Friday 20 May 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Harry rides to Patagonia

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of nights at a lighthouse hostel just south of San Francisco. It had its own beach, though it was too cold and wild to swim, and at night I could lie in my bunk and listen to the North Pacific smashing itself against the cliffs outside.

One of the reasons I love staying at hostels when I travel (in Australia too) is that you never know who you're going to meet over your morning muesli.

All pics by Harry Allen
At Point Montara hostel, while I was checking-in, I met 52-year-old Harry Allen, from Canada. On seeing his fully laden bike leaning up against the wall outside, I asked him where he was headed. His one-word answer created Patagonian mountains and glaciers in my mind: "Ushuaia."

Naturally my curiosity pricked up its ears (I've never been to that part of the world) and started asking questions.

Turns out my new friend had left Vancouver a month earlier and was planning to spend a year riding to the southern tip of the Americas, the last stop before Antarctica.

There's a lot to love about Harry's expedition. It's the epitome of slow, low-impact travel (he's fuelled by the food he eats, not fossilised hydrocarbons). He's doing it for its own sake, for the adventure of it, not to break a record or prove anything or raise money for a cause, which keeps things simple. He certainly seemed content to just let the trip unfold and enjoy what each day brings. And he's funding his trip the old-fashioned way (no corporate sponsors to keep happy), with money he saved (remember saving?).

Two weeks later, when I emailed him for this post, I was home and Harry was... 800km further south, about to cross the border into Mexico.

You can follow Harry's expedition at

In the meantime, here are 10 questions I asked him about what it's like to ride from Vancouver to Ushuaia, so far:

Day 0: Vancouver
1. Where did the idea for this trip come from? 
Actually I think the idea of cycling to Ushuaia came to me when I was a child. Obviously I didn't know where Ushuaia was back then, but I can remember getting my first two-wheeled bicycle. It was just, freedom! I would cycle to the end of the block and back for hours. When I was old enough to cross the busy street by myself, I would ride as far as I could, exploring the neighbourhood and on the weekends and after school my friends and I would ride the trails alongside the river that ran through the city where I grew up. 

Ushuaia was a convenient choice. I didn't have to fly or travel anywhere to start the trip, just step outside my door, turn south and keep riding for 20,0000km or so. It's ultimately the end of the block!

2. Is this your first big cycling trip?
I did a 6-month cycling trip in Europe about 20 years ago, but other than that, I just rode my bike around Vancouver, where I live. I sometimes joke that this trip is a mid-life crisis of sorts. Maybe it is. 

3. What was the hardest thing about preparing for it? 
The most difficult part was trying not to plan at all. I became obsessed with other people's bike blogs and cycle touring videos on Vimeo. I would spend hours reading gear reviews and bike reviews. I stopped planning the day I came across a blog by a guy named Tom Allen (no relation). He said, "The best way to plan a bike trip is to not plan at all." Too many choices equals too much stress. 

4. What’s a typical day like for you now? 
I get up as early as possible (I start to lose my motivation for riding around 3pm, so the earlier I get started the more distance I can put behind me). Fire up the camp stove. A bowl of oatmeal, fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. Tear down the tent and load the bags onto the bike. I stop two or three times a day for a short break and a snack. I also stop to take photos. There's no shortage of scenery on this ride! 

I'll generally ride for 6 to 8 hrs a day, depending on the terrain. Mid to late afternoon, I'll stop riding, set up my tent, eat dinner (always pasta and sauce), read for an hour and listen to music then it's off to bed around 8pm. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The California coast
5. You're travelling so simply, what have you learned about what you really need? 
Travelling by bike, like hiking, is definitely simple; you're pretty much self-contained, self-supported. I've met a few cyclists along the way, older guys, who actually live on their bicycles; all they have is what they carry on their bikes. I'm not quite as streamlined. For one thing, I have about 4.5kg of cameras, hard drives and a laptop. Equipment that I could do without, but I want to document the trip as well as I can. But other than that, what I'm carrying is what I'll live with for the next year. I don't even carry a coffee pot; Starbucks or an independent coffee shop works for me.

6.  What do you love about travelling like this? 
There are so many things I love about travelling by bicycle, but one of the big ones is the health aspect. My diet has improved 100 per cent since I started this trip. No more processed food; everything I buy at the grocery store, aside from oatmeal and pasta, has to be consumed within a day or two. No more Friday night Chinese takeaway binges (although I have had McDonalds a couple of times). 

7. What have some of the highlights been so far? 
There are so many! All of the wonderful people I have met: people in campgrounds or RVs inviting me in for dinner, locals giving me advice on which road has the least elevation gain, other cyclists and hearing their stories, travellers at youth hostels with great stories to tell and travel tips. 

I also love the speed at which I am travelling; the horizon unfolds much more slowly for me [than if I were driving] and I have more time to see, hear and smell what's around me. I’ve seen whales breaching off the coast. Foxes with their dinner hanging from their mouth as they scurry across the road. Herds of elk. Rabbits, birds of prey. The ride along the Big Sur coast [in California] has to be the biggest highlight so far. Huge elevation gains and losses and dramatic views around every turn. Unforgettable!

Bike + beach
8. What’s the hardest thing about it? 
There’s nothing really difficult about it. The first hour of riding is not very pleasant physically, but after that my muscles warm up and I get into a rhythm and everything is good in the world.

9. What has surprised you? 
The fact that every day I feel more and more motivated to ride. Even if I'm riding through an industrial setting like parts of Los Angeles or if it's pouring rain like the first seven days. It’s a curiosity thing. What's around the next corner?

10. What are you most looking forward to? 
Ultimately my final destination, Ushuaia. But until then I look forward to each new country that I enter. South America is a whole new continent for me, so exciting! 


Big thanks for the inspiration, Harry. I wish you tailwinds and friendly faces all the way to the end of the world.

Postscript, 16 July 2016: Harry emailed me a few days ago to say that he's in Mexico -- and has decided stopped riding. The heat was too intense, he said, "like doing a spin class in a hot yoga room for 8 hours." So the ride is over, he's flying back to Vancouver and going back to work. But who knows, maybe there'll be a Part 2 to this Vancouver-Ushuaia adventure somewhere down the road...

Monday 9 May 2016

8 ways to save the bees (and why they need saving)

One of the things I love about writing for a living is that it gives me an excuse to find out about stuff and a way to share what I've learned with others and hopefully spark conversations and changes. That's how I came to write about bees for the latest issue of WellBeing magazine (issue #162). 

Drone honeybee, pic by Flow
Like most people, I knew that bees are in trouble worldwide. But I wanted to find out why, how bad is it in Australia and why do we need bees? 

All super interesting, but the highlight was meeting three passionate beekeepers (is there any other kind?) in northern NSW, where I live, who have been thinking outside the hive to come up with three innovative ways to save the bees. You can read all about it in Where are all the bees? (a link to the full story). 

Something else I learned from the beekeepers I talked to: what we can all do to help. These tips are in the story too, but I've expanded on them and wanted to share them here too to spread the word further, and for easy reference. 

Most are simple things, some take a bit of planning, but all of them put us back in touch with nature and remind us that we're all connected, even when we forget that. Go the bees!

1. Buy organic. By supporting pesticide-free farming, you’re supporting healthy bees free of the effects of neonics, aka neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides toxic to bees in a multitude of ways. You'll be helping the earth and improving your own health and wellbeing too. You can also support pesticide-free food by shopping at farmers' markets and talking to the people who grow your food (e.g. some can't afford organic certification but don't use pesticides or artificial fertilisers).

Bees love cut flowers too
2. Make your garden bee-friendly (even if you live in an apartment). By planting wildflowers, in fact any flowers, herbs and vegetables - just make sure you use organic seeds (almost all other seeds are neonic-coated). You can find bee-friendly seed packs at Eden Seeds and Melbourne City Rooftop HoneyHappy Flame, which makes beautiful organic beeswax candles, also gives its online customers free organic seed packs. 

Other ways to have a bee-friendly garden: let parts of your garden go wild, mow less often and use only natural pesticides such as neem oil.

3. Get bee-wise. Watch docos such as More than Honey (2012), Queen of the Sun (2010) and The Vanishing of the Bees (2009) and TED talks such as No Bees, No Food by John Miller (2014) and Why Bees are Disappearing by Marla Spivak (2013). Some of these movies you can watch online, or through Netflix. Or think bigger and host a community screening in your local cinema or town hall. 

4. Avoid household insecticides. This is a big one. Even flea treatments for your pets contain bee-toxic neonics. Use natural insecticides around your home, such as citronella or neem oil, or make your own (the simplest is 30ml of biodegradable soap in a litre of water, with optional extras such as garlic and onion and oils such as tea tree or eucalyptus for fragrance). And "live and let live" a little. A screen door is a better way to cope with mosquitoes than nuking them with harmful chemicals.

Happy Flame's beeswax candles
5. Support your local beekeepers. Beekeepers do it tough in Australia, which makes them dependent on pollination work to make a living, which puts their bees at risk (learn how here). 

You can help by buying local honey (which can also reduce the effects of hay fever, apparently), organic beeswax candles (my two favourites are Northern Light and Happy Flame) and beeswax-based products such as Burt’s Bees lip balm. 

6. Support a government ban on neonics in Australia. Don’t just sign a petition, write to your local MP and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and spread the word on social media to get others to do the same. 

7. Learn how to be a backyard beekeeper. The world needs more bees, but it's a good idea to get some training before you buy a hive. Crowdfunding sensation Flow Hive has a new kind of hive that makes collecting honey safer for bees and easier for humans, and training videos to help you get started. Milkwood runs natural beekeeping courses in Sydney and beyond. The Australian Native Bee Company can teach you how to keep native bees anywhere on the east coast north of Bega.

8. Support bee-friendly businesses. Such as: Humble B, a new eco-cleaning company that uses only ethical, earth-friendly products and gives 50 per cent of its profits to local environmental and community projects. You can also learn to make your own eco-friendly cleaning products; I went to a fantastic green-cleaning workshop run by Self Seed a few weeks ago, and they have lots of recipes and tips on their website.

That's a (beeswax) wrap
Let me know if you think of other ways. I've just started using reusable, washable beeswax food wraps made by Byron-based Honeybee Wrap - for wrapping sandwiches and leftovers instead of plastic cling wrap - with the happy side-effect of reducing plastic use and waste. The learning journey never ends.