Go Lightly: How To Travel Without Hurting The Planet According To Travel Writer Nina Karnikowski

Written byAston Jon Genovea
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Having worked as a travel writer for some of Australia’s most respected publications over the past decade, Nina Karnikowski is now on her greatest adventure yet: making her and her readers’ travels more conscious, and less harmful for the planet. 

In August 2019, Nina embarked on a trip to Churchill, the “polar bear capital of the world” in Manitoba, Canada. This transformative experience was the turning point where she learned first-hand about the devastating impact that consumptive human behaviors were having on our planet. 

“There was a way to continue doing this vital and life-affirming thing called travel,” she says. “I just needed to figure out how we could do it in a way that was more connected – to ourselves, to the communities we visit, and to nature.” 

We spoke with Nina about her newfound journey in championing how she and others could continue traveling in a way that was less impactful and more regenerative in her new book, Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet.

How does your new mindset around travel impact the way you work, and the quality and quantity of assignments you take on?

Hugely. I haven’t stepped on a plane since then [the trip to the Canadian Arctic], except for one instance where I tried to travel by train, but ironically the devastating 2020 bushfires that decimated Australia prevented me from doing that. I’m trying now to travel in a way that minimally impacts people and the planet, and to put slow and local travel first. I’m trying to make sure I’m always championing small locally-owned businesses, and putting learning how to live in a more reciprocal way with nature at the center of my journeys, through experiences like hiking and camping and visiting local regenerative farms, indigenous communities and conservation projects along the way. Last month, for example, I took a 4000-kilometer road trip in our hybrid electric car up the east coast of Australia. I camped and hiked and visited permaculture farms along the way, and tried to educate my [social media] audience about some of the places and causes that desperately need our attention, including the decimation of the Great Barrier Reef and the protection of the Daintree Rainforest. 

How can this advice best be adapted for people who travel frequently for work, but not in the travel industry?

Covid helped us realize how much business travel was unnecessary, and how much of it could be conducted via platforms like Zoom and FaceTime. I hope those realizations live on once the world reopens, that we all continue to ask whether each trip is really necessary, and if so, that we take the time to figure out how to make it “lighter.” Buying carbon offsets it a start, via sites such as native.eco or climatecare.org, calculating your emissions and paying the offset company to invest in offsetting projects. Then trying as much as possible to stay in locally owned hotels and eating in locally owned restaurants, where your travel dollars go directly into the pockets of locals. Packing reusables for each trip so you can go plastic-free also helps, remembering the eight million tons of plastic that are dumped into our oceans each year. As does learning as much as possible about the issues the place you’re visiting is facing, so you can give back in some way while you’re there. The list goes on.

What about for pleasure travelers?

All of the above applies, but I think putting nature at the center of our adventures is a wonderful approach. Taking hiking and biking trips, camping adventures and road trips, wildlife adventures and boat journeys. We protect what we love, so if we can help ourselves fall in love with the planet during our journeys, then half the work is already done. Some other things to keep in mind are to avoid overtouristed places, to make sure we’re not exploiting animals on our travels (any situation where an animal is forced to behave in opposition to their natural instincts should be avoided), to always ask whose land we’re on and whether it’s appropriate to be there, and to learn the significance of the places we visit.

This is your second book. Your first book, Make A Living Living, celebrates turning your true passion into a paycheck. For you, that passion seems to be travel. How does your new book build on your first, and how has your perspective of a nomadic, travel-charged lifestyle changed since writing your first book?

Essentially these are both guides to better, less harmful, ways of living, and moving away from global industrialised systems and towards a more values-driven, regenerative approach to life and travel. The overarching message of Make a Living Living is about paring back and simplifying life, so that the reader can live a life more aligned with their desires and values, with more time, money and energy to create and live in a way that matters to them. Go Lightly has a similar message about paring back and simplifying, coming back to the essence of what travel is really all about, which is so much more than great selfies and posh places to stay. It’s about meeting humans with vastly different backgrounds and stories than our own. About being recalibrated and awed by the natural world. About learning from the places and cultures we visit and letting them change us into freer, simpler human beings who know how to impact less on others. If we remember that, we can find even more joy, even more of a sense of adventure, in the smaller, simpler journeys we’re now being called to take.

What resources: books, videos, classes, have helped you on your journey to learn more about regeneration and sustainability? 

I have been very inspired by travel writer Sophy Roberts’ IGTV series The Art of Travel, in which she speaks to explorers and environmentalists like Levison Wood about the deeper meaning of our travels, and how we might begin to heal the way we see the world. British explorer Bruce Parry’s documentary Tawai, about a nomadic hunter gatherer tribe in Borneo, taught me about the impact of civilization, and shows how we can live more harmoniously with nature. Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac’s 2020 book The Future We Choose is an uplifting, solutions-based guide for steps to take towards a less impactful future, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a poetic bible for anyone wanting to move towards a more reciprocal relationship with the natural world.

How much of the responsibility should be on the traveler vs. on the tourism industry?

Although the onus should be largely on the industry, they won’t take action unless travelers demand it. What we need to remember is that the industry will always cater to what the consumer wants. That’s why we need to not only choose the most sustainable options available to us, but also demand that the most harmful areas of the industry – the massive cruise liners and internationally-owned hotel chains that pollute and lead to overtourism, for example – do better. This can be as simple as writing an email or jumping on social media to let those companies know why you didn’t choose their services, and letting them know what they could change (putting ownership back in the hands of locals, for example, or changing to green energy providers) in order for you to do so. 

As you learn more about the impact we have on the planet, do you ever feel climate anxiety, and if so, do you have any advice on how to manage it?

It’s impossible not to look squarely at the destruction happening to our Earth and not feel anxious about the future. I have a solid morning writing practice that’s very soothing, setting the space to write freely for 20 minutes every morning about any anxiety I feel and anything else clouding my mind, so I can move into my day feeling more calm and clear. I also use this practice to awaken my warrior spirit each morning, pumping myself up to keep fighting for what I believe in. I also have a strong community, mostly of women, around me who share many of the same beliefs and passions, and talking to them regularly really helps too.

What do you look for when booking travel? Are there certain buzzwords or practices you keep an eye out for on the websites of hotels or tour operators?

The first thing I look for is who owns the business. If it’s a local, and the profits of my stay are going back into the local community, then I can feel good about supporting it. I also look for smaller stays, because the smaller the hotel, the more likely it is to be owned and staffed by locals. They also usually produce much less rubbish and pollution than big resorts, and help travelers experience the destination in a more authentic way. The ideal stay would be, say, staying on a local permaculture farm, so you can learn about more sustainable ways of living while you’re there, and help the local community. Another example would be somewhere like Hoanib Valley Camp, where I stayed a couple of years ago in Namibia. The camp was an inspiring joint venture between the local communities (90 percent of the staff were from local villages) and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Looking out for greenwashing is always important  – look closely at claims hotels are making to be “sustainable” or “green,” and ask questions, like whether they employ locals, whether their food is locally sourced, and whether they use recycling or composting programs.  

When looking at your Instagram stories, you highlight some really unique, off-the-grid properties. How do you find them?

Instagram is a very useful platform for finding these places, and I do love the guides that Conde Nast Traveller puts together. I also use Instagram to ask my community whether they know of any stays I should be aware of, then I go about discovering which of those are the “lightest.” 

In that same vein, these places may not be well known or have five stars, but they are extraordinary in their own ways. Perhaps we should have a discussion about redefining the word “luxury.” What does luxury mean to you? And is “luxury” the standard that we should aspire to? If not, what is?

Luxury absolutely needs to be redefined. To my mind, real luxury is being given access to local communities, learning deeply about a destination, getting as close as possible to nature and all it has to teach us, and staying in places that really speak to the soul of a place and the people who live there. The old definition of luxury – one that involved chlorine-laden pools, air-conditioning, mountains of plastic and things like TVs and breakfast buffets that keep us away from really experiencing the places we’re in – is over. I think the “new aspirational” needs to be travel that allows us to improve and nourish the places we visit,makes us more conscious, compassionate human beings back home, travel that changes the course of our lives and inspires us to create change in the world.

What is your favorite destination, and why?

India. I lived there for a year back in 2013, and it changed the course of my life. I fell completely in love with the chaotic beauty of the country, its rich culture and deep sense of spirituality. But more importantly, it helped me really understand how little financial wealth contributes to happiness, and got me questioning the benefits of the things many of the things I had been raised to  hold so dear – speed, efficiency and wealth, to name a few. I travelled back there twice since, whenever I felt I was losing sight of what really matters in life. I miss the country and its people terribly, and look forward to living there again and giving back in a more important way to a place that has given me so much.

Biggest travel “fail” or learning moment?

Wearing tiny denim shorts to the pyramids in Egypt as a 23-year-old. I cringe when I look back at those photos and remember my arrogance, telling myself I was free to dress how I pleased, that I didn’t agree women should have to cover up and so I refused to. Respecting local customs, whether we agree with them or not, is crucial.

Do you have a travel “bucket list”? If so, how has it changed with your new values-aligned ethos around travel?

It has changed dramatically. It used to be a list of exotic destinations I just wanted to see so I could soak up the culture – Tajikistan, Bhutan, western Mongolia, the more far-flung the better. Now, it’s more centered around places closer to home, where I can learn a skill that I can take into my life with me. There’s an Aboriginal shaman I’m planning to learn from in Mungo National Park in Australia, for example, and a farm three hours’ drive away that I want to do a permaculture course at soon. There’s also a female forager in my region who I’d like to spend a few days with, so I can learn how to connect to the land around me in a more dynamic way. I’d love to learn to sail in nearby Papua New Guinea and I dream of returning to India, to spend a few months working with an organization I wrote a story about when I lived there, that provides free education and food to children in the slums.

Have you seen the pandemic changing the conversation around sustainability in travel?

Definitely. During the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns, global emissions dropped to the lowest level in a decade as we stopped flying and driving and consuming. People in northern India could see the Himalayas more clearly than they could for three decades due to the big drops in air pollution. Those sorts of statistics and stories woke so many of us up, and we’ve realized the pandemic can be a portal into a cleaner, greener travel world. We’ve all stopped rushing around and realized less really is more. And that there won’t be a world worth seeing in years to come, if we don’t start seeing it in the right way now.

What are some of your favorite sustainable travel essentials?

My three favourites are a reusable water bottle I have that doubles as a thermos and a food container, an organic cotton tote I use for day trips and hikes, groceries and collecting rubbish (one of my favorite things to do when I travel), and a fantastic biodegradable body wash I’ve been using that you can use to wash your clothes and dishes too. Oh, and these solar-powered fairy lights that I took on a recent road trip, which made even sleeping in the back of the car magical.

What’s next for you?

A trip to Australia’s Red Center, traveling in a (hopefully electric) van across the desert with my husband in May. Meeting with and learning from indigenous communities along the way, visiting sacred sites like Uluru and Kata Tjuta and learning about their significance, connecting to Country, and falling even deeper in love with this wild land I call home.

Go Lightly will be released on April 6, 2021. Follow Nina on Instagram @travelswithnina.

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