There’s something inherently grounding about hiking. Bonding through the sweat and the stories, and connecting with your fellow hikers and the land you’re traversing – that’s exactly how the First Hike Project was born.


Neil McCulloch is the founder of First Hike Project, a not-for-profit organisation that takes youth from refugee backgrounds on all-expenses-paid and all-equipment-provided overnight hiking and camping experience in the Australian bush, to help them settle into their new home.

Having just received The North Face’s inaugural Explore Fund, we sat down with Neil to find out how the grant will help the organisation, how the outdoors drives deeper connections, and how you can help on the journey. 

Brooke Nolan: What’s the goal of the First Hike Project?

Neil McCulloch: The goal has stayed the same since we started, and that’s simply to take as many newly-arrived refugees out on their first hike, with the hope they’ll feel more at home in Australia once they step outside the suburbs and discover nature. But we’ve added to this over the years. For example, we now have something called the ‘Participant-to-Guide Training Course’.

This is where we take really excited and enthusiastic hikers who’ve participated in the First Hike Project program and put them through 6-12 months of training so they can become a guide themselves. It can lead to guiding with us, but also to other forms of study and tertiary education. At the moment it’s only in Western Australia, but it’s proving a great way to build out the experience for them and make it more than just a one-off.

We’ve also started doing multi-day hikes and took a group down to do the Overland Track in Tassie — it was really impactful for them to spend time in nature in a safe environment. Some of these kids — I say kids but sometimes they’re in their 20s — are more comfortable in the bush than they are in the cities. It’s almost like a homecoming in their heart and they don’t want to leave after one night. 


First Hike Project, hiking, bush, camping, tent

Learning the tricks of the trade

What led you to create the First Hike Project? 

To be very, very honest with you, I had no idea what to expect when I started First Hike Project. And that’s quite common for me — I tend to just jump off the deep end with everything. But really, the catalyst was I had a friend who started the First Home Project in Perth, which was all about taking refugees into your home and helping to guide them through settlement. 

That really provoked me to do what was in my heart. I really wanted to make a difference and give something back, especially after all my travelling days when so many people helped me.

I’ve always been into hiking, plus it got me out of the house at weekends, so it just made sense. We started in 2015, with our first hike in 2016 and we’ve grown since then.

What’s been your best moment so far?

The best moment is still a hike from a few years ago — I’ve honestly got goosebumps just telling the story. We took a group of Somali youth up Mt Beeripmo outside of Melbourne. It was really quite a challenging hike, but we made it and then camped on the summit. 

Unknown to us, one of the young men had arranged to wake up and do the Muslim Call to Prayer in the morning. So there we were, in an Aussie camp at the top of a mountain surrounded by other hikers and campers. It was all misty, and this boy had found himself a space up on the rocks and called the other lads out of their tents to come to prayer. It was like something out of a movie. 

It was at that moment when I was like, ‘This is what it’s about’. It’s not about them becoming more ‘Aussie’. It’s about us understanding what they do — not in an us-and-them kind of way — but simply understanding different cultures.

It’s not about them ‘Aussie-fying’ themselves, it’s about changing Australia because they’re here now. And I loved that.

There was just such a positive response from all the other campers and hikers up on that hill too. It just worked so nicely — a blend where they brought their own culture, as well as learning about hiking in the Aussie bush. That moment will stick with me forever. 


First Hike Project, bush, camping, tent

Letting the laughs roll in over dinner

What’s been the most challenging moment?

COVID really challenged us as an organisation, like many other organisations I guess. The challenge was that it really was hard to keep going and to grow at a time when we actually couldn’t hike. 

But, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. We did all the back-end admin things we never got around to before. We also put a board together of really beautiful people. There are nine of us and we’re now creating strategies, making sure that we’re on the right course, and just getting better and stronger.

What’s next for First Hike Project and how will The North Face Explore Fund help you?

We were so excited to be awarded this grant, as it’s such a nice grant to get. But truthfully, we don’t know what’s next. It’s such a Western mindset to want to get bigger, to grow, but we’re actually happy doing what we’re doing. 

We’re at a good size, we’ve got great groups of volunteers across the country, and if we need to expand we will, but not because we should. I’d still love to have a group in Tassie though and do more hikes in Tassie too, for obvious reasons.

We just want to get better at what we do and that’s taking people out, and making them feel more comfortable in a country that they didn’t necessarily want to come to. They’re here because it’s safe.

We also want to keep up the education of volunteers, not just for hiking but for cultural awareness, how we conduct ourselves, and how we approach conversations with people who’ve arrived from quite rocky backgrounds or recent tumultuous pasts.


First Hike Project, hiking, bush, pine forrest

Rainy skies won’t dampen these spirits

One of the guiding principles of The North Face Explore Fund is connection. How do you think exploration can serve as a way to connect with others?

I’ve thought about this a lot actually. And I think it’s because it’s often a shared, tough experience. Nobody skips along the hiking trail with a 20kg backpack in the blazing heat, getting eaten by flies. It’s pretty hard going at times and I think that shared hardship makes great connections.

Some of the best friends I’ve ever made are ones that I’ve gone through the real tough stuff with, physical or emotional.

I think it’s movement too; you notice that when people are hiking, their mouths start moving in time with their legs.You talk, chat, and connect in a deeper way than when you meet in other ways, like in the office.

I swear the brain is stimulated by physical movement. In Tassie, on the Overland Track, we were blown away by the depth of conversation. There were real, deep, philosophical, and emotional conversations happening that are so hard to come by in everyday life. 

I just think the outdoors has this ability to break down the facades from daily life, which are almost impossible to have when you’re struggling up a mountain with a backpack. You just have to be yourself at that point, right?


First Hike Project, bush, arm wrestle

Camping, bonding, and a bit of light arm wrestling

How can our readers help the cause?

We’re always looking for more volunteers and have groups across Australia you can get involved with. Donations are of course always helpful too. But what’s really helpful is to just do something to help the refugee community in Australia.

There are heaps of really good organisations that are supplying food, fuel cards, support, and assistance to people. People who, you’ve got to remember, might not actually want to be here. They are really grateful to have found a safe country but miss their home countries and their cultures.


Check out the Explore Fund page to learn more about the other grant winners get the latest news!


Photos supplied by First Hike Project