The Blak Trekkers at Everest Base Camp in Nepal.
The Blak Trekkers made their pilgrimage in support of the First Nations Lived Experience Centre. Image by HANDOUT/JOSHUA CREAMER
  • mental illness

To Kathmandu with didgeridoo: Blak Trekkers on Everest

Rudi Maxwell March 23, 2024

When Jeremy Donovan was packing for Mount Everest, the top item on his list was his yigi yigi – the Kuku Yalanji word for yidaki or didgeridoo.

And while carrying the iconic instrument at altitude for seven days was difficult, he reckons it was worth it to become the first Aboriginal person to play didge at the famed peak’s South Base Camp.

“From all of the indications from Sherpa, the traditional people, they’d never seen it and there was such excitement when they first saw the didgeridoo and heard the sound of it,” Mr Donovan says.

“They’d never heard anything like it.”

Base Camp is easily the most challenging gig he’s played.

“The cold air becomes really dense inside the didgeridoo, so that makes it harder to play,” he says.

“And then you’re overcoming the altitude, you’re short on breath anyway, so it means what would usually be quite a simple process became a really complicated issue.”

Mr Donovan is one of a dedicated group of friends known as the Blak Trekkers who made the pilgrimage to Everest in the name of raising funds and awareness for Black Dog Institute’s First Nations Lived Experience Centre.

Another member, Josh Creamer, lost his brother to suicide on Boxing Day 2022.

Rates of suicide and self-harm are higher for Indigenous people than other Australians.

“Every step we take is a poignant reminder of the struggles faced by those affected by mental illness,” Mr Creamer says.

When Kristal Kinsela’s best mate David Williams asked her if she wanted to join the trek, she agreed without thinking because she believes Indigenous people find it difficult to speak about mental health.

“Lots of times people who are going through something that’s mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually challenging them are suffering in silence,” she says.

“So we put ourselves into a situation like that for seven days to try to inspire others to say, ‘You know what, life can be really hard and it can make you want to give up but if look around there are people who will want to support you’.

“If you surround yourself with good people, that will help push you through, that’s why we all got through the trek, because we banded together as a collective.”

Emma and David Willims in Nepal
 Emma and David Williams were among nine Indigenous Australians who made the Base Camp trek. Image by HANDOUT/JOSHUA CREAMER 

It was only after she started checking Youtube tutorials about climbing to Base Camp that Ms Kinsela realised what she’d gotten herself into.

Both she and Mr Donovan trained for months but say nothing can really prepare anyone for the physicality of the trek, the psychological struggles or the cold.

“You go into a dark place with the cold because you start off and you’re cold,” she says.

“And then it goes into another level where you start tingling, and then it goes into another level where you start burning, and then it goes into another level where you’re numb and you can’t feel your feet or your fingers.

“And then you still have to operate and in your mind you’re playing these games in your head, like, ‘I can’t feel my feet. Oh, my feet are burning, I don’t know what to do’.”

Ms Kinsela says climbing to Base Camp wasn’t something she’d ever envisaged as an Aboriginal girl, growing up in Western Sydney.

“I grew up in housing commission to a single mother; people like me don’t go and do Base Camp,” she says.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced, I’ve never done anything so challenging – and I’ve given birth three times.”

For the nine Aboriginal people in the group, connecting with traditional Nepalese people was important.

Emma Williams and Kristal Kinsela in Nepal
 “Surround yourself with good people, that will help push you through,” says Kristal Kinsela (right). Image by HANDOUT/JOSHUA CREAMER 

When they reached Base Camp, they performed a traditional dance accompanied by clapsticks before Mr Donovan, then Mr Williams, played didge.

“Culture was paramount to everything that we were doing,” Mr Donovan says.

“We were finding similarities in some of the traditional Buddhist chants, we learned about some of the mandalas that are really steeped in great story.”

Gamilaraay man Dr Clinton Schultz, from Black Dog Institute, says the Blak Trekkers represent a beacon of hope, resilience and the commitment towards better ways for reconciliation and healing.

“I’ve struggled through childhood abuse, grappled with destructive coping mechanisms and faced the darkness of frequent suicidal thoughts,” he says.

“Overcoming these obstacles was a journey of resilience made possible through connecting to family, culture and country.

“It has fuelled my passion for helping others facing similar battles.”

Mr Donovan has also faced battles with mental health including drug abuse and suicide ideation but was helped through his hard times by a couple of people who were on the trek.

“Part of reaching Base Camp I was overwhelmed because just to have made it out of that really dark period of my life and to have some really amazing people around me, people who helped me to be strong as a father again,” he says.

“When I got there, I just really broke down into tears and it was really an emotional experience.”

Blak Trekkers aimed to raise $50,000 for the First Nations Lived Experience Centre but made that before even hitting the mountain, so they’ve doubled the target and are still taking donations for the rest of March.

“At Black Dog Institute, we recognise the value lived experience holds to inform and improve social and emotional wellbeing and reduce suicide rates,” Dr Schultz says.

“This lived experience centre will be the conduit that links networks together to mobilise, amplify and enable the right people to have a seat at the table to deliver culturally focused and safe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led suicide prevention and mental wellbeing programs and initiatives.”

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