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