went online there were lots of "you're just using everybody else" comments. I've developed a thicker skin, but I also realised we're actually all dependent on each other, interdependent, and on the earth, for everything we need. Using money can distract us from that basic fact of life.


Sun-warmed water on tap
It's been almost three years now, what do you miss? 
In a practical sense, hot running water and a washing machine - if I don't get on top of my handwashing, it takes me all day! On another level, I miss my partner terribly [Jo and Keith, her partner of seven years, went their separate ways when Jo began this project] and it's difficult to find people who want to live this simply, to find my "tribe". But I have a really strong support network, my friends that are here, my daughter's here.

Do you give yourself any treats? 
Powdered milk is my weakness [Jo doesn't have a refrigerator]. I really like hot, sweet, milky drinks. I haven't given that up yet and somehow I've managed to keep myself in a supply of different milks from different places. Mostly waste, but there was one occasion when a friend bought me a new packet of powdered milk and[I feel bad because] it is a high-impact product - converting it from real milk and the dairy industry in general. 


What about technology? 
No power bills...
I had my laptop when I started the experiment. My last big purchase was $1000 on a solar panel, a battery and an inverter so I could run my laptop, my phone and a light. I also started with a phone; that one died but people have phones lying around everywhere, I've been offered so many phones. I have a prepaid plan with Optus that gives me minimal credit - it basically lets me receive calls and texts and keep an active number for $10 a year - and it's due for renewal every December so I can make it a Christmas present. And I can use Facebook and WiFi to talk to people and send messages.

What have you gained? 
It's been really beautiful to slow my life down. I started off calling this the "slow life", then I listened to Ethan Hughes talk about his Possibility Alliance farm in Missouri and he said this isn't the slow life, this is the normal life. Everybody else is just living the fast life. And he's so right. 


Words to live by
My life now is the normal pace of human life, I believe, what's healthy for us and the way people have been living for most of human existence. And it's really been a pleasure to live this earth-paced life. 

I hitch, I walk a lot - I didn't see myself as someone who would enjoy it but I love walking places, seeing the world close up, noticing things I never would have noticed before. Even riding a bike is too fast! Though I do ride for efficiency sometimes, and I'm fitter and healthier than I was before. 

What about planning for the future? That's one big reason people earn money: for security.
If we look at human history what keeps us secure is community and living this kind of life is good for building community connections, so in a way I feel safer and more secure than I did before when I [was earning money but] didn't have time to be part of a community. I see my future as being involved in a community that's really strongly bonded and reliant on each other. I think that's the way we all need to go. So I'm not worried about my future at all. [Jo parks her wagon on friends' land in exchange for helping them in various ways, such as working on their organic vege garden.]


"I have a great life," Jo says.
What do you love about the way you live? 
I appreciate things more now. I can't buy books of course, but I put in requests when it's my birthday or for Christmas. 

On my last birthday, my friends came over and we planted some trees, shared a meal then walked to the movies. They each put in a dollar and shouted me a movie ticket. It was wonderful. I really appreciate things like that now. 

I love that when I wake up in the morning I often don't know what I'm going to be doing that day or who I'll see. But the best thing is that there's a huge sense of relief from having your values and your actions align, it feels very powerful and like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. 

What have you learned? 
My mum told me when I was a kid to differentiate between wants and needs: do you need that, or do you just want it? There's a big difference and just by going with what we need, we can make massive changes to the environment, to our lives. It's a good reminder that what we actually need to survive, and be happy, is very little.


From little changes, big ideas grow
What's next in the "no money" experiment? 
I really want to help other people live low impact. Inspire others to live more sustainably, on a bigger scale.

But I don't want to go under the radar. I want to challenge the system, the council and state regulations that make it almost impossible for people to live simply and sustainably, that force people to chase their tails just to keep a roof over their heads. We really need to change the way we do things. 

Doing this one-off thing, as one person, is just the first step. The next step is to find some land, even just the corner of someone's property, close to town - because to be low-impact you need to be able to walk or ride a bike or a horse - and a bunch of people who want to help make a demonstration site. That's the dream.

[For more about Jo and tips on how to live with less money and, more importantly, less impact, visit her blog: jolowimpact.wordpress.com. She's also working on a book, stay tuned...]

Friday, 3 November 2017

In Patagonia: Three days at the end of the world

I might have dreamed this. I'd wanted to go to Patagonia for so long, imagined those granite spires, watched docos about the wild southern tip of South America.

Morning light, Torres del Paine
Then: a chance came up a few weeks ago, to stay in Chilean Patagonia for three nights at the end of a media trip.

Not nearly long enough, but it's such a remote and unearthly place it bends time and twists space so you feel as if you've been there longer.

I won't pretend to know all about this massive region after such a short time in one tiny bit of it, but it is the kind of place that affects you no matter how long you're there.

So here are a few random thoughts from my three days in Patagonia:

Brooding mountains
everywhere you look
1. It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here. Actually, Patagonia feels like the end of the known world, particularly way down in the Chilean part where I was (90 per cent of Patagonia lies in Argentina). Down there, you're closer to Antarctica than to Santiago.

2. Getting there is a big part of being there. First, the good news: getting to South America from Australia is easier now that LATAM Airlines flies non-stop from Melbourne to Santiago (Qantas also flies Sydney-Santiago non-stop).

Driving in Patagonia
From Santiago we then had a three-hour flight to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, then a FIVE-HOUR drive to our lodge, explora Patagonia, through some of the most desolately beautiful landscapes I've seen on my travels. There's a real sense of arrival travelling this way; it reminds you how far from the rest of humankind you really are.

The Paine massif in all it glory
3. The Torres del Paine are magnificent. Patagonia's most recognisable landform, the Blue Towers (in the language of the indigenous Aonikenk people) are mesmerising. You can't take your eyes off them, even when you can barely see them - because at any moment the clouds might drift away and reveal what we saw when we woke up on our last morning.

The boardwalk outside my room was icy when I stepped out, rugged up in down jacket and beanie, and even after looking at and photographing the mountains and the changing light for more than an hour I still couldn't take my eyes off them when I went inside for breakfast. One of the most spectacular sights I've seen, anywhere.

Dawn view, right outside my room
 4. It's exhilaratingly cold. Cold enough for us to need thermals, beanies, gloves and down jackets every time we went outside - in October - not to mention waterproof jackets and pants because rain (or sleet, or snow) is always imminent.

The vegetation is stunted, alpine-style. There's year-round snow on the highest peaks. We might have been at the same latitude as London, 51 degrees, but in the southern hemisphere the Southern Ocean makes this a bleak part of the world - you're basically on a finger of land jutting out into it.

Grey Glacier coming down the valley
5. There's no shortage of ice. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, from which flow dozens of major glaciers, is the third largest ice mass in the world, after those in Antarctica and Greenland.

We did a boat trip one day to see Grey glacier and the wind screamed off it so violently we could barely stand on deck to take photos. But the crevasse-blues and jumbled terminal face were amazing to see up close.

6. Patagonia is named after a race of giants. Patagones (meaning "tall person") was the name Portuguese explorer Magellan gave to the Aonikenk people he encountered while exploring the South American coast in the 1520s, said to be twice as tall as they were.

A forest walk near Lake Grey
7. It's green. Besides icebergs and glaciers, Chilean Patagonia has incredible forests of Nothofagus, southern beech trees also found in Australia. In autumn (March-May) this part of Patagonia blazes with reds, oranges and yellows - a great time to come, particularly for photography.

8. Bruce Chatwin's epic turns 40 this year. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin sparked countless explorations and daydreams when it was published in 1977, partly because it's as much a meditation on nomadic life as it is an account of the six months Chatwin spent there (people knew how to travel then). It certainly inspired me when I was starting out as a writer, along with Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard.

A lone guanaco, native to Sth America
9. There's wildlife galore. Before we'd even arrived at the lodge on our first afternoon we saw an armadillo (an armadillo!) crossing the road like an armoured echidna. We also saw guanaco (like orange and white llamas) and condors, which have the second-largest wingspan after the wandering albatross. But no pumas, sadly, though there are lots in Torres del Paine National Park.

10. You can buy Patagonia-brand clothes there. It's disheartening that an outdoor brand is the first thing to come up now when you Google "Patagonia", but it's comforting to know that founder Yvon Chouinard named the company after climbing and surfing in Patagonia in 1968 (see my post 180 degrees of inspiration) and that Patagonia Inc has always been ahead of its time in terms of caring for the environment. And it's kind of cool that all the staff at explora Patagonia wear Patagonia gear.

Room with a stunning view
11. The best-ever view from a hotel. Looking like a ship that's run aground on the shore of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, explora Patagonia lodge is ideally situated for making the most of those views. For all its luxury, it's the kind of place where you can simply sit in an armchair pretending to read a book (while really looking at the view) or lie in bed, or a hot bath, listening to the rain pelting against the windows.

12. Hiking and horseriding. Every night before dinner an explora guide with a map would come over to chat with us and explain the next day's options, usually hikes and horserides with beret-wearing huasos (Chilean gauchos).

Horse and huaso (gaucho)
We'd be outside from 8am to 5pm, sometimes returning briefly to the lodge for lunch, taking in the landscape from different angles. Alas, there was no underwater angle this time: the lodge was perched on the edge of a gorgeous lake, but this is one place I didn't swim - it was just too cold.

I'll say one thing about short trips: they focus the mind so you make the most of every last second. Even as we drove away, I had my nose pressed to the window of the van trying to burn into my memory the vision of those mountains and how they looked for real, not in photos. It was also a preview trip, I decided, a way to know for sure that I'll do a multi-day hike there one day, soon I hope, or find some other way to stay in Patagonia for more than three magical days.

*

Big thanks to LATAM Airlines and Adventure World, which arranges tailored experiences all over the world, for this incredible experience. LATAM now flies non-stop from Melbourne to Santiago three times a week, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, see latam.com

Saturday, 21 October 2017

How to see Iceland without the crowds

My latest travel story for Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald was so well received I thought I'd share it here in case you (a) don't live in Australia or (b) didn't see last weekend's Herald.

Our ship was a time-capsule
back to pre-tourism Iceland
It's about the Lindblad Expeditions circumnavigation of Iceland I did in July (read my previous post about it here: 10 reasons to love Iceland) and the tourism boom that has seen 2.3 million visitors flocking to this island nation in the North Atlantic - why it happened, how Icelanders feel about it, how the country is changing and what's ahead.

It turns out that expedition cruising is a great way to sidestep the crowds at popular waterfalls, volcanoes and glaciers.

Here's an excerpt, and you can read the full story here: How to see Iceland without the crowds.

Iceland cometh
It's an overcast morning when our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, drops anchor in a quiet fjord in northwest Iceland. Those of us at the breakfast buffet peer out the windows at a world of stillness. 


One of the 10 milion North
Atlantic puffins in Iceland
While the crew readies a dozen inflatable kayaks, my shipmates and I dash to our cabins, throw on thermals, fleeces, waterproofs and lifejackets and head downstairs to the "mud room" where we're given EPIRB-like necklaces that remind us where we are: in a faraway corner of one of the world's wildest countries.

This is no follow-the-leader paddle. Instead we pair up, lower ourselves into two-person kayaks and push off into the view, free to go where we like.

At first my paddling partner and I drift, wowed my our surroundings: a U-shaped glacial valley, green walls curving upwards from sea level into a ceiling of low cloud, a speck of a farmhouse on the far shore. Behind us is the Greenland Sea, the water polished steel.

Then, movement: a North Atlantic puffin, a few silvery sand eels clamped in its harlequin beak, takes flight, red feet running on water, until, in a frenzy of flapping, it's airborne.

Watching it fly off into the empty landscape, I start to wonder: where are all the other tourists? 

Read on...

*