Circumnavigating Australia for a Good Cause

Voluntourism– a trip that incorporates community service like building a school, cleaning up a river, tagging endangered species in the Great Barrier Reef–is a popular phrase in travel’s vernacular. But in the world of do-good tourism, there’s a new player in the game: the traveling philanthropist. Sailor, conservationist, and adventurer Robert Pennicott may not refer to himself as one, but his latest adventure– Follow the Yellow Boat Road— is travel philanthropy at its finest.

Pennicott is spreading awareness about polio and helping Rotary International raise funds to eradicate this disease by circumnavigating Australia on a small yellow boat. Pennicott and his crew departed Sydney on June 2nd and have about one month left in their more than 8,000-nautical-mile journey.

Pennicott set out on this trip to raise funds needed to eradicate polio. Just $10 vaccinates 17 children against this disease. He’s working with Rotary to raise the $39 million needed to reach their goal of $200 million by June 2012. Polio is still widespread in four countries (Nigeria, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.) Pennicott is determined to help Rotary wipe this disease from the face of the planet.

We sat down with Pennicott to learn more about this journey, his video blog and how people can donate to this cause:

Intelligent Travel: Voluntourism and travel philanthropy are growing in popularity among travelers. Why do you think this is a growing trend? How was your idea to circumnavigate Australia first conceived?

Robert Pennicott: When traveling, I think people want to have the opportunity to really immerse themselves in the local culture and lifestyle of a destination. Voluntourism and philanthropic endeavors allow them to live like locals and meet the everyday people in countries across the world. To me it makes sense– you have the opportunity to see somewhere new, meet some great people and actually give something back to a community.

The idea for the circumnavigation came to me after a holiday three years ago. I was coming back from Rottnest Island in a 16-foot, rigid inflatable boat, nearly identical to the boats we are using for the circumnavigation. We were caught out in some pretty rough weather and I was amazed at how the boat handled the rough seas. When I got back home I was chatting to a friend about the adventure and I put a question to him. “What do you reckon about going around Australia in an 18-foot dinghy?” I asked. He took a minute to think about the idea and replied with a smile, “anything is possible.”  And so the idea was born.

I want to have made a substantial difference to the world and always put a high importance on giving a portion of my profits away to charitable causes. I’ve set up my own foundation and have taken three months out of my business, away from my family, to hopefully raise a lot of money for polio eradication, and also for conservation. I love being on the water, I love sharing beautiful coastlines and wildlife with those who come on my boats. With my Follow the Yellow Boat Road journey I’m still able to do this through my video blog and raise awareness about two important issues at the same time.

Your journey to circumnavigate Australia will take you more than 8,000 nautical miles. Put that in perspective for our readers. How “big” of a journey is this and what was the scariest moment so far?

There is no doubt that this journey is huge – over 8,000 nautical miles. That’s about the same as a flight halfway around the world, from Sydney to New York. We’re doing that distance in an 18-foot boat, up against whatever Mother Nature throws at us.

We have gone through a lot of areas that are incredibly remote and not many boats pass through. Some of these waters are un-surveyed, or the conditions on the ocean floor have changed from what’s on the charts as a result of floods or cyclone damage. This is potentially quite dangerous and there have been times where we were caught in channels that were like a funnel, forcing us to keep going without even room to turn back. We had to hold our breath and hope that there wasn’t a sandbar up ahead.

There have been so many rewarding moments. The coastline of the Kimberley was especially impressive being so remote, so untouched and totally different to the waters surrounding my home in southern Tasmania. You feel like you have the place to yourself, with not a soul around you for miles.

You are originally from Tasmania and run ecotourism journeys to Bruny Island. Have you learned anything something new about Australia during this trip that surprised you?

I think the thing that has surprised me the most has been seeing the vast areas of land that is totally uninhabited by people. In the Kimberleys for example, there are thousands of miles of vast open spaces where there is not a single person to be seen.

As we travel along the coast, the scenery never stays the same for long. One minute we can be travelling through a luscious green forest, with waterfalls cascading from the cliffs. But this can change in just a few miles to arid, dry crags towering over red-stained earth. In the tropical waters of northern Australia we have had turtles, saltwater crocodiles and flying fish. As we travel south we are beginning to encounter migrating whales– humpbacks, southern rights and orcas.

We have also passed through some Aboriginal communities which have been home to caves housing stunning Aboriginal artwork, truly impressive to behold.

Followers of your journey can bid to travel legs of the journey on your boat with you. What will people experience on these journeys and do they have to be expert sailors to come along for the ride?

There are 48 legs of the journey open for the public to bid on. Each lucky winner will join us for the day, traveling anywhere from 65 to 130 miles.

We’ve had days where the sun is shining and it’s been millpond calm, but on others it can be blowing a gale and you get wet right down to your undies. This is all part of the adventure. Some days there’s been hundreds of fish leaping above the breaking waves. We’ve had whales surrounding the boats, breaching out of the water and putting on an impressive display.

The typical person who has come with us has been someone who is a bit adventurous. You have to have a reasonable level of fitness and be willing to put yourself in the elements.

Bid to travel with Robert Pennicott, and “follow” the Yellow Boat Road as Pennicott and crew circumnavigate Australia to raise funds to eradicate polio. To learn more about the cause and to donate, visit

Photos and video courtesy of Follow the Yellow Boat Road.


  1. Andrew Hennessy
    August 16, 2011, 10:12 pm

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your interest in the journey.

    So far the campaign has raised $146,700. Every cent of this goes towards Polio eradication and conservation. The trip is being funded by Robert Pennicott, at considerable cost to himself and his business, Pennicott Wilderness Journeys.

    There are three other major sponsors onboard – National Geographic Traveler, Rotary International and Telstra. These sponsors have assisted with promotion, logistics and communication for the journey. There have also been a number of other sponsors who have assisted with various elements, listed on the website

    Feel free to email me for more details if you like,


  2. Adrienne Charles
    Hobart Tasmania
    August 10, 2011, 3:32 am

    Great article. Such an adventure by three remarkable people. Well done and safe passage for the rest of the journey.

  3. Andy Tope
    August 10, 2011, 12:07 am

    Good going, sounds like a smashing bout of adventure.

    A little more on the philanthropy side or things, how much did it take to fund this trip, who exactly, if anyone, is sponsoring it? And how much money has been raised so far?

    Thanks, take me with you.