Taking steps and making connections

Scotch College’s award-winning Bibbulmun Track Programme has strengthened its boarding community for over 20 years, helping students to build resilience, self-confidence and lifelong bonds with every step of the 1000km journey.

Boarders are given the opportunity to walk each section of the track, which starts in the Perth Hills and ends in Albany, throughout their six years at Scotch.

From its early days, focused on building bonds between boarders as they hiked and camped throughout the Southwest, the Programme naturally evolved into a transformational experience that opens the doors to deeper conversations, closer connections, and ultimately healthier and happier young men.

Scotch Head of Boarding, Jordan Owenell said they planned to incorporate the Rites of Passage framework into the programme, which aims to support young people in the transition to adulthood.

“We met with Rites of Passage Institute Founder Dr Arne Rubinstein in January to gain more insight into his Transformational Education framework, which is built around strengthening students’ sense of self, helping them to discover their potential, building resilience and creating healthy relationships,” Mr Owenell said.

“Clearly, we are already doing a lot right with the Bibbulmun Track Programme, which has not only won awards but most importantly, has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our boarding community.

“However, we do have some planned enhancements to make the boys more conscious of the reasons behind walking the track and to create further opportunities for reflection.”

While in many ways going to boarding school is a Rite of Passage in itself, the Bibbulmun Track Programme provides an authentic experience for achieving key wellness outcomes.

“There are no lightning strike moments where the boys suddenly become men,” Mr Owenell said.

“Educators, just like parents, know this is something that happens slowly each day, but the programme does provide opportunities for the boys to build closer friendships and resilience, and gives them the confidence to reveal their true characters.”   

Without technology or other distractions, casual chats on the track naturally give way to more meaningful conversations, which is one of the secrets to the programme’s success.

“The stereotype is that men don’t talk openly and this becomes even more challenging for those living in isolated areas, particularly during busy farming seasons,” Mr Owenell said.

“Getting boarders out on the track helps them to build closer friendships, with whom they are not afraid to talk.

“Naturally this is a good thing, regardless of whether they decide to return to their farms or home communities, or whether they do something else entirely. 

“And there’s no doubt – the track is good for your soul.”

Year 12 boarder Lochie Elliot agreed with Mr Owenell’s sentiments and said it always left them feeling more connected to themselves and each other.

“It is a bit of a mental health session really and gives us a chance to think about things more deeply,” Lochie said.

“We talk more and really get to know each other and the staff on a different level.

“We always feel closer when we get back from the track, which makes Scotch feel less like a boarding school and more like a home.”

Even though Scotch boarders were generally fit, strong and healthy, Mr Owenell said walking the track was exceptionally challenging, which was one of the main reasons it built resilience and ultimately confidence in the students.

“Walking 80-100kms over the course of 5 or 6 days with a heavy backpack is a huge challenge, even for the Year 11s and 12s,” Mr Owenell said.

“The Years 7s do shorter sections for a night or two at a time, but the seniors are walking for 6-7 days at 6kms an hour and covering over 80-100kms.

“I can say from experience that by the time you get to the end of the day… you’re knackered.”

Year 12 student Harrison Hammond, who was the only student to complete the entire track this year, said getting up after the first day to do it all again was the hardest part.

“It isn’t easy, and I think that’s probably one of the reasons some Year 11s and 12s choose not to finish, but others just don’t want to miss school and sport,” Harrison said.  

“After Year 10 the hardest part of the track is behind us, and I think it’s more enjoyable once it becomes a choice so I wanted to see it through.”  

Year 11 student George Stoney agreed, adding that leaving phones and technology behind was also an unexpected challenge and benefit.

“Leaving phones behind can be hard for some people, but it is also a benefit of walking the track you don’t always think about.

“It is really good to disconnect.”

Mr Owenell admitted he was always a bit disappointed when senior students dropped out of the programme and he felt proud of those who were there at the end, regardless of whether they completed every section.

 “In Year 11 and 12 the boys often hit state sporting teams and become very dedicated to their studies, so we understand why they don’t want to miss school and training,” Mr Owenell said.

“It is quite common for students to miss a section due to injury or illness and sometimes they lose the motivation to continue in Year 11 and 12.

“By Year 11 they have come so far … so it’s a shame not to continue.

“Completing the track and being recognised as an end-to-ender by the Bibbulmun Track Foundation is a huge accomplishment and we don’t want to dull that experience for those who achieve it, but we must also celebrate every student’s growth and persistence along the way.”

Year 11 Rory Purser agreed that the boarders should focus on what they gain throughout the programme rather than on completing the entire track.

“It isn’t about the destination … it’s the journey,” Rory said.

“It isn’t just the stories or the memories… it is knowing that you’ve overcome something challenging.

“I think about the track any time life gets hard and tell myself… if you can push through that … you can push through this too.”

Mr Owenell said building self-confidence and trust in their community were key aims of the programme and would serve the boys for life, but often it was the unplanned scenarios that resulted in the most significant growth.

“Even though we put a lot of plans in place to keep the boys safe and achieve the outcomes we set out to, occasionally unforeseen challenges arise - but they give boarders even more opportunities to show us who they are and what they are capable of,” Mr Owenell said.  

“We always have outdoor educators walking the track as they have a lot of knowledge to share and are invaluable in emergencies.

“One year a student was bitten by a snake on a fairly remote part of the track and the other boys jumped into action, assisting the outdoor educator in building a stretcher so they could carry him to the paramedics.

“Even though we obviously don’t want the boarders to get hurt, the experience did reveal what we see time and time again at Scotch- that when faced with a challenge the boys will always rise to the occasion.”

There are countless sensational stories that have developed over 20 years of walking the track, but Mr Owenell said it was all the ordinary moments in which each of the boys showed their true character that he valued most.

“I remember a few years ago a boy named Kaymus, who was in Year 9 at the time, carried the camp bin bag for the entire trip,” Mr Owenell said.

“It’s never overly pleasant carrying a bin bag, especially after a few days, so ordinarily we take turns.

“He just kept taking it without a fuss and even though it may seem like a relatively small gesture, it showed me who he is as a person and in my eyes he was the hero of the trip.”

It wasn’t just the individual characters of each student that become apparent on the track, but also the culture at Scotch and strength of its community.

“One year a Year 7 student tragically lost his father soon before he started boarding at Scotch, but he decided he still wanted to walk the track” Mr Owenell said.

“The other boys probably didn’t know what to say, so instead they took turns carrying his pack throughout the trip.

“Such displays of empathy, friendship and solidarity shows us that the values we promote at Scotch are well aligned with those of our boarding families.

“And it is witnessing these moments that show the strength of character in each of the boys that makes the experience of walking the track truly unforgettable.”

Giving parents the opportunity to acknowledge this growth in their children was an important part of the Rites of Passage framework and something Scotch planned to incorporate more into the programme.

“Getting parents involved helps them to break away from seeing their son as a little boy, and recognising him for the man he has become,” Mr Owenell said.

“We are looking at ways to include the parents more, but the initial feedback from the boys is that parents shouldn’t be invited to walk too much of the track as it may take away from the experience.”

Lochie walked sections of the track with his mum during the school holidays in an attempt to catch up on the expeditions he missed in Year 10.

“Mum is right into outdoor education so she was really keen to walk the track with me and it was a good experience,” Lochie said.

“I think it would be ok to have parents walk small sections with the boarders or meet us at a camp for dinner, but overall I think it would be best to keep parents off the track.

“The programme is only available to boarders and walking the track with a tight-knit group of mates is what makes it truly special.”

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