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.