Beneath a sprawling sky

‘Do you think the sky feels lower here?’ she says, peering under the sunshade, her hands tight around the steering wheel, ‘like you can almost touch it?’ Squinting into the horizon, I duck my head out the window and into the hot, fast wind that makes tears form in the crinkles around my eyes. We are driving northbound along the Indian Ocean Highway, Western Australia. Since leaving Perth’s cityscape behind, it has been a sea of blackened grass trees, weedy shrubs and bulbous succulents and so far, we are doubtful the road has been aptly named.

It is still early, but outside the air conditioned car the heat is already a searing 36 degrees. Under the weight of the sun, the plants pulse in hyper-colour and amid the flurry of green disappearing behind us, the reds and purples of wild flowers dot the landscape.

We are headed to 'Nambung National Park,' famous for its diversity of flora and fauna, idyllic waters and limestone formations that define Western Australia's Turquoise Coast.

The ocean finally comes into sight, the horizon line barely distinguishable from the blanket blue sky sprawled above us. It is that archetypal Western Australian setting where land suddenly meets sea and the unforgiving sun is met by its counter. Here, the bay is protected from Indian Ocean swells by the outer reefs and islands, and the water appears clear and still.

Lake Thetis Stromatolites

Our first stop is 'Lake Thetis,' one of the few places in the world that boasts ‘Stromatolites’ or ‘living fossils.’ Formed in shallow water by the cementation of sediment and cyanobacteria, these Stromatolites are said to date back some 3,370 years and serve as a reminder of the ancient and fragile continent we inhabit.

Nambung is also home to some of Australia’s much loved native animals and perched in the centre of the lake sit three black water birds, their downturned beaks and glistening feathers silhouetted against the canvas sky. Circling the Lake, we spot two Western Grey Kangaroos grazing among the shrubs and grassland. Known for their acute hearing, we have time to edge forward only a few steps before the Kangaroos rise to their hind legs and hop into the bush.

As the late afternoon approaches, we enter Nambung National Park's 'Pinnacles Desert.’ The Australian desert is often characterized as a tirelessly flat landscape such as that of the Nullabor Plain or Simpson Desert, yet Pinnacles is somewhat of an otherworldly scene; infamous for its limestone formations scattered across the yellow sand.

pinnacles

While some of these formations are tall and thin as if they have been stretched towards the sky, others have formed miniature mountain ranges of rising peaks and concaved valleys. On the tallest of them, the limestone is visibly stratified showing each layer of seashell sediment that has settled upon the prior.

With sunset nearing, a cool breeze begins to pick up, rippling white cloud across the sky.This is one of the best times to visit the Pinnacles not only because of the more temperate climate, but for the spectacular light show that comes with sunrise and sunset. A viewing platform provides a panoramic shot of the endless peaks and troughs, the still yellow sand void of plant life and the dozen other people exploring the park.

And as the sky shifts from its dulcet blue to that cocktail of sunset reds, we sit on the bonnet of the car and watch, as the changing light casts its shadows across the landscape and the sun makes its slow descent into darkness.

More information about travelling in Western Australia can be found here

The Great Ocean Roadtrip

With its jaw dropping cliffs, green pastures and Mountain Ash giants, Victoria's Great Ocean Road is a unique mix of coast, rainforest and country that each year attracts thousands of visitors. Towards the end of November, I drove down the Great Ocean Road for a few nights of hiking and camping. While Torquay, Lorne and the Twelve Apostles are perhaps the most well known and popular stops, it was the coast front campsites, koalas dozing in their gum trees and ferny undergrowth of the Otway Ranges that won my heart.

Camera in tow, I tried to capture not only my own roadtrip, but the diversity of flora, fauna and habitats that makes the Great Ocean Road, truly great.

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Book Review- 'To Timbuktu'

I was waiting in San Francisco International Airport, home bound after nine months of traveling abroad. Nervousness had driven me there over three hours early and as I paced the International terminal, I wished I was still wandering aimlessly around Market Street. Ignoring the knots in my stomach, borne from the unknown of home, I decided to kill some time in Hudson Booksellers. After an hour of flipping through ‘National Geographic’ and browsing the non- fiction section,  I walked out with Lonely Planet’s, ‘A House Somewhere: Tales Of Life Abroad.’ As the name suggests, the book is a collection of stories about living abroad and in hindsight, was probably not the best thing to read as my own adventure was coming to a close.

We often do things to appease our appetite for travel when we’re not actually traveling. For some, it is learning to salsa in a seedy Latin bar while others may eat at every Italian restaurant in search of their favorite Florentine soup. For me, it is all about books.

I was first recommended, ‘To Timbuktu,’ by an eccentric American couple, Louise and Joe,* who I met while interning in Nicaragua. They are the kind of people I couldn’t make up if I tried; Louise would tell me how Joe wooed her by translating Latin love poetry and in the next instance, Joe would be playing an acoustic, ukulele cover of Ke$ha and segue into a rendition of ‘Land Down Under.’

From my time spent with them, I knew I had to read this book.

‘To Timbuktu,’ written by Casey Scieszka and illustrated by Steven Weinberg is, at its core, about the couple’s first two years out of University; living, working and adventuring abroad. Spanning nine countries and dozens of cities and towns, they venture from Morocco to China and eventually, all the way to Timbuktu. It is a funny and endearing look at the reality of living and working in a non- Western environment and a fresh take on a genre that can be contrived and overdone.

Scieszka’s writing is simple but thoughtful, making incisive observations about cultural differences, the tourist industry and the challenges of living abroad, without losing the overall light- hearted tone of the book.The narrative progresses from the initial honeymoon days of long- term travel, to the harder, final months when the dust and the differences begin to take their toll. Most people who have lived, worked or studied abroad are familiar with this feeling of frustration and doubt that, on a bad day, can linger, forcing you to question what you’re actually doing. It is this balance achieved between the joy of travel and its more sobering days, that sets the book in its reality and is insightful without being overtly reflective.

While I am a travel photography fiend, Weinberg’s drawings are a welcomed change from the rolling hills and orange- hued sunsets that inundate this field and are perhaps, the most fitting way of illustrating their often kooky lives. There’s a consistency between his drawings that is reminiscent of a comic strip but not at all repetitive. Instead, Weinberg’s artistry creates the feeling that each image was sketched on a whim and in doing so, helps keep the images alive.

But what makes this book so unique is the way in which the pictures and text are seamlessly intertwined and in doing so, allows both to dictate the pace of the narrative. For example, landscapes and maps act as chapter breaks while single character sketches serve as interesting eye candy in the middle of a double page of text. It is perhaps the perfect way of telling a story that is centered around two people and their encounters with interesting people in far away places and Scieszka and Weinberg do it with humor, creativity and honesty.

There was something strangely comforting about this book; perhaps because I’m a recent graduate, a writer, a traveler or currently in a cross- continent relationship but there is an underlying idea that if you are motivated and passionate enough about something (or even someone) you will make things work. And it serves as a reminder that sometimes, a little frivolity, can go a long way.

The website is also really great; check out the interactive map.

* Not their real names

Update- 'The darker side to 'voluntourism'

I have recently been M.I.A from my own blog but for the past few weeks I have instead, been satiating my appetite for travel and writing for the blog, The Backpacker Collective. So here's a recent post, I wrote about the sometimes negative impact of 'voluntourism.'

Enjoy!

The darker side of 'voluntourism'

I was 19 when I first travelled abroad to volunteer in Kenya. Decked out in cargo pants and carrying a backpack full of hand sanitizer provided by my mum, I arrived in Ngong, a town about an hour outside of Nairobi at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a quick Swahili lesson and my first foray into a goat BBQ restaurant, I moved into my new home; a local Orphanage and community centre. While there were a myriad of cheap, local hotels I was told my rent would help contribute to the running costs of the centre and was the best option. And I loved it; from waking up to roosters just as dawn broke, to helping the house-mum make sure lights were out in the evening, it felt as though I were part of a family.

But my actual volunteering involved teaching young women from the nearby slum, basic computer skills as part of a traineeship the centre was running. These girls, roughly the same age as myself, had sass, personality and and a love for chatting about boys, boyfriends and Beyonce. They laughed at my haphazard Swahili and taught me to pronounce ‘Ngong’ and in turn, I tried as best I could to explain the world of computers, all while using one that didn’t actually turn on.

After a few weeks, a string of donors and volunteers began arriving; in some cases, bringing their grandchildren to see ‘Africa’ while staying at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi. It was then that I began to hear people demand to see what their money had paid for, disrupt the women’s regular training lessons and expect the children to sing Western, Christian songs over their own. This is the dark side of ‘voluntourism.’

As writer and photographer, Tom Perry writes, ‘voluntourism’ is, in some cases, making ‘responsible’ travel, irresponsible and leading to a push against volunteering abroad. As someone who has volunteered in a few different capacities, I understand why travellers want to volunteer, particularly in impoverished countries. But it becomes dangerous when we slip into the mindset that it’s okay to teach English for a week in Peru or pop into a Cambodian orphanage for a day, simply because they have so little, that something must be of help. Right? Wrong.

Short- term volunteer placements or day visits not only pose dangers to children in schools and orphanages but undermine the capacity of local staff to deliver adequate schooling or care. While many organisations continue to accept volunteers others, especially those in direct contact with children, are beginning to close their doors.

Last year I undertook a media internship in Nicaragua with an organisation working with sugar cane communities and advocating on behalf of workers and residents. Based in the sweltering city of Leon, my time was divided between working in the office and documenting the community in the rural town of Chichigalpa. I loved everything about going to the community;  crossing the dry season river, waving to community leader, Don Juan on his motorbike and hearing the shrieks of laughter from the English class as they wrestled with words such as ‘stomach’. But in all its un-sexiness, it was my work in the office, with the stifling humidity and monotony of the computer screen, that was most beneficial to the organisation and community.

Everyone travels for a different reason; for some it is good food while others chase the snow season around the world. And volunteering abroad, when done responsibly, is a very valid reason to travel. But the nature of volunteering is that your expectations may not meet the needs of the organisation and rather than helping, you may hinder their development. So before you go, think about what you want to achieve not for yourself, but the community you are hoping to help.