Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Desert Calls

We have finally arrived in a town called Alice—the mystical heart of Australia
And ventured to the edge of the West MacDonnell Ranges to camp at Honeymoon Gap
There is something about this ancient desert landscape that speaks to my soul
A spirituality that I cannot explain because it must be felt
It keeps calling me back
Just like Africa
And it begs me to stay.

We are camped on the property of locals who’ve migrated here from our hometown of Hornsby
We mingle with travellers from all over Australia drawn by their own connection to this land
We wake up to brilliant sunrises and to ring necked parakeets & bowerbirds scratching for food
Transfixed, we watch from our movable home
Indulging in pancakes dusted with sugar and cinnamon, raspberries and honey

The busy days working out of the Alice Springs library have given way to lazy evenings
The flickering flames of our fellow travellers’ campfires having beckoned us over
We’ve exchanged yarns from the road less travelled and traded stories about our lives
We’ve talked about the challenges of living on the road and the joy of escaping the routine of our corporate lives
We’ve lined the streets with the locals in Alice to watch the lantern parade snake it’s way to the festival club
We’ve been entertained by the sounds of the desert that has heralded the start of the desert festival
And woken up to discover it is the weekend
While we dance to the beat of a different rhythm now and our days are no longer dictated by a calendar—it has been a good enough reason to venture further west

The stunningly beautiful West MacDonnell Ranges, a landscape carved out of millions of years of erosion has drawn us in.

The cool early mornings in the ranges convert to sun drenched days
The cloudless blue skies a perfect backdrop to highlight the hues of these hills
The brilliant reds, oranges, & yellows—interrupted only by the whites, greens and browns of the foliage
Ghost gums, mallee scrub and spinifex tussocks
Perfectly evolved over millions of years to survive and sustain this desert landscape
Seeds that lie dormant for years till fire or rain breathe life in them again
Such an amazing spectacle to behold

We walk through dry riverbeds that earlier this year had flooded this landscape
We marvel at the early wild flowers—a welcome splash of colour in the desert backdrop
We explore the red ochre pits rising sharply from the sandy creek
And imagine the aboriginal men digging for the red or yellow powder that was ground to a paste
The songs of the Arrernte are not lost but they are subdued

We spot a rock wallaby hidden in the rocks, before the call of a crow breaks the mesmerising silence
The warmth of the noonday sun deceives us into jumping into the Ellery Creek waterhole
The glass like water sparkling in the sunshine is tempting—but ouch
It is icy cold to our skin now warmed by the treks through these gorges

We sit under the shade of the gum trees and cook lunch
We laze around till the heat of the afternoon passes
Then, trek some more—to the top of Serpentine Gorge to look down on this incredible landscape

As the sun sets, the West MacDonnell’s is at its brilliant best
We watch the black cockatoos fly in to rest
The moon is rising above the ranges

One more photograph that needs to be captured before we turn in for the night.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Ride with the Mailman and a Tour of our History

A few days ago we celebrated Steve’s birthday.  There were no signs of the traditional trappings of candles and cake.  But rather, we hitched a ride on the mail run.  Peter Rowe, the local mailman has lived in these parts for much of his life and has a wealth of information about the land, the Indigenous people and the European explorers.  He came out for a 3-week holiday back in 1966 and never went back home. I love hearing the stories of people who have lived life spontaneously and I know we are in for a treat.

We travel through gibber plains, red earth country and pass 120 million year old, former in-land seabeds with traces of cockles and mussels. We come across a swathe of Stewart’s Desert Pea and pile out of the truck for photos– it’s a real treat to see this spectacular flower in bloom in the wild. We pass the world’s longest man-made structure, the Dingo Fence and learn of the thousands of sheep that were lost in a day before this fence was erected. It is double the length of the Great Wall of China and Pete’s friend patrols it regularly to make sure there are no gaps.

It is a long day, a 12-hour round trip from Coober Pedy to the Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta, through William Creek and back.  Back in the old days, people trekked for 3-years on the Oodnadatta track to start a new life here.  Women gave birth on the way and Oodnadatta became a bustling town when the transcontinental railway reached here in 1891.  It was also famous for the Afghan cameleers who were critical in transporting mail, travellers and other freight to places like Alice Springs. The track is steeped in history and we learn a little more as the day progresses. 

We talk about the importance of water in the desert. Back in the old days, Peter remembers that water   The area gets less than 5 inches of rainfall a year, yet it also has downpours that have dropped 4” in 30 minutes and caused floods that have destroyed much in its wake. This desert landscape hides more than opal.  It is rumoured there could be large tracts of black coal underground.  Yet, underground is also the great Artesian Basin, a precious aquifer that is the life-blood of this area.  Open cut mining is impossible but there are companies exploring the option of fracking. One mistake could mean the beginning of the end of life in these parts if the Artesian basin is contaminated.  The sun that rains down on these parts offers so many options for another form of energy…and we hope that options to explore the mining of coal will not go further.  
was rationed, at 200 litres/pp/week, less than what the average Sydneysider consumes in a day! It takes a resilient person to survive in the desert and as we hear the stories of the old explorers and the people who continue to live in the cattle stations that dot this landscape, we begin to understand the true meaning of the word, resilient.

Pete delivers mail to the many remote outposts from Mount Barry Station to Anna Creek Station. The families come out to meet us and we chat as Pete off loads his freight. We learn the history of Anna Creek station, a station so big it is the size of Belgium.  Unfortunately, the family have finally decided to sell and foreign buyers are bidding for the privilege of owning a piece of our history and the largest cattle station in the world. Sadly it appears that the only two Australian bidders are investment companies and the family is keen to sell it to a cattle company. 

We have lunch at Oodnadatta and it is a chance to get to know our fellow travellers a little more. We make friends with a couple who co-incidentally are from the same suburb in the Adelaide Hills as our friends Sally and Pete who we first met in Turkey.  Janet is originally from California (a place I too called home for almost a decade) and Roger from the UK and we have much to talk about. Another two ladies are missionaries with the Salvation Army, who have lived in Sri Lanka for decades…in the same suburb that I grew up in!  I shake my head in disbelief – what a small world we live in!

We are running late but we eventually arrive at William Creek station. It is a hive of activity, has a wonderful vibe and delicious food. When we left Sydney last month, I didn’t expect to be drinking a toast to Steve’s birthday in the middle of the Australian desert with a dozen newfound friends but that is the beauty and spontaneity of life on the road. I’m not surprised that Steve chose the kangaroo yiros and he is amused at my choice of goat curry—despite our travels we still crave the food of our heritage. We have had a wonderful day but now it is time to do the long drive back home.


It is our last night under the stars in the Coober Pedy desert.  We say goodbye to this place that has given us much to think about. The place takes its name from the aboriginal word kupa-piti, meaning white man in a hole. The pursuit of opal, just like at White Cliffs drew many adventurers, pioneers and explorers to this land that appears on the surface to be a hostile place. But they learnt to adapt to the hot summers, carving out their ‘dug-outs’—houses, bookshops and churches constructed underground—as they pursued their fortune. We don’t think we could call Coober Pedy home, but it has sure been fun to pass this way again. 


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

One Foot off the Grid and Loving It

I believe that the biggest distinction between the current government and the other parties in the next Federal Government election will be on the issue of renewable energy. We will be divided between those of us who believe that renewable energy is part of our new future and those of us who will continue to cling to the belief that coal is good for humanity.  We live in one of the sunniest and windiest places on this planet. As we travel throughout Australia, it is obvious this is a sun-drenched country. We have now been on the road for 5 weeks and except for a 10-day period in Adelaide where we plugged in, we have lived comfortably on the energy generated by our one solar panel and the energy we stored while driving. Of course our energy consumption is now much less than the average Australian household that consumes about 20kWh/day. 

As we pass through the outback, we could also not miss seeing the poles and wires that crisscrossed the landscape, transporting power to remote outback stations. Most people would be surprised to learn that only 20% of their electricity bill is the cost of energy generation, while more than 50% pays for these poles and wires, i.e. for transporting the electricity to their house.  We learnt this from a Senate Committee Report (2012), while preparing for a recent presentation on solar energy. When Australia’s Federal Court recently overturned the construction of the Adani Carmichael coal mine, our Prime Minister said we were depriving 100 million people in India of the chance to get electricity.

Is this accurate?

According to a recent article in the Guardian: “India’s population of 1.24 billion comprises 247 million households, 68% of whom live in rural villages. According to the 2011 census, 45% of these rural households – 75 million – have no electricity. Of urban households, 6 million remain without electricity, or about 8% of the total.”

I read that despite India having invested in new electricity generation during the last 15 years, these numbers have not changed.  The main reason for this is obvious.  These villages are remote and totally removed from the existing grid.  The cost of connecting them to the grid is expensive and it is   Their demands are simple and hence giving them a gold plated solution that involves transporting coal to India from Australia is ludicrous.  Even if you did that, none of these people in these remote communities would be able to afford to pay for the infrastructure.
far cheaper to give these households an off-grid solution like a solar panel on their roof, or installing a solar array for the community. Having grown up in the sub-continent and having travelled widely through India, I have had a few homestays in houses that have no access to electricity or running water. I know that even if they had electricity, they would not be able to afford, nor would they demand the fancy appliances we have in Australia. If you don’t have running water, then you don’t really need a washing machine!

Here’s the other thing.  Coal is really not great for humanity. It is also not great for our environment.  The poor Indian villager does not want to breathe the toxins in the fly ash (lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, sulfur, mercury…) any more than any Australian who lives next door to a coal plant does.  I’ve also read that the cost of producing electricity in India using Australian coal from the Galilee Basin is double the current average wholesale cost of electricity. It is the last thing that the Indian villager wants.  In fact, the Indian government has announced that it is now in transition to a renewable future and will probably in the next 3 years or so have no use for our coal at all. 

Here’s another statistic from the guardian:

“Even if one percent of the India’s land area were to be used to harness the abundantly available solar insolation at an efficiency of 10%, the country could generate 570 times India’s current electricity demand”.



Perhaps it is time for us as global citizens to demand we transition to renewables and for us to elect leaders that act responsibly toward both the environment and humanity.

Inspiration from the Road: More than one way to live?

After travelling in many different forms, from backpacking and working overseas, to volunteering and now doing the campervan thing, I can say that it is often the people you meet on the road that enrich and inspire your life and open your eyes to new ways of living. Many of the friends I/we connected with on our travels have stayed in touch and we have even caught up in other parts of the world or they have visited us in Hornsby. We met Sally and Pete on a bus from Istanbul to Gallipoli and we chatted the whole way down there. We had similar views on many issues, from politics to the environment, and thanks to Facebook, we have stayed in touch.  So it was lovely to be able to spend a day with them in their beautiful home in the Adelaide Hills and the conversations we had started a few years ago continued into the night.

Travelling in a campervan enables us to meet a different type of traveller.  Being self-contained means you can sleep over in free camping sites with no facilities. While there are few people in tents or overseas backpackers in Combie Vans who bush camp here, it is mostly the grey nomads and a few families that seem to patronise these sites.  The people in our campsite range from a family from the Hunter Valley (a few hours north of home) travelling in a bus and a car, with 5 kids and 2 dogs, to the couple from South Australia who use their houseboat as a caravan!  The kids have been taken out of school for a year and our revelling in the wide-open spaces. Dad, has even installed a bath for his family, and kitted out the bus with bunk beds and a lounge area to suit his large family. The houseboat too has been lovingly built from scratch and meets the right dimensions to be towed behind the car.  This couple spends time on both the land and the water and had some great stories to recount.

The other beautiful thing that breaking free of routine offers up is a different rhythm and space to the one you are used to.  Time to think. Time to read. Time to reflect on your life if you stop long enough to do so.  This is the gift that the campsite at Coober Pedy has offered us because we have no TV or Internet reception here.  I just finished reading Tracks by Robyn Davidson.  We were first introduced to her epic 1,700-mile journey through the Australian desert with her 4 camels and dog when we saw the movie.  We then heard her speak at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and I knew I had to read the book.  I find her courage amazing and inspiring. While at my age, I have no desire to trek through the desert, I find in her approach to life, a kindred spirit.  

So many passages I wish I could share.  Here are two of them that I particularly relate to:

“The question I’m most commonly asked is ‘Why?”  A more pertinent question might be, why is it that more people don’t attempt to escape the limitations imposed upon them? If Tracks has a message at all, it is that one can be awake to the demand for obedience that seems natural simply because it is the familiar. Wherever there is pressure to conform (one person’s conformity is often in the interests of another person’s power) there is requirement to resist. Of course I did not mean that people should drop what they were doing and head for the wilder places, certainly not that they should copy what I did. I meant that one can choose adventure in the most ordinary of circumstances.  Adventure of the mind, or to use an old-fashioned word, the spirit.”  Robyn Davidson 

“And now a myth has been created where I would appear different, exceptional. Because society needed it to be so. Because if people started living out their fantasies and refusing to accept the fruitless boredom that is offered them as normality, they would become hard to control.”  Robyn Davidson.

Worth pondering…




Saturday, August 8, 2015

Christie Walk: An Urban Villlage in the Heart of Adelaide

You don’t often find an ecologically sustainable cohousing development within a stone’s throw from the centre of one of Australia’s major cities. Christie Walk is such an example and we are keen to visit and learn a little more about it. We have detoured to Adelaide to catch up with work and have taken the opportunity to meet up with a few of our local contacts who have been involved with this project.

Sue, a board member of Urban Ecology Australia, whose vision resulted in this innovative project, gives us a personal tour. Designed by “architect, writer and urban evolutionary” Dr. Paul Downton, the project provides housing for 27 households on 2,000 sq. m (half an acre). Christie Walk is certainly a high-density development with a difference.

A beautiful mural greets visitors on what would otherwise have been a long blank wall.  The mural tells a story about the development and some of the ideas of the residents and those who initiated it. There is limited parking for residents but some of the people who live here don’t own a car because it is so close to the city centre and Central Markets.  Most of the waste is composted in the numerous bins or recycled so garbage bins for waste going to landfill are minimized.

The outside areas are a fabulous mix of paved pathways and edible landscape. Flowering plants, a vegie garden, fruit trees and a beehive not only provide food but create a microclimate to contend with the dry Adelaide summer. Straw bale and Hebel block construction provide a passive solar design for the dwellings keeping the indoor temperature stable all year round. A green roof four storeys up offers a great outdoor space with views of the City.
 
The outdoor seating is located at the intersection of pathways to deliberately encourage community interaction. This is a development that adopts many ideas from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, often regarded as a bible by many who are re-imagining the city. Christie’s Walk is a great example of community activism and the commitment of individual Australians prepared to work together to achieve a great space to live that creates social capital and has a positive impact on the environment! 

There is a mix of accommodation from town houses to apartments of varying sizes and like all co-housing developments provides as many shared spaces and assets as possible. Shared community spaces that can be booked for personal use, informal arrangements for the sharing of cars, solar panels for generating electricity and underground storage for rainwater.  Recycled and non-toxic material has been used in the construction of these houses. Sue tells us that all the outdoor spaces have been designed and created by the residents and they maintain it during their monthly working bees.


Over a few hours we develop a good relationship with Sue and agree to come back in the summer and offer a presentation to the Urban Ecology network.