Friday, 29 July 2016

Adventures in simple living: "Longgrassing" in Darwin

A few weeks ago, I walked for six days on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, sleeping in a swag at night, sometimes outside under the torch-bright full moon (which outshone the outback stars, but you can't have everything).

Simple beauty: an outback sunrise
I love having a good book to read before bedtime on trips like this. I lost myself in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (one of my favourite books) in Madagascar. Alone in a cabin in Norway, I was adrift on Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl.

On the Larapinta, I had the pleasure of meeting a book I'd never heard of, brought along by one of our guides, Chelsea. It was Longgrassing with a Laptop: The Art and Science of Homelessness by James Murray.

It's a modest book, 162 pages held together by a spiral of wire, about living simply; "longgrassing" is "sleeping rough" in the Top End. But what started as a submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Darwin in 2012, has evolved into one man's observations of life and how he lives, and how we all live, in short pieces and poems with a few pictures.

From the back cover
Words by James Murray
And it's beautiful. Full of delight and deep insights. There are sadnesses, honestly explored, but there's also compassion, joy and a sense of fun (e.g. chapter headings such as Longgrassing for Beginners, Extreme Longgrassing and The Longgrass School of Economics).

Running through it all is a soulfulness and contentment, and inspiration for others willing to turn their backs on the conditioned, over-regulated life to find freedom, happiness and a truer, richer way to be.

James lives on the beach, in the long grass on the dunes, in Darwin in the Northern Territory. He's in his 50s, and has been doing this for about 20 years. He has a bike, a laptop, a drum, a phone, a radio, swimming goggles and a few other essentials, but no shoes (one story in the book is called The War on Feet). He uses the showers at the university, writes in libraries. When it rains, he puts stuff in plastic bags and stands out in it ("Housed, you miss out on storms," he writes, "which are about as good as you can get."). He lives this way by choice. As he explains in the book, "I believe in peace, love and understanding, rather than economic growth."

Chelsea gave me the book at the end of the trip (so kind) and when I got home I contacted James to tell him how much I loved his work and he kindly agreed to an interview. Here's our emailed conversation in 13 questions:

Where are you from, and what brought you to Darwin? 
I was born in Melbourne and grew up in Queensland. I visited Darwin lots in the 1980s, sleeping on the beach, and I came to live (with my ex and our one-year-old) in 1994. Because my kids are here I’ve been stuck here. Darwin has its good points, but it’s very expensive and is basically a redneck wonderland, a vanguard of capitalism, of the end of the world. 

Is "longgrassing" a Darwin term? I've only heard it there. 
Yes, it seems only Darwin people use the word. The vast majority of longgrassers – there must be a few thousand at any time – are Aboriginal, who hang in small groups in the bush and foreshore regions of the Darwin sprawl, much like people have lived for 60 thousand years. I’m a whitefella, and solitary, and I rarely spend any time at my sleeping spot in the day. I get there, lie down and sleep [then] I get up at dawn and go and don’t come back ‘til sleep time.

Sleeping space
Pic by James Murray
How did you get into longgrassing? 
I grew up in a house by the beach north of Brisbane and had an affinity with the ocean, with the beach, with the oceanic bush. In the mid ‘70s, when I was 14 and 15 years old, on each full moon – religiously, I see now – I’d hitchhike 50km to Bribie Island and sleep on the beach or on the dunes by the beach. I loved it, I was comfortable and there were no problems, and it’s what I do now, every night. 

You can call it "camping", but I think of it as sleeping. I’ve travelled wildly, lived rough, bushwalked heaps. I’ve never used a tent, but am happy to sleep on the ground, having a space blanket or small tarp in case of rain.

What do you love about it? 
It liberates me from the cycle of work and consumption. I live with dignity, purpose and meaning. I enjoy the sky, the bush, the sea. I take my time. 

What are the hardest things about it? 
It’s basically very easy. My current lifestyle is highly refined. I used to worry about how my kids saw me, but now they’re both adults I think they are proud of my courage, my gumption.

Is there anything you miss about a “homed” existence? 

Can anyone longgrass? What does one need, to begin? 
Anyone can longgrass. One might need to let go of one’s upbringing.

Is it harder for women (with fears about personal safety, say)? 
Women might worry more, and have more to worry about, I guess. I’ve never had any trouble, touch wood. I sleep in a quiet dark place, but I usually have my bike with me, which is harder to hide.

A few weeks ago I woke in the middle of the night and heard two men talking a few metres from me, talking about me. I felt no threat. I pretended to be asleep and was back asleep in seconds, and don’t know how long they stayed there. A lot of people, men and women, couldn’t handle that. 

Barefoot on the beach
Pic by James Murray
What are some of the misconceptions people have about longgrassing? 
People think all longgrassers are drunks or drug addicts or mentally ill, or they think they are "disadvantaged" "victims".

What would you most like people to understand about it? 
I don’t much care what people think about longgrassing. However, the world would be a better place if they lost their misconceptions/delusions about everything, if they woke up.

What’s a typical day like for you? 
I wake at dawn, shower at the Uni. I spend my day within a couple of ks of my sleeping spot, coming and going from libraries (where I write on my laptop), and my drum (I stash it in the bush and go to it to play twice a day). I go to the shops, I walk on the beach, I swim, I have a nap, I sometimes see my kids. In the evenings, if I’m not in the library, I might be somewhere watching a DVD on my laptop, or playing chess against it.

What have you learned about what you really need, by living so simply? 
I need food and water and oxygen, and a hat because I have fair skin, and shorts in public to keep the cops happy. I need to (ahem) use the toilet. I don’t need to fit in; I don’t need to run on the hamster wheel just because everyone else is. I need to not run on the hamster wheel. I need to not salute the Queen. 

A simple book about simple living
Any tips for aspiring longgrassers? 
I’ve got one word to say to you, Kimmy: Stuff minimisation. Also, work it out for yourself. And read my book – there’s a lot in there [including these three tips for downsizing demand: make a list of all the things you want, cross them off one by one (not when you get them, when you stop wanting them) and when you've crossed off everything, make a new list and start again. Simple!].

"I upgraded my contract. Initially it had me being stupid, competitive and insecure, but I upgraded to living in the bush, beholden to no one, and laughing." ~ James Murray

Longgrassing with a Laptop: The Art and Science of Homelessness by James Murray (2015) is available for $30 including postage direct from James; email him at

Friday, 8 July 2016

Why I love surfing in northern NSW

Sometimes the stars align and you get an assignment to write about something close to your heart. This happened recently when the editor of Jetstar's inflight magazine asked me to write about why I love surfing in northern NSW, my new home. 

Yours truly & friend
All pics by Nat McComas
You can read the published version here (with beautiful images by photographer Natalie McComas) or by flying with Jetstar anytime this month, or the uncut original version below. Either way, I hope this ode to surfing makes you want to commune with the sea in some way soon.

North Coast love affair

by Louise Southerden

The sand is warm under your feet as you pad along a short track flanked by banksia bushes and spinifex, surfboard under your arm. At the water’s edge, you keep going, paddling toward the just-risen sun. A wave washes over you, smoothing your bed-hair, waking you up and calming you at the same time, and after it passes the light sparkles through your wet eyelashes.

When you reach the lineup, a jagged line of surfers waiting for waves, you sit up on your board. It’s the best kind of peaceful out there. Exchanging good mornings with another surfer, you take in the beginnings of the day – big sky, ripples of sand below, gannets and terns wheeling overhead – and wait.

Waiting is a big part of surfing. They don’t tell you that when you’re learning. It’s also one of the best parts. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, sometimes, than on my board in the sea, in sunshine or rain, looking to the horizon, watching for the next bump of swell that might become a rideable wave. It’s peace and adventure, solitude and camaraderie all at once.


I learned to surf in Sydney in my early 20s, when I’d get up in the dark so that I could surf for an hour before catching the bus to work with wet hair. Surfing allowed me to live in a big city longer than I might have otherwise, by keeping me in daily touch with the natural world. 

One of my favourite drives up here
But a year and a half ago, after travelling and living overseas, I decided to drive north with my surfboard, a tent and not much else. I ended up just south of Byron Bay (it’s part of the surfers’ code not to get too specific about surf spots), for no good reason than that I had to stop moving and this place had a few nice waves.

There’s a lot for a surfer to love about the Northern Rivers. The water is warm all year round (who doesn’t love the freedom of wearing as little as possible in the sea?). This part of the east coast bulges eastwards more than anywhere else, copping swell from all directions. At the same time Cape Byron, mainland Australia’s most easterly point, shelters Byron’s north-facing bay, making for beginner-friendly surfing at Main Beach, Clarks and Wategos.

A glorious late autumn day
For experienced surfers, there are dozens of beaches and breaks between Yamba in the south and Tweed Heads on the NSW-Queensland border, many of which put this part of Australia on the surfing map in the 1960s and ‘70s, all facing different directions to ensure there’s almost always somewhere to surf in any wind and swell combination. And the three big rivers for which the area is named – the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed – make for great river-mouth breaks (though we know not to surf them alone or at dusk when “the man in the grey suit” might be around).

I love that surfing is a way into a community like this. One of the first surfers I met was Vic. When he told me he writes for The Lennox Wave, I asked if he’s a journalist. “Nah,” he said, “I’m a Gemini.” That’s so Northern Rivers, a place where a love of nature and a quirky world-view get along famously.

Morning sun, surfboards
and car park conversation
I’ve also met teachers, builders, paramedics and macadamia farmers, in the water and standing around in the car park afterwards, the sun on our faces, the Sunny Boys playing from someone’s car stereo, surfboards lying on the grass. Until I moved here, I'd forgotten that people still do this: hang out, shooting the sea breeze, with nowhere to rush to.

It’s not uncommon to surf with local legends up here too. Names like Bob McTavish and George Greenough and lesser known professors of the sea, all happy to reminisce about what it was like to surf the north coast in the uncrowded glory days, before there was even a sealed road between Byron and Lennox and everyone rode longboards (shortboards didn’t become popular until the late 1960s).

Me and my 9'4"
For the non-surfers reading this, there are basically two kinds of surfboards. Shortboards are lightweight, fast and about six feet long (surfers are passionately non-metric). On a longboard, which is at least nine foot, it’s all about the glide and, if you’re skilled enough, “hanging ten” (standing on the nose of your board).

If you squint a little to block out the beachfront holiday apartments, you can cross-step back in time, particularly because a lot of surfers around here, girls as well as guys, ride single-fin longboards (my board of choice is a 9’4” Gordon & Smith) or drive classic cars – or both; my friend Chris rides a 10-footer and drives a beautiful 1979 Kingswood stationwagon.

 Byron's legendary Pass 
On a practical level, I love not having to pay for parking (a local tip: an annual NSW National Parks permit gives you free parking at The Pass, in Byron) and being able to safely leave your surfboard on the roof of your car when you go for a post-surf coffee (I’d never have done that in Manly, on Sydney’s northern beaches). And thanks to the Northern Rivers cult of wellness, you can always find healthy post-surf snacks and organic, locally grown coffee; my favourite cafes are Macs and the Top Shop in Byron, Williamsburg and Marius in Lennox.

No story about surfing in northern NSW would be complete without mentioning the Zen masters of the sea. I’ve seen turtles, sea eagles, schools of tuna, even whales while surfing, but nothing beats being out there with dolphins, watching them swim under your board and catching the best waves, reminding you that surfing is, after all, play. You catch a wave and paddle right back to where you started. Over and over. Getting nowhere. Doing it for its own sake. And that’s more than enough.


No Impact Surfer Girl
A wave comes and you turn to face the beach, taking a few strokes to get in position and match its speed as it builds behind you, lifts you. Instinct takes over, your legs unfold as your board drops down the face and everything speeds up and slows down and nothing exists but the wall of green ahead and nothing matters but gliding along it, free as a seabird.

And when the ride ends, you paddle back toward the sun feeling refreshed and recalibrated, somehow, and smiling inside and out. This is what surfing is, a never-ending love affair with the sea.

[Big thanks to Nat McComas for the fun photo shoot and wonderful pics.]