Blog, Portfolio

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 10 years on

Ten years ago, my first long feature for a commercial magazine was published and, to this day, Landfill-on-Sea for Ecologist remains my most searched-for piece of work. That’s because it taps into a massive and growing problem: our ever-swelling appetite for plastics. Plastic pollution in our oceans has shot up in the past decade, not helped, of course, by the proliferation of single-use plastics in our everyday lives. Plastic, in one form or another, is simply everywhere. And that must change.

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Ecologist magazine front cover

That was the message of my piece in 2007. So, why, a decade on, is the article as accurate as it was when it first appeared (save for even larger numbers)?

Two weeks ago, I was on board a research yacht, travelling in the Coral Sea with documentary makers and founders of not-for-profit Two Hands. Along the beaches of Queensland’s more remote islands, we found scores of bottle tops, bits and pieces of packaging material and the scarily ever-present gnarled flip-flops (with shark bite marks).

The anti-plastic lobby is building strength and the Two Handsers of the world are doing their bit to affect cultural change, but their message is up against slow governance, bottom lines and the petrochemical industry’s might, which, faced with a future of electric cars and the like, depends on our plastic addiction for its own survival.

It’s a David and Goliath battle, meaning that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is going nowhere fast – and that first, big feature of mine remains scarily pertinent.



A love letter to the old Syria, Sydney Morning Herald // 2 August 2012

My piece from the Sydney Morning Herald, today.
Another time ... memories of Syria and Damascus.
Another time … memories of Syria and Damascus. Photo: from the Dumas archives.

In a corner of the old city of Damascus, along the Street Called Straight and beyond Bab Sharki’s backgammon set

hawkers, lies a convent.

There’s no diplomatic immunity, emergency plan or security company executing an abort strategy for its nuns.

Instead, they pray, talk quietly and make fresh apricot jam, alive with the Mediterranean heat from the trees that

droop, heavy with fruit, in the fields around the city each summer.

Their country has become part of the lexicon of global disaster – a repeated newsline that gathers pace, bodycount

and bloodshed with each passing day.

Syria has escalated into a full-blown civil war, pitting Baathists against the rebellious: those who have, for too long,

been silenced.

It’s a newsreel I – we – understand well, given the region, but it’s a Syria I don’t recognise.

Eighteen years ago, I moved with my family to Jordan, neighbouring Syria’s southern border. My aunt and uncle

had lived in Damascus for years, having been forced from the mortared, shrapnel-littered streets of Beirut in the

1980s and, like him, my father was sent to work in the region as a British diplomat.

We landed in Amman on a heady, jasmine-scented summer’s evening and plunged, headlong and en masse, into

a love affair with the Middle East that refuses to dissolve.

It’s a region of olive trees, musky incense and rambling, dark souks. Embarrassingly generous people, social

awkwardness and intense, unspoken and oft-misunderstood inequality.

Shrill muezzins on crackling speakers pierce the frenetic din of car horns and local, warbling pop; camels share

roads with battered taxis, dusty sheep and Toyota pick-up trucks. Censored Hollywood films play in city centres – and uncensored films play in gated, guarded mansions’ media rooms.

Before I started my first day of school in Amman, clad in long, scratchy trousers and an oversized collared shirt in the

stifling late summer heat, I imagined classes of teenagers with sandals, sheltered from fashion and Nikes. How wrong I

was – that eye-opening day, aged 14, was the first time that I understood how the Third World was no different, in

many ways, to the first. Vanity, like fear, has no borders.

We visited Syria and Israel often, switching cars and removable pages of passports to circumvent the diplomatic

faux pas of entering occupied Palestine with Syrian visas.

To us, Damascus was an old friend – but it had an intense religiosity too. We always stayed at that ramshackle

convent with its high ceilings and echoey, tiled, dark corridors. Pious, hunched nuns hovered down the long,

polished passages, eyes-down, and breakfasts were plates of sparklingly fresh, salty white cheese paired with

their apricot jam and steaming, pillowy hobbes bread. Sweet mint tea and bowls of oranges made up for non-existent

plumbing and the clunky, never-ending whirr of ancient ceiling fans.

Hama was a quiet place, carrying the weight of painful memories and not ready, in the mid-nineties, to remove the

splints from its shattered past and the 1982 massacre. Its empty play parks, nappy-filled riverbeds and concrete

“trees” – a peculiarity of the Middle East – eerily closed for business.

Aleppo, the great, great, grandfather of cities, beguiled me as it has beguiled for ten thousand years. It is the only

place I have ever felt truly, deeply violated and belittled for being female – but it is also the only place I have ever felt

so swallowed, so sublimely humbled by history – two of life’s more perspective-heavy lessons in solipsism. As

government troops meet the Free Syrian Army in streets that have seen more than their fair share of mens’ tears,

the gloomy, garrulous desert grotto that is the souk lies quiet, its clamour and jarring, almost bestial lifeblood

temporarily on pause.

We heard stories of the Big Brother ubiquity of the mukhabarat, the secret police, and we learnt – as we had been

taught before arriving in Amman – to go delicately, be diplomatic, stay quiet. The Assads were never going to last.

It’s a wonder life has limped on for this long under the family.

“Chai, Sir. Play backgammon, Sir”: Carpets, frankincense, battered taxis, poorly painted effigies of Assad on street

corners, at the entrance to souks and carpet shops. As those pictures are fought over and torn down, so must the

stranglehold of 41 years.

I wonder now what those salesmen are doing, whether they have underground bunkers with creeping wires looped

towards the open air and TV reception.

I think I know, as I remember those nuns, quieter than church mice as they shuffle along the convent’s stone floors,

what their prayers must be.


Sydney’s best fish and chips, CNN // 7 July 2011

Read my piece over at CNN, or stay here and read on…

Here’s a catch. Sydney and fish go together like piping hot chips and a piece of freshly fried fish. It’s worth leaving the beaten track of the Sydney Fish Markets to the tourists and trying some local favorites.

From the get-go, the essential thing is proper fish and chips — and licking your vinegary fingers while ignoring any illusions of being on a diet.

Yes, its roots might lie in industrial Britain but Sydney’s taken the paper-wrapped stalwart and run with it.

Doyle’s on the Beach


Finish the Ulladulla flathead fillets and chips and receive another fried fish for free at Doyles

It’s not an imaginative inclusion on the list but the setting is just too good to miss. Boats bobbing against a backdrop of Sydney’ skyline, the sweeping arc of sand in front.

Doyle’s is steeped in tradition and, as in the good ol’ days, they don’t like you leaving hungry. Finish your enormous portion and you can claim a free extra piece of fried fish — a throwback to when Doyle’s started serving back in 1885.

But first you’d have to prey on something like the battered Ulladulla flathead fillets and chips ($38.90), which comes with Alice Doyle’s chili plum sauce. The batter’s light and perky and it’s a fail-safe crowd-pleaser -– if it’s combined with the view and a perfect sunny Sydney day.

Doyle’s on the Beach, 11 Marine Parade, Watson’s Bay, Monday – Friday noon-3 p.m., 6 p.m.-9 p.m., Saturday – Sunday noon-4 p.m., 5.30 p.m.-9 p.m., +61 (0)2 9337 2007

Fish Face

Fish Face

Fancy a beer? This flathead is battered in Victoria Bitter.

The love child of a traditional, eat-out-of-newspaper street food and Sydney’s sophisticated dining scene, this Darlinghurst spot has garnered many an accolade. You’ll find only brilliantly fresh fish and seafood here, whilst the tiny eatery’s philosophy of serving only home-filleted, dry-filleted fish and handmade chips draws in discerning diners day after day.

The beer-battered flathead and chips with lemon and tartar ($35) is an upmarket take on a traditional meal. The batter is made with Victoria Bitter, which creates a crispy crunch. The chips are worth writing home about — the golden Sebago potato skins are left on for an earthy flavour. The whole shebang is served in a specially designed, show-stopping cone contraption.

A lower calorie but equally popular choice is the blue-eye Trevalla on potato scales — it’s fish and chips, just not as you’d imagine.

Fish Face, 132 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst, Tuesday – Saturday 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m., +61 (0)2 9332 4803

Mohr Fish

Mohr Fish

In the heart of Surry Hills, you can people watch as you wash down fried Rockling.

An oldie, but a goodie. This Surry Hills bolthole is nothing flashy, but what it lacks in hip interior design, it more than makes up for in great takes on classics and a no-nonsense, wholesome approach.

Perch on a bar stool, watch the punters heading to the Shakespeare pub opposite and try a panfried Rockling, asparagus, chips and hollandaise ($22) for a twist on your average fish and chips. It’s sparkling fresh, the homemade tartar is toothsomely chunky and the rich hollandaise counts out any health benefits you may have hoped came from not having the battered option.

It’s great value and the portion is nothing to be sniffed at.

There are also squid, scallops, whitebait and fish cakes to choose from and a constant stream of both take away and eat-in clientele goes to show this 20-odd years-old corner chippy is anything but a flash in the frying pan.

Mohr Fish, 202 Devonshire St., Surry Hills, Monday – Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday – Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., +61 (0)2 9318 1326



The tempura-like batter makes this a stand-out in Stanmore’s fish and chip strip.

There are three fish and chip shops on Percival Road in Stanmore, but Codfather sticks out like a sore fish finger with its hip, young approach. Yes, you can find fish and chips here, but there are a host of rather more interesting offerings, too –- such as a palate cleanser of iced pineapple snow with carrot tapioca.

It will leave you ready for a market fish (flathead) in yeast batter with chunky chips, lemon, aioli and smoked soy ($26), which is a play on the classic. Made with fresh yeast, the batter is almost tempura-like and flecked with chili. The aioli is made with smoked paper bark tree oil, giving it an earthy, truffle-esque flavour, whilst the chips are a bit of a show-off, large cheeks of potato dotted with holes to add crunch.

It’s more than we bargained for from the humble dish and this family-friendly joint is worth a try.

Codfather, 83 Percival Road, Stanmore, Tuesday – Saturday 5.30 p.m.-9 p.m., Sunday noon-3 p.m., +61 (0)2 9568 3355



Love.Fish is eco-supplied, so you can be sure that your fish has relatives in the ocean.

Love.Fish does exactly what it sets out to do -– it puts sustainable, fresh fish on a pedestal. It’s no secret that the industry is beset with over-fishing and endangered species warnings, so head to Rozelle to eat with a crystal clear conscience — and in a chic, sleek setting.

The menu is dependent on what the top eco supplier can source, so it’s not all the usual suspects — Trumpeter and Latchet feature, for example. Such fresh, carefully sourced fish needs no place to hide and the beer-battered eastern school Whiting ($17) with twice-cooked hand-cut Sebago chips ($7) is cooked in healthy rice bran oil and served simply, letting the sweet, mild flesh speak for itself inside the puffy batter.

The exhaustive list of imaginative sides is coeliac-friendly and makes a welcome change, whilst the option to order fish only is ideal for the waistline-watchers.

Love.Fish, 580 Darling St., Rozelle, Monday – Friday 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday – Sunday noon-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m., +61 (0)2 9818 7777



Sydney’s top five Little Italy eateries, CNN // 27 June 2011

Read my piece over at or read on here…

In Sydney’s Little Italy, all things Italian permeate life like garlic in a ragu, and a journey reveals the real taste of Italian cooking. From pizzas to espressos, the delissimo grip on Sydney’s gastronomic landscape is as entrenched and authentic as ever.

Long synonymous with Italian life in Australia, Leichhardt has been attracting hot-blooded Mediterraneans to its terraced streets since the 1940s and 1950s. Branching out from the epicentre of Italian-ness on Norton Street, the march soon spread around the inner west to Haberfield and Five Dock.

Italian businesses thrive in the area and none more so than cafés and restaurants. As well as the crowd-pleasers on Norton Street, there’s a colony of gelato-dripping, pizza-dough flinging, espresso-soaked eateries that put Italian food across the rest of the city to shame.

Rome may have fallen, but things seem alive and well in Sydney’s inner west. Here’s the best.

1. Pizza at Napoli in Bocca

Napoli in Bocca

One of 250 dough-flipped pizzas from the weekend menu at Napoli in Bocca

There are few better simple pleasures than a proper pizza. The pinnacle of pizza perfection, though, is often hard to find — distracted as we are by topping-laden pies and extra cheese. At Napoli in Bocca, the humble pizza is elevated to a work of beauty.

The enormous wood-fired oven is a wonderful thing in itself, but the real art of juggling 250 pizzas every weekend evening is something that can’t be taught. Each base is hand-flung then shuffled around varying heats of the cavernous oven before emerging golden, puffy and steaming.

The trick, apparently, is utter simplicity — using fresh tomato sauce, bocconcini, basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and nothing else — on a Caprese ($19). It lets the freshness of the garlicky tomato and sweet yeastiness of the dough sing a lyrical duet.

In true Neapolitan style, the crust is pliable rather than crunchy, so that the pizza can be folded and eaten from paper, as sailors’ habits in the city port dictated. Mamma mia, those seadogs were onto a good thing.

Napoli in Bocca ,73 Dalhousie St., Haberfield, +61 (0)2 9798 4096

2. Whitebait fritters at Little Sicily

Little Sicily

The best seller at Little Sicily are wholesome with a hint of lemon.

Where chef Ciccio goes, those in the know follow. Now at his eighth kitchen, the inimitable Sicilian started one of the area’s original restaurants and still draws a crowd. It’s not hard to see why — unpretentious as the dining area is, the real magic goes on behind the scenes.

Consistent best sellers are the whitebait fritters ($17.80): golden, eggy and full of the saltiness of the tiny fish. They’re simple and packed with wholesomeness, with a zesty hit of lemon juice.

Five nights a week at Little Sicily, a whole suckling pig is roasted, the tender flesh falling off the bone and its salty crackling inducing sighs of happiness. An antipasto caldo is a different take on the cold classic starter: seafood, mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus are flash-fried and served over rocket and mozzarella, the juices turning the lot into a warm, vinegary salad.

The Don of Haberfield will show you how real Italian food is done.

Little Sicily, 194 Marion St., Leichhardt, +61 (0)2 9560 2255

3. Penne Grauchi at Filicudi


The Penne Grauchi at Filicudi comes in a deep, creamy tomato sauce.

An outpost in quiet Five Dock — one of Little Italy’s furthermost tendrils — Filicudi has been faithfully serving honest-to-goodness meals for the last 35 years. Cozy and small, with Chianti bottles strung from the ceiling, it’s a warm and welcoming kind of a place, serving unfussy fare. That’s not to say its kitchen isn’t central to proceedings in the area.

Penne Grauchi ($18.50), a rich crab pasta, is a clear favorite with trusted locals and good value, too. Al dente penne has a deep tomato and cream sauce with blue swimmer crab: it’s heaped high and steaming and is enough for two to share. Get stuck in with the shell-breaking tools and you’ll end up messy and finger-licking, which adds to the rustic appeal.

Octopus in tomato sauce is also worth the trip, proving that old-style cooking endures for all the right reasons. Molto bene!

Filicudi, 11 Ramsay Road, Five Dock, +61 (0)2 9713 8733

4. Gelato at Bar Italia

Bar Italia

The gelato at Bar Italia is made in the café’s own Norton Street factory.

The strip lighting, wipe-down tables and dodgy art isn’t the draw at this 1959-established godfather of the area. You come here for the gelato.

During summer, queues can stretch out of the door for the rightly-famed and fresh ice-cream, which is made just a few doors away on Norton Street in Bar Italia’s own little factory.

The ranges of flavours are all pretty fantastic, from the cocoa-dusted Tiramisu to the zabaglioni option ($9.50 for four scoops), which goes well cappuccino, even on a cold day.

The zabaglioni flavor – sweet wine-sodden pockets of sponge in creamy, Marsala-heavy gelato – makes for a grown-up treat, but no-one at this Little Italy institution will judge you if mint choc chip is your personal favourite.

Bar Italia, 167-171 Norton St., Leichhardt, +61 (0)2 9560 9981

5. Canoli at Pasticceria Papa


The local Mafioso’s dessert is the canoli.

It’s not just because these tubes of more-ish-ness happen to be the Mafioso’s dessert of choice that make them worth a try. It helps that Pasticceria Papa’s canoli ($2) are utterly sublime.

Buttery pastry shells are deep-fried until bubbled and crisp, then filled with sweetened ricotta and dipped into chopped hazelnuts. A dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon finishes them off, adding an extra layer of messiness to the process of eating the crunchy, oozing wickedness.

They won’t win awards for healthiness but that’s a mere distraction from the cause — canoli, after dinner, with a coffee, is a rite of passage for any discerning Italianophile. In fact, canoli with a coffee at any time of the day seems to go at this busy Haberfield stalwart. If you still have room, try a slice of the ever-popular baked ricotta cheesecake, too. Then roll home.

Pasticceria Papa, 145 Ramsay St., Haberfield, +61 (0)2 9798 6894