Being on a bicycle, I was made to wait until last to disembark the river ferry. The road ahead lay like a tunnel through the lush greenery, disappearing around some distant bend in the trees. I set off down it excited to finally be entering this ancient wonder and national icon.
After eight months on the road, cycling roughly 5000km from Tas to the top end on an $80 second-hand bike and visiting about 70 sustainability projects along the way, my journey has come to an end. I couldn’t have done this without support from a lot of people and I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who helped me along the way.
The guys entered the water in their wetsuits and waded out with the long net, slowly encircling an area of the pond and then drawing the circle smaller. The driver of the digger parked on the bank lowered a large scoop net attached to its front arm into the now frothing water. When he raised it again it was full of flapping silver fish called ‘cobia’, each as long as my arm.
The Stoics — a school of philosophy in Ancient Greece — have been misrepresented over the years. We think of them as being about austerity and enduring life’s hardships, when really they were about happiness.
As I understand it, the Stoics saw that seeking to satisfy desires just leads to ever more desires that need satisfying, leaving you no more satisfied than at the beginning. They felt that luxuries and comforts are a kind of slavery because you are always afraid that someone or something will take them away.
They believed in virtue and simple living as the path to happiness, and learning to desire the things we already have. They had a concept called ‘Voluntary Discomfort’ where they would intentionally go without some ordinary comfort in their life for a while to strengthen themselves and renew their appreciation of it.
I think this taps into part of what I get out of this bike journey. Living simply, the simple things become more satisfying. To have a roof over my head, a hot shower, a real bed, or more than two sets of clothes, all now feel like huge luxuries. Simply to have the rain clear or to find a peaceful and pretty campsite; to reach flat road after lots of hills, or smooth bitumen after a long stretch of rough gravel, is enough to make me whoop with joy.
We stood on a high platform looking out over the surrounding fields, with a light breeze blowing. Both nearby and in the distance were huge mounds, each the size of a football field. A truck moved along a far away road, eventually reaching one of the mounds and emptying its cargo.
I’m welcomed into the community meeting room by Kylee and join her chatting at a table with a few others. Several people are working on sewing machines at the back, with a sign behind saying ‘Whitsundays Sweat Shop’. It’s a joke, of course, as they’re all volunteers.
Kylee tells me how her mother Barb started the group to help reduce the use of plastic bags. Volunteers come together to make re-usable shopping bags out of recycled materials, which people can take and bring back later, or use again and again.
They’re part of a growing movement of Boomerang Bags groups around the country, replacing plastic and starting a conversation about shifting to re-use.
Since Barb began, the local butcher, chemist, health store and op-shop have come onboard to hand out their bags. The Townsville Women’s Correctional Facility has started a women’s sewing club with 20 to 40 women producing about 100 bags each month for Barb to collect.
The bags are beautifully made, but too heavy for my purposes. To my delight, two women, Christine and Anne, set about making a custom bag just for me: lightweight and able to be rolled up into a small handful, with the ‘Boomerang Bags Whitsundays’ logo on the front. I don’t think I’ll be bringing this one back.
My bike safely secured in the corner of the warehouse, I climb into the passenger seat of the van and buckle up. Paul hands me a clipboard with my induction questions on it, which I work through while he drives us through the suburban streets towards downtown Brisbane.
We’re doing the ‘city run’ today, though others will be going much further afield. We’ve set off with an empty van, and our aim is to come back with it empty as well. It’s going to require a juggling act that I’m curious to see.
I rest my bike against the fence while Sasha goes inside and slides open the shed door. It’s supposed to be closed today, but I’m being given a special look inside.
It began with the local Byron Spirit Festival, she tells me, when they wanted to reduce their waste, particularly the huge amount from disposable single-use items. They invested in a thousand sets of re-usable bamboo plates and cutlery for the food vendors to use, but after the festival what were they to do with them all? Sasha thought: why not let other people borrow them for other events?
This idea grew into what’s now ‘The Library of Stuff’: a community library of good quality items that can be borrowed by its members. Inside the shed are shelves filled with useful things: power tools, gardening gear, camping equipment, toys and games, plus boxes full of bamboo plates and cutlery. Sasha is now acquiring more items and will soon need a bigger shed.
‘Why buy when you can borrow?’, Sasha says, believing that people buy too much cheap throwaway stuff. She’s the founder of the local group ‘Mullum Cares’, who are behind these projects to reduce waste and overconsumption in Mullumbimby. They recently started another initiative called ‘Conscious Camping’ where camping gear is loaned to festival-goers, to prevent another big source of waste.
One day a strange letter arrives in the classroom. Inside is an invitation from a mysterious source known as ‘E.M.’, along with a Hobbit-like map of a place high in the mountains, with features such as ‘Possum Jungle’, ‘Spinach Falls’, ‘Lost World’ and an area marked simply ‘Unexplored Territory’. Near the centre of the map is the Earthkeepers Training Centre, along with a small hut labelled ‘E.M.’s Lab. Who is E.M., and what is this thing the class has been invited to? The students are curious, and excitement slowly builds as the date approaches.
I’ve seen the definition of burnout evolve over the years. When I first read about it, they’d talk about symptoms such as dissatisfaction and emotional fatigue, and suggest ways to manage your stress levels. But it was the lingering after-effects that I grappled with the most.
One thing that baffled me was how similar my symptoms were to those of friends I talked to with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They each had different causes: child abuse, a train crash, domestic violence, and workplace vilification after being a whistle blower; and yet we all shared symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, sleep disturbance, depersonalisation, withdrawal, emotional numbness and physical illness.
It’s only recently that I’ve seen burnout described in the literature as a PTSD, or closely resembling one, and I found it incredibly affirming. The idea of burnout leaving a residual trauma that can take years to recover from made sense to me. It seems that even though the traumatic stress is a chronic one, rather than acute, the body’s physiological response is very similar.
Perhaps we shouldn’t let these labels define us, but I’ve found them helpful for normalising my experience and for putting the pieces together; to understand what’s really going on and work out the best strategy for moving forwards.
I found this TED talk by Dr Geri Puleo to be a fantastic encapsulation of this topic and the recovery process. Let me know of any other resources that you’ve found useful.
I’m one of those weird millennials who opted for a bicycle as the only vehicle I own. People assume it’s for environmental reasons, but there’s a financial and mental freedom that comes with life on a bike, and not being encumbered with a car.
I think there’s a mistaken belief out there that cars will always get us there faster. It might be true for really long distances, but there have been many times I’ve cycled across town and arrived as quickly as my car-driving friends. Add the extra time spent at work to earn the money to pay for the car, plus registration, insurance, petrol and parking, and it would seem that choosing a car is not so fast afterall. Then there’s the time needed to pay for the gym membership, and the extra time spent getting that exercise later.
When it comes to longer distances, my bike can be loaded on to a bus, train or plane, making the world my cycling oyster. Or one can cycle the whole way — whether you call it ‘the art of slow travel’ or ‘the art of free travel’, it has its own unique rewards.
Learning to live from my bicycle on a long journey such as this has offered me a freedom I’d never imagined. Every morning I set off, not knowing where I’ll end up that night. It’s liberating simply knowing that, no matter what happens in life, I’m able to load up my bike and ride off across the countryside, confident that I’ll have all I need.
Besides all this, there’s nothing quite like nimbly sailing down the road on a bicycle with the wind in my hair, feeling like I’m flying.
We stood and watched the air in front of us become thick with smoke, the odd human figure appearing and disappearing within it like mist wraiths as they moved up and down the lane between the cane fields. ‘Do you think we should get in there and help?’, one of the workers I was standing with asked. ‘Nah. I think they’ve got it covered’, the other replied.
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.