Monday, 31 December 2012

Thanks, 2012

It's that sunset time of year again, when the year is all but done, and you can "down tools", stop looking ahead, maybe glance back over the last 12 months and appreciate what's around you right now. Like a home-cooked meal with friends, an early morning surf with the sun in your eyes, frangipanis on the footpath on your way back from the beach.

Grounded on the Overland Track
My year has been more earth-bound than usual, in an attempt to reduce my travel footprint, to regroup and to reconnect with the place I live in. I think it's worked. It's also made me more aware of the impermanence of everything and how quickly things can change - but doesn't that just make you appreciate them all the more?

Of course there have still been trips away - I am a travel writer, after all - but I've tried to weigh up the benefits of going (not just for me) against the impact, and to (hopefully) keep my feet on the ground.*

So here's my highlights reel for 2012 (and links to blog posts and stories about them). Thanks, 2012!

1. Walking the Overland Track, in Tasmania - specifically, swimming across an ice-cold mountain lake (in mid-summer) to a small island where, inside a rusted saucepan, there was a visitors book, and a pen. I held the pen with shivering fingers and wrote, “I love it here”, my name and the date. And wading through thigh-deep mud on a side-trip up Mt Oakleigh, to the blue-sky Tasmanian views. 

Feet first on Christmas Island
2. Visiting Christmas Island and loving its down-to-earth beauty. In a delightful bit of synchronicity, I got to spend Earth Hour there – swimming by (beeswax) candlelight in a sea cave called The Grotto with three other like-minded travel writers. 

3. A weekend camping trip with the river red gums on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in south-western NSW. Love those trees.

Kayaking "Everest"
4. Kayaking the wildly rugged Na Pali coast on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, called (a little ambitiously) the Everest of sea kayaking trips.

Minke magic

5. Swimming with 16 minke whales on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef off Lizard Island. Wildlife encounters don't get much better than this.

The mystical Kimberley coast
6. Cruising the Kimberley coast, something I've long wanted to do. There was more swimming (this time in aquamarine, croc-riddled waters and under bellowing waterfalls), beach barbecues, rust-red cliffs, ancient Bradshaw rock art and serene mornings on deck watching the sun rise over the land. 

7. Surfing in Lombok, Indonesia, and a barefoot black-tie dinner on the beach where (permit me a moment of immodesty) I won the ASTW's highest honour, the 2012 Travel Writer of the Year award.

8. Moving house – within the house. A rollercoaster of a mind-ride. A cathartic culling of "stuff". A new, energy-efficient fridge (while the old inefficient one was carted off to fridge heaven, to be recycled, thanks to the Fridge Buyback Scheme). A peaceful new home. 

Lanterns in the cypress trees
9. Walking in the South Australian outback, seeing wildlife galore, sleeping under the stars in luxury swags on a tourism-funded conservation project called the Arkaba Walk.

My  favourite beach
10. Having time to just be, here in a part of Sydney that often doesn't feel like it's part of a city of 4.5 million people - not when you're swimming in crystal-clear water, paddleboarding past sea lions, surfing with dolphins and seeing whales from the Manly ferry. I feel very fortunate indeed to live in such a naturally beautiful place.

Big thanks to everyone who shared these experiences with me - whether in real time or through reading my stories and blog posts - and to those who made them possible.

Happy new year!

* This is a carbon-neutral blog post. All flights were offset with Climate Friendly.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Joy to the world: 10 environmental reasons to be cheerful

Twenty years ago this year, 1700 of the world's leading scientists issued an appeal to their fellow human beings. The 1992 World Scientists' Warning to Humanity began like this:

"Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."

They were right, of course. The climate is changing, carbon dioxide emissions are higher than they've been in 800,000 years, the earth is melting, extreme weather events are happening with alarming regularity.

But good things are happening too. Among the countless eco achievements this year, here are a few of my favourites or, as I like to think of it...

10 environmental reasons to be cheerful:

1. Tasmania's forests were protected - January 14 was a good day for trees, specifically the trees and other plants in 428,000 hectares of public forests that were saved from logging in a landmark agreement.

2. The Taiji dolphin hunt ended a month early and Japanese protested for the first time against this barbaric practice that happens every year in a small cove south of Tokyo. See activist Ric O'Barry's recap here.

3. Millions of people in almost 7000 cities and towns in 152 countries switched off their lights for a record-breaking Earth Hour. Join in next year at 8.30pm on March 23, 2013.

4. Los Angeles became the largest city in the US to ban plastic bags. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the north Pacific will breathe a sigh of relief...

5. Australia's carbon tax was finally introduced and the sky, not to mention the economy, didn't fall in. Kudos to PM Julia Gillard for standing her ground and making a tough political decision.

6. Avaaz reported in August that 20 per cent of the world's electricity now comes from renewable sources. The cost of energy from solar panels is cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels in 105 countries. Praise the sun.

Safe: Green turtle at Wilson Is, Qld
7. The Super Trawler Abel Tasman (formerly Margiris) was banned from fishing in Australian waters for two years. In other fish-related news, the EU, world's largest exporter of shark fins, to Hong Kong and China, passed a ban on shark-finning and Coles, IGA and John West vowed to stop unsustainable tuna fishing.

8. The Australian government created the world's largest network of marine reserves, on November 16. Australia has the third largest marine jurisdiction on Earth, giving us a big responsibility to save our seas.

9. Amazon deforestation was at a record low for the fourth year in a row, which significantly reduced Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

10. There is a growing awareness, all over the world, of the need to live more sustainably and more simply, and more and more people making a difference to use less, re-use more, recycle, live more closely to the earth, connect with each other. See Green Villages for what's happening in Sydney alone.

If all this doesn't make your heart glow like ET's (happy 30th anniversary, Mr Spielberg!), watch this: The Wilderness Society's 2012 Year in Review video clip. I'm listening to its soundtrack as I write this. 

So from the bottom of my heart, I wish you all a merry Christmas. Peace and love to you and every other being with which we share this great, big, incredible blue and green planet. I, for one, vow to take better care of it next year.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Walking conservation in outback Australia

I love the outback. The expansive spaciousness of it, the uncrowdedness, the seeming desolation which, if you pay attention, reveals itself to be rich with life. And who doesn't love a bit of emptiness to clear the head? Maybe some walking – to compensate for all the sitting-down work we do. The chance to sleep outside, under a blanket of stars. The easy company of strangers. 

Looking over Arkaba Station
from Wilpena Pound
Look at that – I’ve just described a trip I did recently: the Arkaba Walk in South Australia's Flinders Ranges.

It’s one of those luxury guided walks that are becoming so popular around Australia: carry a daypack, let someone else cook and show you around, a comfy place to stay each night. Nature looms large, you sleep and eat well. They're all low-impact, operating in pristine natural environments, often national parks (see Great Walks of Australia).

Arkaba Walk, run by Wild Bush Luxury (which also has Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, and Bamurru Plains in the Top End), takes things up a notch - it's basically a tourism-funded conservation project.

In partnership with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Wild Bush Luxury is transforming Arkaba Station, a 60,000-acre (24,000 ha) former sheep property, into a private wildlife sanctuary. So far so good.

Not walking, roaming
Since 2009, when Wild Bush Luxury bought the property, sheep numbers have been reduced (to let native vegetation recover) and feral species such as foxes, cats, rabbits and goats are on the decline. 

That’s good news for Arkaba's native residents: there are now two colonies of rare, yellow-footed rock wallabies, 10 new bird species have been recorded in the past year, kangaroos are thriving, reptiles are returning.

A Gould's goanna helping
itself to a feral rabbit
It’s important work because, according to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which owns 23 sanctuaries across Australia, covering more than three million hectares: Australia is one of the six most bio-diverse countries in the world, 80 per cent of our species are endemic (found nowhere else) and we have the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world - 27 species have disappeared since European settlement. So Australia's native animals need all the help they can get.

Sky, tree, earth - the essence
of outback walking
What’s the walk like? When I went (late October) it was HOT. Thirty-five-degree days, warm nights. But we walked at a leisurely pace, learning and looking, through a classically outback landscape: striped ranges, grass trees, native cypress forests, sandy creeks that flow just once a year. There were kangaroos everywhere, birds galore (from tiny thornbills to wedge-tailed eagles), various dragons and lizards.

Our destination each afternoon was a permanent campsite on the property: Black’s Gap, Elder (the Elder Ranges are on Arkaba Station) then Mern Merna Camp. Each one the epitome of low-impact camping - just a corrugated iron shelter (for cooking and dining on frosty winter nights) and five timber sleeping decks, built in existing clearings and raised above the ground to allow vegetation to grow underneath.

Lanterns at Mern Merna Camp
There’s no electricity, no generator – for light we had rechargeable head torches and hung LED lanterns in the trees.

Bush shower 
There are two simple showers (water is heated over a gas stove and poured into a bucket hoisted overhead) and two waterless composting toilets – all open on one side for bush views. Of course the soaps and shampoos are biodegradable, and locally made.

The best part? The swags. An upmarket version of the stockman’s bedroll, these canvas envelopes containing mattress and soft, sand-coloured Ecodownunder bed linen might not look like much in the daytime. But at bedtime, when you’re safely inside one, head on a real pillow, eyes gazing at the outback night sky, they’re cocoons of wonder. Waking up in one is lovely too: open your eyes and there are the trees and ridges, the already-blue sky, ushering in a new day. 

Sunrise over Wilpena Pound
I'd recommend the Arkaba Walk to anyone who loves space and a few creature comforts. Did I mention the three-course dinners prepared by a chef at camp each night? And next year's walks will include a night at the gorgeous Arkaba Homestead. You've got time to think it over. Trips pause over the summer and start up again on March 14, 2013.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Moving (house) with the times

I feel as if I've been on a long trip – around the world and back and forth in time. I've been moving house, and it's been quite a mind-ride. 

Re-reading old letters and travel stories (found my first ever story, about a three-month overland trip across Africa, published way back in 1991 when I still used a typewriter and "google" was just a silly word). Looking at photos (slides!). Finding things I’m no longer attached to (and some I still am – e.g. random souvenirs: a prayer wheel here, a fridge magnet there). Thinking about stuff and how we relate to it.

A small disclaimer: I just moved downstairs into a newly renovated apartment, out of the soon-to-be-renovated upstairs apartment of this two-storey house. 

Inherited cupboard - thanks, Teri!
But a move is a move, and I hadn’t changed my address for almost 10 years. So there was lots of sorting to do - through objects accumulated, inherited from long-gone flatmates, forgotten about and saved for “later”. It was difficult, time-consuming, wearying.

There was dismay: I generated more rubbish in two weeks than I have in the past six months – tossing out things that can’t be re-used, recycled, sold or given away – but it is 10 years' worth of stuff. And gosh it felt good. I'm no hoarder (I love getting rid of things) but I was flabbergasted at the amount of stuff I had (past tense).

There was joy, too: at being able to dispose of a lot of stuff responsibly. Let me count the ways:

1. There was an ewaste collection in my street at just the right time.
2. Paper be gone: I emptied two filing cabinets into the paper recycling bin (let's hear it for digital files, hippip...). 
3. Gumtree is great - the other day I gave away a microwave, an iron, an ironing board and a step ladder, five minutes after posting the ad on Gumtree. It's free and easy to use and I've met some lovely people.
4. Vinnies - I’ve got a small room of stuff waiting to go to St Vincent de Paul. Crockery, clothes, lampshades, books. All for a good cause, helping families in need :)

Magazines going cheap (free)
5. Giveaways - Come over to my house, I'll give you some stuff! Friends have been very obliging this past week or so. There's a pile of books waiting to go to Desire Books in Manly (best second-hand book shop in the universe). Stacks of Outdoor Australia (now Australian Geographic Outdoor) magazines going to the editor for his archives. 

A highlight (an indication of my current head-space): our old fridge went to recycling heaven today, saved from landfill hell by the Fridge Buyback program – for fridges made before 1996 and larger than 200 litres. Two surly men picked it up and took it away in a truck, to be de-gassed (to prevent gases escaping into the atmosphere) and taken apart for scrap metal. 

New home + neighbour's cat Miffy
Now it's almost done, peace is returning and some free time. And at the end of it all, the reward is a new place to call home, not so much clutter and a clearer head, less shackled to the past and ready for new experiences. Bring it on J

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Swimming with minke whales (part 2)

A short post this week as I'm in the throes of moving house (oh the catharsis of decluttering!) and hardly have time to string two thoughts together.

But here's my latest story from the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald, about swimming with minke whales off the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, called Meet the minkes. (You can re-read my original blog post about the trip here: Minke magic.)

That's all for now, back to swimming with boxes...

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A winning weekend in Lombok

Newsflash: just back from lovely Lombok, Indonesia (so much less touristy than Bali), where the Australian Society of Travel Writers held its annual AGM and awards night, the latter a black-tie beach party on the sand and under the stars last Saturday night at the beautiful Novotel Lombok.

Tropical Lombok
I’m happy and honoured to announce that I picked up three awards, including the prestigious 2012 Travel Writer of the Year award, for a portfolio of three stories – about Madagascar (click to read), Mustang and Antarctica

It's the third time I've won the ASTW's top award, and I feel humbled to be respected by my peers and colleagues, for something I so love to do.

Baobab Alley, Madagascar
My other awards were Best Journey or Adventure, also for the Madagascar story, and the Jack Butters Memorial Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to the ASTW, for a year's worth of volunteer work on the new ASTW website

No Impact Girl even got a mention - my Christmas (Island) in April post was a finalist in the Best Online Innovation category. And a few of my pics (including the Madagascar one above) made me a finalist in the Travel Photographer of the Year award.

Self-portrait with Lynne Ireland (left),
PR for Virgin Limited Edition
Big congrats to Luke Wright of Good Globe Media, who took out the Best Responsible Tourism Story award for his story on the Solomon Islands. And to all the other winners, who are listed here, on the ASTW website.

And big thanks to all the award and event sponsors and organisers, particularly Virgin Limited Edition and South Africa Tourism for the big prize, and Accor Hotels and Novotel Lombok for such a beautiful place to stay and to celebrate. I can't wait to return...

Friday, 5 October 2012

A simple life

No travel for me lately, and that’s been just fine. Instead I’ve been embracing ordinariness. You know, hanging up the washing, doing the dishes, having lunch in the backyard with my feet on the grass and the neighbour’s cat by my side.

Flowers in the kitchen
All in the name of finding more writing time (tick) but I’m finding the simplicity quietly nourishing. Besides, there's plenty to explore, plenty of internal and vicarious travelling to do right here. 

Lately I've been riding the coat-tails of MarthaGellhorn (reading her clear and true war stories) and 52 Suburbs Around the World photographer Louise Hawson (she’s in New York now).

A window I know well
The other night I watched the first episode of a documentary about the Amish. Though they have some odd rules (buttons are forbidden but they can use a generator to power their primitive washing machine?), I admire their sincerity, simplicity and uncluttered lives. (To be honest I would have liked less on the British teenagers forced to spend a week without their various devices, and more about the Amish couple they were staying with; still, the clash of cultures was fascinating.) 

It’s television like this that makes us think outside our own lives and, at the same time, rethink our lives. What is enough? What is really essential for a rich life? (For me: the sea, contact with animals, including a few like-minded humans, nature, writing, play, freedom, learning, purpose...) I felt a kind of relief watching the Amish – they seemed utterly peaceful and happy, seeking happiness not through pleasure but hard work, community and faith.

Coming to a horizon near you
So I’ve been walking to the nearest little harbour beach for morning swims, sitting on the sand just looking at the sea, hanging out with kookaburras. Surfing with friends I haven’t arranged to meet (I love those spontaneous encounters that happen when everyone with the same idea has decided to get up early and paddle out at the same spot). Visiting friends for cups of tea. Watching the sun set. 

Nothing special. Like the title of a Buddhist book I once read by Ayya Khema: “Being nobody, Going nowhere.” That’s something to un-aspire to. Here's another thought: some people say you have to go out and get what you want to be happy. I think happiness is within our grasp all the time, if we stop hustling and let it come. Listen, pay attention, give thanks. Maybe I'm becoming a little bit Amish (some of my friends probably think that happened long ago).

What do you (really) need for a happy life?

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Kimberley coast, part 2 - the James Price Point story

When I was in the Kimberley recently, I finished reading Listening to country by Ros Moriarty, a beautifully honest book about her experiences in the culture of her husband John, a Yanyuwa man from Central Australia. Every chapter starts with a Yanyuwa quote, and I particularly like this one:

Kimberley sunset, Broome
"Purpose - listening to country, seeing how things are when the mind is freed up. When the stillness washes over my spirit, then I can see where to go."

Isn't that the best way to travel? To try to see things as they are and find inspiration in terms of how to live, be useful, and respect the land, the sea, all beings, each other. 

In the interests of being useful, and truth-seeking, this post is dedicated to the pristine Kimberley coast, in all its glory and vulnerability - because it's increasingly being threatened by mining interests, particularly the proposed $40 billion gas hub at James Price Point, 40km north of Broome. 

James Price Point, pic by
Jenita Enevoldsen
We saw the site on the first day of our Kimberley cruise (see my previous post); between our boat and the coastal cliffs, dozens of humpback whales and their calves breached, tail-slapped and generally frolicked. This area has the world's largest population of humpbacks, in fact. For now, at least.

What's being proposed?
The "gas hub", aka Woodside's Browse LNG Development, is a 30-square-kilometre refinery that will be the largest LNG (liquefied natural gas) precinct in Australia, the second largest in the world. It will process up to 50 million tonnes of LNG a year, extracted offshore at the Browse gas fields. Between 1500 and 6000 supertankers and refinery service vessels will ply the waters around the point every year. Up to 8000 workers will live in the area. 

Protestors atop drill rigs, Wilderness
Society pic by Damian Kelly
What’s the problem?
It's more than just the construction of a massive port and industrial site and seabed dredging in the middle of this humpback highway. And it's not because "all mining is bad" (we surely need some). 

Here are 10 reasons the JPP gas project mustn't go ahead, based on an 8000-page environmental impact assessment by the WA government and summarised by The Wilderness Society:

1. More than 3000 hectares of land will be cleared - including 132 hectares of rare Monsoon vine thicket with a further 440 hectares at risk due to draw-down of groundwater aquifers by the project
2. “Permanent removal” of 1.5 kilometres of coastline at James Price Point, with a further one kilometre “disturbed” for pipeline corridors
3. Significant Goolarabooloo cultural sites within the construction zone

4. Up to 30 billion litres a year of industrial waste water and brine dumped into the ocean off James Price Point
5. A concrete and rock breakwater extending up to 7 kilometres out to sea and cutting across the ‘Kimberley humpback whale highway’
6. Creation of a 52 square kilometre ‘dead zone’(in a pristine marine environment) - from dredging, dredge ‘spoil’ dumps and other port works
7. Up to 14 pipelines (from gas field to gas hub and from hub to marine environment) which, along with other port infrastructure, will directly affect the newly heritage-listed dinosaur trackways
8. Up to 2,700 shipping movements per year – in an area of ‘critical habitat’ for calving humpback whales, four species of dolphins, turtles and dugong

9. Up to 39 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, five per cent of Australia's total emissions and a 50 per cent increase on WA’s current annual emissions
10. Up to 66,000 tonnes per annum of other noxious and carcinogenic gas emissions, e.g. volatile organic compounds and B-Tex (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes). 

The solution
Enjoying the glory
But the main reason environmentalists and locals are against the JPP gas hub is that there is an alternative. Rather than building a new industrial port and gas refinery on this precious site, gas sourced offshore can be piped to existing facilities in the Pilbara for processing. 

Federal Environment minister Tony Burke will have the final say, sometime in 2013. Until then, follow the campaign at Environs Kimberley, tweet it, facebook it, donate to it, talk about it. The Kimberley needs us.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Why you should go to the Kimberley

"Back to nothingness, like a week in the desert…" Crowded House’s lyrics always come to mind when I head west of the Great Dividing Range to that "other" Australia. Though more of Australia is like this than the lush coastal fringe most of us inhabit, it always takes a trip to the outback to remind me.

A couple of weeks ago, I went further than I’ve ever been, and about as far away from wintry Sydney as I could get without needing my passport: to north-west Western Australia, the Kimberley.

The sublime Raft Point
It was my first time up there, but I’ve always wanted to go to the Kimberley, to see its big landscapes and all that untamed coastline stretching north of Broome. Now I'm convinced every Australian should go, at least once. Why?

Let me explain by describing my 9-day World Expeditions trip aboard a 24-metre catamaran called Odyssey, which was home-away-from-home for 16 of us for a week and a bit.

Croc-free Croc Creek
Was it really just a week (and a bit)? It felt like a month, in a good way, the days languidly long and gloriously outdoorsy. We went barefoot all day, except when we went ashore (in our tender, called Homer) to hike to waterfall-fed pools where we swam in water fresh enough to drink (and happily free of saltwater crocodiles, though we saw plenty elsewhere).

We had all our meals on the back deck – looking up from lunch to watch whales (we even saw dugongs one day, with their walrus faces and little whale tails) and pausing mid-dinner to look at the stars. Lovely though our cabins were, the only time I was in mine was to change into my togs and to sleep.

A nameless perfect beach
If all this sounds busy, it’s not meant to – because this was one of the most spacious trips I’ve ever done, geographically and psychologically. Not only were there wide horizons in every direction, there was time to just be with our surroundings.

Wandjina art at Raft Point
We ticked off must-see Kimberley sights: Horizontal Falls, Montgomery Reef and a place that will forever be synonymous with the Kimberley coast for me, Raft Point (and its alien-like Wandjina rock art).

But what really made the trip special was being able to experience the Kimberley with all our senses – because it was a small group and our skipper, Dylan, was switched on enough to make the most of the 10-metre tides, which threw curve-balls at us daily in terms of what we could and couldn’t do.

Breakfast is served
One morning we had a well-timed breakfast on a sandbar – complete with tablecloths that flapped in the sea breeze – before the tide came in. We had impromptu saltwater swims at some of the most perfect beaches I've ever seen – white sand, turquoise water, orange sandstone, turtle tracks. We clambered up riverside rocks to commune with some mysterious Bradshaw art, aka Gwion Gwion, estimated to be 70,000 years old.

Tapalinga Reef, at very low tide
Day 5, my favourite day of the trip, started with a walk on Tapalinga Reef, which is exposed only at the lowest of low tides; when it was time to leave, the tide rushed in around our ankles, then our knees, and a couple of reef sharks swam at my heels. That evening we had a beach bonfire, where we feasted on mud crabs we’d caught the day before. It felt as if we were on an expedition, not a tour.

Chopper pilot James, I mean Phil
The trip ended with a James Bond moment: two helicopters landed on a nearby beach, on a small island, and we zoomed in on Homer to meet them.

I can barely describe the thrill of rising above the beach, the Odyssey and the waving crew, to the throb of the chopper blades, suddenly able to look over the tops of the coastal cliffs we’d seen from sea level all week, at the vastness of the Kimberley.

We flew to Mitchell Falls, where we walked three paces and climbed into a waiting Cessna – for a 2-hour scenic flight back to Broome, retracing our steps over the landmarks we’d seen: Raft Point, Montgomery Reef, Horizontal Falls. I think I had my mouth open the whole way, it was so spectacular.

Porosus Creek and croc at sunrise
And I haven’t even mentioned the Kimberley light: glory-inspiring sunrises, blazing blue-sky days, headlands of King Leopold sandstone aglow at sunset.

You can look at pictures of the Kimberley and see how beautiful it is, but physical beauty is only part of it; what takes this place to another level is its remoteness, its ancientness. To experience that, well, you really have to be there. I rest my case.

(Coming soon: part 2 of this post, about the environmental challenges facing the Kimberley.)

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Minke magic

This time last week I was swimming with dwarf minke whales in far north Queensland. I've swum with marine mammals before: 300 dolphins off one of my favourite eco-towns, Kaikoura on New Zealand's South Island, and with sea lions in the Galapagos. This was different, incredible in a different way, partly because for a while it looked as if it wasn't going to happen at all...

Lovely Lizard
Not much is known about dwarf minkes - first seen from dive boats in the 1980s, they were recognised as a new sub-species only in 1985 and the first permits to swim with them were issued in 2003. This year only two operators offered live-aboard trips to see them; I went with Eye to Eye Marine Encounters, out of Lizard Island, an hour's flight north of Cairns.

From Lizard, we cruised for a couple of hours to the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, specifically Ribbon Reef 10, one of the spots minkes gather every June and July. No one knows why they come, or where they spend the rest of the year. What is known is that they seem as curious about us as we are about them.

Spot the minke
Before we could swim with them, of course, we had to find them. As fate would have it, my trip was one of the roughest Eye to Eye has ever had; for three of our four days, gale-force winds whipped the sea into a lamington of white-caps (and I popped Travacalm pills like Tic tacs) which made it even harder than usual to spot minkes.

They can be up to 7 metres long, but their dorsal fins are the size of bottlenose dolphin fins, they don't linger on the surface when they come up to breathe and they don't raise their tail flukes (like other whales) when they dive.

Swimming with potato cod
That's nature, and part of the experience of spending time with wild animals. It also enhanced the "expedition" feel of our trip.

We sat on deck watching for whales (fortified by cinnamon shortbread, thanks Chef). Went "extreme snorkelling" in waves big enough to bodysurf and currents that swept us about like flotsam. Swam with other creatures: green turtles, potato cod, sea snakes, reef sharks, Nemo-like anemonefish, spinner dolphins.

A beautiful dwarf minke
We also learned about minkes. Each Eye to Eye Marine Encounters trip has at least one researcher on board who studies not only the whales but our interactions with them; this is the only place in the world you can swim with minkes and there's a strict code of practice to ensure all interactions are on the whales' terms. Our resident researcher was Dr Alastair Birtles from James Cook University (in Townsville), whose affection for these "beautiful but enigmatic little whales" as he calls them, was infectious.

Swimming with minkes!
It was day 4, our last day, when someone shouted from the upper deck, "Minke!" We pulled on our wetsuits, put on masks and snorkels, slipped into the water and gazed into the blue.

They came one by one at first, then in groups, getting closer the longer they spent with us. One did a tail-stand a few metres from us, and a slow, mid-ocean pirouette. Another (see pic below) surfaced near me. At one time I counted eight minkes around and below us.

It felt surreal to be so close to these gentle giants. Unlike more boisterous dolphins and sea lions, the minkes were stately and serene as they glided slowly by, looking at us with large, brown eyes. "There's no other large animal on Earth that keeps going around for hours and hours, looking at you," said Alastair later.

Eye to eye with a wild minke
Our "in-water encounter" lasted almost nine hours (from about 9am to almost 5pm; we climbed back onto the boat only to scoff lunch and rehydrate) and featured as many as 16 minkes.

To cap it off, Alastair made us all honorary Friends of the Minke Whale Project that night, for our perseverence. Actually I think the three days of anticipation before we saw the whales made it all the more special. Well played, minkes.

PS: For a virtual "swimming with minkes" experience, watch Dr Dean Miller's 15-minute doco A Whale of a Time (Dean was on our boat too).

Newsflash: While we were swimming with minkes last week, South Korea announced plans to resume "scientific" whaling of them. I'm happy to report that they've now reversed that decision, in the face of strong international opposition.

Thanks: To Maui Jim for the polarised sunnies they gave me a few weeks ago (for my Kauai trip) - they're ideal for minke-spotting, as the crew of our boat well know: they all wear Maui Jims, as Maui Jim sponsors the Minke Whale Project. Way to go....

Monday, 2 July 2012

Kauai five-oh

It's only just turned July and already I remember I'm not built for winter, and neither is the house I live in (no matter how many door-snakes I put around the place). So I could hardly pass up the chance to go to Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. Spent most of my time there on Kauai which, to my eyes, is the most beautiful of the main Hawaiian islands.

Hula-girl in wintry Sydney
If ever you wanted to invent the perfect island, you could do worse than use Kauai as your blueprint. Aside from the perfect beaches, there are lushly forested mountains, waterfalls, hiking tracks, the massive Waimea Canyon. It oozes "lost worldness".

Which brings me to the doorstep of my top five things to do on Kauai:

Just keep the cliffs on your left
1. Paddle the Na Pali coast – this 27-kilometre paddle along the roadless north-west coast of Kauai is billed as the Everest of sea kayaking trips. Not having climbed Everest I suspect that's a slight exaggeration, but Kayak Kauai (which has been running these trips for more than 20 years) says it is the longest and roughest commercial sea kayak trip "on the planet". That's the fun of it; you're out there, in the elements, all day, just you and the turtles. Your guides carry things like EPIRBs and flares. And the scenery - those 1000-metre cliffs, crescent-moon beaches, sea caves you can paddle into - will blow your hat off.

2. See Jurassic Park Falls. First, a confession: this one ain't no-impact. But it's hard to say no to a helicopter flight that takes you to one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls. Our Island Helicopters pilot Gary, with his smooth-as-caramel voice and an iPod soundtrack to match the views (Mission Impossible, Born to be Wild), flew us all over the island but the highlight was speeding along a canyon towards Jurassic Park Falls (aka Manawaiopuna Falls), the movie theme playing in our headsets. We landed at the base of the falls too, the only people there (it's on private property); I felt like Laura Dern about to see my first living dinosaur.

Janet waxing up
3. Go surfing. On one of my five days on the island I rented a surfboard and caught up with my friend Janet who has moved to Kauai from New York (we both lived and surfed in Japan about 100 years ago). Surfing is the best "in" to island life, because, well, everyone surfs. We met so many people that day; even up at Waimea Canyon, sightseeing on our way back from the beach, we got talking to a guy who, on hearing my accent, started reminiscing about the Australian surfers who “busted down the door” of the North Shore surfing scene in the 1970s. 

Palm trees at sunset, Koa Kea
4. Stay at Koa Kea Resort. I don't usually love resorts; I get bored after five minutes of reading by a hotel pool (though I can read for hours almost anywhere else, go figure). But I loved Koa Kea. Beautiful coral-themed décor, friendly staff (the valets were surfers too) and a superb waterfront location at Poipu on Kauai’s south coast – I swam off the beach every morning and even surfed right in front of the resort one afternoon.

5. Watch the sunset at Hanalei Bay. The day I arrived was Memorial Day, the American equivalent of our Anzac Day and EVERYONE was at the beach. I caught up with friends who live on Kauai’s north shore and we drove to the pier at Hanalei to watch the sunset. There were cars parked on the sand, people paddleboarding with their dogs, girls hula-dancing in the shallows while their fathers and uncles played drums on the shore, a guy strumming a ukulele. Behind the curve of beach, ruggedly handsome mountains stood with their heads in the clouds. If I lived here I’d believe in Puff the Magic Dragon too.

That’s my Kauai-five, but oh, there’s one more Hawaii must-do: have a ukulele lesson, listen to ukulele-playing kids busking (click for a little video clip) on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki or, at the very least, listen to the song that has become Hawaii’s unofficial anthem: "Somewhere over the rainbow" (another clip) by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Humming along is a good way to keep warm...

Hands up who's been to Hawaii? What did you love?