Welcome back to Meet the Merinoers. This is a series featuring our merino-loving friends and customers and gives you a bit of a glimpse into their adventures.
Today, meet Elisha Donkin. Elisha is Aussie traveller behind the blog Beyond Wild Places. We'll be digging deep into her story, finding out how she got started, and how she inspires us all to get outside more often.
Ottie Merino (OM): What got you into hiking and when?
Elisha Donkin (ED): My mum has been into bushwalking since I was little, and I have memories of being dragged on family day hikes around Victoria every year for Mother's Day. I never really enjoyed it and wondered who would do this kind of activity for fun!
For some reason it must have rubbed off, because when I headed off to travel across Africa in 2014, I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m still not sure why I felt enticed to do it, but I did, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
OM: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is quite the apprenticeship!
You did your first solo hike in 2018—the mighty 223km long Larapinta Trail in NT. Can you tell us more about this experience? What made you decide to take that leap?
ED: It was also my first overnight hike carrying all my own gear, so I still look back and think it might have been a little crazy to go and hike for two weeks in the desert with little experience! But, I’m a pretty determined person and when I set my mind on doing something I tend to get it done no matter what.
My mum had done it a couple of years before with a group, so for some reason it was an idea that had been planted in my mind. I never really questioned my own decision to do it solo, but up until that point I had travelled overseas quite a bit alone, so I didn’t see it as too much of a huge leap.
OM: Your mum sounds like an encouraging force in your life, which is great.
What's your most favourite hiking destination to date, and why?
ED: This is really tough! I’d have to say Nepal is one of my favourite destinations and I dream of going back again often. Anywhere in the Himalayas is an absolute hiker’s paradise.
But I must admit, Australia is definitely one of the best hiking destinations in the world. We have such a diverse landscape here, you can experience almost every type of condition from the alpine region to the desert.
OM: As a solo female traveller, what would you say are the toughest challenges as a woman and how did you conquer them?
ED: I think the toughest part is simply overcoming the stigma and assumption that women are not as capable or at more of a safety risk than men. I’m often met with others telling me I shouldn’t do something alone or that they’re not sure how I’m strong enough to carry a pack. It blows my mind that these stereotypes still exist.
I’ve never really listened when people tell me I can’t do something because I’m a woman. I tend to use it as more motivation to simply prove people wrong. I also see it as a good reason to continue going out there alone, because I see more and more women are doing it too, and it all only helps change the narrative.
OM: Love it! Well, reality is 50% of our customers are women. When we started Ottie Merino we knew that this would be the case and have worked hard to ensure we're creating a product for both men and women (and any other gender or non-gender). 'Shrink it, pink it' is really common in the outdoor gear space which I guess traces back to that stigma.
You've recently conquered Australia's longest hiking trail—the Heysen Trail. (A track I'm quite familiar with as an ex-Adelaidian section hiker.) How did you prepare yourself for this 55-day journey?
ED: Admittedly, I didn’t do a lot of preparation or training. I bought the maps from Friends of the Heysen Trail [disclosure: Ottie Merino has sponsored several issues of their great magazine, The Trailwalker] to help with basic planning. I developed a rough itinerary and decided to have nine food drops during my two month walk. Most of my preparation comprised of putting the boxes together with freeze dried meals and snacks and upgrading some of my hiking gear to lighter weight options.
I tried to walk about 10km a day for two months before starting, but I didn’t do any major training hikes. I wasn’t too concerned about my fitness, but I just tried to walk every day to get my body used to being on my feet continuously.
OM: Whopping effort, Elisha. Really enjoyed following along on your Instagram Stories. (For those reading this, here's a link to the highlights on Instagram.)
So, over to gear. What are your top 3 fav pieces of hiking gear?
ED: My favourite hiking gear changes depending on the day you ask me! But for the Heysen Trail I made a few new investments that I was really happy with, including the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent and Sawyer Squeeze water filter. Also, my JetBoil has been great over many years of adventures, I don’t think I could ever be converted to cold soaking my food!
OM: Ah, you're team JetBoil, aye? I've been a rusted on Trangia user for yonks but time has come to replace it. Maybe time to jump ship?
So, gear still. Merino. Why? :)
ED: I discovered merino for the first time seven years ago. My mum came to visit while I was in Turkey back in 2015 and we did a five-day section of the Lycian Way. She wore the same merino wool tee the entire hike and I couldn’t believe that all she did was air it out each night and it still didn’t smell after five days.
Since then, I knew I wanted one and after trying a couple of different brands over the years, I’ve been absolutely stoked with my Ottie t-shirt. I wore it for basically all 55 days of the Heysen Trail and only washed it seven times. It’s just the perfect t-shirt for multi-day adventures—never smells, dries quickly, super comfy, and the relaxed long fit means it never rides up while wearing a backpack.
OM: 55 days. Washed only 7 times. That's 7.8 days between washes. That's a great effort and really good to hear the tee stood up to the long hike. Elena from Hiking Hacks recently did the Bibbulmun in hers and tells a similar story.
What advice do you have for women who aspire to embark on their hiking journey?
ED: It’s a little cliché, but I would say just get out there and do it. You only really learn from doing and real-life experiences are what will help you gain confidence, so you really need to get out there and just give it a try. It doesn’t have to be a huge adventure either, I always tell people to start small and just do whatever is within their comfort zone to start with, even if that’s a short local trail.
But if you’re still really intimidated or not sure where to start, reaching out to other women who are into hiking can also help. I love when people reach out either on social media or through my blog to ask for advice or trail recommendations. I just want to see more people getting outdoors!