Monday 12 December 2011

Lions in Sydney

It's not every day you get to see lions in the middle of Sydney. A couple of nights ago, I saw two. Ok, so they weren't roaming the streets like in I Am Legend (the movie) eyeing commuters hurrying home in the rain for their next meal.

They were 8-week-old lion cubs on loan from Darling Downs Zoo in Queensland to promote new big cat conservation trips in Botswana and South Africa.

They certainly drew a crowd (limited to 50 people) and they were adorable. All fluff, spots and big blue eyes. See what I mean?

They were also wonderful (albeit unknowing) ambassadors for these new trips run by World Expeditions and led by Nat Geo Wild presenter, wildlife expert Ben Britton. (Ben is also director of Wild Animal Encounters, which brings wild animals to events to promote conservation.) Trips involve travellers helping to put GPS tracking collars on wild lions and leopards in Mashatu Game Reserve, getting closer than you would on safari, and staying in a tented camp at night.

Sounds good to me. Have you ever had any urban wildlife encounters?

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Madagascar musings

Hello again, or “Salama” as they say in Madagascar. I just got back from two weeks there, on assignment, hiking and canoeing, and it has blown me away, on several levels. I travelled alone – just me and my Malagasy guide and four porters (for the hike), two of whom became our canoeists (for four days) on the Manambolo River. Never heard of it? Not many people have. 

Avenue of Baobabs, Morondava
I certainly didn’t see any other tourists. I felt like Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen – without the gin-swilling Humphrey Bogart and the sweaty romance. Not that it wasn't hot. Oh boy was it hot. And it was the start of the rainy season. Humidity, anyone? Another reason I felt like Ms Hepburn (I had to cover up against the sun).

Western Madagascar, where I was, is wilder than I expected, out of reach of the "modern" world. There aren’t too many places you can go these days where you can take a photo of someone, show it to them on the screen on the back of your camera and get a reaction – there, you do, every time. I wish I'd taken a Polaroid camera (for the record, I've made prints to send to the people I met along the way, via my guide). 

On an eco level, western Madagascar is more deforested than the east. Fire is a part of life here. The Sakalava people who live in this part of the country have no choice but to burn forests to create fields to grow food; when the fields become barren after a couple of years, they move on, burn fresh forest. Consequently the 70-odd species of lemurs in the country are all either threatened or endangered.

Decken's sifaka (type of lemur)
This part of the country doesn’t look anything like Madagascar the animated movie – it’s not lush and filled with wild and strange animals. We did actually see lemurs, chameleons, even Nile crocodiles. We also saw massive erosion and people living back-breakingly hard lives, hazy skies that make the sun burn red when it rises and sets.

But it was beautiful - especially the eerily still and peaceful Avenue of Baobabs at sunset. There were tourists there, but everyone was quiet, waiting for the light to pink the trees. And the baobabs waited too, having outlasted all the other trees around them - they don't burn because their trunks are filled with water, and they're of no use to the local people. Their chief purpose now, it seems, is to just grow, and be beautiful. What more can we ask of any tree?

I'm home now and hoping to blog here more often over the next couple of months; stay tuned. Happy summer.

Monday 31 October 2011

Read all about it

If you've been riding the No Impact Girl train since earlier this year, you might remember that the inspiration for this blog came from No Impact Man, the amazing Colin Beavan, who lived for a year in New York City without any net environmental impact (see How it happened above).

No Impact Girl's mission was to live for a month (which seemed more manageable than a year) without less environmental impact than her (my) regular life.

Of course this was just the beginning, but as well as blogging about it, I wrote a feature article about this experience for Australian health and lifestyle magazine WellBeing. The story has just been published and you can read it (paper-free!) here.

(Also in that issue of WellBeing is another story of mine, on sustainable trekking in Nepal, which involves staying at a string of new community-built eco lodges instead of tea houses.) I'm not meaning to blow my own trumpet you understand, just spreading the word about a great responsible-travel-oriented trek...

Monday 24 October 2011

Mustang moments

I’m in limbo. Just returned from a trek in a remote region of Nepal called Mustang, once the Kingdom of Mustang (there is still a king, whom we met for tea one afternoon). And I'm about to go away again. So I'm in-between and out of sorts. Coming AND going. Washing and re-packing. Longing and looking forward, and trying to be here too – by surfing, swimming in the sea, pegging clothes on the line...Still, I miss the simplicity of being “away” too.

This two-week World Expeditions trek was one of those stripped-down, pared-back experiences I so love. Upper Mustang, where we were, has only been open to trekkers since 1992 and access is still restricted (our permits cost $US500pp for 10 days), partly because of its proximity to Tibet. Tibetans fled across the border into Mustang after the 1959 Chinese invasion, the pro-Tibet resistance movement based itself here for many years and it's still more Tibetan than Nepali.

That’s one layer of the place. Another is its incredible landscapes. Wind-carved ranges, snow-capped peaks and valleys where tiny villages nestle. 

Only about 5000 people live in Upper Mustang and everything man-made comes from the earth anyway: mud-brick houses, thick wooden doors, monasteries painted with clay, stone walls against the fierce winds.

Mules carried our kit-bags and we had a crew of Nepali cooks and sherpas. So all we had to do was walk (with daypacks) - up and down and up again (it is Nepal after all), climbing to 4000-metre passes, descending to rivers, stopping to look inside dark, incense-choked monasteries.

I like the fact that, on trips like this, you're just in one place, with a relatively small group of people to interact with. You do one thing at a time, take one step at a time. My only distraction was a copy of Wuthering Heights (!) that I read by the light of my head-torch at bedtime.

My mind calmed down, my body became stronger. After a few days, I even stopped looking forward to reaching the next pass or the next village, started just enjoying the walking, tough though some of it was. 

And every time I lifted my eyes, there was an open, earthy spectacle. It was like being at sea, only with more dust.

One day I stopped to pee (with a view!); my fellow trekkers went on ahead and out of sight, others behind me had not yet caught up. I looked around. There were no villages. No prayer flags or chortens. I was absolutely alone, in spacious solitude. 

Back in the big city now, I'm wary of romanticising Mustang; for those who live there, life is desperately hard. Most people spend winters in Kathmandu or Pokhara; it's just too bleak and cold to stay. But for those of us privileged to come, and go, it's one of those places that takes you out of your world and into another. 

So I pore over my photos and show them to friends. See, I want to say, this is what I mean...Until I can go away and be simple all over again...

Saturday 17 September 2011

Can camping be no-impact?

Dolphins, dingoes and downpours. That’s how last week's camping trip started. But by Friday evening (we arrived Thursday) the skies had cleared and we surfed until sunset with a pod of dolphins.

Somewhere on the Australian coast
It was a much-needed time-out, four days off for no impact girl (and boy) at a spot on the NSW coast that shall remain nameless here because, well, it’s a favourite of mine. 

It never seems to change, has uncrowded waves and you can pitch your tent so close to the beach you can see the surf from your sleeping bag.

I love the simplicity of camping and surfing, how well they go together. They’re both minimalist at heart, involve connecting to the elements and slow life down from a rush to an amble. 

The only writing I did while away
It was great to go to bed early and wake up before sunrise. To see dingoes trotting through the campground and ospreys and eagles overhead. To time our surf sessions with the tides and swell, not our own schedules. To watch the moon rise and travel halfway across the sky while we cooked and ate our dinner. 

One night, toasting marshmallows over the campfire (surely one of the est things about camping), we got to talking about the eco-impact of camping. 

On the plus side: We weren’t using any electricity (except in the toilet block – and we could have used our head torches just as easily). There was no mobile reception, let alone wifi for the laptops we didn't have. We didn’t even wear watches. We used a Trangia stove that runs on methylated spirits, a renewable resource (it’s made from sugar cane). We didn’t have a generator or use any refrigeration (just an esky filled with ice-bricks from our freezer at home). We didn’t buy newspapers or even go into any shops – which were 20 minutes away by car. 

Hammock time
We used less water and fewer detergents than usual (we rinsed off under a cold outdoor shower after surfing, washed our dishes in cold water). Everything we did was essentially low-impact: surfing, walking, reading in hammocks, playing chess, yoga. One day we found plastic bottles, thongs and pieces of polystyrene amongst the driftwood on a beach, and spent a cheerful hour picking up as much as we could, filling two large sacks with rubbish.

Shells collected (and returned later)
There were impacts, of course. We had to drive to get there: 900km including side-trips on the way there and back (though I offset my car’s emissions with Greenfleet). We had a campfire every night which, of course, releases carbon dioxide into the air. We couldn’t compost food scraps as we do at home. The only recycling facilities available took glass and plastic but not paper or cardboard (we did bring some recycling home with us). We bought more food with packaging than usual, for convenience and because we couldn’t keep food as long without refrigeration (though we did use reusable clip-seal bags). 

As well as the Trangia stove, we had a gas stove that runs on non-recyclable butane cylinders. And we had to buy a 10L plastic container to BYO drinking water (a giant plastic water bottle!) – though on our last day we found we could boil water from the rainwater tank at the toilet block.

Natural beauty
See what having a no-impact project does to you? You see everything through a no-impact lens, think about things a bit too much, but hopefully become more conscious for it.

I’d like to do a real no-impact camping trip sometime, but until then I've decided the benefits of camping outweigh the (small) eco-costs, by reminding us to live with less stuff and more nature-time.

Do you have any low-impact camping tips?

Monday 29 August 2011

Every day is Dolphin Day

It’s shocking, compelling, distressing, inspiring. I watched The Cove again last night, an impassioned plea to stop dolphins being killed in Japan, and had to write something here, if only to urge those of you who haven’t seen this film to see it. 

It’s part doco, part adventure story about a group of American activists, film makers and free divers, led by reformed and repentant dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry (who trained Flipper for the 1960s TV series), on a stealth mission to capture footage of an annual dolphin slaughter in a secluded cove in Japan.

Having studied zoology, I don’t go in for anthropomorphising animals, but I've also surfed with dolphins on the Australian coast, swum with 300 dolphins in New Zealand and watched them from boats all over the world, and find it hard not to feel a connection with them, and all cetaceans. Besides, O’Barry’s arguments against keeping dolphins in captivity are compelling. In the wild, they can travel 60 kilometres a day, he says. They’re also acoustic creatures – when we’re in the water with them, they can see right through us, see our hearts beating. Their sensitivity to sound makes confinement especially stressful.

O’Barry is making amends for his complicity in training dolphins, by being an activist and bringing to the world's attention what is happening in this cove. 

This is what is happening: up to a dozen fishing boats go offshore from Taiji (in south-east Japan, south of Tokyo) and bang on the ends of long metal poles they put into the water, herding passing dolphins into a nearby bay and trapping them behind nets. Dolphin trainers come here from all over the world to choose wild dolphins for their sea worlds and marine parks, paying up to $US300,000 per animal. The film says Taiji is the world’s largest supplier of dolphins to marine parks.

(As an aside: apparently many dolphinariums protested at the film’s portrayal of their role in the Taiji hunt and in the US it has been illegal since 1993 to import dolphins caught through drives such as the one at Taiji, but the fact remains that marine parks are keeping dolphins in captivity for the amusement of our species.)

The remaining dolphins are herded into a cove, out of sight of the road and any onlookers, where they are speared, knifed and harpooned by men in open boats. All the dolphins are killed, and the meat sold all over Japan. “It’s the largest slaughter of dolphins on the planet,” says O’Barry.

About 23,000 dolphins are killed at Taiji between September and March every year. It's about to start again, on 1 September. What can we do? 
  • Watch The Cove (it's on DVD). Directed by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos it has won more than 20 awards including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. The film doesn’t demonise Japanese people and in fact a Japanese activist group called People Concerned for the Ocean distributed free DVD copies of the film to Taiji’s 3500 residents in March this year.
  • Visit for ideas on what to do
  • Find out more at SaveJapanDolphins, which has a comprehensive FAQ about Taiji
  • Sign a petition to help stop the dolphin slaughter
  • Don’t go to dolphin shows at zoos; if demand dries up, zoos will stop keeping dolphins.
  • Join Surfers for Cetaceans
  • Using your iPad or smartphone, recreate the scene from The Cove where Ric wears a screen showing footage of the Taiji dolphin hunt at an International Whaling Commission meeting. See this link for images and video. 
  • Celebrate Japan Dolphins Day on 1 September, and remember that every day is dolphin day. May they swim in peace...

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Nature + night

Last night I did something I’ve never done before: I joined a bunch of women to go trek-training at Balmoral (Sydney). It was a mild winter’s night, you could see stars between the clouds and we spent two hours beach-walking, hill-climbing and bushwalking in the dark, with head torches, led by the fearless and super-friendly Di Westaway, who runs Wild Women on Top training sessions for female trekkers. Di also has a new book, How to Prepare for World Class Treks, which has all sorts of tips and wisdom specifically for women, on how to train for and tackle treks all over the world.

Everyone was there last night for different reasons; I’m training for a trek in Nepal next month, some are preparing to climb Kilimanjaro or Aconcagua, others are doing the gruelling 48-hour Oxfam Trailwalker next weekend - which, incidentally, has a host of "tread lightly" guidelines for the 100km Hawkesbury to Sydney Harbour trek. (I love learning about events like this.) 

It was beautiful to be outside at night – walking past warmly lit houses, and not missing being inside at all. There was chatting and laughing. It felt like a little adventure in the big city. 

Of course it was too dark for photos so I’ll include a couple from a daytime bush walk I did last weekend. The wildflowers are out, and some other flowers too (jasmine is surely the scent of spring).

There's a lot of talk about saving energy, but it feels great to expend some (non-harming) human energy now and then, at night, in a natural place. It's the way of the no-impact warrior (princess).

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Let there be candle light

It’s winter, it’s getting dark early and that’s a good excuse to burn candles – beeswax* of course, and made by Northern Light. Love my new Northern Light beeswax candles. I ordered them online, and a couple of days later a little box of goodness arrived on my doorstep. It’s incredible the lengths these people go to, to be sustainable. The packaging is all post-consumer waste paper, printed with soy-based inks, the boxes are designed to be folded so there’s no need for toxic glue, and they’re sealed with paper tape.

Inside, I found a little hand-written note (on recycled paper of course) welcoming me as a new customer, and a very welcome gift: a “Calmer Light” poured and packed by Carmelite nuns with a message on the bottom that you can only read when the candle has been burning long enough to make the wax transparent: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly”. See what I mean? The candles themselves exude a sweet, honey scent and a golden glow. 

Northern Light’s commitment to sustainable manufacture is impressive, to say the least. For instance: the wax is melted using a heater that runs on macadamia nut shells instead of electricity, rainwater is used instead of chlorinated town water and the studio (it can hardly be called a “factory” situated as it is in the lush hinterland of northern NSW) is designed to maximise natural light, wind and rainwater for heating and cooling. 

The wax-melting room even has a glass roof, to reduce the power required to keep the wax molten (it can get up to 50ÂșC in there in summer), thereby cutting carbon emissions. Naturally, all their candles are made using organically certified, Australian beeswax – “the cleanest, purest beeswax you can buy” – and cotton wicks.

The man behind all this sustainable candle-making is Jeffrey Gibbs, who has been involved in beekeeping for over 30 years. I called Jeffrey this afternoon with a few practical questions – like: what can you do with leftover beeswax, and are the tin wick-stands recyclable? – which he was happy to answer (see below, and yes) before the conversation veered onto more esoteric subjects. “There’s nothing better in the world than living with peace in your heart and doing something you love,” he said at one point. It was a breath of fresh, Byron Bay air in my Sydney afternoon.

Northern Light made the world’s first beeswax tealights, in 1992, and were also the first to put tealights into reusable, recycled Australian tin cups, instead of the throwaway aluminium cups that come with most tealights. Now they're the world’s largest producer of beeswax candles, making 650-700,000 tealights a year, with just seven staff. 

Their candles have lit up post-tsunami Japan, Ferrari family functions in Italy, Rae’s on Watego’s (a luxury lodge at Byron Bay), even the Vatican; 25,000 Northern Light candles illuminated the Pope’s World Youth Day event in Sydney in 2008.

Here are 7 more beeswax-related things I learned today:
1. Before World War I, bumble bees were called “humble bees”; even Charles Darwin called them that in The Origin of Species, in 1859.

2. Australian native bees don’t produce much wax, traditionally used to make the mouthpieces of didgeridoos in northern Australia. Northern Light’s bees are Italian.

3. The average worker bee has a lifespan of 4-5 weeks. 

4. Beeswax is the cap that seals the honeycomb chamber in which bees put their honey. Sealed like this, honey can last for 1000 years.

5. Candle-makers were once called "chandlers". 

6. Tealight wicks have 24-strand wicks; large cathedral candles have 96-strand wicks (and you thought thread-counts were just for bed linen).

7. Leftover beeswax can be melted, strained through a cloth bag and scented with tea tree oil to make a waterproof shoe polish. Who knew?

Thank you, Northern Light, and thank you, bees.

*Beeswax candles, for the uninitiated, are the only non-polluting, good-for-you-and-the-environment candle. They’re better than paraffin candles (which emit, cough splutter, toxic fumes because they’re made from petroleum), better than palm oil candles (which are causing deforestation on a massive scale in places like Indonesia and Borneo, the last bastions of the endangered orangutan and Sumatran tiger) and better than soy candles (the soy is often genetically modified and has to be converted into a wax which is energy intensive and involves adding all sorts of nasties).

Friday 29 July 2011

History's greatest traveller

Sorry to have been absent from this page for a bit. I've just spent the last few weeks under a rather large deadline and have only just emerged, blinking, into the light again. The no-impact project is still part of my life, just not quite as intensely as before, because, well, it’s winter and I’ve been at home (except for a brief stint in the tropical Cook Islands).

Sure, Sydney’s winters are balmy compared to many in the world, but I confess to consuming more (albeit offset) electricity these days, what with the short days, cold nights (hello, oil heater) and the necessity of hot chocolates and toasted sandwiches and soups and endless cups of tea. Bring on spring…

But that’s not what I wanted to blog about today. I want to rave about an incredible book – A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts – about an incredible traveller, a blind traveller. James Holman (1786-1857) was, as Roberts writes, “the quintessential world explorer: a dashing mix of discipline, recklessness and accomplishment…In an era when the blind were routinely warehoused in asylums, Holman could be found studying medicine in Edinburgh, fighting the slave trade in Africa…hunting rogue elephants in Ceylon, and surviving a frozen captivity in Siberia”. Charles Darwin even cited him as an authority on the fauna of the Indian Ocean, in The Voyage of the Beagle.

By October 1846, the Blind Traveller, as he became known, had clocked up a quarter of a million miles, more than any other person had travelled, ever, and in an age when steam-powered vehicles were more of a novelty than a practicality. There’s no record of him having taken any trains, says Roberts. Holman travelled the old-fashioned way: “on foot and on horseback, in whatever passed for a carriage or a cart, and in vessels driven only by the wind”. 

He “could claim a thorough acquaintance with every inhabited continent, and direct contact with at least two hundred distinctly separate cultures…Alone, sightless, with no prior command of native languages and with only a wisp of funds, he had forged a path equivalent to wandering to the moon.”

Being a travel-lover myself, what amazes me most is how Holman managed to get around and to thrive on the unpredictability and newness of journeys to far-flung lands. Apparently he used the sound of his walking cane and his shoes, and his horses’ hooves, on cobbled streets to get a sense of his surroundings – a “human echolocation” technique now being used by other intrepid people (many keen mountain bikers and hikers) who also happen to be sightless, thanks to World Access for the Blind

Imagine travelling the world without the aid or privilege of sight. Imagine not being able to look at something beautiful and soak it in through your eyes. But Holman confessed in his writings (he was the author of many travel narratives) that his most profound experiences left him feeling not blind, but mute:

"On the summit of the precipice, and in the heart of the green woods…there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills, and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage, that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heart, and I could have wept, not that I did not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.”

Sunday 12 June 2011

Galapagos - part 1

Sometimes I feel acutely aware of the privileges of my job. Like when I get to spend a few days in the Galapagos Islands as part of a media trip to Ecuador. Yes, my travelling life has started up again and although I'm trying to fly less (this is my first overseas trip since January), I couldn't pass up a chance to see this place I've been daydreaming about since I was a kid. 

It's every bit as amazing as the documentaries show it to be - including the recent BBC one, The Islands the Changed the World, narrated by the divine Tilda Swinton. And even though we only had three days, there's so much wildlife it was almost overwhelming.

The animal-spotting started pretty much as soon as we landed (the Galapagos are about 1000km and a two-hour flight from Guayaquil, on the coast of Ecuador); waiting for the zodiac to pick us up and transport us to our waiting ship, the 40-passenger Isabela II, run by Ecuadorian tour operator Metropolitan Touring, we almost tripped over Galapagos sea lions on the dock, while brown pelicans and frigate birds swooped and dived around us.

Blue-footed booby feet
About 30,000 human beings live in the Galapagos but most of the islands are inhabited only by strange and wondrous creatures. Flightless cormorants, tropical penguins, marine iguanas that dine on algae on the sea floor and sneeze saltwater when they surface. Land iguanas that eat cactus pads. Blue-footed boobies whose large webbed feet really are bright blue and who performed their mating "dance" right in front of us, on the walking track (see my video clip). All the wildlife we encountered seemed oblivious to us, in fact, a good sign.  

Every day we went ashore twice, in the morning and afternoon, and every landing brought new things. Waved albatross courting (which involves a lot of burring sounds and clacking of their long beaks; they mate for life and can live for up to 60 years). Little lava lizards (the islands are volcanic after all) doing mini push-ups  to mark their territory. Pink flamingos and Galapagos penguins, both of which we saw; Floreana Island, in the south, is the only place in the world where they co-exist.

And giant tortoises that can weigh 220kg! Rumour has it a tortoise called Harriet that died at Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast in 2006 was brought to Australia by none other than Charles Darwin, back in 1835. She lived to the grand age of 175.

The highlight of highlights? Swimming with sea lions (this link goes to another video clip), for an hour (which felt like five minutes), as they sped around us like torpedoes, blowing silver bubbles, zipping and diving and surfacing. It was exhilarating and a little scary at times (some of the mother sea lions are big, and have big teeth) but unforgettable. In fact I'm still reeling from all the back-to-back-to-back experiences we had on the four islands we visited in such a short time. More later...

Thursday 26 May 2011

On the road again, in the air

Greetings from sunny Santiago. That’s right, Chile. Yesterday I flew over the entire Pacific Ocean, and though I travel a lot, for my work, there’s a part of me that still feels that to travel that far, that fast, is kinda unnatural. I think that’s what jet lag is all about. I’m all for the wonders of jet travel but it is weird when you think about it: we file into an enclosed steel tube, watch a couple of movies, eat meals served on those little trays (so much packaging!), take a nap and look, here we are on the other side of the world, as if by magic.

I’m just about to fly on to Ecuador later today, where I’ll be spending the next couple of weeks, and will try to post when I can, otherwise when I get back. Already I’m feeling the difficulties of maintaining a “no impact” ethic while travelling – it’s as if you are suspended in an alternate universe where climate change doesn’t exist (or at least is of secondary importance to basic survival), drinking bottled water on the plane (because the tap water isn't drinkable), travelling even short distances in taxis (because you don’t know your way around)…

Although there are glimpses of an eco-sensibility here and there. For instance, the Best Western hotel I stayed in last night calls itself a “green hotel” – designed to maximize natural light and shade, glass “thermopanels” on the exterior, energy economisers (whatever they are) in each room…And I’m travelling in a group of six, so we’re taking taxis/minivans together where possible (car-pooling!).

Over and out, for now. Hasta luego (see you later)…

Thursday 19 May 2011

Deep into the future

Today I heard paleoclimatologist, ecologist and science journalist Curt Stager speak at the Sydney Writers Festival and got a glimpse of planet Earth 100,000 years from now. It was interesting, intelligent, inspiring and uplifting stuff. 

Why that far ahead? Stager says that most climate models look only as far as the end of this century, say 2100 AD, but it's possible to look further, and discover things that can inform us today. 

His main idea is that after global warming, there will be a "climate whiplash" when the trends we now see happening all over the world and will ultimately adapt to, will reverse. It's sobering, if not downright scary. But first: it was heartening that when Stager asked how many of us in the audience of about 200 believe climate change is real and human-caused, almost everybody shot their hands up. Yay. 

Here are 7 things I learned today:

1. We are currently in the Age of Humans or, as he called it, the Anthropocene Epoch – we’ve actually changed the world enough to warrant a new term acknowledging the impact human beings have had, and are having, on the planet. Scary. (He went on to list a few of our effects: extinctions, invasive species, farms and cities, pollutants and “trash”, reshaping of landscapes with dams and such, and, finally, greenhouse gas buildup). 

2. After global warming – when emissions, airborne carbon dioxide, temperature and sea levels will peak – there will be a “climate whiplash”. In other words, all these things won’t increase indefinitely. They will peak, and the planet will cool – which will also be challenging for humans.

3.  Some warming is inevitable, even if we take what he calls a “moderate” path within the next few decades, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will peak at 550-600 parts per million (they are now about 393ppm). The oceans will soak up most of this extra CO2, but it will take more than 100,000 years for them to do that. If we take an “extreme” path, this recovery will take 500,000 years, or more.

4.  Human beings have already prevented the next Ice Age, which was predicted to kick in 50,000 years from now. (The next, next one will be in 130,000 years).

5.  Things are more serious than at any other time in the planet’s history because previously when ice ages came and went, animals and plants migrated to survive the changing world. Now, because we populate the landscape with farms and cities, they can’t do this. Also, ocean acidification is going to wipe out many, many marine ecosystems. Scary again.

6.   Human beings (and many other species) are survivors. If Stone Age man can survive catastrophic drought,  with his Stone Age technology, 17,000 years ago (as he did), we've got to have an advantage with all our 21st-century know-how. Stager believes people will live through the climate whiplash.

7.  "We are a force of nature," says Stager. "We will decide this climatic future by acting or by doing nothing. Either way, we are incredibly important in the grand sweep of human history and Earth’s history.”

So, really, I had no choice but to buy Stager's book – Deep Future: The next 100,000 years of life on Earth. He's also got a blog, Save the Carbon (he believes carbon should stay in the ground, for obvious reasons). Now to get reading...

The simple things in life

...really are the best. After not having an electricity-free night for a couple of weeks (has it really been that long?), we decided to have a winter night out - in the backyard. It was a beautifully still night, a couple of possums swung by to say hello (we have a possum-box in the tree next to the house after evicting them from the inside of our roof a few months ago) and we even lit a fire.

I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it too: burning wood = carbon in the atmosphere = high impact. But we had to dispose of some wood (and old chairs, without sending them to landfill) so we lit a fire. It's one of the things I most enjoyed about having a backyard, before the No Impact project. And there's the rub. How to do things you enjoy, and have a no-impact ethos at the same time.

I'm not sure if having a small fire in the backyard emits more or less CO2 than having all the lights on in the house, and I'm going to look into that, but in the meantime, sitting on a couple of rickety cane chairs (which were spared the flames), with beeswax candles burning nearby and the possums, and cooking veggie burgers on the gas barbecue, felt simple and good. Like something I would have done with my family as a kid. And apart from the fire, it was a low-impact evening.

It's all about balance, and transparency. I'm not as close to living a no-impact live as I'd like to be, but while I'm on this mission I'd like to be as honest as I can about what I'm doing (and not doing). How about you? It's confession time. What high-impact things would you rather not live without?

Thursday 12 May 2011

Paperbark Camp-ing

Picture a tent. Unzip the front flaps and inside there's...a queen-sized bed, made up with eco-linen and a wool doona (Australian for "duvet"), draped in a white mosquito net. Underfoot, a hardwood floor. Behind the bed, an ensuite with a hot shower and a claw-footed bath, open to the surrounding bush.

Last weekend we treated ourselves to a much-needed eco-escape at the lovely Paperbark Camp at Jervis Bay, three hours’ drive south of Sydney. Don't get me wrong, I love pitching my own tent, and making dinner on a portable stove but, with winter drawing near, we thought it'd be nice to try out a camping experience that's a bit more cosy...

Our tent: Kookaburra
Inspired by safari-style tented camps in Africa, Paperbark’s owners Irena and Jeremy Hutchings pioneered the whole “luxury tented camp” experience in 1998. There’s even a rumour that a British writer coined the term “glamping” (short for "glamorous camping") after visiting Paperbark a few years ago. Not that the Hutchings family (son Ben now manages the place) cares about any of that. Which is a good thing: it's still a small, but wonderfully comfortable, bush camp.

Arrived just on dark on Friday night (after having a surf on the way down, at a little seaside town rather uninvitingly named Crookhaven), and settled into one of Paperbark’s 12 tents. Ben told us not to leave any food in our tent overnight – because of small marsupials called antechinus, and possums (returning to our tent later, we did indeed find a young possum on the verandah, a teabag in its paws). There are kangaroos and wallabies around too. And birds galore. In fact that’s one of the best things about Paperbark: waking up to the bird life.

Saturday morning started with a cacophony of kookaburras, followed by all sorts of tweets (the real kind) and a bird that sounded like a typewriter (there I go thinking about work again).

The other "best" thing about Paperbark is its location. Jervis Bay is one of the beauty spots of the NSW coast and still as low-key as when I used to camp there with my family as a kid. 

Dolphin off the port bow!
Saturday morning, we rode a couple of Paperbark’s bikes (trying to minimise driving) to the nearby township of Huskisson for a Dolphin Watch cruise, aboard an 11m catamaran-yacht called "Discover". It's too early in the season to see whales (which sometimes come into the bay) but we did see plenty of the 85 resident bottlenose dolphins: porpoising around our bows (see the video clip here), feeding on a reef off Hyams Beach (rumoured to have the whitest sand in the world) and swimming around us. We swam too, from boat to beach (the water's still 21 degrees, in May!) and rolled in the sand, which is as fine as icing sugar, before returning to the cat for an on-deck hot shower. Mmmm. 

The Gunyah
Back at Paperbark that night, we sat around a campfire before dinner in the fairy-lit restaurant, The Gunyah (Aboriginal for "bush hut"). The chef features organic and local produce wherever possible and that night we had kingfish caught in the bay, local oysters and kangaroo (if you’re not Australian and/or think it's odd to eat one of our national emblems, kangaroo meat has a smaller environmental footprint than beef.) 

Canoeing Currambene Creek
It was pretty chilly in the tent overnight - I can see why they close over winter - though Paperbark's thoughtful staff issued us with a hot water bottle each before we retired. Mmmm again.

Sunday morning we woke at first light and took one of the camp's cheerily orange canoes for a paddle on the creek. So peaceful. Mist rose from the mirror-smooth water, that reflected the world back at itself. Dewdrops sparkled on the banks. The morning’s golden light filtered through tall gum trees. A kingfisher with blue wings flitted down from the branch of a paperbark tree. 

Mel, and her van, post-paddle
Then, breakfast (the best home-made muesli I have ever tasted, followed by locally smoked salmon with poached eggs). Then, back in Huskisson, where we met up with happy Mel from Jervis Bay Stand Up Paddle and rented a couple of paddleboards. The swell was so big over the weekend that there were waves in the bay, which we surfed on the SUPs, for almost three hours. I've never had so much fun getting so much exercise. Surprisingly, given that it was a sunny Sunday morning, there were only half a dozen other surfers and paddleboarders out there, all easy-going and chatty and fine about sharing their waves with a couple of city slickers. 

Home-time came too soon, but two days of aquatic adventures – surfing, sailing, swimming, canoeing and paddleboarding – and the chance to "glamp" was pure, natural heaven. 

Friday 29 April 2011

10 things I've learned

I can’t believe it. The no-impact month is officially over, as of a couple of days ago. Of course, it’s just another beginning, not just because I'm not yet living with zero impact, but because I want to make this an ongoing project. For now, though, here are 10 things I’ve learned so far...

1. You can start wherever you are. No matter how big or small your carbon footprint, you can start, right now, reducing your impact on the environment, and that’s kinda empowering. My favourite quote of the month is: “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are all crew” (Marshall McLuhan).

2. It can be hard. Going completely “no impact” is a tall order. I didn’t realise how challenging it would be, mostly in terms of there being a lot to learn, before you make the right choices. Quite a few times I felt overwhelmed by information and possibilities. But at least there are possibilities, right? That’s a good thing.

3. It's fun. Yes, it is. There’s a perception that going “green” means wearing hair-shirts and never washing your hair, or at least not enjoying life in all its glory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, there are inconvenient truths – we've watched Food IncThe End of the LineHomeThe Cove and Sharkwater – but I’ve found all these docos motivating rather than despairing; most end with the conviction that human beings are clever, creative creatures (on our good days) more than capable of solving the problems around us.

4. It takes commitment. This waxes and wanes like the moon. Some things are easier than others. Writing it all down kept me going, if only because it reminded me that it’s about the process, not the end-point. Having Craig as my eco-partner also helped. It’s definitely more do-able if you have company.
5. Everything’s connected. And we’re part of the natural world. Sounds obvious when you say it out loud, but it’s easy to forget. As Cam Walker at Friends of the Earth once told me: “We’re embedded in the ecological system every time we breathe, every time we drink water or turn on a light switch. Everything you do has impact, but that also means that you have a relationship with the ecological systems of the planet. Once you realise that, it broadens your sense of self and your sense of human community and beyond that it places the human community within the natural community.”

6. It makes you pay attention. Trying to live with less impact is an exercise in living mindfully. The more we notice what we’re doing, and attend to the seemingly inconsequential acts that make up every day, the more we're able to do what needs to be done, instead of just buying, switching on, tuning out unconsciously, out of habit.

7. Electricity-free nights rock! Having one “unplugged” candlelit night a week was one of the highlights of the whole project. It was mid-week time-out. Like camping, with home comforts. And I’m getting better at Scrabble…

8. We live in energy-hungry times. I’m not advocating going back to washing clothes by throwing them against rocks in a stream, or using two tin cans joined by string to "phone" your friends, but we do use more energy now than our parents did. That’s a call to action in itself.

9. People are supportive. I didn’t expect this but whenever we mentioned that we were going low-impact or trying to reduce packaging or something else that went against the grain, people were curious and interested. That inspired me to keep going.

10. Colin Beavan is a legend. I admire him now more than ever after this month – not only did he go extreme (no public transport, no electricity, no flying, no tv, and he solar-powered his laptop), he did it with a small child, in New York, for a year. Many times throughout the project I thought: what would Colin do? And it would inspire me to dig deeper and try harder to relinquish comfort or convenience for the sake of the no-impact mission. If you haven't seen it yet, watch the No Impact Man DVD, get it screened at your local cinema, buy the book and do whatever you can do live no-impact.

Lastly, there’s no going back. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the (non-recyclable plastic) tube. Making changes, big or small, changes you. So it’s onward from here. Now to write next month’s to-do list.

Have the ripples spread to your pond? Any no-impact experiences to share? Let's all inspire each other. 

Saturday 23 April 2011

Camping close to home

This week’s electricity-free night (which we now call EFN in the hope of making it a permanent thing, beyond this no-impact month), we decided to do more than stay home and play Scrabble by candlelight. And because it was the start of the Easter break, we decided to do a low-impact camping trip. 

I'm lucky to live in a part of Sydney that is super-natural, so to speak. It’s a five-minute walk to Fairlight Beach, where you can swim or snorkel for much of the year; it's less than five minutes by bike to Manly – yesterday morning, in fact, we rode down, parked the bikes and swam to Shelly Beach (about 1km); lots of fish (a blue grouper even nibbled Craig's toe) and the water's still 23 degrees (that's Celsius, in late autumn!). I can also walk out my door and be in Sydney Harbour National Park within 30 minutes, where there are tiny beaches you can have all to yourself on weekday mornings, and some holiday weekends too...  

So, yesterday afternoon, Craig and I packed our backpacks with dinner supplies (organic pasta and vegetarian sausages, home-made pesto from the neighbour’s basil plantation, organic cranberries, chocolate), sleeping bags and mats, and some of the beeswax tealights we’d made last weekend, as well as a wind-up torch (our head-torches were off-limits because they need electricity to recharge the batteries) and Craig’s solar-light hat (it charged itself as we walked!).

We set off from the house after lunch and were at our favourite beach by 3.30pm. It was a still, warm evening. We boiled up some water (on my Trangia camping stove, which runs on methylated spirits, a relatively eco-friendly, ethanol-based fuel made by fermenting plants such as sugar cane) and we had tea and chocolate on a flat rock by the water, watching yachts motoring to neighbouring bays for the night, the lights coming on in Manly, the evening sun-show (with apologies to Joni Mitchell's  "sun-show every second” in Chelsea Morning). 

Then we, well Craig, made dinner under a rock overhang; our candles flickered on the sandstone walls beside and above us. It’s one of the loveliest meals I’ve ever had.

It was still light enough to see when we made "camp" (minus a tent) on the sand, as the stars came out and the tide crept in, and in. Lightning lit up the clouds in explosive bursts. Mozzies buzzed. After playing word games from the cosiness of our sleeping bags, we realised we'd soon be underwater if we stayed there, so we relocated to a higher part of the beach. Then the moon came up, bright as a light. 

I didn't actually sleep much  what with the moon-light, the mozzies, the rustling sounds in the grass near our heads (water dragons on the prowl?). But it felt like a little adventure. Especially when the rain started  so softly at first we thought it might stay away...until the heavens opened. There was nothing for it but to stuff everything in our packs - "fast!" as Bear Grylls might say - and head for home.

That was the second-best bit of our "camping expedition": walking along bush paths in the pre-dawn darkness and the pouring rain, soaked to the skin (I'd brought a raincoat and we had pack-covers but the rain trickled in everywhere), no one else around. A creek under a footbridge we crossed had already become a noisy waterfall. Just after 6am, we got back to the house, warmed up with tea, then fell into bed and a deep sleep. When I woke up almost three hours later, I wondered if it had all been a dream. But we've got the pictures, and the mozzie bites, to prove otherwise...

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Tea with Keelah

The other day I had afternoon tea with a very inspirational, yet humble person: Manly-based environmentalist Keelah Lam. Known as a pioneer of sustainable living, she’s been rocking the consumerism boat for almost 20 years now, and isn’t about to stop anytime soon.

As luck would have it, Keelah lives just down the street from me, so I strolled over to her house for a chat. Before we could sit down at her kitchen table, however, I asked her to show me around her rambling property...

There’s a bathtub in the front yard (not for bathing but for frogs and fish) and the seemingly bottomless back yard is a cornucopia of fruit trees (Tahitian lime, guava, nectarine, lemon, papaya), veggie patches, a chicken coop (with three resident hens), a compost heap, a reed-bed greywater filtration set-up, a homestead-sized 22,000-litre rainwater tank, a "banana circle" (young banana plants growing according to permaculture principles, one of Keelah's interests). 

There are solar panels on the roof that, in summer, allow Keelah and her husband to export more electricity than they import (from the national grid). Inside the house they have two waterless composting toilets. They don't own a car. And she’s passionate about “zero waste”. 

When she’s not at home, incidentally, Keelah is a community representative on three Manly Council committees – Waste, Environment and Sustainability, and Climate Change – campaigns for the Greens in Manly and Warringah electorates, and is a founding member of Manly Food Co-op. She even won Manly Environment Centre’s Eco Award in 2008.

What happened to start you thinking of living with less environmental impact?
1993 was a turning point: I went to an Earthworks course on “waste minimisation” (as it was called) and it just triggered this innate feeling about what we’re doing to the planet.

Why is it important to live more sustainably in our cities?
Well, a lot of people want to leave the city and live an idyllic life in the country [for a sea-change or tree-change] but do we really want to damage more environments with our McMansions out there? If we do get good public transport and start to adapt our homes, and live lifestyles that are more sustainable, it’s going to be better living in cities than in country areas. There are facilities we need here like hospitals and theatres, and economies of scale: food distribution and energy use can be more sustainable in cities than on a one-off basis.

Since you started on this path almost 20 years ago, how have people’s attitudes changed?
When we started the Food Co-op in 1997, there was awareness that we were in a waste crisis. Over the years, interest in waste has waned. Now it’s more about me, me, me – it’s all about ‘my’ health – and there's less thinking about the health of the planet. People have become confused about the difference between a want and a need. And words have changed their meanings. ‘Home economics’ used to mean not wasting anything, conserving our resources. Now, ‘economics’ means ‘get rich quick’, and ‘waste’ means whatever you don’t want. It’s consumerism gone mad. But there is an awakening, change is happening. Not fast enough, but it is happening.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I’m an optimist, otherwise I wouldn’t still be doing what I do. I don’t think it’s too late. There are things that won’t be reversed, but things won’t be as bad if we put a halt to further damage. I see the future being about people and communities working together, and sharing.

What are the most important things people can do, to live more sustainably?
There are so many tips about what you can do – just pick five things you think are important. And take them on, one at a time. Then move onto the next thing. The little things add up, and they are often the cheapest things to do too.

I was into high-jumping as a kid and I remember that feeling of doing a jump then moving the peg up and trying a higher jump; it was a fabulous feeling. It’s not a competition; you’re competing against yourself if anything, just to see what you can achieve. It’s a game, finding new things you can do to live more efficiently.

It’s important to think about where things come from, and where they go. Whenever you buy something, just stop and think: how was it made, what was it made from, where will it go when I’m finished with it? Whether it’s food, water, an electrical appliance, even a backpack. And if it is something that will end up in the landfill, what can I do to extend its life and postpone it going to landfill? If the zip breaks, can I sew on some Velcro so I can still use it?

Lobbying is also important – not just the government, and organisations, but friends. I get into trouble with my family for being so outspoken but I’ve noticed people have changed because of things I’ve said. People think I’m radical, but it’s extreme to not think about what’s happening.

I'm reading Gandhi's biography at the moment and I've been thinking about two things he said: "If you see something is wrong, you must speak out” and "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.

Last words?
Living more sustainably can be fun, people forget that. I have more fun figuring out how to live more efficiently and sustainably than rushing around in my car. And there are simple pleasures. Growing up in the 1940s, we used to have a lot of blackouts and one of my greatest joys was, and still is, having a shower in the dark.