Thursday, 20 February 2020

After the bushfires: open for business, not business as usual

This week, for the first time this Australian summer, actually for the first time since September, the news is good: all bushfires burning in NSW have been contained, thanks to more than a week of drenching rain.

Blue Mtns on fire. Pic: City of Sydney
I've been wanting to write something about Australia's bushfire crisis for a while. And not wanting to.

So much has been written already, by great Australian writers Jackie French and Richard Flanagan, by former NSW Fire & Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins about why these fires are different. Even Wikipedia now has a page called the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, a good overview of what happened and where.

And I wasn't directly affected. I didn't have to evacuate, take shelter in a community centre, gather on a beach under a blood-red sky without power, listening to ABC news updates on someone's wind-up radio.

A canary in crisis
But, like everyone I know, I was affected in other ways. Like everyone, I was shocked and devastated at the speed, ferocity and extent of the fires, at the suffering and the loss of so many animals and wild places.

All along the east coast, our skies were smoky. Our media outlets were awash with fire news. Everyone had the Fires Near Me app on their phones, to get live updates on fires and road closures. We called and texted friends and family members, those who still had mobile reception or Wi-Fi, to check they were ok.

Kangaroo in flight
Pic: Matthew Abbott, NY Times
We heard words like "catastrophic" and "unprecedented" - some have called this Australia's "pyro-hydro-climate crisis" - and tried to take in the facts: more than 10 million hectares of land torched, 34 people and more than a billion animals killed (and that's just the mammals, birds and reptiles), endangered species driven to extinction, more than 2400 homes lost.

NASA estimated that these bushfires produced a massive 306 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, more than half of Australia's annual carbon emissions.

And the world looked on, alarmed. For good reason. This bushfire crisis was the planet holding humanity's head in its hands and saying, "Pay attention. This is your future if things do not change." And by things, it means everything.

Scorched south coast
South coast story
Last Sunday, I had a long talk with my friend Jane Darnell, who lives in Lake Tabourie on the NSW south coast, one of the areas hardest hit by the fires. Always a perceptive soul, she had an interesting take on how it was for her community.

When their town of about 700 people lost power, Wi-Fi and mobile reception, the house she shares with her partner Vince became a hub for neighbours and friends - because they have a landline phone, a gas oven and stove and, most importantly, a manual coffee-grinder. They even lent people cash until Eftpos and the ATMs were back in action.

"These fires have been enlightening on so many levels," Jane said. "They show where we're at as a society: you scratch the surface and the old Australia is still there in terms of the community bonds."

She told me of how the fire healed wounds between warring neighbours; two people who hadn't spoken in three years were reconciled when one helped save the other's house. "The fire burned away the detritus of everyday life," Jane said.

Wildlife feeding station
Pic: Jane Darnell
Now she's part of a group of dedicated locals walking the blackened forest leaving food for animals displaced by the fires: seed for native birds, fruit for the possums and bats, root vegetables for wombats and echidnas. "We're seeing wallabies again now. And the green [new growth on the trees] is creeping back. There is so much hope for us in seeing that green again."

Goodness blooms
Listening to Jane made me think of how far we've strayed from the simple life many of us seek and how a crisis can return us to it, connect us again with the earth and each other. Out of darkness, goodness blooms.

There's been a lot of love directed at bushfire-affected communities this summer. The Australian Red Cross received $140 million in donations. Comedian Celeste Barber and her celebrity pals raised a whopping $52 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service. Last weekend's Fire Fight Australia concert in Sydney raised almost $10 million.

Our heroes, the "firies"
The travel industry has been actively encouraging us to visit bushfire-affected regions that depend on summer tourism: the NSW south coast, the Blue Mountains near Sydney, the Snowy Mountains, East Gippsland in Victoria, and Kangaroo Island and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia.

Travel writers have been reassuring international travellers that it's safe to come to Australia; two of my writer mates, Sarah Reid and Lee Mylne, wrote about this for National Geographic and Frommers. And Traveller did a cover story about 50 ways tourists can help Australia recover.

#LoveNSW, yes I do
Tourism Australia recently launched its Holiday Here This Year campaign, encouraging Aussies to see their own backyard. There's also a more localised #LoveNSW campaign.

There are clever online initiatives like itsmyshout.com.au, emptyesky.com.au and buyfromthebush.com.au, and #spendwiththem and #bookthemout on Insta, helping regional communities get back on their economic feet.

And the new Road Trip for Good website is constantly updating which bushfire-affected spots, all over Australia, are open for business again and welcoming visitors.

Not business as usual
But "open for business" isn't the same as "business as usual" - and it can't be. Helping communities recover is just a first step. Doing all we can to reduce the likelihood of bushfires and other symptoms of the climate crisis is the next one. Another travel writer I know, Kate Hennessy, put it this way: "Donating money makes us feel better, but I'm not sure we should be feeling better."

There's action on this front too. The Black Leaf Project asks people send singed leaves and handfuls of ash to Members of Parliament to call for climate action. And MP Zali Steggall, in my old electorate of Manly in Sydney, will introduce Australia's first-ever Climate Act to Parliament on March 23 (sign here to support it).

Which brings me to why I think this blog post has taken me so long to write: I didn't want to just make a donation, sign a petition and get on with my life. I wanted to take meaningful action.

Tourism + climate action
I might live relatively simply and frugally at home, try to minimise my environmental impact in various ways. And I'm flying less than I used to, writing more stories from fewer trips. But flying internationally from Australia, even just a few times a year, makes my carbon contribution bigger than it should be.

Sometimes I use this guideline to check my impact: what would the planet be like if everyone did this? By that measure, I'm failing.

So I'm taking a leap.

Sydney's declaration last year
Pic: City of Sydney
You've probably heard about countries and local governments declaring a climate emergency - more than 1300 jurisdictions in 26 countries so far (including my local council, Ballina, late last year), representing 814 million people globally.

Well, travel has just stepped up, through a new initiative launched last month: Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. Since January 14, 68 travel companies, organisations and individuals have declared a climate emergency. And I'm going to join them.

It's more than a pledge to do the right thing. It requires developing a climate action plan, advocating for climate action, sharing your progress. I'll elaborate in a later blog post, once I take stock and decide what I can realistically commit to doing - and not doing - this year.

Already I've made a conscious decision not to fly anywhere for the first three months of this year and when I do take my first work trip for 2020 it'll be to New Zealand - a country that passed a bill last year to be "on the right side of history" by heading for zero emissions by 2050 - followed by a few no-fly domestic trips. But I know I can do more. And I will.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

2019: The year of sustainable thinking

Here we are again, at the end of another 365-day trip around the sun together, another year-long stay on the rooftop of our planetary hotel. It's an artificial, human-centric end, of course, but the eve of a "new" year is as good a time as any to stop, sit under a tree and check our internal compasses again.

A new dawn, in Turkey
Are we still on track? How far back was the last trail-marker? Sometimes it can feel as if we're adrift in an oceanic universe, without signposts to guide us. Most importantly, have we left the places we've been better than we found them?

It's been a big year, globally and personally, and I feel equal parts anxious and hopeful on this last day of 2019.

Anxious about the state of the world, including Australia, much of which is still in deep drought and on fire as I write this. Hopeful because good things are happening too, people power is growing - and Greta Thunberg was just named TIME magazine's Person of the Year. (Watching her "How dare you" speech to the UN was one of the most heart-wrenching moments of 2019.)

Greta the great, keeping it real
We still have a long way to go to turn this earth-ship around, but it's heartening that more of us are now talking about the climate crisis and finding new ways to live more sustainably.

Sustainable writing
One of the things I'm grateful for this year is that demand for sustainable travel stories has been at an all-time high, allowing my love of travel and my desire for a simpler, more sustainable life to make friends with each other.

2040, most inspiring book of 2019
I wrote about overtourism and 10 unsung destinations such as Jordan and Turkey and how to be an "untourist" in Venice. About "green lands", countries like Costa Rica and Bhutan that are doing good things for the planet; and 5 ways to avoid buying plastic bottles when you can't drink the tap water.

There were stories about sustainable moves airlines are making and what sustainable travel in 2020 and beyond looks like. I even interviewed 10 environmental advocates about where they go on holiday (and found out what they really think about flight-shame).

The power of seven
I also got to write more about tiny houses, which brings me to my last list for the year: seven low-impact highlights of 2019...

Tiny house #3 (pic by Unyoked)
1. My first tiny-house stay. After obsessing about tiny houses for the past couple of years, I finally got to sleep in four of them on a Goldilocks-esque tiny house tour of regional NSW and Victoria in February.

Officially, I was on assignment for Traveller to report on the new "tiny house stay" phenomenon - and to review all four tiny houses for this blog (starting with Edmond in the NSW Southern Highlands). But it was really a personal quest to experience tiny life first-hand, if only for a few days. The good news: climbing ladders to loft beds only fuelled my desire to live in a tiny house one day soon.

Beached in the Mergui islands
2. Low-impact trips. Changes in the travel industry have meant it's now easier than ever to build sustainable elements into my trips. So in addition to hiking Japan's little-known Tokaido trail in March and kayaking Myanmar's remote Mergui islands last month, I stayed in minimalist hotel rooms in Tokyo and Bangkok and did Intrepid's deliciously new vegan tour of northern Italy.

3. People power. At home, I got involved in more eco-events than usual, from tree-planting days in Lennox to Sustainable House Day, the Brisbane Eco Expo and, most inspiring of all, the Global Climate Strike in September.

I would have loved to have been one of the 80,000 people striking in Sydney or the 100,000 in Melbourne, but even at the relatively small Lismore strike it felt amazing to be part of the largest climate mobilisation in history. A record 7.6 million people protested for climate action across the world. Power to the people!

Butcher bird with a message
4. Finding peace. One of my favourite trips this year was an opportunity to review Eden Health Retreat in south-east Queensland. It came at just the right time; I'd been feeling burned-out (even travel writers get the blues) and Eden pressed "reset" on my life. It was the most nourishing week I've had in a long time.

Silk rug soft as butterfly wings
5. I won, I won! In October, while I was walking barefoot on Turkish rugs in Istanbul, I won the ASTW's Travel Writer of the Year award for the fifth time - which felt especially good after struggling with anxiety-depression a bit this year. And more goodness came when I got to celebrate with my travel mates at an ASTW lunch in Sydney earlier this month.

6. Singing therapy. Here's something you might not know about me: I like singing. Just for myself, or with a friend or two. But in July this year I stepped out of my introverted comfort zone and sang three songs with Mr No Impact Girl at a local open-mic night called Tintenbar Upfront. After a shaky start and cotton-wool-mouth nerves, it was a new kind of fun, but the biggest high came afterwards, just from taking the leap ("daring greatly" as Brene Brown would say; yes, I love her).

7. A month of simple Sundays. One of the things that brought me joy this year was creating and self-publishing this little book of mostly prose pieces I wrote on idle Sunday afternoons in the outdoors over the past couple of years.

Since launching it last month I've been bowled over by how well it has been received. From my local book store and art gallery both wanting to sell it, to friends ordering multiple copies to give to their friends, people have been genuinely touched by it, which warms my heart.

Barefoot, outside and ready to write
Part of that, I think, is because it's about the simple, grounding, peace-giving experience of being in nature - something we can all relate to. Something that's increasingly important in this anxious age we live in.

So my 2020 wish for you is that you get the chance to gather ordinary moments in nature this coming year, as many as your senses can carry, share them with others and hold them close. Because the more connected we feel to the planet, our living life-support system, the more motivated we are to act in its best interests.

Here's to a peaceful, plastic-free, low-carbon year for you all, wherever you happen to be. And, as always, thanks for reading and for doing all you do to live and travel more simply. Meet you back here in the new year, ok?

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Barefoot writing: "A month of simple Sundays", my new book

I'm excited to announce the quiet launch of a little project I've been working on: a new book, in fact, unlike any other I've written. It isn't about travel. It's not a guide. It's still non-fiction, sort of.

A month of simple Sundays is an accidental collection of 30 prose pieces (and a few poems) written on idle Sunday afternoons with a pen on paper outdoors, mostly while looking at the sea, for no one but me - until now.

It's illustrated by Melbourne-based artist Kia Maddock, who was living in northern NSW at the time and did many of the drawings in the places where I wrote the words. (I did a few of the drawings too.)

It might be a new book, but writing short pieces, by hand, is something I've been doing for a long time - at least since I was 12 when an uncle gave me my first diary and set me on the journal-writing path. I still believe there's something powerful about writing by hand. Part creative expression, part therapy, it grounds me and help me know how I am inside.

Sunset pandanus, one Sunday
It also helps me reconnect with where I am. Writing helps me get my bearings, recalibrate my internal compass, find my feet - which, when I'm writing like this, are usually shoeless and buried in the grass.

Here's a bit about the book:

"It started a few years ago. Whenever I was free on a Sunday afternoon, which was deliberately often, I'd set off with a small bag containing a notebook, a pen and maybe a thermos of tea, in search of a quiet natural spot to write. My intention was simple: to find my way back to what's real, by which I mean whatever is going on right now, in and around us, wherever we find ourselves. 

"One night on a whim, I read a few of these short pieces to someone I love and he loved them so much I thought I'd put them together into a little book for him. Then the idea grew and before I knew it I had this collection, a month of Sunday writings, lightly edited and presented in no particular order, all written during solitary sessions on windswept headlands in Sydney and on [Australia's] NSW north coast, where I now live."

Bare feet are happy feet
And a sample piece of Sunday writing:

"Bare feet listening to the drought-dry grass tell its survival story. Living things want to live, without having to know it. What wants to be written today, seen and listened to? The curled-up feeling not sure of its own name. The animal impatience wanting to not live corralled by schedules and deadlines. The angel-winged serenity letting go, letting go, wanting only peace, everywhere. The wind blows again and leaves only this fluttering on the page, a streamer of letters tossed into the air to mark the occasion, celebrate the fact that Look! I was witness to this window of time left ajar and everything I saw made me want to keep looking and to pick up the streamers and show them to you. Here, see what I saw?"

*

Paper daisy, wild and free
A month of simple Sundays is available here on the Blurb bookstore, where you can read a 15-page preview. More information on my Books page.

Inside us all is a creative light that wants to shine and be seen. Thanks so much for supporting mine by reading my writing here and elsewhere.


Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Travel Writer of the Year - again!

For the past three days I've been jumping up and down inside like Olive in Little Miss Sunshine, because on Saturday night I won the Australian Society of Travel Writers' most prestigious award: Travel Writer of the Year.

Aloft in Turkey - instead
 of attending awards night 
It's a big honour and feels so good to be recognised by my peers. Freelance travel writing can be a lonely art sometimes - most of the time we travel solo and there's all that solitary writing time - but moments like this remind me that I'm part of a wonderful community of writers and travel media people which has been my surrogate family for more than 20 years.

The awards are open only to members of the ASTW, i.e. only to professional travel writers, so there's some stiff competition. The other two finalists for this award were actually two of my friends; one of them, Catherine Marshall, won the award last year AND the year before.

I've won this award four times before myself, but the last time was in 2013 so I was pleasantly surprised just to be a finalist this year. I certainly didn't expect to win. I still can't really believe it.

It's judged on a portfolio of each writer's three best published stories for the year, so I thought I'd share the links to mine here, all published in Traveller, in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Tamang kids, Nepal
High hopes in the Himalayas: my Nepal cover story about a new 15-day trek run by Intrepid Travel to help people in the Langtang Valley recover from the devastating 2015 earthquakes.

The call of the high: an essay about why we climb mountains, seek out rooftop bars and choose window seats when we travel.

Kyushu's sacred mountain hike: a story about a 10-day walk I did late last year on the remote Kunisaki Peninsula in Kyushu with Walk Japan.

As fate - and an assignment from Traveller - would have it, I was in Turkey until yesterday and couldn't attend the ASTW awards night in Cairns last weekend. So the ASTW Committee asked me to send my acceptance speech by video. Here's the result (I'm better in print!), shot in a little antique shop and cafe in Istanbul where I'd stopped for a tiny cup of Turkish coffee:


Big thanks again to the ASTW and the judges and award sponsor Visit USA, and to everyone who sent lovely messages via Facebook, which made my brief layover in Singapore's Changi airport the best ever. And now that I'm home I can jump up and down on the outside too.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Tiny house review: Unyoked's Micah "hideout"

Tiny houses are the future. There, I said it. And not just for living in. Ever since tiny houses started colonising travel a few years ago, tiny low-impact weekenders have been sprouting up everywhere - and by "everywhere" I mean places so off-grid all your phone is good for is as a paperweight while trying to read a book outdoors.

Bed by Unyoked (and pic)
This post is about one of the "tiny house stay" pioneers - Micah, by Unyoked - and it's the final episode in my Goldilocks series reviewing four "tiny house stays" I experienced earlier this year.

(If you missed the others, they were: Edmond, just south of Sydney, Tallarook Tiny Home on the NSW south coast and Fred's Tiny House in Castlemaine, Victoria. And for more on the whole "tiny house stay" thing, see my tiny house travel story in Traveller.)

Unyoked origins
Tiny house stays officially arrived in Australia when twin brothers Cam and Chris Grant quit their corporate jobs in Sydney and set up Unyoked in 2016.

Cam & Chris in Unyoked country
Inspired by the sense of freedom and adventure they felt as kids when camping and hiking, they built the first architect-designed tiny houses for rent and put them on privately owned wilderness blocks a couple of hours from Sydney and Melbourne. But these weren't just escape hatches from modern life.

"It's not just about renting tiny houses," says Cam. "We want people, through our experience, to realise that sitting at a desk for eight to 10 hours a day, answering emails in bed and feeling guilty for taking that one trip at the end of the year isn't the way we have to live.

"I think collectively we're starting to realise that and more and more of us are looking to get back to simpler times, to reconnect with nature and get off-grid once in a while."

Country Victoria roads...
Meet Micah
Just getting to Micah, one of Unyoked's six tiny houses, felt like a small adventure, despite it being only an hour from Melbourne. Mr No Impact Girl and I drove along dirt roads under Simpsons-blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds, through five farm gates, past sheep and windmills.

Parking inside the last gate, we loaded our bags and an esky into a little black wagon, and trundled down the hill to where Micah sat - in a paddock ringed by gnarled old eucalypts beside the bone-dry Campaspe River. A few lonesome crows provided the outback soundtrack.

There she is! (Because like ships,
tinys are always girls)
One of the best things about the Unyoked experience is that there's no one to meet you when you arrive.

You probably won't see another human being during your stay, in fact (except the one you brought with you) or anything man-made.

This is why Unyoked calls its tiny houses "cabins" or "hideouts". As Cam Grant explains: "What we're trying to do is emulate the experience of hiking through a forest and finding your own cabin in the woods."

Micah's minimialist facade
Bed + moon
First impressions: Micah is the epitome of simple, basically an off-grid wooden box, on wheels cleverly concealed by stacked campfire-wood. It also has a flat roof instead of the storybook gable roof seen on most tiny houses.

Most different of all, there's no loft bed. Instead the queen bed is at waist-height, a signature Unyoked feature. Much as I love the cubbyhouse feeling of climbing a ladder to bed, I also loved this bed-couch-daybed. Plus it was flanked by two enormous picture windows that brought the outdoors in.

Happiness is a sunny bed
So you can curl up with a cup of tea or your favourite person, or both, and watch the wind dancing in the trees, the sheep grazing, those crows flying by.

In other words, you can be inside and still keep abreast of what's going on in the real world, i.e. outside.

Even after dark. That night, after an early dinner, we lounged in bed and watched the best show in town: the full moon rising from behind the nearest hill. The next morning we saw the sequel, also from bed: a spectacular sunrise.

(Since our stay, Unyoked has made their beds even more comfy with mattresses by Koala, which donates part of its profits to koala conservation, and In Bed natural bed linen.)

A cabin of wood + light
A Scandi-Japanese cabin
Beyond the bed, Micah's plywood interior gives it a cosy, cabin-y feeling, a nod to Unyoked's Scandi-Japan design ethos. There's plenty of natural light - from the sliding door, those two picture windows and another window over the sink.

I loved the minimalist kitchen with its camping-esque gas cooktop and white enamel plates, bowls and cups.

Wine supplied (for a price)
Micah had possibly the best reading matter of all the tinys I stayed in: a stack of Penguin paperbacks including Call of the Wild and Picnic at Hanging Rock (because Hanging Rock is just down the road), two cabin-themed photo books and a "Field Guide" full of need-to-know guest info.

Other thoughtful touches included: hot water bottles for cold nights, a couple of yoga mats, loose leaf tea and coffee beans - plus a grinder, a plunger and an aeropress coffee maker. And there were "provisions" (with price tags) such as wine and pancake kits.

The only bit I wasn't crazy about was Micah's bathroom. Everything necessary was there - composting toilet, hot shower, handbasin. It just looked like an afterthought, a sort of in-house outhouse.

Barefoot on prickly grass
The verdict
Micah's location and non-loft bed are its winning features and I love that Cam and Chris are thinking outside the hotel room box, curating experiences with a sense of fun and creativity.

Most importantly, they really deliver on the "unyoked" promise: helping you step away from the striving-working-busy vehicle and surrender to a slower way of being in the world, if only for a night or two.

*

Micah's sunset view
How to do it: Unyoked's six tiny houses - three near Sydney and three near Melbourne - are about to get 15 new siblings. Within the next 12 months there'll be three more each outside Sydney and Melbourne, the rest near Brisbane and Canberra, in northern NSW and in Tasmania. See unyoked.co

While you're there: Kyneton is cute as a button that's fallen off your favourite shirt. Only an hour's drive northwest of Melbourne, and situated in the beautiful Macedon Ranges, it's country and creative in equal measure. Loved The Town Roaster, a retro-style cafe with crazy-good coffee and sugar-free treats and The Hamster, for vegetarian fare. At Mineral Springs Park you can fill your bottles with mineral water, for free. Hanging Rock (of Peter Weir's "Picnic at" fame) is 10 minutes away. And on hot summer days you can cool off with a swim at two nearby waterfalls: Trentham and Turpin's.

Gratitude: Thanks to Unyoked for hosting us for a night at Micah. I can recommend their free weekly "Dispatches" too, creative emails bearing tiny-related news items like "why silence is good for your brain".