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Artist As Family: The Art Of Permaculture Travel

When David Holmgren and Bill Mollison developed permaculture in the 1970s it was an attempt to reduce the growing environmental and social crises of modern life. Their concept emphasised designing low consumption, low pollution and highly productive human settlements. Nearly forty years later, we wanted to know what permaculture-on-the-move might look like. In November 2013, we set off on a journey to find out.

When we decided to travel up the east coast of Australia by bicycle with our two sons (aged eleven years and fourteen months) and our Jack Russell terrier, we had no idea how far north we would end up. When we loaded our panniers onto our bikes and set off from our home in central Victoria we wanted to achieve several things: expand our knowledge of freely obtainable foods in Australia; spend little money; live simply and outdoors; and produce no waste.

So what does our form of permaculture travel look like? To explain, we’ve applied Holmgren’s twelve permaculture principles to our 400-day bike-camping escapade up the east coast of Australia to Far North Queensland.

1. OBSERVE AND INTERACT explains why we chose to embark on such a journey. Before we left, we regularly incorporated over 100 autonomous plant and animal species into our diet that could be found in walking and bikeriding distance of our home. These included: traditional bush tucker such as lomandra, milkmaid tubers (Burchardia umbellata) and yabbies; and naturalised species such as rabbit, plantain, apples, salsify, wood blewits, saffron milk caps and chickweed. We ran workshops on identifying edible weeds and fungi, and killing and dressing small animals; and we set up a number of community food gardens with others in our town. All of these things helped with our transition away from the supermarket model of food, but it was observing and interacting with our local environment that really improved our knowledge. To eat for free and teach ourselves about new species as we travelled involved looking critically, documenting unknown species, researching them, and asking local people about their uses and ecological significance.



Clockwise: Day camp, Bundanoon NSW. Artist as Family awaiting the Stockton Ferry, Newcastle NSW. Gathering roadside guavas, Lawrence NSW. Skinning a rabbit our dog Zero caught, Winda Woppa Reserve NSW. Roadside apple gathering, Blue Mountains NSW.


2. CATCH AND STORE ENERGY was important because food was our fuel, and while we were cycling we were always hungry. As we moved further away from our climate zone we became beginner foragers again. We had dried several kilos of fruit to take, and for our whole time on the road we added freshly picked roadside fruit to our stores. We were moving at a pace conducive to observing and interacting, so finding at least some free tucker every day wasn’t just desirable, but achievable. On some glorious days we would eat only what we found and fished: guavas, blackberry nightshade, various sea fish, coconuts, snakeweed tea, tropical almonds, purslane, pipis (in places such as North Stradbroke Island and Narragon Beach, Queensland); and brown trout and dandelion root, with a salad of dandy greens, mallow and sow thistle (in Tumbarumba, New South Wales).

3. OBTAIN A YIELD is particularly tailored to cultivating plants, mushrooms and animals within the fences of settled life, but we applied this to how much free food we could collect and transport on the move. Throughout Victoria, NSW and Queensland we foraged citrus, much of which was planted but some, such as bush lemons, grew autonomously. We obtained yields that we didn’t lift a finger to produce; that in many cases would otherwise have gone to waste. One sugarcane farmer in central Queensland told us his mother had planted ‘all those trees’, which to us constituted a food forest, adding that ‘no one in the family could be bothered with them now’. This attitude was not uncommon, and we’d help ourselves greedily to all these low-status foods. We also swapped food and board for drawing up permaculture designs for people’s backyards.

4. APPLY SELF-REGULATION AND ACCEPT FEEDBACK is best described in our letter to elders. On most nights we stealth-camped wherever we deemed it safe. What concerned us was not the council by-laws we actively ignored, but that we didn’t have permission from the elders whose country we were passing through. So we devised the letter in which we were both applying limits and inviting feedback. We sent it ahead of us to various Indigenous cultural centres, corporations and co-ops. But we found asking permission in person the most satisfying as it was relationships, not just permission, we were seeking. These meetings would inevitably lead to conversations about bush tucker.


Clockwise this page: Patrick’s drawing of our Letter to Elders; Gutting fish at our stealth camp, Narragon Beach QLD; All aboard. Pambula NSW; Talking bush tucker with Ashley Boyd, Palm Island QLD.


5. USE AND VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES AND SERVICES. Unless it was pouring with rain, or there was a day of total fire ban, we used small stick-fires to cook on. After setting up camp, we bipeds headed out and in no time collected enough renewable fuel – fallen branches or drift wood – to make a fire. Roasting fish and eels on coals became a great delight and is now our preferred way of cooking them. We travelled with a collapsible handmade timber longbow for rabbits (although our dog Zero was more successful at catching them), and hand lines and a hand-spear for fish.

6. PRODUCE NO WASTE. We rode about 9000 kilometres in the fourteen months of our journey, the great majority of which was pure pedal power. A small amount was electric power, as Meg’s bike had a pedal-assist electric motor to help on the hills when schlepping our heavy toddler was too much of a strain. With both pride and pragmatism Meg was extremely frugal using the battery, as we never knew when we would next find power to recharge.

After cycling all the way to East Cape York we ran out of time, so we hired a car to travel the return 2800 kilometres between Cairns and Sydney; which means we spent just $350 on fossil fuels (including a few ferries and trains) in well over a year.

Before we left home we hadn’t shopped at a supermarket for seven years, but being on the road and away from our productive home and community gardens meant that our food-packaging waste increased a little. Back home with our poultry, worm farm, bulk food co-ops and compost system, our household waste is virtually non-existent. To mitigate waste on the road we tried, as much as possible, to buy from farm gate stores and food co-ops, glean, fish and forage for food, and reuse packaging over and over.

On the Ridgelands Station Road, west of Rockhampton QLD

7. DESIGN FROM PATTERNS TO DETAILS  didn’t really apply as our trip was not an exercise in design.

8. INTEGRATE RATHER THAN SEGREGATE  fits bicycling well as it’s a close second to walking as an ideal speed to apply the principle. As we roved slowly, our senses moved with the changes in climate, altitude, culture, terrain and temperature. We sensed rain on its way, and roadkill before we saw it. We followed rivers to secret camp sites, and returned our mammalian and compostable wastes to leaf humus or the subsoil. We were predators catching fish and rabbits; and prey being munched by flies, ticks, mosquitos and sandflies. We accepted hardships and saw them as part of life, married to our joys.

9. USE SMALL AND SLOW SOLUTIONS sums up the premise of our trip – increase simplicity. We carried only as much gear as we needed, and lived with a kitchen that comprised a billy, four bowls (which doubled as cooking pans), four sporks, four cups, a sharp knife and matches. We took two light-weight hiking tents, clothes and some basic tools. We felt liberated by our lack of possessions, recognising that the more stuff one has, the more complicated life becomes. By using small and slow solutions over many months we created something really big.

Getting a fishing lesson from Neville Bowen, Hope Vale QLD

10. USE AND VALUE DIVERSITY When we arrived at our most northerly point, Hope Vale, north of Cooktown, we were invited to stay with and learn from Guugu Yimithirr elders Tim and Elaine McGreen. The knowledge we learned from Aboriginal people across three states – especially fishing and gathering bush foods – was a highlight of our trip. The generosity extended to us was overwhelming: from Bundaberg to Palm Island; from Clump Point to Daintree Village; from Walgett to Mystery Bay. The more we learned about bush foods and medicines, the more our growing list of free foods diversified. By the time we left Hope Vale our list of free tucker had grown to 240 species.

11. USE EDGES AND VALUE THE MARGINAL was a principle we naturally incorporated because it was the edges of settlements and marginal lands that provided places for us to live temporarily and gather food. Tapping into these weedy, feral and neglected environments contributed to our successful autonomy.

12. CREATIVELY USE AND RESPOND TO CHANGE sums up another reason we set off on our trip. As well as wanting to improve our knowledge of free tucker, we wanted to challenge ourselves: to become more hardy, resilient and adaptable. Living on the road and relying on our wits provided the right set of circumstances for doing this, and it also gave us many opportunities to embrace uncertainty: to own it, smell it, fear it and know its many flavours. One of the wonderful things about permaculture is that it is not a cult of abstract prescriptions, rules or laws, but rather principles that different people can apply in many different ways. While our form of permaculture travel may not be for everyone, we share it here as an example of the possibilities for an ecologically accountable way of travelling.

Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman are writers, community gardeners and two-fifths of the collective Artist as Family. You can read more about their travels and day-to-day adventures at Their forthcoming book, The Art of Free Travel (NewSouth Publishing) will be in bookstores in October 2015. You can pre order from the Pip Magazine website at



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