Picture of Robert Pennicott in Tasmania

Tasmanian tour operator Robert Pennicott led the first-ever circumnavigation of Australia by rubber dinghy to raise money—and awareness—for conservation and polio eradication.

Photograph by Palani Mohan

Deep sea caves, towering cliffs, migrating whales: Tasmania’s rugged beauty sets the perfect stage for ecotourism and creates the ideal platform for philanthropy, as one fearless fund-raiser sees it.

Tour operator Robert Pennicott is proud of his custom-built yellow boats, which ply the pristine waters of Bruny and Tasman Islands. But the 47-year-old former fisherman is prouder still of the coastal conservation fund he co-founded in 2007; in its first year, it saved some 50,000 seabirds from the depredations of feral cats. That initial success turned the founder of Pennicott Wilderness Journeys into a daringly innovative philanthropist.

In 2011, he launched a charitable foundation and led the first-ever circumnavigation of Australia by rubber dinghy to raise money for conservation and polio eradication. The journey took 101 days, raised nearly $300,000 for polio vaccinations, and proved that clever risks can produce great rewards.

“When I die, I want to have made a difference in the world,” says Pennicott, who dedicates at least a quarter (and up to 85 percent, some years) of his annual profits to conservation and humanitarian issues.

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: Why is travel important?

Robert Pennicott: Travel lets us experience the world. It lets us discover new places, try new things, and experience different cultures. Thank goodness the world isn’t flat!

NGT: Can you point to one trip or experience that ignited your curiosity about the world?

RP: The day Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.

NGT: What inspired you to travel in the way that has resulted in your being chosen as a Traveler of the Year?

RP: When I die I want to have made a difference to the world. I chose to use travel as a way to bring attention to the global fight to eradicate polio because I knew I could capture people’s imaginations. During my 101-day and 12,000-mile journey around Australia I maintained a daily video blog, which allowed people to follow me every step of the way.

NGT: Who is your hero and why?

RP: Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to conquer Mount Everest. It was such a feat of bravery and human achievement.

NGT: Do you have a personal motto or mantra that embodies your approach to life and travel?

RP: Live your dreams and don’t take no for an answer. Anything is possible; the hardest part is starting.

NGT: What do you never leave home without when you travel?

RP: A photo of my family: my wife, Michaye; my three children, Georgina, Mia, and Noah; and Splash the wonder dog.

NGT: Do you have a favorite travel book or film?

RP: The 1937 film Captains Courageous. I remember crying my eyes out, I guess it’s a little too close to my heart.

NGT: What was your most surprising food experience on your travels?

RP: Sitting in a 17-foot rubber dinghy, eating canned tuna while thousands of large tuna were leaping all around my ears, off the coast of the Kimberley on the northwest coast of Australia.

NGT: Who is the most memorable person you’ve met while traveling?

RP: I was absolutely humbled by the children I met in the Pacific Islands. Despite having very little material possessions they have endless energy and enthusiasm.

NGT: Name three places that you’d like to visit before you die and why.

RP: Antarctica for its remoteness, landscapes, and wildlife. The Amazon, to experience the heart of the rain forest and find a way to conserve and protect it. Russia—in the last few years there are a number of areas that have opened up to visitors, such as Kamchatka.

NGT: What's one place you’ve been to that you think everyone should visit?

RP: Tasmania. It’s a beautiful island known for its pristine wilderness, beautiful coastlines, fresh produce, fine wine, culture, and history. It’s my home, and I absolutely love it.

NGT: What’s next?

RP: I would like to visit Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria—the last three countries where polio remains endemic—to assist with frontline vaccination programs. I look forward to the day when polio is wiped out forever. It will be a good feeling to know I was a part of it.

>> Read the Next Traveler of the Year Interview

Introducing the 2014 Travelers of the Year

National Geographic Traveler celebrates individuals who travel with passion and purpose, have an exceptional story to tell, and represent a style of travel, motivation, or method that can inform and inspire us all. Discovery is the destination for these travelers, who are driven by curiosity and transported by passion to overcome any obstacle along the way. On Traveler’s 30th anniversary, our third annual list proves that there’s no barrier to entry for anyone on a mission to embrace the world and bring about positive change. Get to know the honorees in photos and interviews.

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