Honorary Doctor of Education degree
The University of Western Australia
8th March 2016
Academic board, all-important graduates, my family and friends of this great university,
Normally when I present, I like to illustrate my stories with photos and videos but tonight, as I am unable to divert your focus with images of lugging my bike over Saharan sand dunes, bouncing over the endlessly corrugated Gunbarrel Highway or struggling through the Siberian Swamp, you will have to be content with the images I paint with words – and so a new challenge, but I like challenges!
When I sat in your position, as a proud education graduand of this university, while I wanted to see the world, and dreamed of riding through France or Italy, I never imagined what could be achieved on a bike or the career path that I have carved out.
As you move on from student life and develop your own careers, I thought it might be helpful to describe how mine evolved – briefly.
I first had the opportunity to travel to the UK to play hockey for UWA, and after the tour, did a small trip in Ireland. Little trips led to much longer journeys and over the space of the next couple of years, I clocked 15,000km as my personal discovery of Europe.
This is where I discovered my passion:
I loved planning and bringing a line on a map to life;
I loved the close connection I made with the people and the land;
And I found that travelling by bicycle gives a great sense of place, a realistic perspective of how the world fits together.
When organising my first major expedition across Russia, I met and was inspired by Robert Swan, the first person to have walked to both the North and South poles and a United Nations Ambassador for Youth and the Environment. Robert became my mentor and taught me that there was far greater value to what I was doing than simply personal satisfaction. All of my expeditions since have been about much more than a bike ride.
And so my first real advice to you as educators is to EXPLORE TO FIND YOUR PASSION, and then to encourage your students and those around you to be curious and explore, because I believe it is one of the most important traits you can instil.
Why? Exploration is the driving force of humankind. We have been exploring since the dawn of time because it is the centre of everything we do. From birth, we learn through experience and we can make better decisions tomorrow from the information we have unearthed today.
Everything we know today has been the result of explorers who have gone before us. Exploring is to travel through the unknown to learn or discover new information. Discoveries in geography, medicine, space, flora and fauna that have changed the world for the better are but a few of the riches of exploration.
Today, we seek riches of other kinds. Equality among race and gender, alleviation of poverty, advances in health and education, tolerance and peace and preservation of the environment among them. Discoveries in the modern world will come, but only if we seek them and we are prepared to embark on uncovering the source of the unknowns.
All of my expeditions have finished on time, on budget, with no major injuries and with all key missions achieved. Tonight I would like to share the method I use to make these projects happen because it is a model you can adapt for whatever career path, project or challenge you undertake.
Firstly it’s about creating the VISION; taking your passions, the issues you care about and what you stand for. Then it’s about working out what’s possible and how to make the most of your skills and abilities.
Next, the most complicated ORGANISATION phase kicks in; I believe the most difficult part of any project, when all of the elements must be pulled together before actually PERFORMING the expedition, making the vision a reality.
One question I’m most commonly asked is:
“Did you ever want to give up?”
The answer – Honestly, no, because I wholeheartedly believe in my missions and would never let down my loyal supporters, sponsors or the thousands of students who are following and learning from my journeys.
Whatever our journey, we are all confronted with hardships and challenges which require us to EXPLORE WITHIN to achieve our goals.
In Africa, the most mentally challenging time was about a quarter of the way through, when I had done over 5000km but still had about 17,000km and seven months to go. I’d already endured three severe gastros and here, I was pushing into the Harmattan, powerful seasonal trade winds that whip sand and dust straight off the Sahara. The people of Niger call this time the nose-picking season because it is synonymous with respiratory infections. I was struggling to breathe, and could only to manage 12km or 13km an hour.
The only way to get through is to think of the positives, focus on the mindset “How do I get through?” rather than “What will stop me?”
I found it helpful to look at the big picture, that it was a privilege to do what I was doing – and how amazing I was going to feel cycling across the Somali plains to the finish. Then I’d work back and break my journey into smaller, more manageable goals – to get to the end of the day, the session, each hour; reach the top of the next hill, the next landmark, a bush on the side of the road, even the next pothole.
To get through the toughest of times, I’ve developed so many techniques I could write a psychology thesis, but what I find works best is to consciously look for the beauty in my surroundings. Remember, even in the direst of circumstances, there is BEAUTY ALL AROUND IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEE IT.
I’ve found that it’s always the EXTRA EFFORT you put in that brings the greatest reward. For example, earlier on my African expedition, I diverted 700km off my main route and into South-east Mauritania to visit the ancient town of Oualata, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Civilisation around Oualata dates back to around 4000 years and the town evolved about a thousand years ago due to its prime location at the terminus of two Saharan trade routes. Merchants primarily traded salt for gold and other commodities but around a millennium ago, Oualata gained a reputation as being a centre for scholarship.
The trade routes became ink routes as religious manuscripts and educational texts circulated across the Sahara. Back in the eleventh century, the level of education was believed to be at least as advanced as it was in Europe at the time.
I was very fortunate to be granted an audience with the Sheikh, the religious leader who was also in charge of teaching traditional subjects such as Islamic law, languages, ancient history and literature. He told me that he was continually adapting his teaching to make learning relevant to modern times, while preserving the ancient way of life. The learned Sheikh, whose teachings represent the thousand-year lineage of Oualata’s Azaire culture, explained that in his society, constant study, from childhood to old age, is considered desirable, and LIFELONG LEARNING BRINGS DIGNITY.
That extra 700km was certainly worth the effort. We can all learn from the wise Sheikh. Real exploration cannot be done through a screen or second hand; true perspective can only be obtained firsthand, as primary evidence. Such experiences form highlights in the story of my quest to reveal the truth of Africa and its diverse people and cultures; a positive, constructive story to help dispel the many negative misconceptions often portrayed in the media and that dwell in so many minds.
Arriving at Cape Hafun, Puntland, Somalia, Africa’s most easterly point, was certainly a cause for celebration, but it was by no means the end of the mission. ANALYSING and DOCUMENTING my experiences and sharing my story is equally as important as the expedition itself – to realize its full value, to help others to form their own visions and for me to use what I’ve learned to create a NEW VISION – Breaking the Cycle South Pole.
I’m very proud to accept this Honorary Doctor of Education degree in the centenary year of the Faculty of Education and also on International Women’s Day.
As we move into the Faculty’s second century, please put the IMPORTANCE OF EXPLORING at the forefront of what you do; approach each new vision with determination, perseverance and commitment, take nothing for granted, always go the extra mile and never give up, because…
If the leaders of tomorrow are inspired to explore, understand how the world fits together and how they fit within it, our global community will be all the richer for the decisions they will make toward a better world.