Oxfam Trailwalker - Blazing a New Trail
Somedays it feels like you can’t get to midday before hearing about yet another long distance charity challenge. 50 kms this, 100 kms that, all promising hours of foot pounding, knee jarring, hip aching physical exertion.
But as one who’s completed two Oxfam 100 km Trailwalkers in the past, (whilst these days sitting it out on the night shift as Safety Co-ordinator, hidden deep in Trailwalker headquarters), I can vouch that the reality is so much richer than the marketing promises. When you dig deeper you find that there’s lots more to this than just walking 100kms and raising some money.
The concept for Trailwalker was based upon a British Army training exercise in Hong Kong in 1981. Back then it was only for the elite Queen’s Gurkhas regiment, when Britain still ruled before the handover to China in 1997.
When it was introduced into the Australian charity and fundraising landscape that same year, it forever changed the way that Aussies would look at donating money.
At the time, it burst onto the not-for-profit scene with a completely fresh way of not only raising funds and awareness of Oxfam’s work and projects, but introduced a completely different demographic and group of people to the concept of giving.
Whilst these days, we’re starting to see more of the UK style of street collectors (known as ‘chuggers’) back then, charity fundraising relied firmly on traditional forms of monthly giving, annual doorknock appeals and corporate philanthropy at the big end of town.
Instead of simply donating a few bucks here and there and maybe writing a letter to a sponsor child, Oxfam Trailwalker provided an opportunity for Aussies to commit and connect not just their wallets with a fleeting sense of doing good, but to have the work of Oxfam front of mind for the months of physical training beforehand and to become walking, talking advocates for a three month period.
“There’s been an increase in interest in experiential fundraising throughout the industry – people want to receive something for their gift, but acknowledge that this should be an experience rather than material.” says Simon Barwick from Oxfam Australia.
And what’s in it for them? The incredible experience of setting oneself a seemingly impossible physical challenge, pushing personal limits of fitness, endurance, sleep deprivation, and pain, whilst finding a deep sense of community, friendship, team and belonging.
Having completed fifteen Oxfam events, local Sydney woman Elizabeth (Liz) Woodgate is categorised as an official ‘Trailwalker Legend’. That is, those who’ve completed five events or more.
“I’d been doing a few Ironman races, very much an individual pursuit, so the idea of a team event appealed to me... Everyone will go through a flat or rough patch during the event. It’s teamwork that gets everyone across the line.”
Trailwalker arrived on the Australian landscape at just the right time. It was the earliest days of the internet and what we can now look back on as the emergence of an increased connectedness to our place in the global community, but the ‘what’s in it for me?’ culture.
With the ability to connect to new information sources and no longer relying on traditional media forms, we were suddenly able to ask ourselves the age old journalistic questions of who? What? Why? Where and how? We no longer wanted to be told about ‘the starving people in Africa’, but to ask our own questions, connect to the answers and contribute in meaningful ways.
So what drives people like Liz to be so committed to Trailwalker, year after year?
“We are so fortunate to make it to the start line, fit, safe and healthy each year. We do this because we have a choice. We do it for people less fortunate who don’t have the choice.”
So much about aid programs is about providing choice for people who have none. Choice to go to school, choice to drink clean water and choice to live in a safe place.
But there’s more than just the years of service that make Liz a legend. With a fundraising total behind her of approximately $58,000, it’s obvious that she’s not in it for just the physical challenge.
In Australia, the event raises over $8 million annually through the efforts of 7,000 - 8,000 participants. And with the event now being staged in nine locations, across New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, the UK and Europe, funds raised globally have exceeded $210 million.
Although this is a big picture fix to a big problem, Event Marketing Manager Simon (a Trailwalker Legend himself) sees the stand out moments over the past 20 years as being very local.
“For me, having the opportunity to give back to the local community is always at the forefront of my thoughts. The event facilitates a way for people to have a unique experience with friends, family and colleagues, doing something very out of the ordinary, whilst reconnecting with nature and exploring the beauty of the parks around them.”
And it’s not only Oxfam projects that benefit from Trailwalker events. Anecdotally, local businesses such as cafes in the areas that the course travels through report an increase of around 25%+ in sales.
Simon continues, “Many of our checkpoints are also staffed by local community volunteers who run sausage sizzles and bake sales to raise funds for community projects – so it’s pretty good to be involved at this local level too.”
And whilst there are some who believe that National Parks shouldn’t be used for this type of event, with an additional 2,800 people visiting the National Parks along the trail (including volunteers and support crew), the event showcases the beauty of some of our cities most accessible natural areas. It’s the opportunity for many to visit and experience just some of the great highlights of our National Parks.
With Oxfam Trailwalker Sydney being run through three Parks (Ku-rin-gai, Garigal and Sydney Harbour National Park), the income generated through the Parks event fees is funnelled into projects within these parks such as conservation programs, track maintenance, signage and facilities. These improvements benefit not only the participants in the events, but all park users year round.
The challenges faced by the participants aren’t the only ones encountered on the course.
When Oxfam first approached National Parks 20 years ago to stage the first event, the challenges at first seemed insurmountable.
One can only imagine how difficult the original pitch must have been... A charity wants to send 1,000 people off into the bush for two days, spread out over 100 kms, often in the dark, on rough and uneven terrain, whilst still keeping them safe and protecting the environment.
The strong working relationship between the Oxfam event organisers and National Parks has been built over twenty years. It relies on thorough planning and preparation, communication and commitment to providing a safe environment for all park visitors, whilst educating them on how to behave respectfully in natural environments.
Together, they’ve learnt a lot about how to run outdoor endurance events over twenty years and are now considered by many to be the gold standard for such events.
Participant Liz has noticed the change. “The organisation [of the event] has become very professional and makes it very easy for participants to get fundraising tips, advice on training and loads of information about the trail. You go into the event very well informed.”
1997 marks not only the 20th birthday of Trailwalker but also the 50th anniversary of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
With responsibility for preserving and protecting over 7 million hectares and welcoming over 39 million people across the state in 2016, Ku-ring-gai Ranger, Sue Guthrie says that, “NPWS is proud to be able to support such a worthwhile event.”
In celebration of National Parks 50th anniversary, Oxfam are inviting you to celebrate with them by becoming part of their brand new 50 km events in 2017/2018.
With the final word going to Trailwalker Legend Liz, if you’re thinking of doing Trailwalker, “Do it. Don’t overthink it - you are much more capable than you think.”