Friday, 8 July 2016

Why I love surfing in northern NSW

Sometimes the stars align and you get an assignment to write about something close to your heart. This happened recently when the editor of Jetstar's inflight magazine asked me to write about why I love surfing in northern NSW, my new home. 

Yours truly & friend
All pics by Nat McComas
You can read the published version here (with beautiful images by photographer Natalie McComas) or by flying with Jetstar anytime this month, or the uncut original version below. Either way, I hope this ode to surfing makes you want to commune with the sea in some way soon.

North Coast love affair

by Louise Southerden

The sand is warm under your feet as you pad along a short track flanked by banksia bushes and spinifex, surfboard under your arm. At the water’s edge, you keep going, paddling toward the just-risen sun. A wave washes over you, smoothing your bed-hair, waking you up and calming you at the same time, and after it passes the light sparkles through your wet eyelashes.

When you reach the lineup, a jagged line of surfers waiting for waves, you sit up on your board. It’s the best kind of peaceful out there. Exchanging good mornings with another surfer, you take in the beginnings of the day – big sky, ripples of sand below, gannets and terns wheeling overhead – and wait.

Waiting is a big part of surfing. They don’t tell you that when you’re learning. It’s also one of the best parts. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, sometimes, than on my board in the sea, in sunshine or rain, looking to the horizon, watching for the next bump of swell that might become a rideable wave. It’s peace and adventure, solitude and camaraderie all at once.


I learned to surf in Sydney in my early 20s, when I’d get up in the dark so that I could surf for an hour before catching the bus to work with wet hair. Surfing allowed me to live in a big city longer than I might have otherwise, by keeping me in daily touch with the natural world. 

One of my favourite drives up here
But a year and a half ago, after travelling and living overseas, I decided to drive north with my surfboard, a tent and not much else. I ended up just south of Byron Bay (it’s part of the surfers’ code not to get too specific about surf spots), for no good reason than that I had to stop moving and this place had a few nice waves.

There’s a lot for a surfer to love about the Northern Rivers. The water is warm all year round (who doesn’t love the freedom of wearing as little as possible in the sea?). This part of the east coast bulges eastwards more than anywhere else, copping swell from all directions. At the same time Cape Byron, mainland Australia’s most easterly point, shelters Byron’s north-facing bay, making for beginner-friendly surfing at Main Beach, Clarks and Wategos.

A glorious late autumn day
For experienced surfers, there are dozens of beaches and breaks between Yamba in the south and Tweed Heads on the NSW-Queensland border, many of which put this part of Australia on the surfing map in the 1960s and ‘70s, all facing different directions to ensure there’s almost always somewhere to surf in any wind and swell combination. And the three big rivers for which the area is named – the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed – make for great river-mouth breaks (though we know not to surf them alone or at dusk when “the man in the grey suit” might be around).

I love that surfing is a way into a community like this. One of the first surfers I met was Vic. When he told me he writes for The Lennox Wave, I asked if he’s a journalist. “Nah,” he said, “I’m a Gemini.” That’s so Northern Rivers, a place where a love of nature and a quirky world-view get along famously.

Morning sun, surfboards
and car park conversation
I’ve also met teachers, builders, paramedics and macadamia farmers, in the water and standing around in the car park afterwards, the sun on our faces, the Sunny Boys playing from someone’s car stereo, surfboards lying on the grass. Until I moved here, I'd forgotten that people still do this: hang out, shooting the sea breeze, with nowhere to rush to.

It’s not uncommon to surf with local legends up here too. Names like Bob McTavish and George Greenough and lesser known professors of the sea, all happy to reminisce about what it was like to surf the north coast in the uncrowded glory days, before there was even a sealed road between Byron and Lennox and everyone rode longboards (shortboards didn’t become popular until the late 1960s).

Me and my 9'4"
For the non-surfers reading this, there are basically two kinds of surfboards. Shortboards are lightweight, fast and about six feet long (surfers are passionately non-metric). On a longboard, which is at least nine foot, it’s all about the glide and, if you’re skilled enough, “hanging ten” (standing on the nose of your board).

If you squint a little to block out the beachfront holiday apartments, you can cross-step back in time, particularly because a lot of surfers around here, girls as well as guys, ride single-fin longboards (my board of choice is a 9’4” Gordon & Smith) or drive classic cars – or both; my friend Chris rides a 10-footer and drives a beautiful 1979 Kingswood stationwagon.

 Byron's legendary Pass 
On a practical level, I love not having to pay for parking (a local tip: an annual NSW National Parks permit gives you free parking at The Pass, in Byron) and being able to safely leave your surfboard on the roof of your car when you go for a post-surf coffee (I’d never have done that in Manly, on Sydney’s northern beaches). And thanks to the Northern Rivers cult of wellness, you can always find healthy post-surf snacks and organic, locally grown coffee; my favourite cafes are Macs and the Top Shop in Byron, Williamsburg and Marius in Lennox.

No story about surfing in northern NSW would be complete without mentioning the Zen masters of the sea. I’ve seen turtles, sea eagles, schools of tuna, even whales while surfing, but nothing beats being out there with dolphins, watching them swim under your board and catching the best waves, reminding you that surfing is, after all, play. You catch a wave and paddle right back to where you started. Over and over. Getting nowhere. Doing it for its own sake. And that’s more than enough.


No Impact Surfer Girl
A wave comes and you turn to face the beach, taking a few strokes to get in position and match its speed as it builds behind you, lifts you. Instinct takes over, your legs unfold as your board drops down the face and everything speeds up and slows down and nothing exists but the wall of green ahead and nothing matters but gliding along it, free as a seabird.

And when the ride ends, you paddle back toward the sun feeling refreshed and recalibrated, somehow, and smiling inside and out. This is what surfing is, a never-ending love affair with the sea.

[Big thanks to Nat McComas for the fun photo shoot and wonderful pics.]

Friday, 17 June 2016

Beyond ecotourism: The greening* of travel

How can travel make the world a better place? It's a big question. One that's close to my heart, and one I wrestle with every day while I try to balance two often-contradictory desires that rule my life: to tread lightly on the earth and to make a living doing what I love (writing about travel). 

Last week I found myself in like-minded company, with people who love the planet AND travel, at World Expeditions' second annual Responsible Travel Symposium.

Behind the grandiose name it was an interesting, uplifting evening (two actually: one in Melbourne, one in Sydney) where seven experts gave short updates on various aspects of responsible travel, from animal welfare to porter protection.

I learned a lot (see below), but the main take-home message was that travel has outgrown ecotourism. It's heartening to see that all aspects of travel and all sorts of travel companies are now moving in more environmentally, socially and culturally sustainable directions.

A few examples from last week's talkfest:

1. Animal-friendly tourism. The desire to see wildlife drives a quarter of the travel industry, according to Nicola Beynon from World Animal Protection. Unfortunately there's a lot of behind-the-scenes cruelty in wildlife tourism, and some animals (such as marine mammals) should never be in captivity.

The good news: More than 100 travel companies (including World Expeditions and Intrepid Travel) no longer offer elephant rides, there's a growing acceptance that culture is no excuse for cruelty (good riddance to bullfighting) and that the best way to see wild animals is in the wild, and there's a new Animal Welfare in Tourism Code of Conduct, developed by World Animal Protection and World Expeditions. 

What we can do: Read World Animal Protection's free, pocket-sized guide to animal-friendly travel before your next trip; and spread the word about the importance of animal-friendly travel. 

2. Gear changes. Travel gear has grown up too, particularly for adventure travellers. We've come a long way since the first polar fleeces were made from recycled PET bottles. David Lowson from Paddy Pallin talked about recycling programs such as Worn Wear (by Patagonia) and Clothes the Loop (The North Face), Fair Trade and Fair Labor certification, a coming-soon ethical wool standard and the Responsible Down Standard to abolish such practices as live plucking (apparently all down sold in Australia is now RDS certified, good to know). The latest developments are technological, such as Patagonia's new Yulex organic rubber wetsuits and Giro bike helmets made of recyclable and compostable materials.

What we can do: Buy less, stay informed and choose ethical products. "The consumer is in charge and all this only works if consumers are told the story and choose to buy the products," said David.

3. The peaceful traveller. Louis D'Amore, the aptly named founder of International Institute of Peace Through Tourism (IIPT), had a dream: that travel would become the world's first global peace industry. He wasn't there last week, but Gail Parsonage, president of IIPT (Australia) was.

What we can do: Check out IIPT's “Credo of the Peaceful Traveller” which includes a commitment to “journey with an open mind and gentle heart” and to “offer my hand in friendship to everyone I meet”. It’s not hard. In fact, as Gail said, “You're probably already an ambassador for peace and don't know it.”

A still from must-see doco, Sherpa
4. Porters protected. Sue Badyari, general manager of World Expeditions, spoke about the importance of protecting those who enable us to trek the world's wildest places, which seems particularly timely if you've seen Sherpa, an amazing doco filmed during the 2014 avalanche on Everest.

What we can do: Be aware of regulations if you’re trekking with porters – there are minimum age and load sizes, for instance, and porters are supposed to receive meals, accommodation and suitable gear when they’re working – and report any misdeeds. Download World Expeditions’ free Responsible Travel Guide for tips relating to travel in the Himalaya, the Andes and east Africa.

5. Flight-time. One of the biggest issues earth-loving travellers like me wrestle with is air travel. And for good reason. Flying accounts for 2-3 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, according to Melbourne-based Justin Pilgrim from carbon offset company Climate Friendly who nobly gave his talk in Sydney via Skype. 

If air travel were a country, Justin said, it would be the 7th most polluting in the world. And with 56,000 new aircraft due to take off in the next 25 years, its impact isn't going to decrease anytime soon.

The problem is that offsetting our flights doesn't take the emissions out of the air, it just compensates for those emissions by investing in renewables. Even Justin admits that offsets aren't the answer "they're just one part of the solution." Meanwhile, the aviation industry is reduce its emissions through operational, technological and other measures. So this one is still, er, up in the air.

What can we do? We can reduce our emissions by flying less (travelling by train and teleconferencing whenever possible, for instance), staying longer, having fewer stopovers (most emissions are generated on takeoff and landing) and making our travel worth the high environmental price we pay for it. “If we are going to fly, we can choose the kinds of places that enable us to have deeper connections with our planet and to appreciate its beauty and respect just how fragile life on earth really is," says Justin.

6. Picking up 10 pieces. “You can tell a lot about a country by the litter and how it changes over time,” says Lisa Vitaris from 10 Pieces, an organisation that encourages trekkers to pick up 10 pieces of litter a day when they travel. In Nepal, it’s mostly Mars Bar wrappers, she says, in Cameroon it's plastic whiskey shots (go figure). 

Litter wasn't a problem in countries like these when rubbish consisted of banana leaves and bamboo baskets; that changed when plastics were introduced. Here's Lisa explaining how 10 Pieces works: 

World Expeditions now runs 10 Pieces trips in Nepal, Bhutan and Indonesia, providing travellers with reusable bags (travellers bring gloves and hand sanitiser), and Lisa is hoping to get 10 Pieces onto all seven continents in the next 5-10 years. Meanwhile, World Expeditions is lobbying governments to increase waste disposal systems and working to change the culture around littering (by helping people understand that tourists don't like to see litter, for instance).

Plastic found on North Stradbroke
Island - pic by Michael Meadows
7. Leaving no trace. Mountaineering legend and Sea to Summit founder Tim Macartney-Snape, the last speaker of the night, talked about Leave No Trace, a non-profit that encourages people to enjoy the outdoors in ways that minimise their impact on the natural and cultural environments. To keep it simple, there are seven principles such as: leave what you find, reduce campfire impacts and respect wildlife.

Tim also talked about the custom-made portable incinerators used on the 10 Pieces (and other) trips to dispose of combustible plastics; most plastics, being made from hydrocarbons, reduce to carbon dioxide and water when burned properly (not PVC or polystyrene, of course).

To sum up: See wild animals in the wild, buy ethically made gear (when you need it), travel in peace, trek with companies that treat porters well, fly only when you have to, pick up litter wherever you are and follow Leave No Trace principles on all your outdoor adventures. Seven simple ways we can make the world a better place when we travel. 

* I'm not a fan of the word "green" but it is a handy shorthand for socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable anything, in this case travel.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Harry rides to Patagonia

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of nights at a lighthouse hostel just south of San Francisco. It had its own beach, though it was too cold and wild to swim, and at night I could lie in my bunk and listen to the North Pacific smashing itself against the cliffs outside.

One of the reasons I love staying at hostels when I travel (in Australia too) is that you never know who you're going to meet over your morning muesli.

All pics by Harry Allen
At Point Montara hostel, while I was checking-in, I met 52-year-old Harry Allen, from Canada. On seeing his fully laden bike leaning up against the wall outside, I asked him where he was headed. His one-word answer created Patagonian mountains and glaciers in my mind: "Ushuaia."

Naturally my curiosity pricked up its ears (I've never been to that part of the world) and started asking questions.

Turns out my new friend had left Vancouver a month earlier and was planning to spend a year riding to the southern tip of the Americas, the last stop before Antarctica.

There's a lot to love about Harry's expedition. It's the epitome of slow, low-impact travel (he's fuelled by the food he eats, not fossilised hydrocarbons). He's doing it for its own sake, for the adventure of it, not to break a record or prove anything or raise money for a cause, which keeps things simple. He certainly seemed content to just let the trip unfold and enjoy what each day brings. And he's funding his trip the old-fashioned way (no corporate sponsors to keep happy), with money he saved (remember saving?).

Two weeks later, when I emailed him for this post, I was home and Harry was... 800km further south, about to cross the border into Mexico.

You can follow Harry's expedition at

In the meantime, here are 10 questions I asked him about what it's like to ride from Vancouver to Ushuaia, so far:

Day 0: Vancouver
1. Where did the idea for this trip come from? 
Actually I think the idea of cycling to Ushuaia came to me when I was a child. Obviously I didn't know where Ushuaia was back then, but I can remember getting my first two-wheeled bicycle. It was just, freedom! I would cycle to the end of the block and back for hours. When I was old enough to cross the busy street by myself, I would ride as far as I could, exploring the neighbourhood and on the weekends and after school my friends and I would ride the trails alongside the river that ran through the city where I grew up. 

Ushuaia was a convenient choice. I didn't have to fly or travel anywhere to start the trip, just step outside my door, turn south and keep riding for 20,0000km or so. It's ultimately the end of the block!

2. Is this your first big cycling trip?
I did a 6-month cycling trip in Europe about 20 years ago, but other than that, I just rode my bike around Vancouver, where I live. I sometimes joke that this trip is a mid-life crisis of sorts. Maybe it is. 

3. What was the hardest thing about preparing for it? 
The most difficult part was trying not to plan at all. I became obsessed with other people's bike blogs and cycle touring videos on Vimeo. I would spend hours reading gear reviews and bike reviews. I stopped planning the day I came across a blog by a guy named Tom Allen (no relation). He said, "The best way to plan a bike trip is to not plan at all." Too many choices equals too much stress. 

4. What’s a typical day like for you now? 
I get up as early as possible (I start to lose my motivation for riding around 3pm, so the earlier I get started the more distance I can put behind me). Fire up the camp stove. A bowl of oatmeal, fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. Tear down the tent and load the bags onto the bike. I stop two or three times a day for a short break and a snack. I also stop to take photos. There's no shortage of scenery on this ride! 

I'll generally ride for 6 to 8 hrs a day, depending on the terrain. Mid to late afternoon, I'll stop riding, set up my tent, eat dinner (always pasta and sauce), read for an hour and listen to music then it's off to bed around 8pm. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The California coast
5. You're travelling so simply, what have you learned about what you really need? 
Travelling by bike, like hiking, is definitely simple; you're pretty much self-contained, self-supported. I've met a few cyclists along the way, older guys, who actually live on their bicycles; all they have is what they carry on their bikes. I'm not quite as streamlined. For one thing, I have about 4.5kg of cameras, hard drives and a laptop. Equipment that I could do without, but I want to document the trip as well as I can. But other than that, what I'm carrying is what I'll live with for the next year. I don't even carry a coffee pot; Starbucks or an independent coffee shop works for me.

6.  What do you love about travelling like this? 
There are so many things I love about travelling by bicycle, but one of the big ones is the health aspect. My diet has improved 100 per cent since I started this trip. No more processed food; everything I buy at the grocery store, aside from oatmeal and pasta, has to be consumed within a day or two. No more Friday night Chinese takeaway binges (although I have had McDonalds a couple of times). 

7. What have some of the highlights been so far? 
There are so many! All of the wonderful people I have met: people in campgrounds or RVs inviting me in for dinner, locals giving me advice on which road has the least elevation gain, other cyclists and hearing their stories, travellers at youth hostels with great stories to tell and travel tips. 

I also love the speed at which I am travelling; the horizon unfolds much more slowly for me [than if I were driving] and I have more time to see, hear and smell what's around me. I’ve seen whales breaching off the coast. Foxes with their dinner hanging from their mouth as they scurry across the road. Herds of elk. Rabbits, birds of prey. The ride along the Big Sur coast [in California] has to be the biggest highlight so far. Huge elevation gains and losses and dramatic views around every turn. Unforgettable!

Bike + beach
8. What’s the hardest thing about it? 
There’s nothing really difficult about it. The first hour of riding is not very pleasant physically, but after that my muscles warm up and I get into a rhythm and everything is good in the world.

9. What has surprised you? 
The fact that every day I feel more and more motivated to ride. Even if I'm riding through an industrial setting like parts of Los Angeles or if it's pouring rain like the first seven days. It’s a curiosity thing. What's around the next corner?

10. What are you most looking forward to? 
Ultimately my final destination, Ushuaia. But until then I look forward to each new country that I enter. South America is a whole new continent for me, so exciting! 


Big thanks for the inspiration, Harry. I wish you tailwinds and friendly faces all the way to the end of the world.

Postscript, 16 July 2016: Harry emailed me a few days ago to say that he's in Mexico -- and has decided stopped riding. The heat was too intense, he said, "like doing a spin class in a hot yoga room for 8 hours." So the ride is over, he's flying back to Vancouver and going back to work. But who knows, maybe there'll be a Part 2 to this Vancouver-Ushuaia adventure somewhere down the road...

Monday, 9 May 2016

8 ways to save the bees (and why they need saving)

One of the things I love about writing for a living is that it gives me an excuse to find out about stuff and a way to share what I've learned with others and hopefully spark conversations and changes. That's how I came to write about bees for the latest issue of WellBeing magazine (issue #162). 

Drone honeybee, pic by Flow
Like most people, I knew that bees are in trouble worldwide. But I wanted to find out why, how bad is it in Australia and why do we need bees? 

All super interesting, but the highlight was meeting three passionate beekeepers (is there any other kind?) in northern NSW, where I live, who have been thinking outside the hive to come up with three innovative ways to save the bees. You can read all about it in Where are all the bees? (a link to the full story). 

Something else I learned from the beekeepers I talked to: what we can all do to help. These tips are in the story too, but I've expanded on them and wanted to share them here too to spread the word further, and for easy reference. 

Most are simple things, some take a bit of planning, but all of them put us back in touch with nature and remind us that we're all connected, even when we forget that. Go the bees!

1. Buy organic. By supporting pesticide-free farming, you’re supporting healthy bees free of the effects of neonics, aka neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides toxic to bees in a multitude of ways. You'll be helping the earth and improving your own health and wellbeing too. You can also support pesticide-free food by shopping at farmers' markets and talking to the people who grow your food (e.g. some can't afford organic certification but don't use pesticides or artificial fertilisers).

Bees love cut flowers too
2. Make your garden bee-friendly (even if you live in an apartment). By planting wildflowers, in fact any flowers, herbs and vegetables - just make sure you use organic seeds (almost all other seeds are neonic-coated). You can find bee-friendly seed packs at Eden Seeds and Melbourne City Rooftop HoneyHappy Flame, which makes beautiful organic beeswax candles, also gives its online customers free organic seed packs. 

Other ways to have a bee-friendly garden: let parts of your garden go wild, mow less often and use only natural pesticides such as neem oil.

3. Get bee-wise. Watch docos such as More than Honey (2012), Queen of the Sun (2010) and The Vanishing of the Bees (2009) and TED talks such as No Bees, No Food by John Miller (2014) and Why Bees are Disappearing by Marla Spivak (2013). Some of these movies you can watch online, or through Netflix. Or think bigger and host a community screening in your local cinema or town hall. 

4. Avoid household insecticides. This is a big one. Even flea treatments for your pets contain bee-toxic neonics. Use natural insecticides around your home, such as citronella or neem oil, or make your own (the simplest is 30ml of biodegradable soap in a litre of water, with optional extras such as garlic and onion and oils such as tea tree or eucalyptus for fragrance). And "live and let live" a little. A screen door is a better way to cope with mosquitoes than nuking them with harmful chemicals.

Happy Flame's beeswax candles
5. Support your local beekeepers. Beekeepers do it tough in Australia, which makes them dependent on pollination work to make a living, which puts their bees at risk (learn how here). 

You can help by buying local honey (which can also reduce the effects of hay fever, apparently), organic beeswax candles (my two favourites are Northern Light and Happy Flame) and beeswax-based products such as Burt’s Bees lip balm. 

6. Support a government ban on neonics in Australia. Don’t just sign a petition, write to your local MP and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and spread the word on social media to get others to do the same. 

7. Learn how to be a backyard beekeeper. The world needs more bees, but it's a good idea to get some training before you buy a hive. Crowdfunding sensation Flow Hive has a new kind of hive that makes collecting honey safer for bees and easier for humans, and training videos to help you get started. Milkwood runs natural beekeeping courses in Sydney and beyond. The Australian Native Bee Company can teach you how to keep native bees anywhere on the east coast north of Bega.

8. Support bee-friendly businesses. Such as: Humble B, a new eco-cleaning company that uses only ethical, earth-friendly products and gives 50 per cent of its profits to local environmental and community projects. You can also learn to make your own eco-friendly cleaning products; I went to a fantastic green-cleaning workshop run by Self Seed a few weeks ago, and they have lots of recipes and tips on their website.

That's a (beeswax) wrap
Let me know if you think of other ways. I've just started using reusable, washable beeswax food wraps made by Byron-based Honeybee Wrap - for wrapping sandwiches and leftovers instead of plastic cling wrap - with the happy side-effect of reducing plastic use and waste. The learning journey never ends.