The Duke of Edinburgh’s adventurous spirit lives on

By AG STAFF 11 April 2021
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Vale Prince Philip. During his lifetime the Prince stewarded the Duke of Edinburgh adventure program, which celebrated six decades Down Under in 2019.

This year marks the 62nd anniversary in Australia of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. Adventure filmmaker and Australia’s first Gold Awardee Michael Dillon reflects on its personal and national impact.

Delayed by storms and flooding rivers, we reached the hilltop, exhausted, soaked and shivering and needed to phone our parents to say we were okay. A lady our mother’s age opened the door at the first house we came to. The sight of half-drowned boys affected her greatly and tears welled in her eyes. Weeping quietly, she ushered us in, went to a room, and emerged with warm clothes our size. We guessed she must have a son our age and he must be away. She treated us tenderly, as if we were her sons. But why were there still tears in her eyes? We later learnt she had indeed had a son our age, but he’d drowned in the river the year before.

Of all my schoolboy memories, this one burns brightest, closely followed by many others amassed while doing The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award.

When Everest was first climbed, Prince Philip, patron of that expedition, got together with the expedition leader, John Hunt, and the headmaster from his own schooldays, Kurt Hahn. Together they contrived a program to round off the education of teenagers. School, they agreed, was useful but it didn’t expose students to outdoor adventure, nor give them a taste of service to others.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award was born. At Bronze, Silver and Gold levels, participants would undertake physical challenges, develop new skills, provide service to others and go adventuring. Anyone aged 14–24 was eligible.

Antipodean beginnings

When it launched in Australia, a scouting qualification let me start at Silver Level, and by March 1963 I was the first Australian to qualify for the Gold Award. Perfect timing: the Royal Yacht Britannia was steaming into Sydney Harbour and word came that Prince Philip himself would present me with my Award.  

Groomed to within an inch of our lives, my parents, sister and I walked up the royal gangway, saluted by everyone in sight, and had a wonderful 20 minutes of family time with Prince Philip. He put us instantly at ease with a private recital of his latest one-liners. The Sydney Opera House was being built nearby and he said he hoped they’d got the engineering right, or else, at the first puff of wind, it might sail away. 

When Prince Philip asked what my favourite part of The Duke of Ed had been, I said the expeditions. My mates and I would take our bikes by train to Cooma and ride all over the Snowy Mountains, rucksacks on our back. Prince Philip encouraged me to do more such things and I did. I became an adventure filmmaker.

Years later I applied for a job with Sir Edmund Hillary, a hero of the expedition that had inspired the scheme. Saying I had my Gold Award might have helped, or simply having done it may have been enough; either way I got the job and remained Sir Edmund’s filmmaker for more than 25 years.

Duke of Ed taught us to invent our own adventures, and this helped me think up the idea of climbing Everest from sea level. The Australian Geographic Society backed the 1990 expedition that led to Tim Macartney-Snape making the first and never-yet-repeated climb of the entire 8848m of Everest.

These students at Barker College, NSW, completed three tough challenges for their Duke of Edinburgh Adventurous Journey – canyoning, abseiling and hiking.

Looking forward

Two years after I received my Award, Patricia Jeffreys, from Perth, became the first Australian girl to attain it. We were the first, but would we be the last? The Award, you see, was started here as an experiment to see if it would catch on.

Catch on? It’s thriving! 

At my old school, Sydney Grammar, 320 students are currently doing it, along with 40,000 Australia-wide every year. And although it might have started in private schools it is now spread evenly between private and state schools and embraced as well by the armed services, prisons and youth detention centres, disability organisations, refugee support programs, sporting associations, surf life-saving clubs, Police Citizens Youth Clubs,
universities and Indigenous organisations. It’s also operated online for unaffiliated individuals. 

Almost 800,000 Australians, an equal spread of males and females, now have Duke of Edinburgh Awards on their CVs. Employers increasingly take notice, for they know it makes a difference.

To me, the life of Sir Edmund Hillary seems to best embody the aims of The Duke of Ed. Put into the ‘hopeless squad’ in physical education at school, he took a school trip to the mountains, fell in love with the outdoors and blossomed. 

After Everest, imbued with the notion of service,
Sir Edmund asked his Sherpa friends what he could do for them, and they asked for a school. He built them one, and then built another 30. He built hospitals and bridges too, and found this more rewarding than his famous footprint on their mountain.

While Hillary’s ongoing impact on the people of the
Everest region has been immense, the Award’s impact on Australia continues to be even more so. Many millions of hours of volunteering have been done – almost a million per year: in nursing homes, hospitals, soup kitchens, childcare centres and animal shelters; for night patrols,
St John Ambulance, rural fire services, state emergency services; and in support of countless other fields including wildlife preservation and conservation projects. 

Many so love their volunteering that they keep doing it far beyond what’s needed for their Duke of Ed, and the same goes for new sports and skills first tried through doing the Award’s program. There are many, like me, where loves acquired along the way have fostered lifelong passions and careers.

Essentially, I guess, we keep on doing the Duke of Ed all our lives. I stayed enthused by the service side of the Award, spending time with Sir Edmund Hillary building schools, and seeing their impact. When friends and I felt it was time Australia helped carry on his work, we began the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

As for my favourite part of the Award, the expeditions (now called Adventurous Journeys), my filming has kept me involved. I’ve seen the Kokoda Track work its magic on groups of Aboriginal Australians doing their Duke of Ed, and filmed Christopher Harris, who amazed his supervisor by wanting to climb the highest peak on each continent by age 16. 

He did climb many of them but failed, just 1500m short on Everest, due to illness. Our hardest day was summitting Europe’s highest mountain, Mt Elbrus in Russia. We were totally exhausted when we got back down, and just before he fell into an exhausted sleep, I heard Christopher say, “I wish every day was just like today.” He’d learnt that the hardest of days are also the best of days.

I recall Christopher’s words, and my heart gladdens when I see young people challenging themselves on Duke of Ed hikes – out in the bush where otherwise they may never have ventured, relishing one another’s company, phones nowhere in sight, getting fit, soaking up the natural world, being nurtured by it and learning to love and protect it.

We are all part of a huge international community, for the Duke of Ed has spread to more than 130 countries and territories. Eight million young people have done it, with 1800-plus new ones starting daily. All will, like me, have treasured tales of it enriching their younger years and how it enriched entire lives.