I write this piece having just had an anxiety attack. A kind man invited me to his eco-village and gave me a lift up into the mountains with the promise that he’d drive me back down again a day or two later. Being completely reliant on this other person, I soon felt trapped, and the feeling of distress was nearly overwhelming.
The engine slides quietly into the station and Mick the driver and Tara the conductor step out and welcome me aboard. I stow my bike and then join Mick in the driver’s compartment as he sets the train moving again and tells me about its design.
Thanks to a hard fought public campaign and the help of a local philanthropist, they were able to resurrect a 1949 heritage diesel rail car, along with 3km of coastal track linking two suburbs of Byron Bay, and convert it into the world’s first solar-powered train. One of the diesel engines was replaced with electric motors, along with inverters and a Lithium-ion battery bank. All lights were switched to LEDs, and the train equipped with regenerative braking.
We arrive at North Byron station where Mick plugs the train in for a 20min recharge and shows me the fast charger units connected to the 30kW solar array on the train storage shed roof. He also shows me the flexible solar panels that line the roof of the train, generating up to 6.5kW.
The coordinator Caroline joins me for the ride back to Byron Bay, chatting about the project. It showcases what’s possible, and it’s taking cars off the road. It’s also a fun way to travel, especially knowing that it’s running on sunshine. One day they hope to extend the line, as well as build a ‘rail trail’ cycle path alongside it.
I excuse myself to go and explore the property, and eventually find what I’m looking for: a small garden within the garden, with flowerbeds, pathways and a little hut at the back. It’s partly enclosed by a cute wooden fence and a gateway entrance brandishing a name that my nieces back home, like most Australian children and many around the world, would recognise instantly: ‘dirtgirlworld’. To think that right here is where it’s filmed.
It seems to be a recurring story with the environmentally-conscious people I’ve met on this journey, who describe their difficult transition.
They grew up with a clear path and purpose that society provided for them, but after ticking all of society’s boxes and it failing to deliver the happiness and fulfilment that it promised, they started to ask: what’s it all for? Learning about the environmental problems our world is facing, caused by our modern way of living, they realised that perhaps we’re doing it wrong.
No longer willing to follow the conventional path set out by society, and no longer able to derive meaning from it, they were set adrift, rudderless. Feeling lost, their life became a search for a new path, purpose and place in the world.
Some describe learning to accept that there is no intrinsic meaning or purpose in life except that which we create. Many talk about navigating their way through existential depression and finding new purpose in activism and environmental work; in being part of the solutions instead of part of the problem.
I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life searching for purpose, and coming up with projects and distractions to fill the gaps. Sometimes I wish I could take the ‘blue pill’ and go back to a life of blissful ignorance. But I recently heard someone describe this wave of existential crises as an important stage in our human evolution and the development of a global conscience — this is our generation waking up.
I stand in the open maw of a huge tunnel that stretches into darkness, the floor grubby and stained, and the damp air filled with the smell of decay. I think of all the banana peels, chicken bones and everything else that spent time in here, slowly transforming. The huge vault is part of a much larger facility, apparently one of the most advanced of its kind. The scale of the operation is incredible, and all for a substance that I hadn’t realised the importance of.
While in Sydney I cycled to Neutral Bay to visit Lain and her mobile cafe, Tonic Lane. Sitting on an upturned milk crate, she told me her story, and how she became concerned about disposable coffee cups.
About 60,000kg of plastic waste from coffee cups is directed to landfill each year. Due to their thick plastic lining, they can’t be recycled, and whilst they’re often put into the recycling bin with good intentions, this can cause the whole bin to be contaminated and sent to landfill.
Tonic Lane started charging customers for disposable coffee cups, and then in 2017 became the first cafe in Sydney to ban them altogether. With the help of supportive friends and customers they built up a mug library — customers can take a mug or keep-cup and bring it back later. Lain calls it ‘The Mug Movement’, and appeared on the ABC’s ‘War On Waste’ for it.
She’s now switched from her coffee shop to the mobile cafe bus, so she can spread the sustainability message further. There’s a basket by the door for customers to put dirty mugs in, and the customers I talk to seem to love it. As a next step she’s exploring switching her bus to run on biofuel and solar.
I face a conundrum. I’ve pulled up on my bike in the pedestrian mall outside Darren’s office, just in time for our meeting at 11am, and this is not the kind of meeting to run late to. But his office is on the 14th floor, and I’m faced with a set of glass revolving doors at the bottom of a tall corporate office tower. There’s no way I’ll be able to take my bike up with me, and neither can I leave it on the busy street loaded with all my possessions.
There was a scene in the movie ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ that made me cry. It took me by surprise, as it wasn’t a sad or emotional moment in the plot: the apes had escaped across the Golden Gate Bridge and reached the safety of the redwoods forest. I had previously read a book about the destruction of almost all of North America’s ancient redwoods — the largest and tallest trees in the world — and when I saw these beautiful towering giants on the screen, the tears suddenly started to flow. ‘What is wrong with me!?!’, I wondered. It was like an upwelling of some kind of suppressed ecological grief.
On this journey I have met numerous environmental activists who have shared similar stories with me, and tried to convey the distress and despair they feel over the size and urgency of the big environmental problems we face. It seems to add to their stress load and wears them down.
It’s hard to explain and there often doesn’t seem to be the words for it. Near Newcastle I met with environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who pioneered the research field of ‘psychoterratic’, or earth-related mental health conditions. He introduced words into the literature like ‘Solastalgia’, meaning the mental or existential distress and melancholia caused by environmental degradation, locally or globally.
I wheel my bike across a small boardwalk toward the house amongst the shrubs. Yes, this seems to be the one — it looks just like the tiny model that I saw a few days earlier, except life-size. In my hand is the key; the place is mine for the night.
On a quiet back street of Sydney I come across an old queen-sized mattress slumping forlornly against a street art-covered wall. It’s clearly been dumped by someone. It’s not a totally unfamiliar sight, but I pull over on my bike anyway to consider it. What will happen to it? Where do old mattresses go to die?
‘It’s a bin.’ ‘Yes, it’s a bin.’ ‘Was it worth it?’ We’ve just travelled forty five minutes to see this place in Gungahlin, in the north of Canberra. My friend Katie, who’s place I’ve been staying at, has come along as an excuse to travel on the city’s new light rail for the first time. I think she’s also secretly curious to see this bin that I was willing to travel so far for. ‘Kind of. It’s a pretty cool bin.’
I walked into the facility and my heart lifted. The giant machine was still there as I remembered it. My many hours spent years ago in this laboratory felt so recent. I’d heard that Australia’s nuclear fusion research machine, the H-1 Heliac, has been sold to China, and so had mentally prepared myself to find an empty space where it once sat. But it’s still here, albeit in pieces, as they prepare the multi-million dollar precision instrument for transport halfway around the world.
I met Frank at the Bike Recyclery in Canberra, where he volunteers, and a few days later I cycled to his home outside the city to learn about his life there. After some intense years as activists, he and his partner Sam retreated to his parent’s bush property to start a new life — one that matched their values of environmental sustainability.
Living on very meagre incomes, they eat food they’ve either grown, gleaned or foraged. They maintain a vege garden and orchard, forage for edible wild plants, dumpster dive, eat roadkill meat (they explain to me how to know when roadkill is still fresh), and receive excess produce from bakers and farmers that would otherwise be thrown away, often in exchange for jams and preserves they’ve made.
They built a house out of recycled materials and have embraced intergenerational living. They’re trying holistic land management techniques to regenerate their property after years of overgrazing by kangaroos. They’re also turning their home into a community training space.
Frank and Sam call their place Another Way Of Living, or ‘AWOL’, and it was fascinating to learn about this alternative way of living lightly.
We step up to the edge and look down over a vast pit. Dozens of birds of prey circle overhead, and groups of pelicans have taken up residence on several of the mounds below. Trucks can be seen emptying loads of human detritus into a distant part of the landfill, which Greg tells me is the largest between Melbourne and Sydney.
All this waste is now being used to produce enough electricity for 1,900 homes, and I’ve come here to see for myself how they’re doing it.
I enter the cafe and see a number of people sitting at tables around the room. The lady at the front desk welcomes me and asks for my name and what I’m here for. ‘A broken bike mirror, a pair of torn wool leggings and some torn hiking pants’, I tell her. ‘Ah, you’re doing the bike journey!’ They’d been expecting me, and are going to make sure I’m well looked after.
Tilak, from South Bhutan, was a child when his family and others from his Nepali-speaking ethnic group were forced to flee the country. After years of persecution by the Bhutanese government, who wanted to create a pure Bhutan, soldiers came into their villages and forced them from their homes.
I’m sitting having a cup of tea on the verandah with two Matts: Matthew Charles-Jones and Matthew Grogan; the two lead drivers of their community’s transformation. One, an outdoor educator and builder turned clean energy specialist; the other, a lawyer and farmer. Matt C-J seems the more reserved and introspective of the two. In sharing their story he spent the last day and a half weaving a rich tapestry for me, and then today Matt G provided the drawstring that pulled the folds of cloth together.
I cycle the perimeter of Sunshine Hospital. A multi-storey behemoth the size of a large city block, it’s one of several around Melbourne that are part of the Western Health group. Past the Emergency Department and ambulance rank, I finally find the main entrance, lock up my bike and head in. I’m early, so I take a seat in the busy waiting area.
It’s a funny feeling, that moment when you see impending disaster and somehow know there’s nothing you can do about it. I was coasting downhill on my bike, and the car coming up the side road was moving too fast to stop at the stop sign. My subconscious did the calculations and realised it was on a collision course.
I turn off the cycle path into a small lane between two apartment buildings and chain my bike up outside one of them. I’m here to try and gatecrash a tour. Already there are a few people milling around, and several more slowly trickle in.
The first crack of the rifle just made the geese lift their head in curiosity. It was only when the second shot felled one, that the remaining three ran off in alarm. They stopped again a short distance away, not seeming to understand the nature of the danger. We were hiding in a line of trees nearby; Paul with the rifle, and Gareth, myself and the two young girls (daughters of Paul and Gareth) watching.
The phone rang at 7am. “Hello?” I try to sound as if I’m not in my pyjamas and sleeping bag, even though it’s still half an hour before sunrise. It’s Mike from the factory phoning to tell me I’m welcome to come and visit. So prompt! I had only sent them an email last night thinking it was too short notice.
Todd stopped the car to let me take a photo. To our left is a pine plantation; a dark imposing wall of sameness. “Death”, Todd told me earlier; that’s how he views plantations, because they clear and kill everything. To our right is a native eucalyptus forest, looking vibrant and healthy. “That”, he says, pointing to the native forest, “was all pine plantation.” He says this almost casually, as though it’s not something unfathomable. How is that possible?
I was following a series of white posts along a barely discernible trail through the forest, often losing my way. A fine drizzle was making everything wet, and my shoes were sodden. Spider webs strung with droplets of water crisscrossed my route, and mist obscured the surrounding hills. Everywhere the sound of dripping water and the rustling of my wet weather gear.
It’s my last morning here and I’m sitting having breakfast in Alan’s small cabin. I ask if I can write my story about him. He seems amused at this, and asks ‘why him?’
I was standing in a room surrounded by knitwear. Shelves and racks filled with sweaters, school jumpers, beanies and animal toys, all neatly folded or hung. For once I wasn’t hot and sweaty from riding my bike here; I was laying over in Hobart for a few days rest and had taken a local city bus to this factory to learn their unusual story.
Following Sophia’s instructions, I push my bike up the long driveway and arrive at a padlocked gate. A small box with a combination lock provides the key. After wheeling my bike through I lock the gate again and return the key to the box. A pretty track leads me through the eucalypt forest until it eventually opens up onto a meadow. Sitting in the middle of the meadow is a very tiny house.
It was a long winding ascent up dirt road, and I confess to walking my bike up most of it. According to the person who put me on to this place though: hills equal gravity and gravity is my friend for the thing I’ve come to see. It also started to rain, which seems appropriate and auspicious.
I rolled into the school driveway feeling apprehensive. Groups of students sitting on the lawn were giving me odd looks. This was only the second day of my bicycle journey, but already I was grubby and smelly from life on the road and probably looked like a vagabond. It didn’t help that the high-vis vest I was wearing was covered in smears of black grease from when it had fallen onto my bike chain earlier.
I’m spending a few days in Hobart to meet with some local sustainability experts. With their help I’ve been pulling together this map of my bike route and interesting sustainability projects I could visit. It’s exciting to discover there’s so much happening in this space — it’s like a smorgasbord of innovations to explore.
The most contentious part of planning this bike journey has been the idea of me writing openly about burnout and my resulting health challenges. Some people have supported the idea, while some others have outright condemned it…
So here I am saying I want to visit one innovative sustainability project after another as I ride up the east coast of Australia. What do I even mean by an ‘innovative sustainability project’, and how do I go about identifying these places to visit? The hunt for these projects starts now, as I begin to plan my route.