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Archive → January, 2014

Australia, China and the Great Outdoors: Of Learning and Friendship Along the Trail

At the southern terminus of the Bibbulmun Track in Albany. Ready to start our journey from Albany to Denmark. From left to right: Gary, Maya, Frank, Tina, Duan Lian, Yang Xiao, KK, and Ed.

At the southern terminus of the Bibbulmun Track in Albany, ready to start our journey from Albany to Denmark. From left to right: Gary, Maya, Frank, Tina, Duan Lian, Yang Xiao, KK, and Ed. (Ed Jocelyn)

“It is a gentle art; know how to tramp and you know how to live. Manners makyth man [sic], and tramping makyth manners. Know how to meet your fellow-wanderer, how to be passive in the beauty of Nature and to be active to its wildness and its rigour. Tramping brings one to reality.” Stephen Graham, 1926, The Gentle Art of Tramping.

(note: all the images in this blogpost were taken by the author unless otherwise noted).

As we enter 2014 I find myself on the back foot with a number of 2013 tasks still waiting resolution. Usually at this time of year I would be in Yunnan conducting fieldwork and in time providing you with updates. Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond my control I’ve had to stay put in Australia this southern hemisphere summer (although on a more positive front I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of academic writing and reading, and took the time to connect with friends and family in beautiful Queensland). So in lieu of anything too exotic I will instead share with you the outcomes of a major workshop I had the pleasure of coordinating with Ed Jocelyn and Warwick Powell. This is actually quite big news, for us anyway, which we hope from small beginnings will in due course grow to become something much more substantial and leave a long lasting legacy.

Professor Ding Peiyi of Griffith University gives the workshop participants an illuminating analysis of trends inbound Chinese tourism to Australia.

Professor Ding Peiyi of Griffith University gives the workshop participants an illuminating analysis of trends in inbound Chinese tourism to Australia. (Warwick Powell)

On Friday 27th September 2013 the workshop on ‘Australia, China and the Great Outdoors: Leadership, Best Practice, and the Future of Outdoor Leisure and Ecotourism’ was held in Perth at The University of Western Australia. As far as I’m aware this is the first international workshop with an exclusive Austraila/China focus to explore such themes. Workshop participants came from a number of Australian and Chinese universities, including The University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, Griffith University, Althena University (Tainan, Taiwan) and the Southwest Forestry University (Yunnan, China). There were also representatives from the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife, the Bibbulmun Track Foundation and Leave No Trace Australia. The commercial sector was represented by commercial ecotourism providers from Southwest China (Redrock Treks and Zouba Tours) and Southwest Western Australia (Out of Sight Tours). Last but not least the workshop also benefited from participants from grass-roots walking clubs in both Western Australia and China. Thanks to all the participants for taking the time to attend and giving valuable contributions. Maya, one of the participants from Shenzhen, China, has written an extensive report (in Chinese) on the event (the report, running for six pages and containing many comments from other Chinese outdoor enthusiasts, contains many images so even without Chinese language skills you have an idea of what was going on).

Together we explored the many challenges facing outdoor tourism in Australia and China. As a more developed nation with decades of experience in managing ‘the outdoors’, Australia has a great deal to share with China in this field. Hopefully China can avoid mistakes in this area by studying the experiences of other countries. Australia can also benefit in the long term by attempting to better understand the mindset and habits of Chinese hikers, a potential large source of inbound ecotourists. These two themes – sharing world’s best practice and exploring the possibilities of getting Chinese outdoor enthusiasts to Australia – were the main workshop objectives.

With Chinese hikers (aka 'donkey friends') in rural Zhejiang Province. Some time in 2012.

With Chinese hikers (aka ‘donkey friends’) in rural Zhejiang Province. Some time in 2012.

Outdoor tourism and leisure pursuits include the vast array of outdoor activities such as rafting, climbing, skiing and so on, but for the present the focus of our efforts is mainly on hiking and related nature-based tourism (the latter is important for people who cannot for whatever reason take to the trails on their own two feet; accessibility for all ages and levels of fitness needs to be acknowledged). Hiking has really taken off in China in the last decade. I have introduced the Chinese hikers – known in Chinese as ‘donkey friends’ (lvyou 驴友) in another blogpost. To reiterate, as China becomes more affluent and as the domestic transport infrastructure develops – thereby making ‘nature’ more readily accessible – the number of people seeking to escape the city for respite in the countryside and more remote regions is growing rapidly. As with anything that happens in China it all comes back to scale. Even just a small growth in the numbers of people hitting the trails actually amounts to a significant number of hikers. It is difficult to get accurate figures – at this point in time Chinese researchers and government authorities haven’t paid too much attention to this sector – but from personal observation and discussion with other researchers and outdoor enthusiasts the impact of hiking activity on China’s trails is quite notable. Chinese hikers, often coming together in grass-roots hiking clubs (itself an important part of the growth of Chinese ‘civil society’ and ‘associational life’), share information about hiking destinations through the internet and social media. With the ease of information sharing in this digital age, a trail that may in one year attract only a handful of ‘donkey friends’ can within the space of several months suddenly be inundated with hundreds of hikers looking for the ‘next big thing’. Local government and communities where hiking takes place often do not have the expertise and time to respond effectively to a sudden influx of hikers. The result is that many popular trails in China are experiencing significant trail degradation and waste management issues (as Ed and I reported on the trail over the Gaoligong Mountain range, part of China’s ancient ‘Southern Silk Road’).

With these trends in mind a highlight of the workshop was the six day post-workshop tour of Western Australia’s ecotourism resources. With assistance from our sponsors and support from the Great Southern Development Commission, Ed and myself took our ‘donkey friend’ visitors from China on a special guided study tour. In addition to visiting some of the key ecotourism features of this region we also hiked for four days on the Bibbulmun Track. The discussions and interactions amongst ourselves and with the other hikers and track maintenance volunteers we encountered along the way were worth their weight in gold. Our Chinese colleagues seemed to be very impressed and inspired by the high quality of the trail and infrastructure provided, not to mention the hospitality of the locals (many thanks again to Lenore and David of Out of Sight Tours). Upon returning to Perth we also spent some time talking to staff in the Bibbulmun Track office and learned more about how it operates. Many thanks to Gwen for giving us the ‘guided tour’. Our Chinese visitors walked away with lots of food for thought.

Part of the Bibbulmun Track follows the beach on the Southern Ocean. The power and majesty of the ocean is one reason why the Bibbulmun has become an international hiking destination.

Part of the Bibbulmun Track follows the beach on the Southern Ocean. The power and majesty of the ocean is one reason why the Bibbulmun has become an international hiking destination. (Ed Jocelyn)

If you haven’t worked it out yet the outdoor research stream does in fact coincide at certain points with my strong interest in the Ancient Tea Horse Road, namely, with the proposal to put hikers, whether Chinese or otherwise, on the ancient pathways of Southwest China and work towards establishing China’s first long distance and well managed hiking trail. I have already published one paper on this subject with an emphasis on the benefits of hiking and outdoor tourism for community development in poor mountainous regions of China’s Southwest. You can read it here (in Chinese). Ed and I have also co-authored a paper in English on the subject which we hope will be published soon. So in order to keep the fires burning we have decided to upgrade the ‘workshop’ to a ‘forum’ and make it an annual event. We anticipate that the next ‘forum’ will take place somewhere in Yunnan in the latter half of 2014. Stay tuned for more news. Please contact me directly if you’re interested in participating, and more importantly, sponsoring this event.

Speaking of sponsors, the workshop could not have materialised without their generous support, namely, Osprey China and Peak Adventure Travel. The University of Western Australia, and in particular the Faculty of Arts, UWA Sport and Recreation and Institute of Advanced Studies, also provided cash, facilities and expertise. I would also like, once again, to single out my co-coordinators Ed Jocelyn and Warwick Powell. Special thanks also to the many others who provided encouragement and hands-on support on the day. The Great Southern Development Commission and Mr Bruce Manning were also particularly helpful when it came to organising the tour of outdoor tourism resources in Western Australia’s southwest and we are forever in their debt.

In one of the shelters along the Bibbulmun Track. As we hiked we naturally took the time to absorb the beauty but also to appreciate the considerable investment in on-the-trail infrastructure. (Ed Jocelyn)

In one of the shelters along the Bibbulmun Track. As we hiked and took the time not only to absorb the beauty, we also appreciated the considerable investment in on-the-trail infrastructure. We had good in-depth discussions with a number of hikers and track maintenance volunteers, including some undergraduate students from The University of Western Australia. (Ed Jocelyn)

And yet for me, and for many others I’m sure, the most valuable thing to come out of this event was the friendship and comradery. Hiking, or ‘tramping’ as Stephen Graham calls it in the opening quotation to this blogpost, is an activity which transcends gender, class, ethnicity and age (in terms of the last category we met one lone gentleman hiker on the trail who was seventy years old!). Through our common passion for the outdoors we open our hearts to our ‘fellow-wanderers’. What better ailment in this crazy world full of hate and animosity than to make long-lasting bonds with people from other cultures through sharing the joys, and challenges, of the trail? We are all but pilgrims in life’s journey, but we only get reminded of this fact when out of our element and forced to confront the enormity of Nature, the single thing that binds us all together on planet earth. To quote once more from Stephen Graham: “Tramping is a way of approach, to Nature, to your fellow-man[woman], to a nation, to a foreign nation, to beauty, to life itself”.

Hikers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but stress (and weight!), you have a world of smiles and comradeship to win! Nature is awesome! Let’s keep it that way!

The Wagul - the dreamtime serpent - is the trail marker and symbol of the Bibbulmun Track. It is also a reminder that we tread on lands for which the indigenous Noongyar are still the custodians. Tread lightly and with respect.

The Wagul – the dreamtime serpent – is the trail marker and symbol of the Bibbulmun Track. It is also a reminder that we tread on lands for which the indigenous Noongyar are still the custodians. Tread lightly and with respect. (Ed Jocelyn)