Hiking For Humanity
The First Hike Project is showing us how we can welcome people to our country with compassion, understanding and a dash of adventure.
We emigrated to Australia in 2004 and it was a pain free process for us. We came from a country (Wales) that was not war torn, our lives were not in danger, there were no bullets flying over our heads and we didn’t see our family or friends torn apart by explosions. Yep, we had it easy.
When most people move to another country it’s not usually a life or death situation. It’s typically to seek a new lifestyle, a change of scenery or to chase a career opportunity. We say most, but there are others on the opposite end of the spectrum who are are fleeing for their lives because it is a life or death situation.
The First Hike Project is about helping people who are fleeing from war torn countries, taking them out on bushwalks to provide a connection to their new country. We spoke to Neil McCulloch the founder of First Hike Project, but first of all, if you haven’t already watched the video (above), then we urge you to take just 10 minutes out of your day to watch it.
T&S: Hi Neil, thank you for taking time to speak with us today, we can’t tell you how much this project has put a smile on our face.
Neil: Thanks guys, I’ve gotta say that I’ve been blown away with the response from those who have seen the SBS doco about us.
T&S: When we saw the video for the first time, it had a profound effect on us. There were many tears shed. We just knew we had to get in contact to find out more.
Neil: That’s just great and I’m so glad you did contact us. The response we have had from folk from all around the country and the world has brought me to tears numerous times too.
It’s amazing to think something so simple can have a huge effect – I like to think that it’s the thought of ‘hey even I could do that’ that brings it home to the viewer that welcoming people into our country really is this simple.
T&S: Can you tell us about the project and how it all started?
Neil: My wife had started my empathetic feeling to refugees through her friendships to some local activists here in Perth and I feel this is the logical avenue for my expression as a lifelong hiker. It all just started while I was on a hike with a mate and it really was just a little idea of how we can both welcome new arrivals into our country and also make us feel like we were part of the solution to an ugly political situation.
We decided to take newly arrived refugees and migrant kids out on an overnight hiking and camping experience just to make them aware of what is outside of the cities and just how easily accessed and resourced it is.
“I was expecting a bit of a reaction to sleeping in tents too, considering how many of the kids had spent many years previous to this in temporary refugee camps”
T&S: Doing your first overnight camp in the Australian bush can be an unnerving thought for a lot of people, but when put into perspective, it’s not really that bad. How has everyone fared out there so far, considering their backgrounds and where they’ve come from?
Neil: To be honest, everyone has done really well or hidden their fears extremely well! We’ve had a couple of sideways eyes at the warragul marker signs from the Bibbulumn Track, which we use; It is a serpent symbol from Aboriginal beliefs but it looks like we are going into snake territory! Some folk need more reassurance than others that we try to avoid snakes rather than track them down.
I was expecting a bit of a reaction to sleeping in tents too, considering how many of the kids had spent many years previous to this in temporary refugee camps but to be honest kids are just so much more resilient than we give them credit for and it’s been great to see them throw themselves into the experience head first.
“We do give the kids a lot of room to express themselves and dictate a lot of what happens on the hike”
T&S: From personal experience, I’m aware that leading a group of people into the bush has many responsibilities and can be quite daunting, especially if the group are inexperienced. “Please don’t lose any” is a constant thought throughout the trip. How do you manage to keep it running smoothly?
Neil: Yes, not losing one is definitely first and foremost on our minds and we have run into trouble at times with lines extending and hikers being out of sight. We generally have more radios than we need on the hike and hand them out to our volunteer guides: one in front, a few in the middle and one at the back of the line all connected to a support vehicle.
This is also a great way of handing some of the responsibility to the kids too as we share the radio duties with them as the weekend goes on. We try to take breaks at spots that make sense rather than just on a time schedule so we can rest in the shade or by a stream and talk about the next section before heading out.
Keeping control is important as once it’s gone it’s hard to get back. That being said we do give the kids a lot of room to express themselves and dictate a lot of what happens on the hike.
“I get a kick out of helping folk in that situation as I’ve been helped myself in other countries and know how good it feels to find someone you can trust amongst all the confusion”
T&S: You’re an immigrant like ourselves. But the whole process was very easy for us as I imagine it was for you. Australia now feels like home and we have been accepted with open arms.
We can’t help but compare our experience with how some people have had the complete opposite. We want others to have the same experience as we did, but we know that is not going to happen for a lot of people coming here.
Did your immigration experience have any bearing on why you wanted to start this project?
Neil: Of course, it may have everything to do with it actually. I’ve been an immigrant for as long as I’ve been aware, we left Scotland when I was 9 and lived in Africa for some years before I then left home and travelled for another 15 years before coming here to Australia.
I know what it feels like to have to figure out how a country operates, where to find what I want, where the fun bits are, what the folk look like that I need to avoid….. all that sort of stuff. When you add in a language barrier and local hostility to who you are then it gets incrementally more difficult.
I get a kick out of helping folk in that situation as I’ve been helped myself in other countries and know how good it feels to find someone you can trust amongst all the confusion.
“the stories of horror and trauma are told with such matter-of-fact that I need to get a lot off my heart to feel at peace again”
T&S: One of the best part to an overnight hike is when everyone has settled down after dinner, around the campfire. This is when the stories start to flow and you start to get an insight into the people you’ve been walking with all day.
Have the people you’ve taken out felt comfortable enough to share their stories with the group in these moments?
Neil: When we run large hikes of up to 15 kids then it’s not as easy to get a conversation going with any one person and it is a good ice-breaker to play games by the fire. We have found though that on hikes where we have smaller groups the kids can be quite eager to tell you what they have been through.
These are always the harder hikes to come back from as the stories of horror and trauma are told with such matter-of-fact that I need to get a lot off my heart to feel at peace again. I can only imagine how it feels for them to have personally experienced what they have gone through.
“The relaxed itinerary of our hikes, mixed with the peace of nature and the slow pace of a hike really did him the world of good”
T&S: Being out in nature has many physical and mental benefits, have you seen any changes in the people you’ve taken out on the walks so far?
Neil: Yes we have and one young lad in particular comes to mind here; his teacher had warned us of his depressive episodes and inclination to be reclusive prior to us departing so we were all very watchful and mindful of him as the weekend started.
He was quiet for the first part of the first day and then he slowly started joking, talking and laughing like all the other participants. The relaxed itinerary of our hikes, mixed with the peace of nature and the slow pace of a hike really did him the world of good. So much so that his teacher was blown away with his transformation on his return to school.
We hear a lot about how much more communicative and responsive the kids are on their return but his was a story that no one was expecting. We don’t actively incorporate the healing force of nature into our hikes but the effects of it can be seen on our return.
“Some of the kids on our last hike saw a meter long Dugite outside the hut and failed to mention it until the morning!”
T&S: Australia has a reputation of being a land full of dangerous creatures. How have the reactions been so far when encountering some of our native wildlife?
Neil: Some of the kids on our last hike saw a meter long Dugite outside the hut and failed to mention it until the morning! They were so blasé about it that I started to doubt their claims until it was later confirmed.
I guess it depends on the person though, some kids can be very timid around the smallest spiders…… either way, by the end of the hike, whether they have enjoyed being that close to creepy crawlies or not they have had the experience and survived it so they would undoubtedly feel more comfortable around our unique collection of Aussie animals.
There is also the fact that none of our hikes could ever be described as quiet affairs so the vast majority of the animals out there give us a very wide berth!
“The effect it has on participant and volunteer guide alike is so impactful that we can’t wait to bring it to as many locations as possible”
T&S: What are your plans for the project moving forward?
Neil: We have been very lucky to have received a couple of grants recently from local Government and Jetstar which is going to help us establish First Hike project bases in NSW, VIC and QLD in 2018. All our efforts are going into expanding at a manageable rate to bring as many people into the bush as possible.
The effect it has on participant and volunteer guides alike is so impactful that we can’t wait to bring it to as many locations as possible. Our main hurdle at the moment is the time it is taking to put all of this into practice and me having to juggle FHP and work to make ends meet.
I’m hoping and praying that FHP can become my full time gig sometime soon and I can then divert all my time to taking it all over the country.
All of us at Tyres and Soles will be watching how the First Hike Project develop in the coming months and years.
Although the FHP have received some grants from local Government and Jetstar, they will require continued support to keep this project alive.
This could be a great opportunity for major outdoor brands to support the project and help take the First Hike Project, globally.
It’s such a worthy project and one that deserves support from all angles, let’s hope it get’s it.
To find out more about the First Hike Project, head on over to their Facebook page.