Travel Heroes / Travel Heroes Journal

These 10 amazing adventures changed our Travel Heroes' Worlds

Travel Heroes Episode 2: The Adventures

By Casey ONeill

Be it Odysseus, Huckleberry Finn or Harry Potter– as long as Human’s can remember we have been reading, sharing and enjoying stories about epic heroes and amazing adventures.

For some people reading about a grand adventure is not enough. They pack their bags, lace up their shoes and head out into the world for an adventure of their own. Within this group of intrepid adventurers is a set of genuine heroes. People choosing life changing travel experiences that enrich the lives of those around them as well as their own.  

Over the last month, Columbus direct has had the privilege of working with 10 Travel Heroes. Today, in the tradition of great storytellers past, we are delighted to share their adventure stories with you…

1. The Step by Steppers.

Amanda Russell and Nina Lansdowne

Hercules inherited super-human strength from his father but not all heroes are so lucky. There is one reason – and one reason alone – that the Mighty Ducks beat the Hawks, That Rocky beat Apollo Creed and that The Karate Kid beat Cobra Kai… hard work.

For step by step heroes the training is just as important as the goal. Take Amanda Russell. Amanda is a Travel Heroes finalist and supporter of the cancer research charity Can Too. In 2013 Amanda could barely run around the block. Today, a Rocky-like montage of Amanda’s running journey would include New York, the Eiffel Tower, the Swiss Alps, the Amazon rainforest, Rodeo Drive, Bangkok and Reykjavik as well as iconic Australian landscapes like the Great Ocean Road and Crescent Head.

When asked about her favourite travel moment, Amanda does not pick the finish line at the New York Marathon or at any of her (count ‘em) 8 completed half marathons. Instead she tells of the moment she first realised how far she had come. 

“I declared myself a runner when visiting Paris in 2014 – this was about 18 months after I started running and by this stage I’d completed 3 half marathons and was training for the 4th. I remember running along the Seine and up the Champs Elysees with my partner in crime (husband David) - it was so still and quiet and at that point I really felt like a runner and it felt good!! I was running in my Orange Can Too shirt, Can Too hat, threw my hands in the air and shouted to all who would listen that I am a runner!! As it was very early for the Parisienne’s - thankfully not many people heard me!

Another Travel Heroes finalist on the marathon track is Nina Lansdowne. In 2014, completely out of the blue, Nina lost her husband to an undiagnosed medical condition called Marfan Syndrome.  On his behalf Nina has laced up her running shoes and hit the pavement to tackle Marfan Syndrome head-on. Diagnosis is key in preventing Marfan-related death. By using her running to raise awareness and funds for The Marfan Foundation Nina has turned every single step she takes into a potentially lifesaving one.

Nina had set her mind to completing the New York Marathon this year. Sadly, she suffered a set-back shortly before race day and was unable to take part. Like a true Hero, Nina is not letting this stop her! She is already looking at ways to continue her fundraising for Marfan. 

2. The Exotic Explorers

Amy Hitchens and Henry Birt

Strange and exotic animals play an essential role in many of the world’s greatest adventure stories. Harry Potter has hippogriffs and giant spiders, Narnia has a talking lion and The Never Ending Story has Falkor, the luck dragon. 

One Travel Hero sure to encounter a fantastic beast or two is Amy Hitchens. Amy was born in South Africa and, despite living in Australia for many years, has never quite managed to shake the call of her wild homeland. “African wildlife has always had a special place in my heart” she tells us.

Amy’s current adventure story is actually a sequel. Amy has a soft spot for rhinos and a few years ago she volunteered with a rhino veterinary program. Through her work with the veterinary program Amy became aware of an endangered species sanctuary specialised in the care and rehabilitation of orphaned Rhino cubs. The sanctuary’s name was Care for Wild. Amy liked their work so much that she has signed on to volunteer at the centre later this year. Unlike movie sequels, we expect Amy’s second adventure to equal if not surpass the success of the original.

Another Travel Hero with a passion for exotic animals is Henry Birt. Henry’s story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: an exotic location, an inspiring task and a romantic subplot.  While volunteering at Iracambi – a research and local education hub in the heart of the Atlantic rainforest – Henry met a girl when helping her down Mount Itajuru during a heavy thunder storm.

This girl (now his girlfriend) is not the only destiny he found on his trip. Working for Iracambi helped to give Henry a life purpose “I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to help protect environments all around the world.” Henry shared his Atlantic rainforest home with over 2200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians but, it was the life teeming underground that got his attention. Currently studying towards a PHD in soil science, Henry hopes to return to Iracambi and set up a soil lab “to help show some of the amazing life that is not only thriving above but below the ground.”

3. The Road Trippers

Claire Baines and Ashleigh Nelson

No two words evoke the idea of a modern adventure quite like “road trip”. Think Rain Man, Smokey and the Bandit or Pricilla Queen of the Desert. These grand expeditions that span thousands of kilometres are active proof that often the journey is more important than the destination. 

For Travel Heroes finalist Claire Baines a road trip adventure doesn’t involve a car… that’s way too easy. Claire and her bicycle have travelled over 8200 km through Thailand but, it is not just the distance of Claire’s journeys that is impressive.  During her Thai road trips Claire raised over $100,000 for Hands Across the Water – a charity set up in the wake of 2004’s Boxing day Tsunami that is dedicated to homing and supporting orphaned children in Thailand.

Claire enjoyed her own adventures so much that she has set up a company to help others become travel heroes. Through Soulful Experiences Claire aims to “connect corporate groups with different communities to bring about meaningful change.”

Another Travel Heroes finalist alert to the benefits of a cycling road trip is Ashleigh Nelson. Ashleigh and her Hockeyroo teammate Rach Lynch have travelled the Australian countryside on behalf of mental health and suicide prevention charity RUOK? They spent their trip encouraging people to ask a simple but potentially lifesaving question: “are you okay?”

Ashleigh understands the power this question can have firsthand. In the lead up to the Beijing Olympics Ashleigh found that Hockey – a sport which had always been a major part of her life – was rousing more anxiety than passion. 

“It was my mum that noticed changes in my mood and behaviour… (she) literally asked “Are you Okay?” At the moment I realised I needed to make changes to my life and my approach to what I was committing to. As a result I went on to play 200 games for Australia and establish more balance in my life.”

4. The Second Home Discoverers

Jackie Scott and Jennifer Allison

One of the best parts of travelling away from your homeland is the chance to experience different cultures. Travel stories tend to focus on the difference between two cultures; often it is the similarities that prove most wonderful. History is full of stories (both real and fictional) of people who have found a second home in cultures that are – at first glance – entirely different from their own.  

One of such travellers is Jackie Scott. Jackie is currently in Zimbabwe volunteering at the Sandra Jones Centre – a home for young girls who have been sexually abused and for children in crisis.  Jackie’s travel stories range from humorous (when trying to say ‘good morning’ in the local language Ndebele she accidently called a group of local men dogs) to amazing (she spent her 30th Birthday in the wilderness at Hwange National Park with Lions, Giraffes and Elephants!) Despite some amazing experiences Jackie’s most treasured travel story has nothing to do with grand sights…  

I took 12 of our older girls for a walk to the local super market. Arriving at the stall to buy my girls 12 lollipops the lady looked at me and asked "is this your family?" I kind of stood there for one very long second before it bursted out of me "yes, this is my family, I am their Aunty Jackie".  I will never forget that moment of realising how much they mean to me.

Another Travel Hero who found friends in a faraway place was Jennifer Allison. In 2008 she volunteered at Friends for Orphans in Uganda. The land she discovered was strikingly different from our own

“Babies played in the dirt and cried distracting their teen mothers from learning…they sat on uncomfortable wooden benches and used unhealthy fire methods to cook their food…still being fed by US Aid they ate beans and the local posho (millet), rice was a treat!“

Jennifer spent her time in Uganda working with ex-child soldiers, child mothers, orphans and abductees who had suffered under the Kony regime. Jennifer taught the children English to increase their future employment potential but, they taught her a thing or two as well…

“Often in developing countries you will come across the happiest people you’ll ever meet in spite of being through several wars, severe poverty, illness and horrific atrocities, the people simply blew me away.” 

5. The Custom Adventurers.

Maria Vamvouklis and Kate Massey

Heroism doesn’t come with an instruction manual. If you can’t find an adventure that suits then why not make your own.

This is exactly what RUOK? supporter and motorcycle lover Maria Vamvouklis opted to do. As a childhood sufferer of ADD Maria is more than aware of the stigma Australians attach to metal illness. When Maria set out to fight this stigma and encourage mental health awareness, she did it her way.

On a specially equipped BMW F700 GS motorbike Maria spent over three weeks travelling solo across the country. Her trip, which included significant off-road portions, took her through the Flinders Ranges and Lake Gardiner National Park as well as across the Nullarbor. As if this challenging journey wass not enough, Maria used the trip to spread information around suicide prevention, make people aware of the mental health resources available and raised funds for RUOK?

For Kate Massey the issue was not finding an adventure to suit her… it was choosing just one.  Kate’s first adventure was the physically challenging Kokoda trek. The immensity of this choice was not lost on Kate. As a recent cancer survivor who was not usually into anything “less glamourous than 5 star luxury” Kate’s friends and family were quick to suggest a less taxing alternative. “My own mum (god bless her) encouraged me to “maybe just go for a little walk on the weekend and see how you feel.”

Luckily for the team at Cure Cancer, Kate could not be deterred. After Kokoda Kate was hooked. In the last five years she ticked a huge variety of adventures off her bucket list. She has trekked Machu Pichu, run a half and a full marathon, not to mention conquering Kilimanjaro – the highest free standing mountain in the world! Her contribution to the charity is so significant that earlier this year she was inducted in the Cure Cancer hall of fame.


Travel Heroes Adventure Fundraising volunteering competition

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