Clean Up Australia Day – time to life our game

Founded in 1989 by Ian Kiernan, Clean Up Australia Day has become an important date in many of our calendars. The idea behind the day is simple. It is about getting together with your family and friends to help collect litter from local parks, beaches, streets, creeks and rivers. In twenty-nine years, thousands of tonnes of litter have been collected and over thirty million volunteer hours have gone into making Australia beautiful.

Yesterday, my friends and I rolled up our sleeves to help clean up parts of the Cooks River. Starting from Steel Park in Marrickville, we worked our way east along the banks towards Princess Highway (and back). This is a park where all of us enjoy running, biking, walking and picnicking and so we had a sense of responsibility and ownership for making this space safe and healthy.

Armed with gloves and Clean Up Australia Day bags we spent over four hours collecting cigarette butts, plastic bottles, cans, paper, plastic straws, coffee cups and lids and balloons. We even managed to fish out larger items from the river foreshore and mangroves such as share bikes, car tyres, computer cases and shopping trolleys.

Clean Up Australia Day. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2018)
A pile of all the rubbish we collected during our Clean Up Australia Day walk. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2018)

Even though it was smelly, dirty and tough work, the smiles on my friends’ faces said it all. It was a lot of fun and we all felt like we had accomplished something great.

The sad part is though that if we were to go back to Steel Park next week and walk our cleaning route, no doubt it will once again be littered and the share bikes and shopping trolleys will be back in the water. It never stops to amaze me just how careless people are about a shared space and how they are happy to turn a blind eye to the harm litter causes to the environment and wildlife.

And I fear that China’s ban on accepting recycled waste from countries such as Australia will only make the situation worse. At least in the short-term until local councils and the State/Territory governments get some concrete policies in place. Like the newly introduced ‘cash for cans’ program in NSW. In fact, I think that plastic cans and bottles were uncommon on our cleaning route compared to previous years. All the more reason for us to lift our game when it comes to reducing waste. Just like Clean Up Australia Day, every little bit will count.

Some ways I think we can minimise our litter include simple things such as:

  • Take a reusable bag when you go shopping
  • Refuse plastic straws with your drinks
  • Use a keep cup for your take away coffee
  • Put the litter in the actual (and correct) bin
  • Treat everyday as Clean Up Australia Day
  • Buy things that have been upcycled from old items

Queenstown and Milford Sound – low cost adventures

The South Island of New Zealand has some of the most breathtaking landscapes which will continues to surprise at every turn of the road. Below are some of our favourites from our short stay in Queenstown and Milford Sound in late November (2017). They are nature focused, a little off the beaten track, family friendly and often free.

  1. Milford Sound – Kayak and Hike ($)

This is the definite highlight of our trip despite the drizzly, dreary weather. Milford Sound is simply astounding despite getting more rain per year than the Amazon rainforest. The Sound is connected to the ocean which makes it a tidal waterbody where the salt water sits on the bottom and the freshwater from snow and glacial melt sit on top. The water was still (and cold) and we were surrounded by lush, green mountains. Kayaking the Sound almost felt like we were exploring an unknown part of the world. After our kayak, we hiked the last five kilometers of the Milford Sound track and our guide showed us some edible native plants, told us about the creeks and rivers that flow into the Sound and shared with us some stories about the natural features.

Kayaking the Milford Sound. On the way back, the tide was going out and the bottom of the Sound was becoming more visible. Image credit: Madeline Rhodes (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – Walker Creek

A popular lookout on Highway 94 which was an unplanned stop for us as we drove from Queenstown to Milford Sound. When we stopped here, the lupins were in full bloom and created an understorey hued with purple, pink, yellow and lilac flowers. The nearby creek and the distant snow covered mountains add to the magic of Walker Creek. If you happen to be in driving through in late November, we highly recommend this little detour.

Lupins blooming at Walker Creek. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Queenstown – Hill Loop Hike

This is a popular hike that starts at the edge of town. Be well prepared if you are planning on tackling this as it is a tough, three to four hour climb to the top of the hill depending on your fitness level. As the trail slowly climbs up the hill, we passed through groves of pine trees which provide much needed shade. The information boards provided us with insights into the history of Queenstown and ideal stops for a much needed break. After ascending the canopy, we found ourselves in the sun and surrounded by shrubs with small yellow flowers which added the smell of nectarines to the air. There are two lookouts on this walk. The first is by a sculpture called ‘basket of dreams’ and the second is at the summit of the hill. The summit is called Te Tapunui – the mountain of intense sacredness to the locals. From here, we had panoramic views of Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables Mountain Range, Cecil Peak and Queenstown below.

View from the top of Queenstown Hill. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – Monkey Creek

This stop is just before Homer Tunnel. Monkey Creek offers a great opportunity to have a quick break from the driving. We stopped here on our drive back to Queenstown. It was morning when we stopped and we found that the area cool and covered in morning dew. The sun was peeking out from behind the snow covered mountains. If you want, you can fill up your water bottle using the glacial fed spring that runs nearby. Monkey Creek was a great place for us to stop, until our car was attacked by a Kea.

Cold, freshwater stream at Monkey Creek. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – Homer Tunnel

A popular place to stop for photos before driving through Homer Tunnel to get to Milford Sound. Even though it was summer, there was still snow on some of the mountains in the Fiordlands. When we stopped here, the Kea (the world’s only mountain parrot and New Zealand’s bird of the year for 2017) were keeping tourists entertained with their cheeky antics. Driving through the tunnel itself was a new experience. It seemed like we were entering a different world and indeed, the view on the other side was simply stunning.

Snow capped mountains next to Homer Tunnel. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – The Chasm

This stop is located about halfway between Milford Sound and Homer Tunnel. From the car park, The Chasm is about a 20 minute return walk that takes you through a lush, green forest. As you get closer, you will be able to hear the waterfall that makes up this natural feature. The Chasm is a result of hundreds of years of water rushing through a narrow rocky valley. The force of the water has created waterfall and carved out rocks into circular patterns.

  1. Queenstown – walk to Frankton

Another easily accessible walk that can be done from the town centre. We took a shortcut when we did this walk and did not go along the Botanical Gardens which sits on a small peninsula on Lake Wakatipu. This walk is flat and relatively easy and took us roughly two and a half hours to complete. The entire time the lake, the small beaches, the amazing homes built to capture the vista and the Remarkables Mountain Ranges in the background kept us occupied. We finished our walk at the Remarkables Primary School which will make lots of people jealous of the students who study there.

  1. Queenstown – Kiwi Birdlife Park ($)

The Kiwi Birdlife Park is tucked away next to the start of the gondola ride. This is the second time I have visited the Park and it is a recommended stop for nature and conservation enthusiasts. The Park has been operating since 1986 and is located on an old tip that has now become a 5 acre sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s unique and threatened birdlife. If you time your visit, you will be able to see their bird and conservation show as well as the feeding of the kiwi. We were there for the conservation show and were amazed to learn just how destructive the iconic Australian possums have been to the local wildlife. Plus, the Morepork owls are damn cute!

  1. Queenstown – Ben Lomond Saddle to Summit Hike

Another very popular hike located very close to the city centre. There are two ways to tackle this hike. For the adventurous, you can hike the entire way up starting next to the gondola station. The walk to the summit is challenging and you need to be well prepared (water, food and weather appropriate gear) before you tackle this. For the less adventurous, you can take the gondola up to the Skyline and start the walk from there. This is the option we took as we were still tired from our hike up to the summit of Te Tapunui. Parts of the hike were shaded by pine trees but soon we were exposed to the sun and walking along hillsides that were being revegetated. Sadly, we did not complete this walk as we were not adequately prepared. Maybe next time.

Vegetation restoration work being done along Ben Lomond. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)

Some thoughts on ENGOs

For the last five years, I have been lucky enough to volunteer and work in the Australian environmental not-for-profit sector. I have had the pleasure of working with tireless, committed and passionate individuals who have spent many years fighting to protect the world. Despite some hard fought wins, the assault on the natural world continues in the presence of rampant  industrial growth and conservative political ideology. As the challenges being faced by the natural world continues on its rapid downward trajectory, I think the time has come for many ENGOs to shed their conservative approach.

Below are some of my personal observations that might help ENGOs have more impact and shift the tide towards making the world a better place to live in.

  1. Creativity

We spend a lot of time in front of computers planning, executing and reviewing campaigns. These days, creativity and execution is measured by whether or not something has gone viral on the internet. Don’t get me wrong, innovation and new ways of storytelling is fantastic yet there are days where I feel like we are not spending enough time being creative. By creativity, I mean getting a chance to spend some time pursuing a personal project or hobby. Some may argue that hobbies or projects should be pursued in one’s own personal time. I disagree. I feel like there are lessons to be learnt from tech giants such as Google, Atlassian and even Facebook. Atlassian for example has a program called ‘Ship It’, where one day each month the employees are encouraged to work on their own personal projects (with some minor rules) and all of the company’s resources are available for them to use. The true lesson here is not about a designated day or access to resources but the fostering of a work culture that embraces and encourages creativity. Maybe a personal project or hobby could lead to something that might have more positive impact on the environment than a campaign.

  1. Volunteers

ENGOs both big and small rely on volunteers for the daily operations. In fact, many of the most successful ENGOs started off as a group of passionate people who volunteered their time and expertise for a particular cause. To me volunteers are more valuable than senior management and they need to be treated accordingly. Why? Because I think that when someone chooses to volunteer for an organisation, it is a vote of confidence in what the organisation does and the values it stands for. I also think that volunteering is a deeper commitment, compared to ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ on social media or donating money to an organisation. Lots of ENGOs take on volunteers but they do not know how to manage them or what to do when a volunteer is coming to the end of his/her tenure. The most successful volunteering programs are ones that are actively invested in the growth of the volunteer, in mentoring and making them feel like an invaluable part of the organisation. In a few years time, these same volunteers might become the organisation’s greatest champion and ambassador and help influence decisions that better protect our environment.

  1. Mentoring

Mentors are invaluable and great mentors are hard to find. I see so many people who work in the ENGO sector who are not taking the opportunity to pass on their experiences, ideas and knowledge onto the next generation. The most common excuse for this is being ‘time poor’. I am not a fan of this excuse. I feel like mentoring someone is not a huge burden and even one hour a month is sufficient. It is a rich and incredibly rewarding experience. Mentors need to be generous with their time and genuinely honest in their responses. They need to challenge their ‘mentee’ to become critical thought leaders so that past mistakes are not repeated. And for someone who is seeking a mentor, I think it is important to find people from outside the profession you are interested in so that you get exposure to as many thought leaders as possible. The same goes for experienced and seasoned campaigners at an organisation.

(I want to give a special shout-out to my mentor who is generous enough to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with me and discuss his ideas and experiences with me. Thanks Elder!)

  1. Coalition building

As much as I hate to say it, no ENGO is going to save the world single-handedly. Even with the best staff and the biggest budget, it is simply not going to happen without people from all walks of life. There are a lot of organisations that are very good at forming coalitions and mobilising their supporter base to rally behind a particular environmental cause. Yet often at closer examination, these coalitions are ephemeral and segmented. To build a long-lasting movement for the environment, I believe we need to start talking to people from outside the ‘bubble’ (people already sympathetic to the cause) and reach out to unlikely community stakeholders and groups including people from low socio-economic backgrounds, different faith groups, traditional owners, local councils, people from non-english speaking communities and even other ENGOs.

And yes, it would be nice to see organisations share ‘unbranded’ resources with each other.

  1. Local groups

Local groups have been working to protect their local environment for a long time. They are the ones who are often poorly resourced (in terms of finance) yet have a consistent group of volunteers. Everyday I stumble across a local group that is doing something amazing in their area that is not only having a tangible and positive impact but is also shifting behaviour in the community. Whether it be litter collection, conservation of riparian zones and watersheds, transitioning towards renewables or encouraging their community to divest. Often it seems like these locally run programs are more effective than a large campaign being executed by a well-resourced ENGO. Maybe it is time for ENGOs to start working with local groups to support their programs and help build the grand coalition I mentioned above.


The Eternal Frontier – A short book review

Have you ever wondered what North America looked like sixty-five million years ago? Or how life on the continent recovered after the cataclysmic Chicxulub struck the landmass? These are the questions Tim Flannery – a prominent, Australian ecologist and environmentalist – seeks to answer in his book The Eternal Frontier (first published in 2001).

Flannery’s narrative begins when the asteroid Chicxulub collides with the Earth. Its destructive power annihilates the dinosaurs and virtually wipes the North American continental slate clean.  From here, he beings to introduce a range of cast and characters. First came the plants, the pioneers that colonised the continent. Then, over time came the giant sloths, direwolves, one tonne lions, mammoths, bisons and mastodons. While the North American continent takes centre-stage, Eurasia, South America, Europe and even Australia played a supporting role in the evolution of its biodiversity. We learn for example, that many species of birds that are currently found in North America are of South American origin, while many of its mammals originated in Eurasia.

After charting the ebb and flow of life on the North American continent, Flannery turns his attention to the arrival of the first nations people into North America. Their arrival (some fourteen thousand years ago), is the start of the ‘blitzkrieg extinction’ period – one where the large megafauna began to disappear due to hunting and the changes in land-use and vegetation structure. A similar phenomena took place in Australia, where the megafauna disappearance coincides with the arrival of the Aboriginal people. The North American ecological balance finally tips with the arrival of French, Spanish and European settlers. Today, mass consumerism has become “an economic machine that is eating the life of the continent” (Benjamin Franklin in The Eternal Frontier, pg. 351).

The Eternal Frontier Book Cover
The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery

With his deeply imaginative writing coupled with forensic scientific examination, Flannery weaves a compelling and dramatic story. He punctuates the reader’s journey into this fascinating and deadly landscape with open ended questions, analyses competing theories and uses excerpts from journals and letters. He also provides a short summary of key ideas and developments at the end of each chapter help to keep readers on track. By the end of the book, readers will come to look at North America in a new light.

While Flannery takes his readers on a grand adventure, I think he is over ambitious in seeking to cover the ecological and evolutionary history of a continent that spans over sixty-five million years. I think that Flannery should have kept the focus on a specific time frame or chosen a particular event such as a conclusion to the story. This would have paved the way for a second volume, giving him more scope for a detailed examination. The continued introduction of new species of plants and animals also makes it confusing at times for the reader to keep up with the narrative and here, I think a collection of images or artist impressions would have been useful.

While the book is interesting, informative and imaginative, I think that some North American readers will not enjoy it as much, particularly, when Flannery forays into the impacts of humans on ecology and biodiversity. I think that his broad brush-strokes, perhaps justifiably, end up painting many of the human colonists of North America in a bad light.

Overall though, Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier is a worthy addition for anyone interested in the evolutionary history of the North American continent – and, indeed, the planet.

My green goals for 2018

It is the start of a new year and like most of us it is a time for reflection and for setting some goals for 2018. Below are some of my ‘green’ goals that I hope will have a small but positive impact on the world.

  1. Spend more time in nature

This is my a top priority for me for 2018. I want to spend more time outdoors with loved ones going on hikes, kayaking, camping and snorkelling. Australia has so many natural wonders that I want to explore. And I miss field work and being stuck in an office, even though I work for an ENGO seems like a great irony to me. My top three for this year are completing the Royal National Park hike, climbing to the top of Mount Kosciuszko and visiting the Great Barrier Reef.

2. Eat less meat

This is something I have spent the last twelve months thinking about and I am going to try it out. The consumption of meat has an enormous environmental footprint and eating less meat is considered a simple, yet impactful approach. Coming from a religious family which does not eat beef or pork, I feel as if my meat related footprint is low but I think I can do better. I do concede that this will be the hardest goal for me to stick to as I do not know how it will affect my post training recovery.

3. Pick up litter

We all know that we produce too much waste in our daily lives. We consume and we discard without a moment’s thought. It is so bad that I believe that there are no longer any pristine, natural places left in the world. So instead of feeling sad and angry, I have decided that everyday I will do my absolute best to pick up one item of rubbish (plastic preferably) off the street and throw it in the appropriate bin. And on days where I have more time, I will pick up more.

4. Harvest more

Like most people my age, I dream of having enough space to grow my own fruits and vegetables and live a truly, organic farm life. And like most people my age, I know that this life is hard to afford given how expensive the Sydney housing market has become. My work around is to harvest as much produce as I can from my small balcony. We already grow chillies, mint, taro and spinach. We have also grown tumeric, garlic and potatoes in previous years and my plan is to continue doing this for the rest of the year (strawberries and tomatoes remain elusive). Nothing beats fresh produce, particularly ones that you have grown yourself.

5. Join a local bushcare group

This ties in with my goal to spend more time outdoors. I spend a lot of time at work looking at local green groups who have put in the hard work to rehabilitate and revitalise a local creek, riverbed or park. I find this hands-on approach that has a positive impact on the local environment and community really appealing and want to be a part of it. Plus, I think it will help me brush up on my local flora and fauna identification skills.

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a highly productive crop that is cheap and easy to cultivate. It is thought to be ten times more productive than soy and five times more than rapeseed. Due to its versatility and long shelf-life, it has found its way into many everyday supermarket products. In fact, we consume it on a daily basis – in the form of chocolate, chips, butter, body lotions, lipsticks, shampoo, toothpaste and even bio-fuels (to name a few) – without ever realising it.

Currently, 90% of palm oil used around the world comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. With future demand for the product set to increase, other countries in Africa and South America have started growing palm oil trees.

Many locals work in palm oil plantations. Image credit: World Resource Institute

Despite its ubiquity, many of us are still unaware of the palm oil industry and its practices. Indonesia and Malaysia are the epicentres of an ecological and humanitarian crisis that has plagued the palm oil industry for many years. Vast tracts of lush, vibrant and thick vegetation have now become endless expanse of palm oil plantations. The deforestation crisis is so bad that an area the size of three hundred football fields are cleared every hour for palm oil plantations.

In places such as peat marshes where tree clearing was thought to be difficult,  illegal fires by rogue operators have become common practice. Together, the loss of trees and peat fires increase the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere – so much so that a small country like Indonesia now ranks as one of the highest global carbon emitters.

The deforestation and fires also put many unique animals such as orangutans, tigers, clouded leopards and rhinos at risk. It is estimated that 80% of orangutan habitats have been lost in the last two decades alone. This is a sad statistic considering that a third species of this great ape – the Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) – has recently been discovered in the jungles of Sumatra. So far, their population size is only estimated to be 800. The last time a new species of great ape was described was over a hundred years ago.

Newly discovered species of Orangutans. Image credit: Maxime Aliaga

The loss of habitat also brings these animals into direct conflict with humans. Many are killed by plantation workers who want to protect their crops and some are captured to fuel the illegal wildlife trade.

Unique, endangered animals are not the only ones to suffer from the expansion of the palm oil industry. Allegations have been made of local people being forced off the land by palm oil plantation owners without proper consultation or compensation. The locals also have to live with the fire, smoke and haze created by the burning of peat bogs, causing respiratory problems in the vulnerable and damaging property. In 2015, the Indonesian fires were so bad that the haze reached Singapore and other neighbouring countries. Researchers from Columbia and Harvard Universities estimated that one hundred thousand people across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore died due to these fires. 

Forest fires were so significant that the haze from Indonesia reached neighbouring countries. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory

In light of this, what can we do to address the ecological and humanitarian crisis in Indonesia and Malaysia?  

Encouraging people to vote with their dollar comes to mind.

However, when it comes to the palm oil industry, this may not be as easy as one would hope. The labelling of supermarket items that contain palm oil is not mandatory and often those that do contain palm oil are misleadingly labelled as containing ‘vegetable oil’ instead.

Secondly, a complex supply chain operating in remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia is difficult for big name multinationals to govern. The governance process is further complicated by the processing of both sustainably and unsustainably sourced palm oil trees in the same factories.

Persistent advocacy from green groups has helped consumer awareness and as a result, big name brands have made pledged to source their palm oil responsibly. In 2004, the ‘Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) was established in order to create  environmental and social standards when it comes to the palm oil industry. Stakeholders that meet the RSPO’s standards are issued Certified Sustainable Palm Oil certificates to show their compliance. RSPO members are audited by a third-party and any breaches result in the Certificates being revoked.

However, this does not mean that the RSPO is the silver bullet for limiting the impacts of the palm oil industry on the environment. Because of its large membership base, RSPO has been criticised for its slow decision making process (while deforestation continues at a rapid rate). Further, due to the large and complicated supply chain, full RSPO compliance by a new member can take a few years to implement. Another limitation for the RSPO (and similar certification schemes) is that it attracts a premium, a cost that is often passed on to consumers like you and me. With many families struggling with the high cost of living, ethical choices often give way to stretching the grocery bills as far as possible.

So much for voting with your dollar, especially considering that it is so hard to tell which items in the supermarket contain palm oil or not.

For me, my plan is to buy less chocolate from big name brands that are known to use palm oil.

Hallgrimskirkja: The sentinel of Reykjavik

Sitting sentinel upon on the tallest hill in Reykjavik, the seventy meter high silhouette of Hallgrimskirkja appears to resemble a sword that has been buried deep to its hilt. Surrounded by snow capped mountains, frozen lakes, eerie graveyards, Hallgrimskirkja (the Church of Hallgrimur) adds to the magic and mystery of Iceland and it’s capital city, Reykjavik. Due to its height and location, the church is always visible from anywhere in Reykjavik.

Hallgrimskirkja - Reykjavik
Sitting atop the hill in Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja casts a beautiful and imposing figure. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand

The best way to appreciate Hallgrimskirkja is by walking up to the hill and passing through the main shopping street of Reykjavik. When you stand before the church, you cannot help but marvel at the unique beauty and architectural complexity of the church. Designed by Guꝺjón Samuel in 1937 to resemble the lava flows and lava fields of Iceland, the church took nearly forty years to complete (construction started in 1945 and finished in 1986).

Walking through the large wooden doors, you immediately notice that the thick, stoney exterior was designed to withstand the Icelandic winter. When the large wooden doors are closed behind, the noise created by the winter blizzards are silenced and a sense of calm pervades. By contrast to the unique exterior, the interior of the church appears to resemble most other traditional gothic designs. The most outstanding feature inside though is the pipe organ, which weighs twenty five tons and is composed of over five thousand pipes.

No pilgrimage to Hallgrimskirkja is complete without ascending to the lookout at the top of the church’s steeple. On a clear day, panoramic views of Reykjavik are available. In winter, the views are even more incredible, with the brightly coloured roofs and christmas lights, punctuating the snow-blanketed canvass. After descending from the lookout, the final stop on the way to downtown Reykjavik is the statue of Leifur Eiriksson. According to records, he was the first European to visit America, beating Christopher Columbus by about half a century. Recognising Leifur’s achievements, the US government commissioned the statue, which was completed in 1932. An interesting detail that may be lost is that if one follows Eiriksson’s gaze, he is looking west, in the direction of America.

Leifur Eiriksson
Statue of Leifur Eiriksson at the entrance of the Church. He gazes west, in the direction of America.

Getting to the bottom of the hill, it will be difficult to resist looking back at the church one last time. Hallgrimskirkja took nearly forty years to complete and now stands sentinel above the city of Reykjavik. It’s location, imposing height and the sword-hilt like silhouette adds to the magic and mystery of Reykjavik. Hallgrimskirkja is a definite must see for any traveller to Iceland.

Downtown Reykjavik
Downtown Reykjavik as seen from the top of Hallgrimskirkja. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand


This article was originally published on the travel blog Taleprint. I am republishing it here because it’s one of my favourite place to visit.