“OK, we can go to the barbecue now!” jokes one student at the start of our hike in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. We’re standing at Jamison Lookout where the valley view, which stretches beyond Mount Solitary, smacks you in the face. The recent La Niña weather event is thankfully taking a breather and the hovering blue haze – an optical phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering that gives the mountain range its name – is illuminating the eucalypts and chiselled tableland.
It seems like nothing else on our hike today will top this first lookout, but it’s just the opening act. I’m marvelling at the scenery with a group of about 30 young people – mostly students – from the Afghan Australian community.
Courtesy of the First Hike Project, we are heading on the Overcliff-Undercliff track – a well-maintained and not-too-arduous 3.5km route with optional side tracks. We assume this cliff-hugging walk has been named for its precarious-looking sandstone overhangs. For most of the group, it’s their first time in the Blue Mountains. For some, it’s their first hike in their new Australian home; for a few, their first hike ever.
Not so for Parwin Taqawi, the president of the Students of Afghanistan Association (Safa). She hiked in Afghanistan’s mountainous Ghazni province as a child. She was 12 when she fled Afghanistan with her family. The softly spoken 20-year-old has packed a lot in since she arrived in Australia. She works two jobs, studies for her Bachelor of Business, volunteers at two refugee support organisations, has co-founded a social enterprise fashion label and set up a community group, Walk Towards Peace.
But she is empathic towards newcomers, who are always “extra nervous” about their first hike and tend to gravitate towards her. “It’s fascinating to watch how they change when they get into the nature,” she says. Even someone who feels friendless will meet new people and have conversations that can go on for hours. “There is something magical about hiking. Strangers become friends – and best friends.”
The First Hike Project began in 2015 when avid hiker Neil McCulloch invited a group of local youths with migrant and refugee backgrounds on a social hike with a friend. “The idea was to help young people connect with their new country through a nature experience – and feel more at home,” says the Scottish-South African who migrated to Australia in 2004. “The door of acceptance was wide open for me when I came here. It’s not the same for everyone.”
McCulloch’s hiking hunch was a hit. Social support workers remarked on a significant lift in participants’ wellbeing after one hike. “It grew very quickly and took on a life of its own,” McCulloch says of the not-for-profit initiative. Now, First Hike Project operates volunteer-run day hikes and overnight camping adventures out of Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.
Before we set out, the First Hike Project leader, Joel Palte, gathers everyone around for a safety chat and an acknowledgment of country. Darug elder Uncle Chris Tobin, who can’t attend, sends his warmest welcome and “best wishes for a lovely walk on country”.
As we descend a bumpy tree-rooted path into temperate rainforest, a chat kicks off about soccer: “It’s an ankle injury,” explains Farzana Husseini, hobbling slightly behind her sister Razwana and friend Nilofar Sadeqi. All three play for Sydney United Girls, an Afghan women’s soccer team. The young women smile when they learn I’m a native of Manchester, so I share youthful tales of cleaning my dad’s taxi to earn the 90p entry fee for Saturday matches, well before Old Trafford was nicknamed “the theatre of dreams”.
Though the Overcliff-Undercliff is one of the shorter walks within the Blue Mountains national park, the route is packed with epic lookouts, enveloping tunnel overhangs, pretty rock cascades and iridescent, bubbling creeks. Audible gasps warm the crisp air at every turn.
Twenty-three-year-old Sadeqi, who is coming to the end of a double degree in business and law while working full-time as an analyst, explains the walk today is in collaboration with Safa, which was established last year at Western Sydney University as distressing events unfolded in Afghanistan. “We needed to just regroup … for support and hope,” she says. “And knowing that you have others to lean on.”
Each young person has a different story. Conversations move between work, study, women’s rights, sports, fleeing Afghanistan, homesickness, family separation and the sacrifices made to “live in safety like normal human beings”.
While all people in Afghanistan face precarious conditions under ultra-conservative Taliban rule, the situation for Hazara people, the ethnic group to which most of the students belong, is especially desperate, according to Amnesty International. “Afghan students were really distressed and struggling,” says Taqawi.
From another viewpoint at the top of Wentworth Falls, we debate whether to take the extended – and steep – hike to the valley bottom. A voice calls: “I can smell the barbecue.” Decision made.
Back at the picnic area, the air fills with the char of marinated chicken and lamb kebabs. A long run of blankets has been laid on the grass. Games of Ludo and keepie uppie start.
Participant turned volunteer guide Faeza Karimi reflects on her first hike. “By walking in the bush and hearing the different stories of others coming here, I felt I belonged,” the 21-year-old law student says. “I replaced negative energy with positive calmness that you get out in nature. It changes your whole mood.”
Someone produces a portable speaker and the group breaks into movement – it’s a celebration dance for every happy occasion, explains Karimi. Anyone not dancing is capturing the joy on their phones. “It’s important to keep that culture alive,” she says. “To be with people that went through the same experiences and enjoy the simplest things in life.”
Being part of the diaspora, “we couldn’t call any place home”, Karimi says. “When I’m hiking in nature and learning the stories of the land, I’m getting to know this place. And I’m calling this place home.”
• Find out about upcoming First Hike Project adventures and how to join a hike here.