Operation Flinders

‘Every young person deserves
an opportunity to be the
best they can possibly be.’

Dec 21, 2020

Being a teenager has never been easy. In today’s world, it is much harder. The transition from childhood to adulthood today is a minefield. Young people are expected to act with maturity but are treated as children.

There has always been bullying, but now with nonstop exposure due to our advanced communication technology, there is cyberbullying with nowhere to hide. There are unhealthy and high expectations not to fail, their first real love and loss and puberty with the associated hormonal effects. All these things are what a ‘normal’ teenager has to face.

So imagine the added impact on an insecure and shy teenager of significant family dysfunction, including family members involved in the criminal justice system. Then add childhood trauma such as losing one or both parents, abuse in one or more forms, the availability of alcohol and illicit drugs on a still-developing brain and/or an anti-social peer group. When all this comes together, they can easily be on a path of self-destruction.

In 1991, Pam Murray-White, a retired army officer and teacher at Beafield, Adelaide, S.A., was dealing with students with challenging behaviour and she realised the outdoor elements of army life could have a positive effect on her students.

The first of what was to become known as ‘Operation Flinders’ exercises was conducted on Moolooloo Station, west of Blinman, S.A. in the northern Flinders Ranges with thirty-five participants. This has grown incredibly over the years. Last year, 2019, there were five-hundred participants spread out in ten to twelve teams for each of the six exercises.

“A perfect example of Walking for Peace. A 100km trek through the Desert does wonders to help our youth learn about themselves.”

These exercises are now conducted on a five-hundred and seventy square kilometre playground call Yankaninna, in the far northern Flinders Ranges.

It has everything. Mountains to climb, several creeks and the Frome River, all of which are usually dry but terrific to play in when there is water. There is also an abandoned copper mine and an abandoned homestead. And space, lots of space, and a night sky so bright with stars that you have shadows.

Kids at Mt Rose

Participants at the top of Mount Rose

Eight Days in The Desert

When the teams arrive, they are met by their team leader and assistant team leader on the side of a dirt track. The Leader and Assistant have a backpack for each participant containing the basics for the exercise, to which the participants add essential personal gear.

They then set out on the greatest adventure of their lives so far.

During the eight days they are in the desert, they hike approximately one-hundred kilometres, take part in abseiling, climb one or more mountains and learn about indigenous culture from an elder of the Adnyamathanha people who are the traditional owners of the land Yankaninna is on.

During the exercise, participants are assigned roles for the day with emphasis that these are training roles. The roles include team captain, navigator, cooks, hygiene officer and someone in charge of the fire under the tutelage of the Team Leader and assistant Team Leader.

Most importantly, along the way, they learn about themselves. 

Garmmon Creek
This is NOT a Boot Camp

Wilderness Therapy Program

Operation Flinders is not a ‘boot camp’. It is Wilderness Adventure Therapy program based around experiential education (learning by doing) and is run with the values of trust, respect, collaboration and engagement, integrity, courage, sustainability and fun.

Experiential learning on these exercises allows these young people a chance to expand their worldview, awaken self-awareness and build self-esteem. They also learn to value skill acquisition as any skill they gain enhances their quality of life no matter how small.

Simple things like lighting a fire and cooking a meal for a group to complex skills like navigation and leadership, all build self-confidence.

Does it work?

Yes. The program has been evaluated in 2001, 2003 and 2014 by the Flinders University College of Education, Psychology and Social Work and in 2014 they found that participants had:

  • Reduced short-term offending behaviour;
  • Increased self-control and reduced aggression;
  • Improved attitudes to authority figures;
  • Enhanced wellbeing or confidence;
  • Improved educational engagement;
  • Increased motivation to change and;
  • Reduced unexplained absences from school
heading to 13 mile creek
The Team Gives Them S.P.A.C.E.

Why Does It Work?

The Operation Flinders program works because it gives young people something that is lacking in their ‘normal’ life. Time and S.P.A.C.E. without judgement.

To these young people, eight days in the wilderness is way outside their comfort zones and it is an eternity! We have plenty of time.

S.P.A.C.E. is an acronym for:

Simplicity. Everything is reduced to basics. No phones, watches, or music devices. After four or five days in the wilderness, everything is reduced to basics.

Their circadian rhythm is set by sunrise and sunset. The world has contracted. Simplified. ‘How many kilometres will we do today?’ ‘Where will I sleep?’ ‘What will I eat?’ There is no homework, no school work and no judgement;

Purpose. This is one of the top four intrinsic motivators. We are profoundly motivated by purpose. Each morning, the team is briefed on what the day will bring.

Firstly, it reduces anxiety by ensuring everyone knows what is going to happen. Secondly, it gives purpose. The ‘ego’ may not like it, but the ‘superego’ does. It has a reason;

Adventure. It is exciting being in the ‘Stretch Zone’ not knowing exactly what the day will bring but looking forward to the unknown. Also, they are doing something that their peers back at school are not;

Community. Your ‘Trail family’. These are the people who have shared the hardships, the suffering (a relative term), and have seen the ‘real you’ yet still accept you and;

Exercise. After a week of doing what your body has evolved to do, i.e. walking, eating basically and drinking mainly water, you start to feel really good.

The Operation Flinders Foundation has been operating for thirty years now and continues to grow, learn and evolve and continues to offer hope to our greatest asset and resource, our youth.

More information can be found at:



The Operation Flinders program exemplifies the mental and physical health benefits anyone can gain by stripping away unnecessary pressures and focusing on what is really important in life. A perfect example of walking for peace.

by Peter Thomas

by Peter Thomas

Scouting Leader Trainer

A passionate outdoorsman, Peter is a Leader Trainer and Bushwalking Instructor on the National Training Team of Scouts Australia.

An avid walker and writer, Peter scribes a travel blog that includes many of his favourite walks in the Australian wilderness and his various adventures upon the Camino trails.

Keep an eye out for Peter when you come to Canberra for the Rotary Aussie Peace Walk. He'll be walking on the tracks with you.

You will find Peter’s blog at Lighten the Trip Fantastic.

'Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photographs. Kill nothing but time.'


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