Green Shoots of Hope


“It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home,” Tom Jones
BROODY, moody clouds are slung low in the sky, plump and heavy, these ripe cows’ udders daring to burst. There’s potholes of puddles and messy mud where dust once danced with tear drops. A storm bird singing somewhere in the distance. Creeks which gurgle with glee and dams brimming with optimism. I am on a road-to-recovery media tour of Queensland’s Granite Belt Wine Country but outside, it’s more Scotland than Southern Downs on this gorillas-in-the-mist morning where Mount Edwards wears a cloak of fog.

We punch through the clouds, south-west from Brisbane through fields of gold. There’s carrots and sweet corn in one patch of paddock, potatoes and onions buried in the next, this bounty all waiting to be exhumed and sent to markets around Australia.
Granite Highlands Maxi Tours owner and driver Allan Foster scales Cunningham’s Gap, where bushfires licked the bitumen six months earlier. I spy green shoots of hope bursting amid the blackened bush.
“Just a few months ago this country was burnt brown. We’ve had some good rain and it’s certainly greened up,” he says.
“The outer bush has come right back so well. The good old Australian bush is pretty tough.
“It is lovely and green out there right now but we are still in a drought. Our dams are empty. They’re still trucking water in.”

We pause at Sutton’s Juice Factory for fat, juicy pies stuffed with 25 apples and served with sweet apple cider ice-cream.
Manager Deb Gavin plants her feet in the humidity on this 4ha orchard and speaks of hardship. Of two years of drought, bushfires six months ago and even hail.
“The rain we’ve been getting is not enough, we would need 100mm a month for God knows how long,” she says.
Over at The Queensland College of Wine Tourism, CEO Peter O’Reilly says the region is in the middle of a “green drought”.
“In the last two years it’s been pretty ugly out in the vineyard with droughts and that sort of palaver but we are still battling on,” he says.
“It’s been horrific in terms of tourist numbers. January was the worst month in six years. December was horrendous as well.
“Key wineries won’t pick their fruit this year. If it’s not one thing, that gets you, it’s another.”
But there is hope. For ten days from February 28 to March 8, the Granite Belt will celebrate its survival, and the recent rain, with its 54th Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Festival which is expected to attract 100,000 people.
Want to know how it feels to stomp grapes till they squash through your toes? Or learn how to peel the longest apple peel? Feast on fresh fruit and award-winning wine? This is the event for you.

Strawberries as rosy as a child’s cheeks punctuate fields of emerald at Ashbern Farms where owner Brendan Hoyle discusses the drought on his 10ha property. Oh, and that delicious rain.
“We’ve been struggling with this dry and farming day-by-day. The toll that this droughts takes…you are trying to keep the wheels turning and there is no back up,” he says.
“Once you get the rain you breathe a sigh of relief.”
On this cool, cloudy afternoon we walk through the pretty patch, plucking warm, sweet strawberries straight from the bush, the sweet fruit exploding in our mouths.
We head to Jamworks Gourmet Foods & Larder where 95 per cent of its pretty products are local. There’s more than 100 gourmet jams, relishes, chutneys, sauces and pastes in this cavern of condiments. Next door, Anna’s Candles sells scented candles, intoxicating infusers and sublime soaps. Anna sells hope.

There’s time for a 2018 Blanc de Blanc sparkling chardonnay at Ridgemill Estate, whose elegant cabins are perched overlooking this vineyard, before heading to the Granite Belt Brewery, where I’ll spend the night in a log cabin crouched among Australian bush. Owner Geoff Davenport tells of how he was out fighting the bushfires and expected to come home to find his timber brewery swallowed by flames. Miraculously, the inferno stopped at the fence line.
Geoff’s wife Dee, who co-owns the business, says the 20-cabin property, which is home to koalas, echidnas and wallabies, is resilient.
“A week after the bushfires, a botanist came and he looked at the charred bush and said ‘you just wait, I can see good things are coming’,” Dee says.
Want more good things? Try their $15 Beer & Bratwurst lunch – of which 20 percent of sales is donated to Rural Men’s Health – and sample their eight beers on offer at the moment.
Before I succumb to slumber on this cool evening, I’ll dine on the likes of pork schnitzel at the intimate German/Austrian style Essen Restaurant, which opened last year.

A goat bleats a warm welcome on the next misty morning at Washpool Skin Wellness where former secondary school teacher Melissa Thomas specialises in handmade natural soaps and sensual soap-making classes.
On this soaking Saturday I pause to consider the irony of soap-making in a region that has had more wine than water in recent years. The rebellious child in me yearns to run out into that rare rain and slather myself with the soap we are discussing.
Melissa says her business is almost all online at the moment, while the drought reigns.
“Depression can be a really big issue, not only for people in primary production,” she says.
“The Buy From The Bush campaign was huge. We had hundreds of orders.”
Take a six-hour class with Melissa amid these sublime surrounds and learn the difference between supermarket soap and that made from natural ingredients such as virgin organic coconut, macadamia, oil and avocado oils, and organic shea and cacao butters.

The heavens are howling by the time we arrive at St Jude’s Cellar Door & Bistro, the Granite Belt’s newest café and cellar door experience. We feast on Eukey Road mushrooms, with a Mt Stirling olive tapenade and goat’s cheese, plus local figs and honey, while we digest the devastating drought.
“We’ve been through a pretty tough time on the Granite Belt. There wasn’t a blade of green grass,” owner and chef Robert Davidson says.
“It’s been an absolute nightmare. Most of the locals have been out fighting fires. The area has taken its toll. Until the rain three weeks ago there were so many people hanging their heads.
“It’s given some real hope. We’ve got water going into the dams, we can start planning for 2021.”

There’s time for a cheeky Chopin Chardonnay at our last stop, Paola’s The Winemaker Kitchen at Robert Channon Wines. I sit in the cool, dark barrel room lit by candles and sip the oaky, earthy grapes, contemplating rain and relief. Three months earlier when I’d visited the region in its dusty drought, bushfires on the border painting the sunset red, my eyes were full of tears. This time I leave this rich region, my belly full of flirty food, award-winning wine and bold brews. And a heart full of hope.

The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Granite Belt Wine Country https://granitebeltwinecountry.com.au and Tourism and Events Queensland https://www.queensland.com
She stayed at the Granite Belt Brewery https://www.granitebeltbrewery.com.au whose charming cabin accommodation starts from $430 for two people for two nights over the weekend (less during the week) and includes a breakfast basket one morning, and a cooked breakfast on Sundays
To find out more about the Stanthorpe Apple and Grape Harvest Festival go to http://www.appleandgrape.org

2019, A Year of Reflecting


A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Alis volat propiis. In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings.

NUMEROUS numerologists will tell you 2019 is an “ending year”. In my spiritual circles of yogis and meditators, they’ll tell you it’s the year you’ll wrap up your “soul agreements” with people, places or circumstances which no longer serve your higher good. For me, 2019 was a year of reflecting after a demanding decade which saw me flee to Singapore in 2010 after the sudden end of my marriage, and ultimately return home to Australia to rebuild my life.

For me, 2019 began with a bang more than a whimper. By early February I was in the Whitsundays, braving a rugged monsoonal trough of wild winds, stinging rains and savage seas, while trying to write a newspaper cover feature on the region’s recovery from Cyclone Debbie which had ravaged it two years earlier. Drenched, I groaned and giggled at the irony of my situation, the less-than-glamorous side of travel writing, and embraced the cheeky campaign adopted by tourism operators, who laughed at their soggy circumstances by renaming it a WetSunday Week. I learned a lot that week about going with the flow.

Two weeks later, on a sassy Southampton evening, I was on board the world’s newest cruise liner, the MSC Bellisima, sailing from France to England. All the while, stalking acclaimed Italian actress Sophia Loren, the ship’s godmother, who was onboard briefly. Because I am such a klutz, I even managed on that ship, stacked with glamorous European media, to lock myself out of my cabin while wearing nothing but my QANTAS pyjamas. Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I not had to stroll through the centre of a posh cocktail party to reception in my jim jams, bra-less and barefoot, to retrieve another key to my cabin.

March found me Noosa, just enough time to catch my breath before I flew to Kenya where I’d go on safari through the Masai Mara and sit in the shadow of mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. But it was meeting Mother Africa’s daughters, at the Ubuntu Café, which really caused me to pause and think. Here were a bunch of women who been made outcast by their communities for giving birth to disabled children. But they had clawed their way back from poverty and isolation, started a café, learned to sew, and were now stitching together a better life for themselves, their children and other women in their situation. It was the soul and spirit of these women that I took with me when I snatched a brief break to celebrate Easter in April, alone and ensconced in a surf shack at Agnes Water on the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

By May I was in Fiji, surrounded by the scent of frangipani flowers and the fat smiles of skinny kids, as I cycled through fields of sugar cane and snorkelled balmy oceans. We talked of conservation, and real-life castaways over on Castaway Island. I adore Australia’s South Pacific cousins, who always teach me so much about gratitude. Some days life is as simple as sitting under a coconut tree and counting your blessings. Three days later, back in Australia, I was driving through swirling willy willys enroute to Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland’s Capricorn region, wandering this remote and rugged country, discovering ancient First Nation’s art galleries and choppering over this gorgeous gorge. By the end of that month, I was back in the Whitsundays, sleeping out on the reef in a swag under the stars.

But it was in June when I became a bit lost. Overwhelmed by an already hectic year, and with another six months of travel ahead of me, I spent two days falling apart. I howled along with the wild westerly winds which buffeted Brisbane, drowning in the loneliness of my life and clasping for connection. A year of reflecting? I did plenty over those two days. Eventually I did the only thing I knew how. I wrote myself out of that hole and published a blog about the issue. Little did I know at the time it would go viral, resonating with friends, colleagues and strangers all over the world. I became acutely aware that loneliness had become one of the big issues of our time and that, strangely, I was not alone in my loneliness. I had launched a conversation that I wished to continue. Later that month I flew to Lombok, to interview villagers who had risen from the rubble of the earthquake a year earlier. As with the Fijians, the less people had, the more filled with gratitude they were for the small things. It made me rethink the excesses of my life.

Bali, Mauritius and Croatia beckoned in July and August as I criss-crossed the globe three times, in a manic marathon of work. In Croatia, I sat with people my own age, who had lived through the war of their homeland 25 years ago, and who wore harsh exteriors cloaking hearts of gold. I have never endured a war, and hope I never do, and again, there was so much reason to pause and think. Back in Australia in August, I was on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, urging tourism operators to do just that. Think about their stories and the story of the reef. In September, it was back to the Whitsundays for my third trip there this year, telling more stories of the reef.

I had the great fortune of visiting northern New South Wales in September before promptly jumping on a plane to Thailand in search of the rare pink dolphins. So elusive are these marine mammals, I didn’t encounter any on this trip, and it reminded me of the fragility of Mother Nature. It was something I would think more about in October when I travelled to Queensland’s wine country to write bushfire recovery stories in a town which had more wine than water. My last trip of the year took me to the Maldives, where again, the issue of Climate Change became impossible to ignore.

It’s Brisbane’s hottest December day in 20 years as I sit down to pen this blog, reflecting on the year that was. Bushfires have been raging in Australia for weeks, our water supplies are critical, and our air quality is appalling. And yet our governments do nothing. In a week or so I will pack my bags and board my final flight for the year, to a small island in Indonesia off of Bali, where I’ll perch in a beach shack, snorkel with the manta rays, take a surf class or two, stand up paddle board, kayak the mangroves, drink too much beer, indulge in massages and curl up with some travel tomes. And I reckon there will be some more reflecting in there too.

The Global Goddess would like to thank all of the PR people, tourism operators, colleagues, friends, family and random, kind strangers who came with me on this journey of 2019. May 2020 bring joy, love and peace for you and our planet.

10 top ways you can help the Granite Belt right now


HE looked like Santa Claus and he had a heart as huge as Christmas itself. Despite the hardships of the Australian land, there was a twinkle in his eye, humour in his bushranger’s beard, honest dust in his boots. Pyramids Road Winery owner Warren Smith epitomises the tourism operators on the Granite Belt. Rugged. Resilient. Rich in spirit. Last week, I was in Queensland’s premier wine country, meeting these hard-working souls who have endured devastating drought and bushfire. People who are fighting back against everything our harsh climate throws at them. Here’s 10 ways in which you can help this region rise again.
1.Visit and Stay overnight
Quaint B&B’s, converted farm houses, motels, cottages on vineyards, there’s a plethora of pretty places to stay in the Granite Belt. I stayed at Grovely House Bed and Breakfast, in the Venezia Suite, which is usually reserved for honeymooners. (Yes, wherever she goes, people like to put the perpetually-single Global Goddess in the Honeymoon Suite…) Home to a mob of 35 grey kangaroos, you’ll adore this elegant accommodation run by Faith Simon who doesn’t live on the property, but arrives every morning to cook you a beautiful breakfast.
https://grovelyhouse.com.au

2.Buy Wine
You don’t have to ask The Global Goddess twice! In the past few years this region has been diversifying into alternative varieties or Strangebirds which are better suited to the Queensland climate. If you can’t make it out to the Granite Belt right now, you can still purchase some excellent drops online. Believe me, I indulged in a two-day tasting (the suffering I do for my art) and came away with some delicious drops.

Wine Trail Map and Strange Birds



3.Buy Water
There’s more wine than water on the Granite Belt right now. The best way you can help is to buy water and donate it to tourism operators and wineries. While there, be water wise. Take two minute showers. Save washing your hair until you’re back home in Brisbane. (If your hair looks less glamorous than usual, drink more wine). Use half-flush on the toilet. These small steps do make a big difference.
https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/water/residence/use

4.Buy Local Produce and Gifts
There’s plenty of amazing experiences to be had for those who don’t drink wine. I’m talking local produce such as cheese, home-made jam, fruit and vegetables, apple juice and gifts such as the beautiful balsamic vinegar I bought which is infused with lemongrass. Beer drinkers will be delighted to learn there’s also the Granite Belt Brewery (The Global Goddess also loves a frothy drop) and even the Granite Belt Cider Company.
https://www.granitebeltbrewery.com.au/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwrfvsBRD7ARIsAKuDvMPZVS-AhjZnCHLScm1a1B7jIebijOno6SnMtowt5SEwNUC8rk3RwYEaAg3DEALw_wcB
http://www.granitebeltciderco.com.au

5.Eat Locally
You’ll love the food on the Granite Belt, fruit plucked straight from the tree, vegetables grown in the soil with love, and there’s plenty of restaurants and cafes at which you can sample this home-grown produce.
https://www.stanthorpecheese.com.au

Home


https://www.mtstirlingolives.com

6.Donate to the Rural Fire Service
If you can’t get to the Granite Belt right now, you can still help. Donate to organisations such as the Rural Fire Service which has been working under extreme conditions to contain bushfires and save townships.
https://www.ruralfire.qld.gov.au/Pages/Home.aspx

7.Speak to local tourism operators, listen to their stories and offer moral support
At every single winery, every single time, every single operator walked out of the cellar door to shake my hand and that of my colleagues on this trip. These people are desperate to tell their stories, they don’t want your pity, but they do need your support. Take the time to listen to them. Ask them what they need. You will fall in love with these people.

8.Take a Tour
You don’t even need to drive yourself from Brisbane to the Granite Belt. There’s a range of tour operators out on the Granite Belt who will do the hard driving for you. Which means you can eat, drink and be merry to your heart’s content. The Global Goddess travelled with Filippo’s Tours.
https://filippostours.com.au

9.Enrol in a course at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism
The better educated we all become about wine, the better Queensland, and Australia’s, wine industry will be placed on the world stage in the future. There’s a wide range of courses in which you can partake through the Queensland College of Wine Tourism. In fact, The Global Goddess is considering enrolling in a Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course which offers globally-recognised accreditations to becoming a sommelier.

Home



10.Share the love on Social Media
It’s time for keyboard warriors to unite for good instead of evil. There are so many great stories to tell about this region. See a photo your like on Instagram? Share it. Like a story about the Granite Belt? Tell your mates. Like and share the Facebook pages of wineries and tourism operators who really need some love right now.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Queensland Wine Industry Association https://queenslandwine.com.au
and Granite Belt Wine and Tourism https://granitebeltwinecountry.com.au
This post was created in partnership with Southern Queensland Country https://www.southernqueenslandcountry.com.au

Bursting Back from the Brink


“There’s more wine than water on the Granite Belt right now,” Rob Fenwick, Heritage Estate Wines
HANDEL’S Water Music is dancing around the room, ducking under a solid steel beam, which was used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It weaves around the ancient timber table at which I am perched, before one final twirl and the German composer’s notes strike my wine glass. I am at Heritage Estate Wines on the Granite Belt, seated around the same solid rosewood and leather table at which the Queensland Government was formed in 1859. But I am not here to participate in a political discussion, rather, I am clutching a French-oaked wild fermented chardonnay, chatting about wine and bushfire and drought. It’s an unprecedented situation: how to turn wine into water. And the irony of those watery, wistful musical notes waltzing around the room are not lost on me.

This journey has taken me from Brisbane into Southern Queensland Country, past Aratula before snaking over Cunningham’s Gap, through Warwick and into Stanthorpe. The dams are all but bone dry. The soil is so parched it cackles like a witch underfoot. Recent bushfires have painted patches of country charcoal black. Forget Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar’s sunburnt country, this land is blistering. These ragged, jagged edges are enough to make you weep if you allow it, but save your salty tears. For amid the ashes and the dust which lodges in your throat there is resilience and hope in spades.

Heritage Estate’s Rob and Therese Fenwick are fighting back in the only way they know how. With wine. The creamy Chardonnay I am drinking, which is about a divisive as climate change itself, won Winestate Magazine Wine of the Year in 2009. I sample my first ever Fiano, made from an ancient Mediterranean variety, and part of the Strangebird wine varieties you’ll find all around the Granite Belt. There’s a buttery Marsanne and a crisp Verdelho on the Strangebird list here too, along with a Tempranillo, Shiraz Viognier, and Shiraz Mourvedre Grenache. While not a Strangebird, I pause to admire the name of the Rabbit Fence Red. Every winery has at least one of these Strangebird or alternative varieties and it’s the secret to this region’s ongoing success.
“People love the experience of small wineries with real owners and people who have skin in the game,” Rob says.
“The 2020 vintage will be small but it should be fabulous. When you’ve had less water on the vine you get a better taste of grape.
“People should come back to the Granite Belt because while we have more wine than water right now, the biggest fear is unemployment.”

I sashay down to Savina Lane Wines, the newest cellar door on the Granite Belt, but with vines that were planted 65 years ago by an Italian family after World War Two. Despite the drought, the first bud bursts are blooming at this winery which is so popular, it only opens to the public for 10 weeks a year. For the rest of the year, wine is sold to an exclusive membership of just 600. The names Fiano, Graciano, Montepulciano, Petit Manseng, Tempranillo and Viognier swirl around my tongue. Brad Hutchings, who owns this winery with his wife Cheryl, indicates towards the 30,000 bottle cellar before saying “The most expensive thing here is the water. It’s a 2018 vintage because that’s the last time it rained.”
But despite the drought, Cheryl is excited about next year’s vintage.
“It should be extraordinary. Because the vines have had a very hard year they’ve struggled and will work much harder to produce moisture and nutrition,” she says.
“The old 65-year-old girls are thriving.”

The sun has plunged below the horizon by the time I arrive at Jester Hill Wines owned by Mick and Anne Bourke, a couple of motorcyclists who went for a ride one day and ended up buying a winery.
I sip on a Strangebird Sparkling Roussanne, one of only three in the world, while a bubbly Ann reflects on the drought.
She’s been back working full time as a nurse to simply cover the vineyard’s $2500 a week water bill.
“We’ve just had to look at the drought in every positive way and make it work for us. At the end of the day we are here for the long haul,” she says.
“It’s not even about covering our vintage for next year, it’s about looking after the vines and creating an environment that people want to come for.
“For us, our story is always a positive story. What brings people here are positive experiences.”
And positive they are. Dine here on local produce such as Mallow Organic Lamb, feast on the region’s cheese, eat fruit plucked straight from the orchard, and try the Two Fools Trinculo or the Triboulet.

Girraween National Park Ranger Sue Smith, who owns Pyramids Road Wine with her husband Warren, leans like a laconic Queenslander, her heavy walking boots firmly planted on the original timber floor of her cellar door, and talks about the “emotional connection” she has with her winery.
“We are striving for quality. Nothing goes into that bottle unless we believe it is going to sell. Grapes will grow themselves but good grapes, you need to look after,” she says.
“This year is going to be very challenging. We are hoping all the work we’ve done in the vineyard is going to help them survive. We’ve also done a lot of composting and mulching.
“We need tourism badly. The small amount of water you are going to use here is nothing.”
Old-style chardonnay lovers with adore the 2018 Barrel Ferment Chardonnay here.

At Ballandean Estate Wines, the region’s oldest and most renowned wineries, Leanne Puglisi is straight-shooting about the year they’ve endured.
“We started in 1928 and this is probably the toughest year we’ve experienced as a family. It is quite scary the decisions we are having to make with the drought,” she says.
“Our region can do lots of things well. For so long the Granite Belt was left to do what it wanted to do and we love to do what we want to do.
“The general public just assumes that Queensland is all beaches, but we have the highest wine altitude in Australia.”
A heavenly highlight of a visit here, apart from the award-winning wine (try the “Messing About” Fiano) is dining on traditional Italian fare in the Barrel Room Restaurant among 150-year-old port barrels.

Across the road, Golden Grove Estate’s Raymond Costanzo, who is also 2019 Queensland Winemaker of the Year, says their story is all about alternative varieties such as the Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, Malbec and Durif.
“The last five years has been about having fun, breaking out and playing around with tastes and food,” he says.
It’s a similar story of ingenuity at Twisted Gum Wines where Tim and Michelle Coelli produce single-vineyard, non-irrigated wines.
“I feel that we are in a slightly better position than vines that have been irrigated a lot,” Michelle says.
“Our vines have a deep root system. They are very in tune with seasonality. They are very resilient and opportunistic.”
Sit in this tin and timber Queenslander and sip on the likes of Verdelho/Semillon and Shiraz Rose.
At the adjacent Hidden Creek Winery and Café, ducks are paddling in the remnants of the dam but the 2018 Queensland Winery of the Year powers on, diversifying from old-style wines into more hardy grapes such as Tempranillo and Viognier. This huge-hearted winery also donates $2 from every glass of wine and $5 from every bottle they sell to the Rural Fire Brigade.

Hot winds are fanning another bushfire south of the border at Tenterfield by the time I arrive at the Queensland College of Wine Tourism (QCWT). But amid the acrid smoke in the air, there’s optimism galore. Nearby, a kookaburra laughs outrageously, as if he knows everything is going to be OK.
QCWT CEO Peter O’Reilly says there is already so much growth out of the fire scar in the area.
“Once we see a couple of storms go through, this place will leap out of the ground,” he says.
“There are a lot of really great pictures and encouraging signs in that regard.”
So passionate is QCWT about Queensland as a wine producing region, it is home to the “vineyard of the future” in which 70 different varieties of grapes are being trialled to determine which will perform better in extreme climate conditions.

It’s a sentiment being echoed back in Brisbane at Sirromet Wines, whose 105ha of vines are grown out at Ballandean, and which is poised to plant 15 new varieties to meet climate change challenges.
“I have a strong belief that Queensland wine will dominate not only in Australia but across the world,” says wine maker Mike Hayes.
“We are acting on the Granite Belt crusade. The good thing about the Granite Belt is that it is relatively new.
“Queensland has got the ability to showcase the varieties to the world. We are not tied up in tradition. We’ve shown the world it can be done.”

The Global Goddess stayed at Grovely House Bed and Breakfast https://grovelyhouse.com.au
And travelled as a guest of the Queensland Wine Industry Association https://queenslandwine.com.au
and Granite Belt Wine and Tourism https://granitebeltwinecountry.com.au
This post was created in partnership with Southern Queensland Country https://www.southernqueenslandcountry.com.au

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

IMG_2986
I’ve been to Nice and the isle of Greece
 where I sipped champagne on yacht, 
I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed ’em what I’ve got. 
I’ve been undressed by kings and I’ve seen some things that 
a woman ain’t s’posed to see, I’ve been to paradise…Charlene (1977)
FOR me, Christmas is a time to reflect. It’s when I briefly stop travelling, slow down and glance back on the year. It would be so easy in my job as a travel writer to stumble from destination to destination and chase the rush of the next story and adventure, discarding the last place I’ve visited as simply a fuzzy memory. Recently, while filing a piece to camera for my colleagues over at TravelThereNext, I was asked what I “collect” on my travels. And it’s pretty simple. I collect characters. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things in every corner of the planet. I try to capture them in my stories and in the quiet corners of my mind. Store them up for those rainy days when I need reminding that the world is truly a remarkable place. And so I present to you some of the great characters I’ve met of 2014.

First World White Girls, who performed at the Judith Wright Centre, reminded me of how fortunate I am.

First World White Girls, who performed at the Judith Wright Centre, reminded me of how fortunate I am.

I began my travelling year in Bali in January where I met Cekorda, 85, a respected medicine man. “How old are you?” he asks as I sit with my back against his knees, his wiry fingers probing my skull.
“43,” I respond.
“Not so young,” he mutters to himself, much to my amusement. He then asks me my problems.
“I have a broken heart,” I reply.
I lay down on a mat and he presses between my toes with a stick. My third toe on my left foot hurts and I yelp.
“Your broken heart is healed. It is your mind. You have self doubt.”
Cekorda then stands above me and traces his magical stick over my body to clear my aura, before announcing that I no longer have a problem.
He turns to an Western bystander who speaks Indonesian.
“Women are very complex,” the bystander translates for Cekorda. I laugh all the way from Bali back to Brisbane.

Bali medicine man Cekorda

Bali medicine man Cekorda

In February, I’m up in Thailand, where I return to the River Kwai and meet up with my young friend Sam Season, a traditional Mon Man who works on the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. Sam has two big dreams: to gain an apprenticeship as a mechanic in Australia and to marry the love of his life, Jaytarmon who lives in a neighbouring village. I ask him whether this mysterious girl with the long black hair is still beautiful. He doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, awesome. I want to listen to her voice.” He pulls out his iPhone until he finds a photo of her, laying dreamily on a bed with her hands in her chin. “I look at her photo every night before I go to bed. I have to make her believe in myself and trust in myself. When I finish my education I will be ready. I have to show her ‘can you wait for me?’ One day, when I have an education we will have a good life and then we will marry.”

Sam Season

Sam Season

March finds me back in Brisbane, struck by the sadness of the drought which is consuming my country. My journey takes me a few suburbs away where I catch up with Tom Conley, 3, who was born just before the 2011 Brisbane floods and ironically now bakes for drought relief with his mum, Sally Gardner. “Tom gets involved in all the cooking adventures in our home. He especially loves baking and as soon as I get the utensils out he rushes over, climbs up and wants to measure ingredients, crack the eggs and lick the bowl, We talk about who we are helping or who we are baking for, he enjoys drawing pictures for the drought-affected families.”

Tom Conley

Tom Conley

In April I return to Bali, to spend Easter alone at a yoga retreat and to recover from yet another disappointing relationship. Purely by chance I select OneWorld Retreats Escape The World program in Ubud where, along with twice-daily yoga sessions, I am challenged to sit with myself for one glorious day of silence. Claude Chouinard, who runs the retreat with his partner Iyan Yaspriyana, reminds us that despite everyone around us seemingly being able to travel, we are only a small percentage of the world who is wealthy enough to do so. He encourages us to embrace our 24 hours of silence and see it for the gift that it is.
“For just one day you can consider this silence a form of torture or one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever give yourself. What we know as time is in fact an illusion. For human beings, time is limited to the moment we are born, to the moment we leave this planet, a very short journey considering the age of the universe. Live every day by the minute and enjoy as much as you possibly can…the illusion goes by quickly.”

Iyan Yaspriyana

Iyan Yaspriyana

May is chaotic and colourful as I spend nearly a month in Europe chasing a range of stories. And I meet a range of those fabulous characters I so treasure….A sultry Slovenian who compliments me on my “good English” when I reveal I’m Australian; Skanky from Mumbai who eats one gigantic meal a day as he doesn’t wish to “get sick on German food”; Suzie, the Filipino Canadian whose love of Schnitzel knows no bounds; Calamity Jane from Chicago who wanders the streets of Berlin pointing at every single wall and asking our tour guide whether it is a piece of the Berlin Wall; and a jolly gay guy from Wales.

A bold Berliner

A bold Berliner

June is spent in Christchurch, which was devastated in February 2011 by an earthquake in which 187 people were killed and 1000 buildings destroyed. At the C1 Espresso café I speak with owner Sam Crofskey, 37, who not only lost his original café across the road in the quake, but his house as well. Sam was working in his high street café when the earthquake hit.
“I was a little bit confused. The coffee grinders fell off and landed on my legs and the power went off and then I could hardly stand. We needed to get rid of the customers, the staff and then ourselves. We had more than 100 people in the café at the time. Out on the street everyone was distraught and I thought everyone was over-reacting. I thought we’d come back tomorrow and clean everything up. It took a lot more for me to understand the city was actually gone. When you are here with no power or phone you have no idea what’s going on. I was like, my business if fucked, my house is fucked…that’s annoying.”

Sam Crofskey

Sam Crofskey

The mercury had plunged to minus 2 degrees out in Southern Queensland Country in July when I ventured to the Dalby Cattle Sales in search of myths and men. I spend two hours chasing cattle and cowboys around the cattle yards before I decide to leave. On the way back to the car, I hear a voice behind me. “So, have you got your story?” a cowboy says, following me quickly out of the cattle yards. “Yep. I don’t have all morning to be chasing you boys around,” I say defiantly. “Where are you staying tonight?” he directs this question at my breasts. “Chinchilla,” I say. He stands and considers this for a moment, calculating whether I’m worth the hour drive to the next town. And just as I’m about to turn to leave he says: “Well, I guess I’ll see you around then.” The interaction keeps me entertained for several days and hundreds of kilometres later.

Dalby cowboys

Dalby cowboys

I spend the most perfect August day with a close mate where we escape to the Sunshine Coast and the Eumundi Markets and Noosa. We stroll and laugh. Steal languid pauses to smell the roses, or in this case, the pungent soap on sale. Chat to a stallholder about his carnivorous plants. Try on eclectic outfits. Resist the seduction of sparkly jewellery. Wander through aisles of books. Observe the colourful characters. Pat a camel. We stumble across a “Willy Washer” and spend some time discussing its purpose. There’s a male fairy guarding some jewellery that resembles the young man selling the silver, fashioned from old knives, forks and spoons. An ancient typewriter has been dismantled, somewhat to our dismay, and crafted into trinkets. Colourful hand-woven handbags remind us of our travels around the globe. We discover Noosa Reds – plump, juicy tomatoes bursting with the distinct flavours of this fertile region – deliciously packed in crunchy brown paper bags. A giant gecko mural hugs a pole. There’s glass-blowing and some beaut ukes. And all the while, we keep winding through the marketplace, unravelling our lives.

A Eumundi Fairy

A Eumundi Fairy

On a stunning September afternoon I find myself staring at boobs and Broadbeach on the Gold Coast, at a High Tea to launch Kim McCosker’s cookbook Cook 4 a Cure to raise funds for the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and to celebrate the opening of Australia’s newest resort brand ULTIQA Resorts. Guest speaker Mark Wood volunteers his time to speak about breast cancer after losing his wife Annie to the disease seven years ago, and says one in eight Australian women will be told they have breast cancer at some stage.
“Today, 37 women will be told they have breast cancer. To think that’s happening to 37 people today and the day after is far too many. And seven people would have lost that battle today. My wife got a death sentence but my daughter, who was 12 at the time that Annie died, got a life sentence losing her mother so young. Twenty years ago, 37 per cent of women diagnosed with the disease died, but that’s now been halved through awareness and education.”
All of a sudden I feel tired and emotional, but as I furtively glance around the room, I find I am not alone. There’s not a dry eye in the house.

Kim McCosker

Kim McCosker

October was spent in Fiji at the Australian Society of Travel Writers Awards where I won Best Food Travel Story for a piece I wrote about a group of six hardcore Wellington prisoners who were being rehabilitated through a cooking program “From Prison Gate to Plate”. Talk about collecting characters. And the words of celebrity chef Martin Bosley, who runs the program, still ring in my head. “I didn’t realise what a loss of freedom truly meant before I went in there. As a community we need to change our perceptions and be prepared that one day these men are getting out and we need to pick up where prisons leave off and reduce re-offending.”

Fiji School Kids

Fiji School Kids

I returned to Hawaii for the first time in 22 years in November, where there were characters galore including the mythical menehune. Sheraton Kona Cultural Tour Officer Lily Dudoit explains these little red men. “Everywhere in Hawaii we are known for our myths and legends. We have the little people who only come out at night to do their work. We call them Menehune and they are said to have reddish skin colour. There was a couple who had their wedding photo by this tree and when they had the photo developed there was a Menehune peeking out from behind the tree. They like to make trouble. Sometimes things go missing or they move something. You don’t find them. They find you.” I spend the rest of my time in this land of rainbows searching for possibly the most intriguing men I will meet all year.

Hawaiian Kids

Hawaiian Kids

Which brings me to December. While many leave Brisbane and Australia, this is the time of year where I sit on my back deck with a cold beer and warm memories. There’s movies and coffees and catch ups with friends and family, the all-important support cast of characters in my life. Thank you to everyone I have met out there in the big wide world this year, to those who have come on the journey with me, and to those who continue to love and support me back at home. Sending you love and light this season and may we all experience peace on earth.
IMG_6953

How’s the Serenity?

1538706_796486967035519_445887935_n
I’VE known her since the day she was born. This feisty, fabulous female was always going to be a handful. She’s a lot like me. It’s the way we’re wired. A colicky baby, she fought and struggled to breastfeed. She cried a lot. Didn’t like to sleep much, still doesn’t, there’s too much life to be living. Around the age of 3 she insisted I make her a baby kangaroo out of play dough and threatened hell to break loose if a joey was not produced. She’d throw an almighty tantrum and scream at her mother “I’m not a naughty girl” before running out of the room. Even as a little kid, she had a taste for the absurd, able to eat exotic things and laugh at the ridiculous. As a teenager, on holidays, her in one single bed, me in the other, we’d laugh at our similar sleep patterns. She’s a worrier, too, and a lot of people think she looks so much like me, she could be my daughter.
1231697_735156079835275_1399047990_n
But my niece, Cheneya Freese, was born with cattle breeding in her veins from both sides of the family. Now 17, this is a kid who has worked part-time after school and on weekends, saving her pennies, because she has a big dream. She wants to one day run her own cattle station. Some people would say she is mad, this teenager with this huge dream, in a country of droughts and flooding rains. Where the industry is dying a slow death. But not me. Because I know her. I’ve watched this kid with the fighting spirit from the get-go and know if anyone can do it, it’s her. Things don’t come easily to her, she’s the type of person who has to go and grab life by both hands. Give it a furious shake. Hope something drops from the tree. And just when she thinks it’s not going to happen, when she’s on the verge of quitting, she dusts the bullshit off her jeans and picks herself up.
1450921_761323330551883_146041460_n
So determined is Cheneya to realise her big dream, that since she started high school four years ago, she has been undertaking agriculture at school, working with her dad on his property – west of Brisbane – and attending as many local agricultural shows she can. That’s where she met Bevan and Dawn Voight from Warrill Creek. Cheneya was hell bent on breeding Murray Greys, until she met Bevan and Dawn, and discovered the interesting breed, Square Meters. She started building cattle yards, fences and troughs on the family property. Attended meetings with other Square Meaters, helped Bevan and Dawn show their cattle at local shows. And begged her father to let her buy some of her own cattle, and put them on the property.
1404780_785492064801676_79881949_o
In the meantime, she also established her own stud name and logo – Serenity Plains. With her savings she bought three cattle – Gone Forever, Ebony Eyes and Hosannah – from Bevan and Dawn. She’s registered her own brand. Bought a ute and got her driver’s licence. Last October, Serenity Plains welcomed its first calf – Jaala. Shortly after, on Boxing Day, another calf called Judge came into the stud. In less than six months, Cheneya’s herd of three increased to five.
1016981_855279121156303_1554099085_n
But the story doesn’t end there. Last month, Cheneya decided to enter her cattle in the Toowoomba Show. It wasn’t an easy day. After recent rain, the humidity was stifling and the mud up to this young cattle woman’s thighs. One of her cattle was unsettled and as she walked and walked around the ring, tears fell from her eyes. But then, just as you’d think she’d give up, things did their last-minute turnaround for her. And she won Champion Senior Female and Grand Champion Female overall across her breed. Against all the other, older die-hard cattle men and women.
923536_853960007954881_301084375_n
At the end of this year when she finishes school, Cheneya hopes to gain a traineeship within the beef production industry. She’s inching one step closer to that dream. And over the coming years there will be plenty of drought and flooding rains. There will be plenty of tears shed under the Akubra and moments when she’ll want to quit. But I’ve known this young woman since the day she was born. Her plans will tweak and change, but quitting, nah, it’s not an option.
1380020_745528328798050_629786234_n
For more information on Serenity Plains or the Square Meters breed, please contact Cheneya Freese on 0458 805 499 http://www.facebook.com.au/SerenityPlainsSquareMeters
10151382_856459521038263_1012706527_n

Making Mud Cakes

1960147_10152012734297333_1501177775_n
OF all life’s delicious ironies, this is the sweetest of the lot. On the day I’m meant to interview Tom Conley about his involvement in drought relief, it’s raining cats and dogs, our interview postponed while the torrent subsides. But that’s not the only spoonful of sugar in this story. You see Tom is only three years old, and if you love irony, you’ll adore the fact this chubby-cheeked kid not only bakes for drought relief, but was born just before the 2011 Brisbane floods. Yes, it’s raining men, and the blokes of the future are soaking great, if Tom is any indication.
539470_4557748539426_1991363435_n
Tom was just five weeks old when the big floods hit Brisbane, his mum Sally Gardner watching from the kitchen window as flood waters stopped just short of their next door neighbour’s house in Oxley. But Sally’s partner Brendan’s workplace at Rocklea “went under”, as they say in Brisbane, as did Sally’s books, CDs and photo albums stored there. Add to this Sally not only had a new born baby at home, but also another son, aged 2.5 at the time, and it was a bit of busy time.
154679_467517877332_7942423_n
“We didn’t have electricity so we couldn’t do the washing and we couldn’t go out, and we had three extra house guests due to the flood,” Sally says. But what Sally did next was remarkable. Rather than feel sorry for herself she decided to volunteer to assist her community, offering childcare, food and any other service her neighbours needed. And to cheer them up, she’d take baby Tom, in a pouch.
“We’d go and door knock and I’d have him in a pouch and people would just want to show me their photos,” Sally says.
“If we’d go into a community centre we’d take at least one of the boys. It was a bit of an ice-breaker.
“I was used to working in an HR roles and fixing a situation.”
And somewhere, amid all the mud and misery, Baked Relief was formed by Sally and her friends.
1795686_10152728314849569_324053577_n
Fast forward three years and it’s no longer flood victims for whom Sally and her crew bake and distribute fresh goods, but those in drought. And Tom is an integral part of the operation.
“Tom gets involved in all the cooking adventures in our home. He especially loves baking and as soon as I get the utensils out he rushes over, climbs up and wants to measure ingredients, crack the eggs and lick the bowl,” Sally says.
“We talk about who we are helping or who we are baking for, he enjoys drawing pictures for the drought-affected families.”
image[8]
When I visited Sally and Tom yesterday, he was a typical three-year-old, licking the chocolate off a biscuit. I asked Tom (whose favourite drink is milk) what he thought of the drought, and he had this message for the farmers: “I hope it rains soon.” Sally, whose mother was a GP who gave tetanus injections during the 1974 Brisbane floods, believes charity begins at home. This year Baked Relief has sent 2 tonnes of goods to St George and another tonne to Chinchilla. Sally also believes everyone in the city has a connection either directly or indirectly to the bush, which, despite recent rain, is still doing it tough.
“Everyone eats food. People should have a better connection with their neighbours and be alert to the needs of others and see if they can do one thing to help,” she says.
“Whatever pioneering spirit that got us all here is maybe what gets us through the crappy times. We want the people out in the bush to know they are not alone. Without them we don’t feed our children.”
1495650_10151882014557333_829746643_o
As for Sally’s next project, her response is as direct as you’ll find from an Aussie woman with a huge heart: “I’ll just wait for the next shit to hit the fan and see what we can do about the situation.”
To find out more about Baked Relief go to their Facebook page or to donate money go to the Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women’s Network at http://www.qrrrwn.org.au
199366_10150143424617333_3073422_n