Now a prominent figure in local outdoor adventure circles, Di Westaway now looks back over her lifetime and sees a significant portion of it as time spent indoors.
But that isn’t to say she wasn’t active during her youth, and spending the majority of her time inside had its own benefits. “I was a gymnast as a kid,” Di says. “It was probably a good thing for my skin because I wasn’t at the beach all the time like some of my friends.”
That may have been the extent of the benefits for Di who, at the age of 40, found herself in a bad place emotionally. As a working mother, she realised she now had a mental health issue to contend with.
“I think I knew instinctively that there was something about physical activity that helped – something about moving that was therapeutic,” Di says. “But it was only when I was invited to climb Aconcagua in Argentina that I had my life-changing moment. I thought:‘This is my medicine. This will save me’.”
The trip to South America sparked a yearning for similar experiences in Di that enabled her to find more energy in her day-to- day life. Her epiphany drove her to find the time to exercise and get outside, no matter how busy her schedule was.
“By bringing adventure back into my life and into my calendar, it motivated me to move and to squeeze exercise in to a degree I’d not done before. If I had a spare half hour, then that was an opportunity to get back out there.”
However, Di’s biggest accomplishment was yet to appear on the horizon. And like many achievements of its kind it has rather insignificant beginnings. For what has since become one of the largest walking events in the Southern Hemisphere, Coastrek began when Di decided to try and organise one of her adventures.
“One day I decided to put an ad in a local school newsletter, asking if anyone would join me in walking the Six Foot Track in the Blue Mountains. That simple act has since evolved into an annual event that’s already had 20,000 participants.”
Di recognised an opportunity in encouraging likeminded women to get out on the trails, regardless of whether it was to prepare for a trekking experience or not. Her business, Wild Women On Top (with Di in the position of ‘Chief Adventure Chick’) now hosts Coastrek events in Victoria and the Queensland on top of the original event in Sydney, with money raised going towards The Fred Hollows Foundation.
Of course, the Coastrek events are not exactly a walk in the park in their own rights, with Di recommending every participant undergo a basic training routine.
“We have a 12-week training in nature program. If they do the training as recommended then we see about a 98 per cent successful completion rate for each of our events,” she explains. “Not many sporting events based on an endurance activity can claim that.”
Nor can many claim to have raised around $20 million for the Fred Hollows Foundation. “The vehicle I use is trekking, but at its core it’s about developing an adventure mindset. Getting off the couch and into nature is good for mind, body and spirit, regardless of the outdoor activity you pursue.
“But what’s really important with these experiences is having a goal with a higher purpose,” she says. “It’s not just the exercise or the nature therapy – you need to know you’re doing something for someone else as well.”
And while Di pitches her offering as female- forward, it’s certainly not exclusively for women, nor was it ever intended as such. However, she believes her methods have always attracted for women simply because they don’t generally suit the way men prefer to experience adventure.
“When I first started my little hobby, I actively tried to entice both women and men. What I found was that men weren’t interested in training for treks,” she says. “On the other hand, the majority of adventure races were attracting 60-70 percent male participants.”
Hedging her bets with the Coastrek concept, Di set a rule to ensure that teams entering the event were at least 50 percent female, thereby reinforcing her intended ethos. “The result is that we have an outdoor challenge that women not only partake in, but they return with more friends the next year.”
“They truly enjoy being able to experience adventure in nature without being led by men or having to defer to a man, which I think is quite novel for many of the women who attend.”
With Wild Women On Top, Di has continued to push the boundaries in putting a spotlight on adventure therapy through trekking. Sometimes the attention comes easily, yet Di also recognises that, in a busy media environment, you sometimes need to go above and beyond to have your voice heard. Such is the case with her world record attempts for high-altitude handstands.
“It’s attention-seeking behaviour in a busy world where I need to be heard to get more women out into nature,” she explains. “It was also quite fun, on reflection, but also very hard.”
The plan was to complete a handstand on the summit of Ama Dablam in Nepal, for which Di had to acclimatise for five weeks, on top of the years of physical training she’d already accomplished. Then there was the trek itself.
“I had an amazing guide in Sherpa Tenzing, the weather was beautiful and there was practically no wind, so I had no excuse not to do it. The hardest thing was getting out of the tent at 11pm on summit night and feeling like death because of the altitude.
“The end result made all that pain worthwhile.”
Having a mid-life crisis did nothing to slow Di down, and her enthusiasm for life is almost tangible. Having built a name for herself in the adventure space, she’s begun spending more time thinking and writing about the nature and philosophy of adventure. Her current project is a new book, which is titled Lead an Adventurous Life You Love.
“I’ve been working on it for about a year now,” Di says. “With it, I hope to reach beyond the community who already know of my work and help them learn how to apply an adventure mindset in all aspects of their lives.
“Most people in adventure understand this concept inherently – it’s all about people, purpose and plans. No doubt most Wild readers already get it. When you combine good people with shared goals that challenge you to push beyond your comfort zone, and you take the necessary steps to achieve them, then you get success.”
For Di, it all comes back to sharing that spark that motivated her to get off the couch and lead a healthy, happy life.
This article originally appeared in Wild issue 157. Subscribe today to receive your copy.