Monday 29 December 2014

2014: My year as a digital gypsy

Where did this year take you? Was it, as punk-poet Henry Rollins once said about life, a “long trip, kind of scary and wonderful”?

I feel as if I’ve been around the world, as well as around the sun, seeking simplicity, searching for home, and finding both in a few special places.

There's Wally! In Germany
Along the way I've managed to notch up an entire “Where’s Wally?” year of no fixed address. 

Though being “on the road” is a kind of home to me, I know some of you have wondered at various times where I am, and I want to thank everyone who kept a virtual tracker on me by calling, emailing, messaging and tweeting to me (a special thanks to my dad for venturing into the badlands of facebook and learning how to use Skype to virtually visit me).

Some of you might even have been wondering "Why, Wally?" The short answer is, "Because I'm a travel writer", but that's not the whole truth.

This way to paradise, Laos
I have been writing about my travels - even launched my first ebook, Adventures on Earth (that's the cover, in the left margin), from a hotel room in Chiang Mai, Thailand - but I've also been not-writing (except in my diaries), in order to wander, revive my love of travel and see where life (instead my next assignment) might take me.

It's been interesting, enlightening and exhausting - not just moving from tent to bungalow to cabin and dealing with the logistics of constant solo travel, but always thinking "Where next?" And it ain't over yet. 

So, in the tradition of the year-end post - remember last year's wander down 2013th avenue, A year in the life of an eco-travel writer? - I thought I'd share a few highlights of 2014, if only to remind myself where on Earth I've travelled, stayed and called home this year.

Thanks, 2014, for (in chronological order) the:

Learning the ropes with Kaud
1. Climbing in Krabi. The best part of my two months in Thailand/Laos in Jan/Feb was my three-week stint in Railay on the Krabi peninsula including a 3-day course I did with King Climbers (and wrote about: Climbing the Walls in Thailand). Big thanks to my lovely instructor, Kaud, who even lent me his climbing shoes when my rental ones didn't fit (so kind).

Beautiful Koh Laoliang
I also had a few idyllic days on nearby Koh Laoliang, possibly the last of Thailand's island idylls. It has no bungalows, no resorts, no longtail speedboats. Just 20 tents on the beach, gin-clear water for swimming and great climbing walls.
(Here's my post about Thailand's last paradise.)
Meanwhile, back in Australia...
2. Hotel living, Manly. After Thailand, I spent three months as an unofficial travel-writer-in-residence at Manly Lodge, a quirky (and a bit run-down) boutique hotel right in the heart of Manly, within spitting distance of the beach, but still quiet. It was good to be back in a country with a largely pristine natural environment, which motivated me to join a protest to help save the Great Barrier Reef and write 10 eco-issues every Australian should know about.

Home is where the tipi is
3. Yoga in Portugal. At the end of May, I flew to Europe for three months. (I'd won an airfare at last year’s ASTW awards - my prize for being, ahem, 2013 Travel Writer of the Year). First stop: the western Algarve, for a one-week yoga and surfing retreat at the very sustainable Tipi Valley (see Yoga, surfing and the "vida simples" in Portugal). Amazing experience, in a wild part of the world, in the company beautiful women, my fellow yoginis and surfer girls. I vow to return to Portugal very soon. 

Kayaking in tropical Croatia
4. Kayaking in Croatia. This was an assignment, but a beautiful one: 10 days of island-hopping by sea kayak, camping each night, in the Northern Adriatic. One of my all-time favourite kayaking trips, because of the rugged landscape, Croatia's convoluted history and our creative and resourceful guide, Jogi. Read all about it: Paddle in paradise, in Traveller.

Free: mountain views in Switzerland
5. Simple pleasures in Switzerland. This was one of those “pinch me, am I dreaming?” stays, even for me: three weeks housesitting a friend's three-storey Swiss chalet-mansion and its little backyard cabin with mountain views.

My New Yorker friend Janet came to stay and we celebrated her big 5-0 birthday by tandem paragliding in the Swiss Alps and swimming in Lake Geneva – priceless! Actually it is possible to holiday on a budget in Switzerland, as long as you keep to a strict diet, as we did, of fresh baguettes, Swiss cheese and chocolate and The best things in life are free – even in Switzerland.

The lovely Lofotens
6. Revisiting Norway. I'd wanted to return to Norway ever since I first went there as a backpacker in 1989. This year I did. A highlight was returning to the Lofoten Islands, ruggedly spectacular mountains in the sea north of the Arctic Circle, with little red fishing villages at their bases. 

Norway is also where my love for photography was born - which led me into travel writing - so it was sort of ironic that my Canon DSLR stopped working within a few days of arriving. Fortunately I had backup: a waterproof compact camera and my iPhone.

"My" Norwegian cabin in the woods
7. Cabin fever. Still in Norway (I had a month there, mid-June to mid-July), I did something I’ve always wanted to do: stayed in a cabin in the woods, alone, for two weeks. It was one of the best, and simplest, experiences of my life (here's why). It was peaceful, I swam in a lake almost every day, I chopped wood and carried water, and I had unlimited time to read, write, listen, wander and wonder. It was also the inspiration for my essay In praise of quiet travel, published in Traveller in October.

Mum, aged 23, in 1956
8. Berlin and the Wall. Visiting Berlin, my new favourite city, in August, was another trip back in time, in more ways than one. In 1989, I visited East Berlin, just before the Wall came down. Back in Sydney this year, I found my late mum's travel diary: she went to Berlin as a backpacker too, in 1956, five years before the Wall went up. It's all in my Traveller cover story, Berlin: Falling in love again.

Somewhere on the Australian coast
9. Surfing NSW. Back "home" in September, I bought a car. Much as I enjoyed (and would love to continue) living car-free, Australia is a hard place to get around without one. 

My first mission was to get my tent and surfboard out of storage and take off on a long-overdue surf trip from Sydney to Byron Bay, camping in some of my favourite spots and visiting friends en route. It was unbelievably reviving, so good to surf and live simply and wake up every morning in my little green tent.

Sunset on Lord Howe
10. Lord Howe Island, again! A dream assignment this one: in November I spent a week ocean swimming every day at my favourite little island, hosted by the wonderful Pinetrees Lodge and inspired daily by former world champion Ironman Trevor Hendy. Read all about it.

Where’s Wally now? For the first time in a year and a half, I'm taking a break from constant travel to spend some time around Byron Bay. I love this area. Even in busy Byron, everyone is so relaxed, happy to chat, open-minded. It's a mix of country-town friendliness and hippie soulfulness with a dash of worldliness from the international tourists - which makes me feel right at home.

Thanks for following No Impact Girl this year and, as always, may the gypsy spirit be with you all in 2015. Happy new year!

Sunday 21 December 2014

New to Lord Howe: Ocean swimming with Trevor Hendy

Just when I think nothing can top my last trip to Lord Howe Island (click here to read my story on its inaugural Adventure Week last year, run by Pinetrees Lodge), it pulls a shiny new ace from its green sleeve, and I get to fall in love all over again.

My favourite little
island in the world
(For a little background, see 10 reasons to love Lord Howe - my most popular No Impact Girl post, ever.)

This time, I dived into Lord Howe's sea-side on Pinetrees' first Ocean Swim Week, led by Gold Coast-based former Ironman Trevor Hendy - who is now an wholistic life coach (check out his online Bootcamp for the Soul course) and something of an aquatic centaur (half man, half fish), so at home is he in the water.

Trevor Hendy: half man, half fish
On paper, it looked relatively simple: five days of morning ocean swims at various spots around the island, with afternoons free to do as we liked - which meant riding our rental bikes around, bodysurfing champagne-clear waves at Blinky Beach, going on impromptu hikes, and taking (ahem) "accidental" afternoon naps back at Pinetrees.

Taking a break, off Ned's Beach
Pic by Luke Hanson
It was a dream assignment: I love the water even more than I love Lord Howe.

Any water will do, but the sea is my true home. It's where I go to reconnect with the natural world and with myself. I have cried into it, laughed in it, shared surfs and swims with friends in it. When I'm in the water, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

Which is not to say I didn't find this week challenging. I did.

I haven't done much ocean swimming and I'd been travelling right up to the start of Ocean Swim Week (my life is one long trip these days), so a few sessions in the pool before I flew to Lord Howe was all the training I could manage.

Gliding through the blue
Pic by Luke Hanson
Being Lord Howe, of course, it was always going to be an adventure. Most of our swims were about 2km (more if you counted our zig-zags) in deep water far from shore.

Some days we'd leap like lemmings from a glass-bottomed boat into the blue. One day we bushwalked 2km up and over a hill to our launch spot. We'd glide (or thrash) over coral in midday sunshine and morning rain, seeing turtles or curious Galapagos sharks that would cruise by below us.

Twin peaks in this season's colours
Wherever we were, we'd only have to stop and lift our eyes above sea level to see Lord Howe's two 800-metre-plus peaks, Gower and Lidgbird, rising volcanically out of the water at the island's southern end.

Did I mention that all but one of my eight Ocean Week comrades were salt-seasoned ocean swimmers? Six of them were lifesavers too, from up and down the east coast (come on down, Marcoola!).

But here's the thing: I didn't have to keep up with them.

Happy swimmers: Ross, Lou & Jude
Beautiful, and testing, as the swims were, a highlight of the week for me was exploring meta-physical, as well as physical, places - with Trevor as our guide.

"I wanted Ocean Swim Week to be not only a chance to swim and explore these incredible grounds of Lord Howe," he told us, "but to let go of something while we’re here. To let go of the need to be someone and do something and get to the next place. And experience each moment as it goes, and take that back into life."

Lord Howe's underwater world
To this end, before breakfast every day Trevor would lead us in a series of qigong moves called Ba Duan Jin (also called "yum cha" by the very amusing Ross Pike, pictured above). He'd also give us elite swimming tips before every swim.

Most importantly, he was just very present, honest and down-to-earth all week, which inspired us all to experience whatever we were experiencing, on land and sea.

Lord Howe always seems to find me where I am, and know what I need - and what I needed this week was to be in the sea, to move, to rest and to live simply for a week. Mission accomplished.

Gratuitous fan-shot: thanks, Trev!
I've written about treks and sea kayaking trips all over the world as ways to tread lightly when we travel, but ocean swimming just might be the lowest-impact kind of travel there is. You might take only photographs (if you can be bothered swimming with an underwater camera), but you sure don't leave any footprints.

And all you need is deep water, a pair of goggles, something to wear (and even that's not entirely necessary, though we did all keep our togs on this week). Oh, and a sense of adventure - to step off the beach and into another world, one where gravity doesn't apply to you and you're suddenly, utterly free.


Newsflash: Pinetrees' resident videographer Andy Lloyd has just finished his amazing video of our Ocean Swim Week, narrated by Trevor Hendy. Check it out: 

Want to go? Pinetrees Lodge is running two Ocean Swim Weeks in 2015, in March and November. Click here for more details. For more about Lord Howe Island, see

Thursday 20 November 2014

Girl vs Wild: Claire Dunn's solo year in the Australian bush

I love adventure stories, particularly when they have, as the best ones do, an in-built reminder about the transformative power of wild places.

While I was in "my" cabin in Norway recently, I read My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild by Claire Dunn. And, without gushing too much, it's my new all-time favourite book.

I probably would have loved My Year Without Matches for its subject matter alone: solo woman spends a year in the Australian bush and, as well as learning survival skills, finds the wildness in herself.

A bit of background: Burned out by her work as an environmental campaigner, Claire joined an experimental, year-long Wilderness Studies Program on a 100-acre block of bushland halfway between Grafton and Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast.

For six months, she and five others learned how to build their own shelters, make baskets and pots, understand bird-talk, track animals, find bush tucker and, most critically, make fire with sticks. Then they had six months to apply these skills.

Claire gathering bush tucker
All pics by Australian Geographic
But what I really loved about My Year Without Matches is Claire's luminous and vividly clear writing. There are so many well-observed and beautifully described details you feel as if you're right there with her, as barefoot and wild-haired as she was.

And I'm not the only one: the book has had an incredible reception worldwide, which Claire puts down to a "hunger for intimacy with the wild, and for wildness in ourselves".

A couple of weeks ago, I got to meet Claire in Newcastle, where she now lives - in a house, though she often still sleeps on the floor in her swag. We spent one of the loveliest afternoons I can remember, swimming, hanging out by the beach and talking.

Here are the highlights of our rather lengthy "chat"...

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson
in Tracks, the movie
What inspired you to spend a year in the bush? 
I think the seed was planted quite a long time ago when I read Robyn Davidson’s Tracks in my early 20s [Claire's now 35] and that really spoke to me – just the experiences she describes of the spaciousness and the rawness of being in the desert, and confronting parts of herself that she never knew existed, and the sense of empowerment that can come from those kinds of challenges. 

Also I felt intrigued by what it would be like to be alone in that vast landscape and what that could do to you, for you, how it could transform you.

What did you miss most, out there?
In summer, air-conditioning! When it was cold, anything hot - kettles, hot water bottles. I missed my friends and family. And matches - though that was the challenge I'd set myself, could I live without matches for a year? And simple things like walking down the street, getting a chai latte and reading the paper. But in the end I loved the things I had during that year more than the things I missed.

Claire making fire, in front of her shelter
What did you love most?
I didn't expect to love my shelter so much but I really did. It was my friend, my ally, my confidant. It was where I felt safe.

I loved my sit-spot [where Claire sat for an hour a day, just listening and taking in her surroundings] - it was like a doorway into this magical land. I was mad with curiosity, so I would hear or see things then want to know: What was that? Where do birds go when it rains?

And [despite being a forest campaigner for The Wilderness Society for many years] I wasn't ready for how much I'd fall in love with the forest.

Did you have any home comforts?
I had toothpaste and a toothbrush, a few knives, a mosquito net. But I survived without soap and shampoo (my hair got really shiny from the tannins in the river) and I never wore sunscreen or moisturiser; I didn't have a mirror either. 

In fact, another thing I loved was getting into camouflage: smearing mud on my face and arms and legs, adding leaf litter, it was like putting on a costume, then becoming invisible; it really makes you feel close to the earth like nothing else.

Claire's hands, dreaming of matches
A year in nature sounds so simple - was it?
Before I went, I did picture myself having a very simple time and wondered: how am I going to fill an entire year? But I often struggled to find that simplicity, partly because we had workshops the first six months and were given this suite of wilderness survival skills, each of which is a lifetime study in itself. 

So part of me wanted to make the most of this fantastic opportunity to learn how to track, tan hides and do all these crafts - even while another part of me wanted to sit around doing nothing. Time can so easily be filled up. It’s much more of a challenge to un-fill time, to empty yourself of obligations and plans.

What was simple about it?
One thing I really liked about that year was the simplicity of my social network. I could have ample time alone, which I love, and yet I had these other people that I shared the property with, going through the same thing [each living on his or her own patch, but near enough to be summoned by a loud cooee]. That was actually enough for my social needs, and it has given me a yearning for a life that is very simple, and deeply connected to a small group of people.

Did you have much of a culture shock when you left the bush?
In hindsight I did. The “four walls” thing was difficult, not sleeping outside, and the shift in priorities. I still wanted to live simply and to be connected to the outside, but I needed to make money, I was thinking about “What next?”, my outdoor time got squeezed into the start and the end of the day. 

So the culture shock wasn’t really the running hot water or things like that. I just really missed the simple social life, and it felt much more difficult to feel a sense of belonging and safety, and easier to get overwhelmed.

Claire at home,
in a tree, in the bush
How did the year change you?
It really shifted my awareness from the head to the heart, towards the eco-psychological and exploring this nature-human psyche relationship. I think we’re in a really interesting phase at the moment, of realising that there’s something very out of balance with our relationship with nature. 

I’ve had that experience of what it’s like to connect deeply with the natural world and the elements and I have a strong sense that that’s my purpose now, to be a bridge, to remind people and give people the opportunity to find that for themselves. [Claire now runs courses and workshops like this week's Ecological Encounters Retreat in northern NSW.]

At the same time, breaking down the sense of who I am has created this fluidity which is great in some ways, because I’m much more willing to go with where the energy is and follow where I’m drawn, but things also feel a lot more groundless and uncertain. 

Friends are often the best barometer sometimes of how you’ve changed – and they tell me that I am softer and more present and I give them more time, I’m less task driven, more available; that’s the best feedback I’ve had.

What did you learn from the experience?
One of my favourite quotes, and it's in the book too, is by Harold Thurman

“Don’t ask what the world needs. 
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. 
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

I think that’s really true, that what we really need to do is come alive to what our passions are, to wake up, wake up our senses – we can so easily be dulled when we live within four walls and on computers, and it takes constant vigilance really to reawaken and to keep cultivating that sense of aliveness. I had that experience of what it feels like to feel really alive in my senses and in my body and I really want that to continue.

Any advice for others feeling inspired by your book?
I think if people read my book and feel inspired, it’s probably an inspiration to do something that is reawakening and re-enlivening, and to ask: What would that be? If I could do anything… What really calls to me?

I do believe we all have a unique relationship to the natural world; my relationship to certain plants and animals is going to be completely different from yours, and if the book spoke to you in that way, maybe it’s time to look at your relationship with the natural world and figure out some ways to deepen and widen that, and look to others with knowledge of plants and skills.

It’s a beautiful thing to feel comfortable in the bush, and to spend the night alone, it’s liberating and it’s something that we often don’t have or make time for, so I would encourage that relationship in any way, and work your way up to spending chunks of time… not necessarily alone. Even camping. We’re lucky enough to have national parks all around us. Just pack up a tent, a stove and a sleeping bag and go. And reduce the gear; try to go with as few mod cons as possible.

What was your favourite part of the year? 
I think my time at the sit-spot every morning, and walking and wandering, without time or destination. Being barefoot on the land, wandering around, I can’t imagine anything more joyful, in fact I’m going to go and do that right now.

My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild was published in June 2014 by Black Inc Books and is available in print and as an ebook.

Monday 3 November 2014

Newsflash: No Impact Girl wins travel writing award

I'm wildly honoured to have won another travel writing award over the weekend, at this year's Australian Society of Travel Writers' Convention & Awards for Excellence 2014, held at the Intercontinental Fiji.

Just being themselves: Cheetah
at Ulusaba, South Africa
Unfortunately, I couldn't be there to collect it - at the time, I was actually surfing on the Central Coast north of Sydney; still had wet hair when I checked Twitter and saw that I'd won the award for Best Luxury Travel Story. Stoked!

In case any of you think I've lost my No Impact Girl sensibilities, let me assure you that the luxury travel experience I wrote about was a safari at Ulusaba, Richard Branson's low key lodge in South Africa, and the real luxury of the place, as I mention in my winning story, Wildly indulgent, is how close you can get to the wildlife in Sabi Sands Game Reserve, thanks to Ulusaba's incredible rangers and trackers.

Heartfelt congratulations to all my fellow writers who won awards, and those who were finalists, particularly the talented Fairfax columnist and feature writer Ben Groundwater who is the 2014 Travel Writer of the Year. Go Ben!

Thursday 30 October 2014

Cabin fever: Two weeks alone in a Norwegian wood

"Cabin". Just the word seems to open a window in my mind (yours too?) and let in light and a little peace.

Like most nature-lovers, I've long dreamed of staying in a cabin in the woods, trying out a simpler way of living (while secretly wondering if I'd be able to handle it). This northern summer, I got my chance - in the mother country of cabins everywhere, Norway.

My very own cabin in the woods
Turns out that spending two weeks alone in a Norwegian wood was one of THE best experiences of my travelling life - which is why I've deliberated over writing about it. I'm still not sure I can do it justice. But here goes.

(Thanks to all those who read my essay on quiet travel in The Sydney Morning Herald last week and asked for details about the cabin. This post is for you.)

The view: a sea of trees
A cabin called Klunken
One of the delightful things about Klunken cabin (apart from its name, which just means "clunk" in Norwegian, go figure) is its location: on a hill surrounded by pine, fir and birch trees and overlooking the forested area it inhabits, Kjekstadmarka.

It feels remote, yet it's only 30 minutes by train from Oslo. Oh, and a two-hour walk from the station.

Be prepared: Gotta love the Scouts
Originally a loggers' cabin, built in the 1940s, Klunken has been a Scout hut since the 1970s. A couple of years ago, Scout leader Håvard Sørli put it on Airbnb (where I found it; it's listed as Cabin w/view in Norway) to raise money for the Scouts.

(An interesting aside: Norwegian legend Thor Heyerdahl and four of his five companions on the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition were Scouts. I read Heyerdahl's book at the cabin, by the way, a great read and a fantastic adventure story.)

Loved the red windows
I wasn't completely alone. A walking and cross-country ski trail goes right past the cabin and occasionally someone trail-running after work would stop and say hello to the "Australian girl living like Robinson Crusoe," as one woman described me. (I spoke to about eight people in two weeks.)

Then there were my wild neighbours: a few squirrels, an eagle, three snakes, a tick (which I had to carefully remove from my inner elbow, ouch) and a moose I heard (but sadly didn't see) walking noisily through the forest on dusk one evening.

Cabin interior, with candles
Chop wood, carry water
Inside, the cabin was the epitome of simplicity: a single room with a wood stove, bunk beds, a table and chairs, three windows and candles for reading at "night" (being mid-summer, it didn't get truly dark until 11.30pm).

There was no electricity, no running water. A previous guest joked in the "hyttebok" (hutbook) that he couldn't find the password for Klunken's wifi; of course there is none, and no mobile reception either.

In lumberjack, er, jane, mode
I chopped wood to make a fire to cook and boil water. I carried water from the nearest lake, a one-kilometre walk away. And I loved all this, more than I could have imagined.

Simple days
What did I do all day? Housekeeping matters took more time than they would at home: making a cup of tea meant lighting a fire, I bathed and washed my clothes with water from the lake, whittled kindling with my Swiss army knife.

The kitchen
But each "chore" was its own reward: doing simple things with my hands was immensely calming.

As I said in my quiet travel essay, there was unlimited, uninterrupted time to read, write (with pen and paper, remember those?) and do nothing but listen to the birds and the trees. I collected leaves and drew them. I took (lots of) photos.

I picked wild strawberries, raspberries and blueberries (which really should be called deep-purple berries).

Sweetest. Berries. Ever.
I didn't once feel lonely. I can't remember ever feeling so content.

One morning I did the three-hour round trip on foot to the nearest supermarket, and felt like a child raised by wolves when I got there. Cars! Shopping trolleys! Air-conditioning! Carrying two weeks' groceries home on my back gave me a new appreciation for the food I eat.

Follow me, every path says
Natural challenges
I also had an entire forest and an enormous freshwater lake to explore - my very own swimming pool! I loved being able to swim every day, particularly as it was so hot, more than 30 degrees sometimes (though I had no way of knowing for sure).

And I set myself little challenges. To swim to the other side of the lake and back (about 300m) and not get spooked by the bottomless black water and the fact that there was no one around if I got a cramp halfway across and drowned.

Skapertjern lake, my happy place
To not read or write for an entire day (to be more present and make the most of being where I was). Not reading was ok, but not writing was so difficult I cracked by 6pm. Writing was my conversation and confession, my thinking and talking, my sharing and musing.

Towards the end of my stay, I started walking around barefoot (I almost called this post "Barefoot and bra-less in Norway") and was amazed at how much it slowed me down - in a good way.

This way, remember?
Actually, negotiating the unmarked forest paths was a constant challenge. I got lost quite a few times, made little signs for myself to remind me where to go.

At least the days were long, and there were no bears. Or wolves, poisonous snakes or spiders, stinging trees, leeches. Norway is so benign. In human terms, I felt safe too; there wasn't even a lock on the cabin door.

Thank you, cabin 
I learned a lot in two weeks. Practical things like how to use an axe without chopping off my foot, and how to make tasty, simple meals on a wood stove, a first for me. And other things that are harder to put into words.

Simple me
Although I just wanted to enjoy the cabin experience for its own sake, and not try to get anything out of it, I feel as if it's a bookmark in my life I'll keep returning to.

I was surprised at how "at home" I felt there and how well I felt, inside and out, at the end of two weeks. Calmer, clear-eyed and somehow more "solid" from being physical, in nature, every day.

It probably helped that it was also a detox, of sorts: no coffee, no chocolate, no alcohol, no meat, no dairy products (no fridge!).

Goodbye Klunken, 'til next time
Although I travel a lot, and am always moving in and out of hotel rooms, bungalows and apartments, it was really hard to leave Klunken. The little cabin on the hill had become my home, in the truest sense of the word.

Two weeks might not sound long, but somehow time stretches out when you're living this way, in such a place, unplugged from the man-made world and tuned-in to your immediate surrounds.

Maybe I'll get back there sometime, and stay longer. Until then, I'm happy that places like Klunken still exist, leading us like a trail of breadcrumbs back to what's real.

(Although I travelled at my own expense, I am deeply grateful to the local Scouts for opening up Klunken to travellers. Thanks, Håvard!)

Saturday 18 October 2014

In praise of quiet travel

My latest travel story, in today's Sydney Morning Herald, is about a subject close to my heart. Here's an excerpt (see the link below for the full article):

Pic: Fairfax Media
The quiet Australian*
I’m halfway to Kathmandu when it hits me. Listening to metal chair legs scrape on the tiled floor of the food court in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, babies screaming and several Russians deep in vigorous conversation, I get a sudden urge to abandon my journey, crash through the floor-to-ceiling windows and trade places with the gardener calmly watering the grass and the plants outside.

Of course, being Bangkok, it’s probably no quieter out there than in here. And airports aren’t the reason we travel. They’re on-the-way places that force us to hold our breaths and amuse ourselves until we’re somewhere real again. But the experience starts me thinking about something I’ve often overlooked or, more precisely, underheard: the joy of quiet travel.

You won’t find me running with the bulls in Pamplona, clinking steins full of beer at Oktoberfest or watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. If I had a bucket list, Rio’s Carnival wouldn’t be on it. Nor would any of Thailand’s full-moon parties, or that festival in Spain where people throw tomatoes at each other.

Cities have their charms, but I’ve always felt drawn to wide, open landscapes far from Thomas Hardy’s “madding crowds”. I don’t mean to be misanthropic; in fact, travelling to these empty quarters, getting away from our fellow humans now and then, can make us kinder when we return. It can also develop other, undervalued qualities such as patience, fortitude and modesty. Standing on a ridge high in the Himalayas, surrounded by 8000-metre peaks that seem close enough to touch, for instance, you can relax into insignificance. Give me Mongolia over Manhattan any day. 
Read the full article.

(*This was the title in today's newspaper; it has a different title online but it's the same story.)

Wednesday 24 September 2014

10 green reasons to love Norway

I love Norway. One of the highlights of my three months in Europe recently was the month I spent travelling around this long, thin, fjord-riddled country: two weeks in a cabin (more on this later), friend-visiting in Voss and Oslo, a few days and nights on trains (who knew Norway was so big? It's about 2500km south to north) and almost a week in the lovely Lofoten islands, north of the Arctic Circle. 

The beautiful Lofotens
I almost started to feel Scandinavian, mainly because people would speak to me in Norwegian, I got used to thinking in kroner (instead of euros) and I learned a bit of train-Norwegian (I could tell you your next stop and which side the platform would be on. Handy, I know.)

Here's what I love about Norway:

1. It's beautiful. This goes without saying but Norway's scenery really is worth travelling to the other side of the world for. Glacier-carved fjords, rushing turquoise rivers, coastal villages that haven't changed in centuries, thundering waterfalls, wild forests, alpine meadows, the midnight sun, more than 50,000 islands... The show never stops.

Weathered cabins near Voss
2. Cabins. Norwegians virtually invented cabins (how can we ever thank them?) and these impossibly charming wooden cottages dot Norway like hundreds and thousands on fairy bread, ramping up the grandeur of its natural places by putting humankind in our rightful place. There are cabins on mountaintops, in forests, by fjords, on remote Arctic beaches (remember North of the Sun?), and almost every Norwegian has access to a cabin. I could live in one, and perhaps one day I will.

Tent with a (free) view, Lofotens
3. You can camp almost anywhere, for free. Norway's right-of-access law allows anyone to pitch a tent on any unfenced land, including national parks, as long as you're at least 150m from the nearest house or cabin. You're even allowed to pick berries, flowers and mushrooms while you're there. 

4. Electric cars. Despite being the largest producer of oil in Europe, Norway has more electric cars per capita than any other country (I saw Teslas and charging stations everywhere), thanks to government subsidies. Fifteen EU countries provide incentives to owner of electric cars, but in Norway, electric cars are exempt from sales tax, road tax and public parking fees, and can use bus lanes. The icing on the cake is that almost all Norway's electricity is renewable, from hydro (and the surplus exported to mainland Europe). 

Trees in the middle of Oslo
5. Trees! Fly over Norway (better still, travel around it by train) and you'll notice it's almost all green. More than a third of Norway is boreal forest (though Finland is the most forested country in Europe with a massive 74 per cent forest) and Scandinavia has been practising sustainably forestry for more than a century. 

6. No dangerous animals. Coming from Australia - which has more things that can bite, sting and kill you than possibly anywhere else on Earth - Norway is a benign natural paradise. There might be a few bears in the north, if you can find them, but there are no poisonous snakes or spiders or other nasties. I hardly even saw a mosquito this summer. The closest I came to non-bird wildlife encounter was hearing a moose in the forest.

Fjord-kayaking near Voss
7. Nature-loving people. Norway is like New Zealand, times a hundred. I saw people of all ages hiking, camping, trail-running, mountain biking, climbing, swimming pristine lakes. I even saw a dog wearing a backpack. And that was just in summer. In winter, I'm sure they're all outside, blizzard or shine, enjoying the great, white outdoors.

8. It's kind-hearted. Norway isn't just a wealthy country (with the fourth highest per capita income in the world, according to the World Bank), it shares the love, via the Nordic welfare model (like other Scandinavian countries) which aims for equal opportunity, universal health care and security for all. Then there's the Nobel Peace Prize; Alfred Nobel was a Swede but the prize is decided by a Norwegian committee and awarded in Oslo every year on December 10, the year of Nobel's death.

My hero (or one of them)
9. Thor Heyerdahl. If this legendary Norwegian explorer and anthropologist were alive today, he'd be turning 100 next week (his birthday was 6 Oct 1914). On his famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, he and five others crossed the Pacific on a 14m balsa-wood raft to prove that Polynesia might have been settled from South America - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Heyerdahl couldn't swim (!). You can see the raft and buy his book (which has been translated into more than 70 languages and sold 100 million copies) at the fascinating Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo; the 2012 Kon-Tiki movie is a great ride too. 

10. More Norwegian heroes. For a small country of only five million people, Norway has produced more than its fair share of outdoor legends. There's Nansen, who designed a polar-proof ship, the Fram (which you can see and go aboard in the Fram Museum in Oslo). Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole and find the Northwest Passage. Environmental philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term Deep Ecology. And, more recently, Aleksander Gamme, who walked alone and unsupported to the South Pole in 2012, beating Aussies Cas and Jonesy by a frozen whisker.

Big thanks to Rail Plus for the Eurail pass, to Etihad for getting me to Europe, and to my Norwegian friends Frank and Oddrun in Voss, and Ingrid and Chris in Oslo.  

Saturday 6 September 2014

City of bikes (yes you, Copenhagen)

Earlier this northern summer I had an overnight stopover in Denmark’s capital, to break up the train journey from Switzerland to Norway, and was overwhelmed by its bike-friendliness. I mean, everyone knows this is THE bike city, but I hadn't realised just how bike-centric it is until I spent 24 hours there.

Bikes catch trains here
In Copenhagen, it’s easy to believe we became bipedal to, er, pedal, not walk upright. 

Everyone rides bikes in the Danish capital, which has a whopping 400km of bike lanes. I saw people of all ages on bicycles of all shapes and sizes (parents on "pram" bikes, removalists on "cargo" bikes), girls in skirts with their cardigan wings flapping, shirtless young men (long live summer), businessfolk in suits (more than half of all Copenhageners commute to work by bike). Princess Mary probably has a royal bike.

No boom gates, no tickets
at this (bike) parking station
It's hard to imagine why we ever drove cars, in such a bike utopia. 

There are bike-only bridges. Bike parking stations. Double-decker bike racks. Garbage bins angled towards cyclists so they can toss things in as they ride by (how cool is that?). Green LEDs on bike paths that light up when you ride at 20kph, fast enough to make all the green (bike) traffic lights. 

Electric share-bikes with GPS
units - only in Copenhagen
As in other European cities, there's a bike-share scheme, of course, but Copenhagen's (called Bycyklen) has 2000 (!) electric "smart bikes" with GPS units, built-in lights and puncture-free tyres (and the cost is a very tourist-friendly 25 kroner, of $4, an hour).

I also saw the newly opened (in June) Cykelslangen ("Cycle Snake"), a bright orange, 220-metre elevated bike path that allows cyclists to ride over a harbourside area where pedestrians like to saunter. (It's also becoming a popular spot for youths to dive off into the water, see below.)

This is one cool, two-wheeled city. Here's a neat video clip from about Copenhagen's bike-friendly present and future.

Five more delightful things about Copenhagen:

I can fly! The new elevated
1. You can swim in the harbour – I saw this in Oslo, too, people getting their annual dose of vitamin D right in the heart of the city, on open patches of grass, on jetties, and just diving into the harbour (or the free harbour pool) to cool off. I would have joined them if I hadn’t left my swimmers in my luggage in a locker at the station (epic fail), but I did swim in Oslo (twice!) and the water was surprisingly warm. 

2. It has Europe’s largest hostel, Copenhagen City Hostel, a 5-star, 14-storey design hostel in a harbourside building (the tallest in Denmark until 1958) on Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard (where else?). I slept in one of its 1020 beds, on the 11th floor and had a great view over the city for about $49 (265 kroner; Copenhagen may be bike-friendly but it ain't cheap). 

3. You can juice birch trees here – well, not personally, but in Copenhagen you can buy SealandBirk organic birch tree juice. Tastes sweet, and is full of antioxidants and vitamins, apparently.

Virtual tourism info
4. It has virtual tourist information booths. The tourism information centre was trialling these at Copenhagen’s central station when I was there in July. Needing a city map, I walked in, pressed the touchscreen and skyped with a friendly, real person in the tourist info centre a few blocks away.

Summer cycling: one of
Copenhagen's bike overpasses
5. Is it just me or do Danish people, on the whole, look incredibly healthy? Everyone I saw was rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed, shiny-haired. Maybe it's because they ride bikes everywhere.

Copenhagen has plans to become the "world's best bicycle city" by the end of 2015, but to my mind it's already there...