2019 Winners of the Australian Geographic Society Awards announced

Recognising greatness since 1987, the Australian Geographic Society Awards are Australia’s longest running awards for adventure and conservation. Here are the 2019 winners.
By AG STAFF November 1, 2019 Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Jimmy Ashby – Young Adventurer of the Year

In April 2018, then 18-year-old Jimmy Ashby began the trip of a lifetime: a cycling journey around the world over 393 days, covering 39,100km across 32 countries and four continents. Jimmy says he had been preparing for the trip for years. At 16 he cycled 900km solo down the coast of Tasmania and straight after finishing Year 12, he spent three weeks riding solo on the South Island of New Zealand. After losing his grandmother to motor neurone disease, he dedicated his ride around the world to her, raising money to find a cure and also to assist those who are living with the disease today. Facing countless challenges – mechanical problems, harsh weather conditions and even global terrorism – Jimmy completed his journey in May 2019 following the last leg of his worldwide journey, Perth to Adelaide.

Angelina Arora – Young Conservationist of the Year

In 2018, Sydney high schooler Angelina Arora became known as the young scientist reshaping plastic waste thanks to her invention of a biodegradable alternative made from prawn shells. Through trial and error, Angelina had discovered an element of the prawn shell that could be mixed with a protein from spider web to create a plastic that decomposed 1.5 million times faster than conventional plastics. For her invention she earned a BHP Science and Engineering Award and was touted as the “16-year-old changing the world” by National Geographic. But she didn’t stop there. Angelina is now exploring the effect of algae on oil spill remediation, which has again earned her a nomination in the BHP Science and Engineering Awards 2019. In June of this year, Angelina became one of the youngest people to give a TED talk. Looking to her idol Victor Chang, Angelina is hoping to transfer her skills to the medical world.

Michelle Lee – Adventurer of the Year

In February 2019, Michelle Lee became the first Australian woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean – a mammoth journey of 4700km. The 46 year old was competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, one of the world’s toughest nautical races and the ultimate test in mental and physical strength and endurance. Michelle set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands and finished 68 days later, rowing into English Harbour in Antigua in the Caribbean. Throughout the trip she endured extreme conditions, including wild weather and swell, isolation, blisters upon blisters, sea sores and sickness, and sleep deprivation, and lost a whopping 14kg. In completing the journey she also became the first Australian woman to row solo across any ocean. While challenging her personal limits was a primary goal, Michelle also set herself the task of raising money for The Sanctuary, a crisis centre in Sydney’s north-west for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

Albert Wiggan – Conservationist of the Year

A traditional owner and Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul man from the Dampier Peninsula of Western Australia, Albert Wiggan is passionate about culture, country and Indigenous science. The 38 year old is an Indigenous ranger with the Nyul Nyul ranger group and manages the delicate relationship between Western science and Indigenous teachings to preserve the sparkling waters of Boddergron (Cygnet Bay) and the ecologically rich lands across the peninsula and beyond it. When the government tried to build the world’s largest LNG gas export terminal at James Price Point (a vital marine sanctuary, home to songlines and dinosaur footprints), Albert lobbied the Supreme Court and fronted a blockade until the developer withdrew from the project. He is also Deputy Chair of the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science project and is the Nyul Nyul representative on the board of the Kimberley Land Council.

Nick Gleeson – Spirit of Adventure

Blind since an accident at the age of seven, Nick Gleeson is an extraordinary Australian.  His passion for sport and adventure is inspiring and his record of achievement in these fields would be truly extraordinary even for a fully sighted person. Nick excelled at sport at school and university. He became a marathon runner and has competed in the New York marathon three times. He has represented Australia in athletics in the USA, the UK and Hong Kong and has represented Victoria in cricket. In 2002, Nick received the AG Society’s Spirit of Adventure for his climb of Mt Kilimanjaro with his expedition Blind Ambition. He has climbed beyond Everest base camp in has crossed the Simpson Desert on foot. In 2019 he made a solo traverse of a salt lake in South Australia which he undertook without the assistance of his constant companion, Unity, his dedicated seeing-eye dog.

Mal Leyland: Lifetime of Adventure

Along with his late brother Mike, Mal Leyland is an icon of Australian TV. During the 1970’s the fraternal pair became famous through a series of televised adventures such as Open Boat to Adventure, in which they sailed a small dinghy from Darwin to Sydney, Off the Beaten Track and the hugely popular weekly series Ask the Leyland Brothers which launched in 1976. In each episode, the two brothers, along with their wives and children in their signature kombi vans, explored locations suggested by viewers. The public sent them in search of lost monuments, rumoured migratory birds and ephemeral lakes.  The whole exercise was filmed and edited in the style of home video.

The British-born brothers were responsible for inspiring a generation of Australians to get out and explore their own country. Today, Mal is travelling alone – his beloved wife Laraine died in 2018. After almost 50 years of marriage, so much of it spent coated in dust on unsealed roads, Mal misses her terribly. He now travels in the relative luxury of a motorhome complete with solar panels, enough water to last him three weeks and a generator so he can edit his stories on the remotest of roads. At 75, he has started a new gig for Channel 10 as a travel reporter, but also hopes another Leyland series will be possible, fronted by him and daughter Carmen.

John Rumney Lifetime of Conservation

John Rumney is a true pioneer of ecotourism on the Great Barrier Reef and one of the region’s great characters.

His relationship with the reef began with commercial fishing, but after years spent diving and learning about this unique and fragile environment, he became increasingly aware of the negative effects of human activities. It led him to found the adventure, scientific research and dive vessel Undersea Explorer. Each trip offered free berths to reef researchers facilitating vital access to remote places across the GBR. He also established Eye to Eye Marine encounters research and tourism operation which also facilitates primary reef research through tourism partnerships. His endeavours have supported hundreds of researchers as well as raised the standards under which wildlife tourism and diving operates on the reef.

John has received many awards for his environmental leadership. He sits on countless boards and committees that have led to increased awareness and action to preserve the reef and is the Managing Director of Great Barrier Reef Legacy, a global leader in marine expeditions that accelerate actions vital to the future survival of coral reefs.