Descending and Flowingmu

ThisDescending’ blog  documents my overland trip from the London, UK back to Geraldton, Australia. I traveled overland (rail, road and  some ferries) for over 3 months, but also had to make two 1500km flights.

The title ‘Descending’ refers to the journeys from north to south, from high-carbon to low-carbon lifestyles and from superficial to deeper engagement with global issues and cultures.

This blog has posts on my cultural experiences, carbon footprint, ratings of different modes of transport and the logistics of overland travel. You can easily navigate using ‘tags’ in the ‘cloud’ in the right hand-column, and by using the menu at the top of the page e.g. ‘Logistics‘ for details of equipment and preparation, Sustainability for details of carbon footprint calculations.

I hope you enjoy reading about my trip, and I welcome all comments or contact. After completing my journey I’ve based myself in the Mid West of WA and been working with various sustainability, leadership and regional development projects including:



There was a considerable amount of planning that went into this trip. Overland trips typically require a lot of planning, and this one especially so because:

  • I was really trying to go quite quickly, cover a lot of distance and had to be in certain locations at certain times e.g. a course in India, conference in Australia.
  • Some of the key links and trains don’t go regularly e.g. Istanbul to Tehran, Taftan to Quetta.
  • Some of the countries have difficult to get Visas, and you can’t get them at the border. Iran is the most awkward.
  • Some of the areas are not that well-documented in terms of other traveller’s experiences or how to travel overland/sea e.g. Iran-Pakistan, Singapore-Indonesia, Indonesia-Australia
  • I was trying to spend as much time sleeping on transport as possible, and succeeded (at least a third of my nights were on trains, ferries, buses).

If you are planning a similar trip, below is a list of tips. You can also contact me if you want copies of some of the Excel templates I used for planning my itenerary and currency conversions, or if you want to ask advice about different locations or modes of transport.

Top tips:

  • Buy, read and use the Lonely Planet or other guidebooks, and Seat61.
    • I bought particular chapters from the web in electronic downloadable pdfs and kept them on my laptop and even navigated using maps on an old PDA I had with me.
    • They really are amazing documents, and will save you lots of time and money, especially on your first taxi ride / bus trip / day in a new country or city. Or, in the case of Iran, being totally stranded because you didn’t know there are NO ATMs in Iran and you must bring all your cash in with you.
    • I bought many of these and was using them over 6 months before I left the UK.
    • Really read the weather section carefully. A couple of hundred kilometres can make a big difference to the weather, esp. if you are in the mountains.
    • Seat61 is absolute fantastic, even if you are not travelling by train.
  • If you have a computer with you (as many wealthy travelers now do), use excel/openoffice to plan your itenerary.If you don’t have a computer, still use excel/openoffice but just upload to googledocs so it is online wherever you are.
    • If things change you can easily see how that flows through to the rest of your trips.
    • I had to re-schedule things several times and it was really complex when trying to figure out what that meant for three countries/weeks later. I really don’t think you could do this on paper…although (random idea) maybe you could with lots of little index cards that you shuffle and re-arrange?
  • Also use excel/openoffice to do a budget. It is relatively easy to make a guess at how much it will cost per day in different countries, and for different legs of travel. It is very, very easy to not budget, think that everything is a bargain and needlessly spend twice as much as you need to.
  • Identify different visa requirements then plan and prioritise how you get them all. I was travelling within Europe for work etc. prior to leaving the UK, and needed my passport to travel. So I planned out the exact dates I needed to get my passport to different consulates depending on expected time they would need it, how early I could get it etc.
    • Some visas you can’t get too early (e.g. more than 3 months) or they will expire by the time you get there.
    • Start trying to get your Iranian Visa early! For various reasons, none of which were my fault, this took months to sort out, is a very mysterious process, and has caused many frustrations for others. Also note the Iranian consulate in London has very little English (at location, and none on the web) no phone number, and opening hours that you can only find out by visiting (late morning is a good time).
    • Visa conditions can change fast, but be prepared for the worst. e.g. China was far easier than I expected, but I am glad I was prepared.
  • Do frequently check and keep up to date with currency exchange rates.
    • It saved me a lot of money to be able to haggle with confidence, even in the desert on the Pakistani-Iranian border where the exchange office is some old guys in the sand with plastic shopping bags of money in their laps and guns in their pockets.
    • Many of these currencies are such that you encounter are denominations of hundreds of thousands and millions. Knowing where the deminal point is and the first 6 or 7 numbers in the exchange rate matters.
    • Where and when you get what currency can also make a big difference to the rate you get…or if you are going to get stuck somewhere with a whole pile of money that no-one wants, and none that they do want.
  • Check out as much as you can online before you go. Especially the details of how you get  from landing in a new city to the hostel etc. This is where you can spend a lot of money, but if you know the local bus timetable or just that it goes you can save you a lot.

Carbon Offsets

There are many sites and organisation you can use offset your carbon footprint.

While I have used different ones in the past, for 2008-2009 I decided to offset my combined personal and business offsets with Climate Friendly. For 8 tonnes (my total was 7.5 tonnes) it cost me a bit over $200AUD.

In this report, Climate Friendly were ranked as one of the best in Australia.

I highly recommend reading that report if you are in Australia and considering offsets. The authors contacted all known providers and reviewed and ranked those that responded. If organisations did not respond, you have to wonder why not. The criteria the authors used to rank those that did are very sound,  and I support the advice they give. For example:

  • reduce your footprint first!
  • ask for details about what you are paying for e.g. what projects
  • choose offsets that are independently accredited
  • choose offsets that are based on prevention (e.g. energy efficiency)

The organisations and individuals who worked on the report are highly credible.

But, offsets themselves are problematic, and the cheatneutral site and youtube video is a very funny look at why. It’s based on the analagous idea of offsetting ‘cheating’ in relationships ; )

Final 2008-2009 Carbon Footprint

I am now settled in Geraldton, Western Australia and have done the calculations on my final carbon footprint from April 2008 to April 2009.

My target was to get it down to 6 tonnes, which was a target my fellow CRAGers and I all agreed to.

My actual carbon footprint was 7543kg!

[This is a combined total for all my work and personal activities, which is slightly different from most people’s calculations that are purely personal.]

The numerous trans-Australia train trips in the last-month added a few hundred kilograms, as I actually traveled 1.5 times the distance in Australia  by train as I had done the whole way from London to Darwin!

It’s a bit disappointing that I didn’t get the overall footprint lower, but think it is still a significant improvement from the previous year’s total of 19533kg, and puts me well below the average despite having traveled a lot.

2009-10 should be relatively free of travel, I will be pretty much vegan, in control of the water and energy usage of my house, and living 5 mins from everywhere by bike…so will see if I can get below 5 tonnes. Which is still incredibly far from the 2.2 tonnes that would be my fair share!

Considering I have now offset my footprint, I guess you could say my footprint is zero…but we all know offsets are a little flawed.

You can see the details of my calculations here: Custom calculator_Actual 2008-2009_ao

Hunting for happy dolphins and ‘clean’ coal – Hallbarhet Day 2

The first day on the road got off to a fast and early start and continued the pace through the day. Although, you can’t complain about being too busy if your first appointment is cruising the beautiful Port Stephens for a cruise on the estuary looking for dolphins. These dolphins are worth seeing, in fact between the 90 of them, they bring in $40 million dollars of tourism income to the region. However teir happy lives entertaining humans are under threat due to the sheer volume of boats, and from a proposed new water treatment plant that would dramatically increase the level of nutrients in the estuary.

I enjoyed reconnecting with the sorts  of issues I used to deal with as a coastcare  facilitator, but also sensed I would get quite bored if I had to ever be restricted in the scope of my work to single-issue, conservation- focused  projects.

The new CSIRO Energy Technology research centre in Newcastle was the next stop, where the facilities host the research, but are also a research project in themselves. The solar tower, thin film panels and died titanium oxide wall coverings all generate power on-site. While the whole intelligent building design is not new, but is not something I have personally seen close up. The neat integrated automatic climate control system incorporates user feedback accounts for human psychology and even the clothing that occupants are likely to be wearing at different times of year.

I was happy to visit this site, and proud that CSIRO was doing some cool stuff. But, as we drove off I also had the feeling that it was also a monument to the lost opportunities when Australia was leading the world in solar research, and decrease in freedom and funding of the CSIRO in past decades.

Then, dashing off to the Tom Farrell Institute at Newcastle University, set up to be a credible voice for the region as well as research and run projects that may be relevant to other similar regions in the world. John Rodger of the institute introduced Dr Joe Herbertson of Crucible Carbon. Dr Herbertson emphasised useful distinctions between environmentalism that focuses purely on impacts, versus a sustainability approach that emphasises value over impact. I was happy to here this, as it is the way I often introduce sustainability, especially referring to maximising satisfaction of human needs within ecological constraints.

He also presented some information and perspectives that challenged those who only think simplistically about the transition period from our current unsustainable energy and agricultural systems to sustainbility. Specifically, he warned against seeing coal as ‘evil’ versus understanding the challenges and opportunities related to such unsustainable practices. He provided examples of how coal could be complemented by burning biomass and pyrolitic processes to generate carbon neutral or ‘net negative emissions’ energy. The resulting materials, such as biochar, can then be used to increase agricultural productivity. It is these technologies and applications that were featured on recent online and television reports in Australia.

During the following presentation, I witnessed and participated in a very interesting clash of cultures and worldviews. The general manager in charge of operations at Delta energy, Chris Horner, presented their strategy and thinking on the short and medium term future of coal. Some of the grunts and shifting in chairs hinted at the audiences distaste for some of his company’s strategies, and there were many questions that challenged the assumptions underlying their priorities. For example, Delta energy are projecting ongoing increases in energy demand, while Professor Broman from BTH cited Swedish studies on the 50% decreases in industry energy demand after simple efficiency changes. Chris didn’t believe what Goran was describing was possible.

Ultimately, I think it was quite a challenge for our group to a) understand the context in terms of the nature of Australia’s economy (coal exports being a major earner) and b) being willing to accept that the context, understanding of the system, and strategic options can not be reconsidered.  Whatever Chris doesn’t understand that we do, it is our chosen role as sustainability professionals to be intelligent about engaging and working with those whose knowledge, behaviours and impacts we wish to affect. I really enjoyed it, and really appreciated the opportunity to hear from someone like Chris and especially from someone like Joe Herbertson.

Their presentations provided more than enough food for discussion during the subsequent bus ride to Pittwater and a hostel set in bushland on an isloated headland….

First big steps – Hallbarhet Day 1

Today we took our first steps on the Hallbarhet2009 sustainability learning journey. And it really is ‘we’. For me, months of traveling alone have given way to reconnecting with people who speak the same ‘language’ and have a great depth of shared experience and perspectives.

Already, in our morning meeting about the evolution of The Natural Step (as an organisation) in Australia and the afternoon introductions with the wider group, the magic of what we have already achieved became apparent. With no budget, no central management, no two people in the same geographical location (or time-zone) and just a compelling vision we have managed to gather people from around the world in Australia, but also to connect at other parallel ‘regional’ gatherings.

Some of the things we managed to co-create across the oceans (thanks skype!) included: detailed menu plans to be made with local food, an impressive carbon emission minimisation and offset strategy, plans for sourcing biofuel for the bus, a zero waste strategy….all in addition to an amazing agenda of events, speakers and a three day intensive retreat.

The evening opening event was another example of the learned ability of alumni of this Master’s program to be entrepreneurial, leverage our networks and show real leadership. Hosted and driven by University of Technology Sydney, but seeded by two MSLS alumni (Richard and Shawn) over 100 people turned up to hear Alan AtKisson speak via webcast from Sweden, and participate in a conversation about how we make sustainability mainstream.

Alan’s presentation was a recording of an earlier presentation to a gathering of the influential and successful Sustainable Seattle initiative, but also include lots of singing and performance, His on-stage sills are a really unique way to introduce systems thinking, exponential rates of change, and the urgent need for us to think ‘within the box’ of global ecological and cultural constraints.

In the Q&A session, Alan fielded questions on the opportunities that economic downturn presents for transitioning to a zero-growth sustainable society; the opportunities for young people moving into this field, the importance of doubling advocacy efforts to push at opening doors (e.g. on the back of Obama and Rudd’s election), and reframing the population challenge as an example of one area where global society has actually done pretty well by bringing population growth well below projections. Through all these questions, what stood out for me was AtKisson’s positive, humorous and creative way of engaging with the questions. Certainly if we are considering how to scale up the uptake of these ways of thinking about our global situation, having engaging, articulate people like Alan as role models is a good start.

The other speakers were also great.

  • Scott Grierson from our group but also Director of TNS Australia spoke from a strategic perspective, and linked it to his personal experience of rapid change in Australian attitudes and awareness, driven by a rapidly warming climate and severe drought in Australia.

  • Cynthia Mitchell from ISF talked through her organisation’s approach to transdisciplinarity and the interesting projects on Phosphorous (see my previous post on pooh, or perhaps this more informative  site). Increasing our collective acceptance of multiple ways of investigating and knowing is critical in a situation when we know we need to think creatively, laterally and collaboratively.

  • Nik Midlam Manager of the Environmental Strategy for City of Sydney talking about the Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan. The plan seemed like it had a really thorough consultation strategy, some significant changes (70% cuts in carbon emissions by 2030) and strong support from the CEO and councillors. Perhaps an example for other cities to follow?

All these presentations were very pragmatic and positive and got me excited about where the conversation and action are in Australia, but my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by individual conversations. New friends who had all been living in the UK, and are now involved in corporate compliance work, Landcare and doing strategy consulting to large private businesses all suggested that Australia was years behind the UK. This question of the Australian context, and what is the real need in this space will continue to be a question I hold over the next 10 days…and perhaps 10 years.

What am I not sharing?

I think it is worth being explicit about what I have not written about. Reading this blog, you may reasonably assume it is not my every thought, but you may also be unclear about to what degree I am censoring myself. I think this matters.

It matters to me because it helps me be more conscious about when I am censoring myself and the importance of what is not said in any exchange (written or verbal). It is also a way of exploring the boundaries and niches of online forums such as this, as satirised by Ben Elton [link]. It is also a response to books such as Paul Theroux’s where my curiousity about what he was NOT sharing actually started to draw me away from what he was.

So, some of the things I have not shared:

  • The frequency and nature of my rapturous, joyous, ecstatic, flooding experiences of bliss, or when I have had some deeper realisations of truth – whether during meditation, accompanied by music or a particular stimulus or otherwise. These experiences are hard to describe because so much happens in such a short amount of time, and more something I hope to share with every reader of this when I meet them face to face , with perhaps my presence reflecting how I have been affected by these experiences.

  • The significance of the quite limited number of thoughts that have often been crossing my mind. For long periods in the first half, and especially middle of my journey, there was really not a lot going on in my head. Which is nice. What did come into my head could then be considered, or let go of, from a place of restful silence.

  • My fleeting, but quite powerful at the time, thoughts and feelings about some of the beautiful women I have met along the way. e.g. the Pakistani housekeeper, the German tourist, the Californian student, the eyes of Iranian women peering over their Burkhas, the Chinese nightclub hostess(es), the many Balinese beauties, and the Hani women. I didn’t share this  with you, or them because…um….I didn’t want to embarrass anyone  (especially myself – ha ha ha). I also didn’t share them because I guess I fully enjoyed these experiences at the time, but I am actually quite closed to really exploring them further or in giving them real weight. The other common interpretation of these feelings was that they were actually just a specific expression of a more general feeling of love, rapture and desire to create and celebrate all types of beauty, magic and connection in the world and the woman standing in front of me just happened to be an object on to which I projected that feeling.

  • The decent amount of time I spent in the second half of the journey talking to (in my head) and thinking about my past, present and future (hopefully) intimate relationships.

  • How much I have been spending. Though I think about $26AUD a day is close to the average, not including major transport costs (flights, European, Australian and long-distance Asian trains).

  • All the times (not actually THAT many) that I got embarrassingly ripped off. I would have shared them, if they were really funny or extreme, but they weren’t.

  • My curiousity, nervousness and shifting perspectives about returning to Australia, being Australian, and everything that goes along with that.

  • How much work I have been doing along the way. Which is quite a bit, perhaps 8 to 10 8-hour-day-equivalents? I’ve enjoyed staying connected to work, and think I have been reasonably smart about what I have been doing.

  • Some goals I set myself along the way and whether I have forgotten them, achieved them, or failed. E.g. relating to frequency of meditation and exercise, finances, writing and other practices.

  • Lots of other little stuff which I don’t think of interest, or matters.

Australia – Darwin to Sydney (the long way)

Well, I made it through Australia. From Darwin to Adelaide, (3000kms south) then on to Sydney (2000km east of Adelaide) and out onto the golden sand and salty sea.

Australia is big, both in drought and flood, wealthy (but with loads of crazies and poor people), and utterly confusing. How did a country and people get so wealthy when the weather suggests barely anything / anyone could live here? Where the heck does everything we have here come from? China is one answer, and probably a quite accurate one. But at points in my journey it really did strike me how utterly inhospitable this place seems compared to lush India, fertile SE Asia, or even Iran.

I arrived in Darwin on Australia Day at 3am, slept in the airport for a while, swam, then generally cruised around the town. I had one beer and nearly fell over – my alcohol tolerance is down to about zero. The following day I spent reading Australian newspapers and magazines in the cool, spacious Northern Territory state library, then hunted down some books for the long journeys ahead. I swam laps in both mornings I was there, which was a treat. I was slightly disappointed to miss the crocodiles which seem to occasionally turn up lost in the pools ; )

The Ghan departed Darwin at 10am, and I was quite happy with the spacious compartment which offered plenty of ways to sleep even if I did only have an upright seat allocated to me. My wondrful 3/4 length ultralite thermarest has been an absolute life-save on this trip….


There is not much to say about the scenery from the three days – that part of Australia (I.e. Most of it) is quite flat, very dry, and covered in a vegetation mix that transitions from sparse forest with an understorey of grasses in the north into low scrub for the greater part of the journey. Bud Tingwell (Australian actor) provided a pre-recorded voice over for parts of the trip, filling us in on some of the history and sights to watch out for.  The clouds are a real highlight – seriously.



We stopped in Katherine and Alice Springs for decent amounts of time (enough to take a tour), and I had a good time in both spots.

Katherine has a beautiful gorge, which I have already seen and which was out of bounds due to flooding. I just wandered around a bit, and went for a swim. Despite the lady at the tourist bureau warning me the water in the pool might be ‘a bit cold’, the 29 degree water was fine for me. Apparently they close it when the water temperature drops to a too-chilly-to-swim 20 degrees. Crikey.

Katherine also held some degree of fascination for me because I had just listed to a couple of podcasts on the ‘unintended consequences of the intervention’. The intervention was where the Federal government sent the army in to Aboriginal communities in northern Australia to control drinking, child-abuse and other social problems. They did not really think this through, and it hasn’t really worked well it seems. You can listen here, and also to Fiona Stanley’s emotional and intelligent reflections and call to action after decades of strategies and reports and too little action on Indigenous health (far worse than indigenous people in equivalent developed countries, and with life expectancies lower than many developing countries).

Alice Springs was also great, beacuse I like it a lot already – mountains, culture, arts, red dirt, it has a lot going for it. And this brief stop was especially good thanks to a lovely German girl (Veronica) lending me her bike so I could ride out of town to the Desert Knowledge Centre and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems to see the solar arrays and other eco-stuff. Interestingly Veronica worked on the ‘intervention’, and amongst other part-time jobs drives the ‘bush bus’ to remote communities. She has probably seen far more of Australia’s interior and its people than all but a few thousand Australians I think.


I had met Veronica on the train before she got off in Alice, and I had a few other conversations with the young and old Germans, Dutch, English, and Australians sharing the lowest-class Red Kangaroo seats. I think this service could have been a little better – it felt like it lacked some little touches that would really mean it lived up to its title of a ‘Great Train Journey’.

Arriving in scorching Adelaide (44 degrees) my main interest was in going for another swim. Upon making it to the aquatic centre, I paid the relatively expensive $6.50 entry, plus $3 for secure locker to then walk into a total circus. Being a hot day, I was expecting it to be busy, but this was fantastic! People of every imaginable cultural heritage (Asians, Aboriginals, Lebanese, Africans, Australians, Greeks, Italians…everyone) were all splashing in every puddle of water in the centre, from the kiddies pool to the chaotic lap pool. It was quite cool to be literally swimming in a diversity which I have not seen since leaving London. And what joy I got from the diving boards – kids of all races and backgrounds having the time of their lives trying to impress their friends with their spins, flip and splash.

The cultural diversity on the bus from Adelaide to Sydney (via Melbourne) may have been slightly down from the bus, but only just. It was very comfortable and seemingly popular route. Sure, there were a number of weirdos, but that’s public transport for you and nothing a good set of earplugs can’t deal with. And, yes, I definitely have some characteristics of a weirdo myself.

Quite a journey in the end, and far preferable to the bus (and cheaper). I also really enjoyed getting through a number of books on Australia’s social trends, Outliers, Blind Faith.

In a way, I am glad the Mt Isa – Tennant Creek road was washed out, meaning I couldn’t catch the bus from Darwin to Brisbane. While I had to cancel meetings with some really great people in Brisbane, it was a unique opportunity to do this train trip. And, yes, the 4 day train/bus combo from Darwin-Adelaide-Sydney still produces far, far less carbon than flying. Which is important I think, given the infrstructure failures in Melbourne caused by recent heat-waves and continued water shortages and general ecological collapse that seems to be plaguing Australia now…

Although, a quick dive into the sparkling waters of an inner city beach seems to be great at washing all those worries away. Well, except for the worry that someone will steal all your stuff while you swim…



Now in Sydney, the pace has picked up, and I am glad to have had a few quiet last days on the train and bus. Now I am busy catching up with family (Mum!), old friends from around the world, and making new friends as part of the Hallbarhet2009 learning journey I am responsible for. More on that soon, here, on the Hallbarhet blog, and on