A Guide to Nature-Based Wellness Travel in Australia with Nina Karnikowski - travel writer, author and sustainability advocate
When I was 22, I spent a year in France studying. Like most Australians abroad for the first time, I hurtled around Europe at lightspeed, collecting countries like medals and developing an appetite for exotic destinations that grew exponentially until, eight years ago, I started working as a travel writer. At that point, all bets were off, and my country count clicked over 60 as I travelled everywhere from Namibia to Antarctica, Mongolia to Guatemala and beyond, in search of stories to inspire and educate readers.
This year, of course, that all changed. In the wake of catastrophic bushfires, the pandemic, worldwide political turmoil and the subsequent unveiling of inequalities of all kinds, we’ve had to re-evaluate how we do almost everything, including the way we travel. The six percent of the world’s population who have ever set foot on a plane have been travelling far too quickly and often, contributing to eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions, over-touristed towns, the erosion of cultures and wilderness areas and more. During the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns, however, global emissions dropped to the lowest level in a decade as we stopped flying and driving and consuming, and we realised the pandemic could be a portal into a cleaner, greener travel world.
Thanks to this realisation I, like many of us, am rediscovering the beauty that lies right in our own backyard. As Proust famously said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” and it’s true that we can explore our own sunburnt country with the same level of curiosity and wonder as we can exotic lands. Travelling closer to home means we’re burning less carbon, helping our economy recover and slowing our travels right down, so we can incorporate more wellness, health and nature into our holidays.
One of the highlights of this grounded year has, for me, been rediscovering the nostalgic pleasures of camping. Whether I’ve been glamping on North Stradbroke Island, pitching a tent in a beachside camp ground just 90 minutes from home, or taking a van trip to the Warrumbungles to stargaze in Australia’s only Dark Sky Park, I’ve been reminded how sleeping under the stars and cooking meals over an open fire helps us reconnect with nature. Also, how it strips us back to the bare essentials, helping us slow down, tune in, and remember what really matters in life. Things do go wrong when you’re cooking your own food, sleeping in a tent and putting yourself at the mercy of the elements, of course. But I couldn’t imagine a better lesson in how we might all approach life in a less controlled way, welcoming whatever life throws at us.
Retreats close to home are another way to bring more presence and clarity to this uncertain time. Earlier in the year, my husband and I turned off our phones and escaped to a beautiful eco-cabin named Heartwood, just a 30-minute drive from home. We spent our time hiking and reading, meditating and cooking, and generally just getting some much-needed distance from the modern world. Whether you splash out on an expensive spa retreat (Australia has some incredible ones, including the Hunter Valley’s Golden Door, or Gwinganna in the Gold Coast Hinterland) or simply slip away to a cabin surrounded by nature, a retreat will rejuvenate your mind and body, and help you reconnect with yourself.
This year, instead of whiling away the hours in crowded restaurants and bars, I’ve spent weekends hiking to nearby waterfalls, through national parks and past rivers, and have felt the same sense of elation and freedom I felt hiking to Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, or through the snow in Hokkaido in northern Japan. Studies show that immersion in nature through these types of hiking trips makes our brains healthier, increases our attention span and creativity, and lowers blood pressure, heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Japanese call this shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which incorporates the idea of soaking up nature using all your senses – the soothing green of the plants, the crunch of the earth beneath your feet, the scent of the soil – helping us stay mindful and present.
Getting out on the ocean can also help reduce anxiety, calm the nervous system, and connect us to ourselves and the natural world, making a local boating adventure another excellent option. Living in Australia, we’re all familiar with the sensation of diving into the ocean and feeling as through the water is physically pulling the stress away. Whether you opt for a chartered sailing trip (I’m dreaming of one around the Whitsundays) or hire a drive-yourself boat for a day as my family and I did recently, putting yourself in the lap of the ocean is incredibly healing for the soul.
Whichever way we choose to explore our spectacular country, the best part is that the more time we spend with Mother Nature, the greater sense of care we develop for her. If there’s a better reason for taking a nature-based holiday than that - at a time when our human needs are causing massive deforestation, ocean acidification, air pollution and species extinction - I can’t imagine what it is.
FIVE WELLNESS BREAKS NEAR BYRON
Heartwood Cabin. Fancy yourself lolling in a bathtub set into the deck of an architecturally-designed eco-cabin, listening to eucalypts rustle overhead as the sun sets over the mountains? Head straight to Heartwood, tucked away on 100 acres of revegetated bushland in the Byron Bay hinterland. See bayescapesmanagement.com.au
SOMA. Set on 22 acres of rainforest just fifteen minutes from Byron, Soma runs regular wellness and meditation retreats, helmed by celebrated Vedic meditation teacher Gary Gorrow. The space itself is reason enough to book – there’s a geodesic glass yoga dome surrounded by bamboo, a freshwater infinity pool overlooking the hills, and a warm minimalist design that belongs on an Architectural Digest cover. See somabyron.com.au
The Camp Earth. The Camp Earth’s first off-grid hideaway on a hinterland hilltop marries a bell-tent bedroom with a wooden tiny home, and works in apricot-hued linens, jute rugs and raw wood furnishings. A 20-minute drive from Byron, here you can get a taste of self-sufficiency, without having to give up creature comforts like ceramic crockery, organic toiletries or a well-stocked fridge. See thecamp.earth
Gaia. It’s been 15 years since Olivia Newton-John opened the doors to her mountaintop wellness retreat Gaia, but it’s still amongst the best in Australia. Retreat packages include fitness, yoga and meditation classes, treatments like massage, acupuncture and naturopathy consultations, and clay sculpture classes. See gaiaretreat.com.au
Botanica. Drive 45 minutes from Byron into Upper Wilsons Creek and you’ll find this private couples retreat, set in a beautiful timber cabin in the middle of the rainforest. Hike in the forest, bathe in the freshwater spa and pool, detox in the woodfired sauna, or organise a massage to come to you. botanicaspa.com.au
Make a Living Living: Be Successful Doing What You Love by Nina Karnikowski ($30, Thames and Hudson) is in bookstores now. Her second book, Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet, releases April 2021.