Monday 30 March 2015

Why I love swimming - wherever I travel

My latest essay for Traveller in The Sydney Morning Herald is about something close to my heart (like In praise of quiet travel, my previous essay): my love of swimming, something I never leave home without.

I can't help myself. No matter where I'm travelling to, I pack goggles, ear plugs and a swimsuit, just in case. You never know when, or where, you might find your next fix: water time.

The story ran last weekend - while I happened to be swimming with sea turtles off Heron Island (more on that soon) - with this sublime illustration (left) by Michael Mucci.

Here's an excerpt, and a link to the full story at the end of this post:

Wet, wet, wet
Have swimsuit, will travel. That's my mantra, finding windows of time and places to swim, no matter where I am, my semi-secret mission when I'm on the road.

It starts when I'm packing and I fall for swimming's minimalism all over again. Togs, goggles and I'm good to go. What other sporting equipment can be scrunched into a shoe in your suitcase?

Of course you need a pool, but I use the term loosely. Which brings me to the real reason I swim. It's not just that swimming is good, portable exercise and the best way I know to unfold one's limbs after a long-haul flight. It's this: nothing wakes you up to your surroundings and commits you to really being where you are like full-body contact with water.

Swim and you are literally, immediately, immersed in the landscape, particularly in natural places.

I've swum in mountain tarns surrounded by 3000-metre peaks and the grey-white tongues of glaciers in New Zealand. With so many tropical fish in Palawan, in the Philippines, it was like swimming in a free-range aquarium. I'll never forget my first dip in Tanzania after crossing sub-Saharan Africa on an overland truck: as soon as we rattled to a stop at the first beach we'd seen in two months, I sprinted into the sea's embrace like a long-missed lover.

Read the full story

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Beyond Earth Hour: the Earth Night experiment

With Earth Hour 2015 fast approaching - 10 sleeps to go! - I decided to revisit one of my favourite ways to extend the idea of turning off the lights for action on climate change.

Electricity-free in 2011
Four years ago, almost to the day, I had my first electricity-free night, an Earth Night so to speak. 

It became a weekly habit during my No Impact month, which began on Earth Hour 2011 and was inspired by No Impact Man Colin Beavan's one-year, no-environmental-impact experiment in New York City. (See Why "No Impact Girl"? for more on that.) 

For something so simple - spending one night, from sundown to bedtime, without any electric lights, devices or appliances - it was a revelation. 

"It was like camping, with comforts and your own bed," I raved the morning after in one of my first-ever blog posts. I loved that the house was silent but for the hum of the fridge. I loved playing Scrabble by candlelight. I loved the Wuthering Heights-like shadows that flickered on the walls when I carried candles from room to room like a Bronte sister.

Best of all, it was intensely calming, an island of quiet in an otherwise ordinary working week.

Christmas Island Earth Hour
Pic by Carla Grossetti
I was hooked. (What's the point of it, you might be wondering? Read this post: Candle power.) Then I lapsed. I kept celebrating Earth Hour: my most memorable one happened on tropical Christmas Island during a media trip when my fellow writers and I swam by candelight in a sea cave. Priceless.

The last time I did an electricity-free night was last northern summer when I had two whole weeks of them in an electricity-free cabin in Norway, although I use the term "night" loosely; it didn't get properly dark until 11pm. 

So I was long overdue for another. Last week, I ordered a box of beeswax candles, the world's most environmentally friendly candles, from Northern Light, based here in northern NSW. When they arrived, I picked a night and turned off the lights - or rather didn't turn them on when the sun set. 
"Night" in Norway

I didn't turn on the tv to watch the news. I turned off my phone, iPad, computer and Kindle - and tuned in. For the first time in a long time I was aware of the gathering darkness. The sounds of night coming. I lit a few candles, and peace descended. 

Everything looks more beautiful and more rustic by the honey glow of a few beeswax candles. I made dinner using the electric stove (I don't have a gas stove this time; at least my electricity comes from solar panels all over the roof) and ate by candlelight. I read an actual book and wrote with a pen and paper, went outside to look at the stars, carried a candle into the bathroom to brush my teeth. The night seemed long, in a good way. 

Just an ordinary Thursday night - suddenly made simple, spacious and timeless. It also reminded me how fortunate we are to have lights to turn off: 1.2 billion people on our planet live without electricity every night.

Earth Hour is a great start - it's on Saturday March 28 this year, 8.30-9.30pm wherever you are - an incredible social movement that started in Sydney and now connects hundreds of millions of people in more than 160 countries every year. Watch the video here.

But why not keep the candles burning? Have an electricity-free night once a month, do it solo or with someone you love, pack a picnic and dine under the stars or the streetlights or on the beach, have a moonlit swim, invite friends over for candlelit conversation... More ideas here.

Happy Earth Hour, everyone!

Thursday 5 March 2015

Why I love the Northern Rivers (and Lennox Head)

Three months ago, I drove north of Sydney and took a long-overdue solo surf trip. For two weeks I camped at my favourite beaches, visited friends and dawdled north.

It was only when I reached northern NSW that I realised something: after living as a "digital gypsy" for 18 months, I really needed to stop moving and "be" in one place for the summer, maybe longer.

Like Goldilocks, I tried out three spots: Byron, Mullum (local for Mullumbimby; same goes for Brunswick Heads, affectionately known as "Bruns") and, finally, Lennox Head, which feels "just right".

After living in Sydney all my life (when I've been in Australia), it's a breath of fresh air to live in regional NSW. I feel as if I have more time, fewer distractions, less stress. Life seems simpler, somehow. As I told the Northern Star reporter who interviewed me a couple of weeks ago - "Travel writer tours the world and chooses to live here" - I seem to be falling for the Northern Rivers.

I've spent most of my working life getting to know new places, so being here feels a lot like travelling - I'm meeting new people, exploring and learning every day - with the unexpected bonus that the longer I spend here, the more I feel at home.

(The "northern rivers", by the way, are: the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence, which meet the sea at Tweed Heads, Ballina and Yamba, respectively.)

Why I love Lennox
Where to start? Lennox ticks a lot of boxes for me. I love that...

~ It's by the sea: all the shops and cafes on the main drag, Ballina Street, are right across the road from the beach
~ It has a spectacular natural setting: the sweep of Seven Mile Beach between Broken Head in the north and Lennox's distinctive headland to the south
~ It's quieter and less busy than Byron, which is still only 15-minutes north.

Most importantly, it's great for surfing. In fact, I'm still daydreamy from two surf sessions earlier this week: beautiful waves, just a few of us out, gentle offshore winds, sunshine, warm water (26 degrees!) and dolphins!

I love that surfing is a way into a community like this. I've met so many interesting, friendly people already - we get chatting while we wait for waves, or stand around in the sun afterwards, boards on the grass, car windows down, just hanging out. I'd forgotten that people still do this: hang out, oblivious to the time, with no plans, nowhere to hurry off to.

One of the first people I met was Vic. When he told me he writes for The Lennox Wave, our version of Annie Proulx's Shipping News (one of my favourite books), I asked him if he’s a journalist.

“Nah,” he said, “I’m a Gemini!” I laughed. That’s so Northern Rivers. (He's also an artist; that's Lennox Head by Vic Leto, left.)

After living in Manly for the past 15 years, I love that you don't have to pay for parking anywhere in Lennox (and in Byron, a NSW National Parks gives you free parking at The Pass, Wategos and Tallows - a local tip). And that it's so safe you can leave your surfboard on the roof of your car while you go to the shops or linger over a post-surf coffee.

I love swimming in Lake Ainsworth, a freshwater lake fringed by paperbarks that was a sacred women's place in Bundjalung culture - which could explain why I love swimming in its dark, tannin-stained waters, and why a few of my male surfer friends don't.

Another thing I love about Lennox is its proximity to Byron (aka "the bay"), the epicentre of all things Northern Rivers.

You've gotta love Byron
There's nowhere like Byron. Sure, it's touristy and but it's also magical and big-hearted; everyone's welcome in Byron, partly because most people there have come from somewhere else.

Its Arakwal name Cavvanbah actually means "meeting place" (I learned that recently), so it figures that Byron is still a place for people of all stripes to gather, exchange ideas, enjoy each other's company and drift away again.

It's the kind of place where babies are called Bodhi, every second car has a "Lock the gate" or anti-CSG bumper sticker and people still hitchhike. Where there are no traffic lights, and every electricity meter box or bare wall is decorated with earth-loving, consciousness-raising street art.

I love the road sign on Byron's northern outskirts: "Cheer up, slow down, chill out". Right on.

You don't just bushwalk in the Northern Rivers, you do "heart walks" (guided meditative walks to tune in to nature's wisdom). It's not uncommon to walk forest trails barefoot and in silence with like-minded friends; I've done that a couple of times up here.

I love that I can get my hair cut for $25 by a salon-trained hairdresser with full-arm tatts and a ponytail in a hole-in-the-wall barber shop on Jonson Street. No products, no blow-dry, no trying to talk me into getting "a few foils". I'd rather get my highlights from the sun - he gets that. In fact, he’s the first hairdresser to tell me to swim in the sea as soon as I leave his chair and to condition the ends with a bit of virgin organic coconut oil.

And you still get a dose of "country" every time you open the Echo (Byron Shire's newspaper) and see job ads for sugar cane harvesters and long-distance drivers alongside ads for organic breads and yoga classes.

I love Byron's Farmers' Market (Thursdays, 8-11am). I get a lesson in local geography every time I buy, say, blueberries from Brooklet, brown jasmine rice from the Nimbin Valley, organic apples from Stanthorpe.

Sometimes I meet friends there and we treat ourselves to Myocum coffee and freshly baked pains au chocolat from the Mullum bakery stall, then sit at a plastic table covered with a hand-embroidered linen tablecloth - only in Byron.

I love Bay FM, Byron's one and only radio station, whose tagline is "the heart and art of Byron". I love their "sexy voice weather reports" when the presenter puts on his best Barry White baritone and reads, “Byron Bay… 28… sunny with a chance of… showers.” Oh yeah. The other day I heard this intro to a segment: “Let’s talk a bit of politics, before we get onto sex and consciousness”. So Northern Rivers.

Local "secrets"
I've had a few Sunday drives lately to explore my new backyard: north to Murwillumbah, west to Alstonville, south to Evans Head. I love the names of hamlets around here: Possum Creek, The Pocket, Woodenbong.

There are hidden gems around every corner. Unsignposted waterfalls, rickety roadside produce stalls with honesty boxes, secret beaches. The southern hemisphere's only Buddhist stupa, built in 2012 at the Crystal Castle (near Mullum) and blessed by the 14th Dalai Lama no less. Australia's first solar-powered electric-vehicle charging station, at the Macadamia Castle (of all places), right on the Pacific Highway, just south of Byron. The amazing Tweed Regional Gallery, which has views of Mt Warning and a recreation of artist Margaret Olley's "yellow room" home studio.

My favourite find was a massive Kon-Tiki-style balsa-wood raft in Ballina's maritime museum. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's 100-day journey from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, a multi-national team of 12 men spent 178 days (almost six months!) sailing three Las Balsas rafts from Ecuador to Ballina in 1973. Who knew?

"Perhaps I am romantic," said Spanish expedition leader Vital Alsar before setting off. "And the men who sail with me must be romantics too, for it is my idea they are risking their lives for. But they are practical romantics, not just dreamers. It is childish to just sleep and dream of doing something. But to make something a reality ... is wonderful."

Adventure and inspiration in a hangar-like museum in downtown Ballina - how very Northern Rivers.