Thursday, 14 May 2015

10 (more) things I love about the Northern Rivers

It's been almost five months (five months!) since I pressed "pause" on my digital gypsy life and started an experiment called "living in one place". 

Love is in the air, and in the sand
(Main Beach, Byron)
So far, so good. In fact, the more time I spend in northern NSW, the more I love it. Which explains this follow-up to my Why I love the Northern Rivers post about 10 newly discovered things that warm my green heart:

1. Flicks at Federal. Once a month, Federal Film Society screens a movie in its little hall to raise money for the local school, Upper Coopers Creek primary. Last weekend, my friend Katie and I drove up from Lennox Head to see Almost Famous (one of my all-time favourite movies) and we were both blown away by this amazing local event. 

Parents ran the box office (tickets $8) and served home-made cakes and curries (for $12). Kids from the school (there are only 14 students) cleared the tables. We stood outside at intermission to look at the stars, and helped stack the plastic chairs when it was all over. It was one of the simplest, most enjoyable Saturday nights I can remember. (Federal also runs regular public discussions on global issues, called FedTalks.) 

Exit, stage left...
2. Sunsets and pelicans. One of my favourite things to do at the end of a sunny day is sit on the headland at Lennox and watch the sky put on its evening colours. In the daytime, I love seeing the pelicans perched on the lamp-posts, strutting along the sand or hanging with the fishermen on the beach.

3. Ballina airport. This might seem an odd thing to love but, well, I am a travel writer. I love that my nearest airport is a beachy 10-minute drive from my house, and that parking (right outside the terminal) costs $2 for TWO HOURS (if you can be bothered to buy a ticket). I even love the no-smoking signs outside, with their gentle “No one smokes here anymore.” 

4. Eating close to the source. The other night, while making dinner, I realised that everything I was about to eat had been grown or made locally: the pesticide-free Nimbin Valley brown rice, the organic tofu, the veggies I'd bought the day before at Byron farmers’ market, even the Rainforest Foods macadamia oil I was stir-frying it all in. I love that I can buy apples with the leaves still on them. I can even buy locally grown pineapples and avocados at Lennox Head petrol station. This whole volcanically rich area is a cornucopia of goodness. 

Mermaid sighting, Brunswick Heads
5. Surfing with wildlife. It's not uncommon in Australia to see dolphins while surfing. But up here, it's almost unusual NOT to see them. And there are so many! A few weeks ago, two friends and I surfed with about 40 dolphins that hung around for a couple of hours, lazily swimming up and down the beach and under our surfboards. I've also been seeing turtles, gannets and sea eagles and hordes of mullet (unsettling as they bring sharks close to shore). Soon the whales will be coming past on their way north. Can't wait. 

6. Fifty shades of, er,  soy? Sometimes, when you order a latte up here, your friendly barista will ask if you want “moo” (cow’s milk) – or skim, soy, rice, macadamia or almond milk (have I missed any?). I also recently discovered the sweet joy of a coconut mocha (a mocha coffee made with coconut milk); it’s like sipping a melted Bounty bar. Mmm.

Yes, let's. 
7. It's easy being green. I don't think I've heard the term "greenie" since I moved up here; around here, caring about your impact on the environment is called... normal. Of course there are issues, most notably luxury housing developments and coal seam gas mining (which resulted in Greens MP Tamara Smith winning the Ballina seat from the Nationals in the recent NSW election, for the first time in 27 years, yay!). But it's also a place where it's easy to eat organic, be vegan, go solar and see eco-movies like Frackman (now touring Australia), which got a standing ovation at the Byron Bay Film Festival. 

8. Road signs. In my previous post I mentioned that I love the hand-painted sign on the northern outskirts of Byron that says "Cheer up. Slow down. Chill out." Now there’s a contender, outside Mullumbimby - see left. 

Rachel Carson on
the cover of issue #2
9. Poet bookstore. Last week I discovered book-heaven in a side street of Bangalow, 15 minutes from Byron. Poet's antique bookshelves are filled with carefully chosen thought-provoking books. They also publish two beautiful, inspiring quarterly magazines, Womankind and New Philosopher, the likes of which I've never seen in Australia. 

10. Lots to learn. There are some very cool workshops and courses happening up here. My friend Teri goes to a regular "Mums and Bubs Permaculture" morning once a week in Mullum. Another friend (hi Liz!) just told me about an upcoming bamboo and banana-fibre workshop. 

Future No Impact Girl
And Byron Bay's newest eco-venture, The Farm, which opened in March and whose motto is "Grow. Feed. Educate", is running all sorts of earth-skills courses from beekeeping to permaculture to natural building through its partner organisation Milkwoodwhich also runs courses in Sydney and the NSW south coast, and has a fascinating blog about things like how to make a smokeless, upside-down campfire. Good to know, with winter coming... 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Turtle time - on Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef

It's hard not to love turtles. They're ancient, for one thing: sea turtles have been around for 120 million years, coexisting with dinosaurs until 60 million years ago. They're vulnerable: almost all seven species are endangered. They migrate enormous distances, and at about 40 years of age, the females return to lay their eggs on the very beach where they were once hatchlings.

Green turtle mama
They're the gentle monks (and nuns) of the sea - on Heron Island, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, a few weeks ago, I saw several green turtles quietly grazing, sleeping under rock ledges or swimming in the shallows, the embodiment of equanimity.

On previous trips to the island, I'd seen a multitude of nesting turtles hauling themselves up the beach at night to lay their ping-pong-ball eggs in the sand. But I'd never seen hatchlings. Until this trip.

One morning, at the completely wrong time of day (sunrise, instead of sunset, when they normally emerge, in near-darkness) my friend Matt and I came across an entire nest of hatchlings breaking free of the sand at once, clambering over each other, in golden morning light, no one else around.

Newborn courage
I stood right beside the sand nest for a few minutes (Matt was at the water's edge at first, defending a lone hatchling we'd seen moments before, from swooping seabirds) before I remembered to shoot some video, and I've just put together the footage into a short clip to show one turtle's journey from nest to sea. 

Watching and following a few to the water's edge I was struck by the fact that even in their first minutes of life, they have so much to contend with: sand craters and sticks to climb over and crawl under, silver gulls promising death from above. And they just. keep. going. Each one totally alone, every hatchling for itself. Their mother long gone (she'd laid these eggs two months earlier). Running on instinct. Wanting to live.

I give you: a minute and a half of turtle time. Enjoy. 

Read my first story from the trip on Travel There Next: 10 reasons to visit Heron Island. And big thanks to Heron Island Resort and Delaware North for this trip (which was part work, part prize for a travel writing award).

Monday, 30 March 2015

Why I love swimming - wherever I travel

My latest essay for Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald is about something close to my heart (like In praise of quiet travel, my previous essay): my love of swimming, something I never leave home without.

I can't help myself. No matter where I'm travelling to, I pack goggles, ear plugs and a swimsuit, just in case. You never know when, or where, you might find your next fix: water time.

The story ran last weekend - while I happened to be swimming with sea turtles off Heron Island (more on that soon) - with this sublime illustration (left) by Michael Mucci.

Here's an excerpt, and a link to the full story at the end of this post:

Wet, wet, wet
Have swimsuit, will travel. That's my mantra, finding windows of time and places to swim, no matter where I am, my semi-secret mission when I'm on the road.

It starts when I'm packing and I fall for swimming's minimalism all over again. Togs, goggles and I'm good to go. What other sporting equipment can be scrunched into a shoe in your suitcase?

Of course you need a pool, but I use the term loosely. Which brings me to the real reason I swim. It's not just that swimming is good, portable exercise and the best way I know to unfold one's limbs after a long-haul flight. It's this: nothing wakes you up to your surroundings and commits you to really being where you are like full-body contact with water.

Swim and you are literally, immediately, immersed in the landscape, particularly in natural places.

I've swum in mountain tarns surrounded by 3000-metre peaks and the grey-white tongues of glaciers in New Zealand. With so many tropical fish in Palawan, in the Philippines, it was like swimming in a free-range aquarium. I'll never forget my first dip in Tanzania after crossing sub-Saharan Africa on an overland truck: as soon as we rattled to a stop at the first beach we'd seen in two months, I sprinted into the sea's embrace like a long-missed lover.

Read the full story

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Beyond Earth Hour: the Earth Night experiment

With Earth Hour 2015 fast approaching - 10 sleeps to go! - I decided to revisit one of my favourite ways to extend the idea of turning off the lights for action on climate change.

Electricity-free in 2011
Four years ago, almost to the day, I had my first electricity-free night, an Earth Night so to speak. 

It became a weekly habit during my No Impact month, which began on Earth Hour 2011 and was inspired by No Impact Man Colin Beavan's one-year, no-environmental-impact experiment in New York City. (See Why "No Impact Girl"? for more on that.) 

For something so simple - spending one night, from sundown to bedtime, without any electric lights, devices or appliances - it was a revelation. 

"It was like camping, with comforts and your own bed," I raved the morning after in one of my first-ever blog posts. I loved that the house was silent but for the hum of the fridge. I loved playing Scrabble by candlelight. I loved the Wuthering Heights-like shadows that flickered on the walls when I carried candles from room to room like a Bronte sister.

Best of all, it was intensely calming, an island of quiet in an otherwise ordinary working week.

Christmas Island Earth Hour
Pic by Carla Grossetti
I was hooked. (What's the point of it, you might be wondering? Read this post: Candle power.) Then I lapsed. I kept celebrating Earth Hour: my most memorable one happened on tropical Christmas Island during a media trip when my fellow writers and I swam by candelight in a sea cave. Priceless.

The last time I did an electricity-free night was last northern summer when I had two whole weeks of them in an electricity-free cabin in Norway, although I use the term "night" loosely; it didn't get properly dark until 11pm. 

So I was long overdue for another. Last week, I ordered a box of beeswax candles, the world's most environmentally friendly candles, from Northern Light, based here in northern NSW. When they arrived, I picked a night and turned off the lights - or rather didn't turn them on when the sun set. 
"Night" in Norway

I didn't turn on the tv to watch the news. I turned off my phone, iPad, computer and Kindle - and tuned in. For the first time in a long time I was aware of the gathering darkness. The sounds of night coming. I lit a few candles, and peace descended. 

Everything looks more beautiful and more rustic by the honey glow of a few beeswax candles. I made dinner using the electric stove (I don't have a gas stove this time; at least my electricity comes from solar panels all over the roof) and ate by candlelight. I read an actual book and wrote with a pen and paper, went outside to look at the stars, carried a candle into the bathroom to brush my teeth. The night seemed long, in a good way. 

Just an ordinary Thursday night - suddenly made simple, spacious and timeless. It also reminded me how fortunate we are to have lights to turn off: 1.2 billion people on our planet live without electricity every night.

Earth Hour is a great start - it's on Saturday March 28 this year, 8.30-9.30pm wherever you are - an incredible social movement that started in Sydney and now connects hundreds of millions of people in more than 160 countries every year. Watch the video here.

But why not keep the candles burning? Have an electricity-free night once a month, do it solo or with someone you love, pack a picnic and dine under the stars or the streetlights or on the beach, have a moonlit swim, invite friends over for candlelit conversation... More ideas here.

Happy Earth Hour, everyone!