Larissa Fedunik is NUPSA’s Student Communications Officer. You can contact her at


A motivated and diverse team of volunteer trekkers have just returned from University of Newcastle’s Ikara-Flinders Ranges Challenge in support of Indigenous education and health research supporting Indigenous communities. 25 volunteers – including Vice-Chancellor Professor Alex Zelinsky AO, university staff, alumni and community members – took on the Challenge, walking 100 kilometres of the Heysen trail in 5 days, from 9-14 September.

The Ikara-Flinders Challenge follows on from the Larapinta Challenge in Central Australia in 2017. Connor Brown, Development Manager of the Office of Alumni and Philanthropy, has taken part in both the Larapinta and Ikara Challenges, which he describes as some of the best experiences of his life.

Beginning at the head of the Heysen trail, the trekkers traversed 100km of the iconic walking trail, which runs all the way from Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges to Cape Jervis, south of Adelaide. Along the way, they met locals who shared their cultural experiences and were joined by an Indigenous guide for part of the trek.

“We heard from some amazing people, and I now have a much better understanding of Aboriginal culture,” says Connor. “The biggest thing I took away is the challenges that Aboriginal people face in sharing their culture – it’s not necessarily something they can share openly with people outside their immediate community. There is a lot to protect and it’s a privilege to be told and to learn.”

The trekkers met representatives of the Adnyamathanha people, who shared Dreamtime stories and their cultural practices and history. Indigenous teachers continue to share their knowledge with future generations, including at local schools, where students learn the Adnyamathanha language.


A challenging trail

Along the way, the trekkers pushed through challenging conditions, with extreme heat and dryness. “It was a real eye-opener to how much the region needs rain,” says Connor. The terrain was also tough, with some parts of the trail involving clambering over boulders and cliff faces. There were a lot of blisters amongst the trekkers. “One of the guides spent much of one morning treating blisters,” says Connor.

However, they were rewarded with some unforgettable scenery. Wilpena Pound is a natural amphitheatre of mountains in the heart of the Flinders Ranges National Park. The volcano-shaped structure has legendary views, which the trekkers reached on the second last day, after one of the most challenging parts of the journey. “To have walked all that way to the top of the pound and experience a beautiful breeze and an amazing view, that was my highlight,” says Connor.

Connor says that the most rewarding part of the whole experience was the team building aspect and the worthy cause of the Challenge. “The people in the team built a bond over a singular focus: the equity of Indigenous people. After trekking 100km together, we now know each other really well and that team aspect will continue on. I have no doubt that there will be more great outcomes for Indigenous equity in the long term.”

The location of the 2021 Challenge is yet to be revealed, but Connor has no doubt that he will be on board. “Both experiences have been so amazing, I couldn’t imagine not taking part again.”


Outcomes for Indigenous health

The trek has raised $154,551 in funding so far, which will support equity scholarships for undergraduate Indigenous students, PhD top-up scholarships to foster future Indigenous leaders and community health research to positively impact Indigenous communities.

The 2017 Larapinta Trail Challenge was used to fund two research projects at the Uni of Newcastle: a health app for Indigenous mothers called ‘MAMAS’, and an outreach program delivering podiatry and foot care education to Central Coast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, helping tackle the disproportionately high rates of diabetes-related foot complications. These are just two examples of the University’s research projects in the field of Indigenous health.

Newcastle had the highest rate of graduating Indigenous HDR candidates in Australia in 2015 and 2016, according to the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. Public health researcher and NHMRC ECR Fellow Dr Michelle Bovill is currently carrying out her work into smoking cessation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women using culturally responsive interventions in the School of Medicine and Public Health and the Thurru Indigenous Health Unit.


Michelle’s PhD pathway

Michelle began her career in at the Loft Youth Arts and Cultural Centre, where she worked as the Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Officer while completing her Arts (Honours) and Masters of Social Science degrees. In 2009, she began working as the first Aboriginal Cultural Support Planner at foster care and disability services provider Life Without Barriers, and spent the next 6 years in that role working to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in out of home care. “This began my passion for Indigenous rights and improving life outcomes for my people,” says Michelle.

Michelle says that she never imagined that she would undertake a PhD, although it was always the dream of her Bapu (grandfather) that she would complete doctoral studies. She took on a role at the Uni of Newcastle as a Research Assistant in 2015, after the loss of both her uncle and her grandfather within a short time frame. It was at this time she decided she could advocate for Indigenous rights and improve her people’s lives through research. “When I realised the impact researchers can have on policy and practice of health care for my people and communities, I was eager to learn and undertake a PhD in Aboriginal Health,” says Michelle.


Privileging the voices of Indigenous women

Michelle’s PhD research tied in with the ICAN Quit in Pregnancy program, which was funded by the New South Wales Ministry of Health to help support Indigenous women to quit smoking during pregnancy. “My role in the co-design was the conjoint between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women/communities and the research team,” says Michelle. She is vocal about the importance of privileging the voices of Indigenous women in the research process. “Guiding ethical research practice ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lived experience directs the work conducted, not just the deficit statistics often used.”

Michelle completed her thesis in record time while looking after her three children, even taking them with her to conferences. She received the prestigious Lowitja Institute Student Award for her PhD this year, which she describes as her biggest milestone. “Having national acknowledgement for the work I do, as well as seeing trailblazing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice and health outcomes, was surreal.”

The University of Newcastle is currently recruiting students who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander for Masters or PhD research scholarships. Find out more about the ‘Which Way?’ community-led research project via Michelle’s profile, here.

Find out more about the Ikara-Flinders Challenge here, and see the updated total funds raised here. 


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