Volunteer hiker, musician and refugee lawyer: Tristan Harley

09 Apr 2024
Tristan and the Emu Trekkers

How a passion for the outdoors turned into a not-for-profit hiking tour operator.

Dr Tristan Harley, Senior Research Associate at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, has always approached life by trying new things and reinventing himself in different ways.

Traveling overseas with his wife in 2016, they encountered an organisation in Guatemala and Nicaragua called Quetzaltrekkers that offered hiking tours, run by volunteers with all proceeds raised donated to support various children’s charities.

Tristan with wife Rutty on an Emu Trekkers trip.

“I was so inspired by this model and how we can do better things in the world. Being on holidays is really fertile ground for thinking about the way you can do your own life differently,” Tristan says.

“I wondered if a model like this already existed and if it could work in Australia,” 

Tristan commenced his PhD at UNSW, which explored how refuges can more meaningfully be included in decision-making processes that affect them. Alongside it he set up the not-for-profit tour organisation, Emu Trekkers, offering authentic, eco-friendly hiking adventures around Sydney and the Blue Mountains. All the proceeds support charities to help kids in need, such as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and UNICEF.

“Before COVID, we were managing over 50 volunteers and running four hikes per week. On average we were taking over 1000 people into the bush each year. In 2019, Emu Trekkers was awarded Gold for Best Adventure Tour Operator in NSW at the NSW Tourism Awards, an achievement we are really proud of. 

“Thankfully one of the great things about this model is that we have been able to bring it back to life post COVID. We have such a wonderful group of volunteers with their unique talents and skills. We have volunteers from all walks of life guiding our tours, writing trip notes, preparing safety plans, helping with marketing and events. We are so privileged to benefit from the resources of so many, it’s really enriched our organisation.” 

Tristan finds running this organisation complements his work in academia. Having to be more efficient with his time has helped him manage his workload. It uses different parts of his brain and he likes that one component is indoors and the other more outdoors.   

Entertaining colleagues with lunchtime music performances 

Another one of Tristan’s hidden talents is his love of music.

“My Mum was a music teacher so I’ve always had a passion for music. Growing up my Mum would be teaching piano at home so I’d always be listening to music and it was such a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to that type of learning environment at home,” he says.

“When I first started working in a law firm, I negotiated to work four days a week so I could work part time as a musician. It took some convincing as this was not normal practice in the way they operated.”

Tristan has worked part time performing jazz and Cuban music primarily playing the trumpet. He loves the freedom that comes from having music as part of his life. His love of performing also sees him giving lunchtime performances to his colleagues on campus.

What might surprise your colleagues about you?

I think the music and the hiking may surprise some people.

What's the best advice you ever received?

To always imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still guides how I do research today and how I think about the world.

What is one thing that makes you happy?

Bike riding with the family. I love to go bikepacking, where I put the children on the bike with the panniers and take them out into the bush camping. It’s a great way to expose them to the outdoors.

What day in your life would you like to relive?

Probably Christmas Day when I was five years old. Just never quite been the same since.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched in the last year?

I think the Matilda’s at the World Cup. There was something beautiful about seeing everyone come together in relation to female sports. I think that was quite powerful.

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