A man on a mission, a grandfather creating a legacy, a painter, a nature-lover and an environmental warrior; meet Richard Van Pijlen, the Dutch-born Australian, walking from Sydney to Perth, raising money for Landcare Australia to plant one million trees.

Richard Van Pijlen began his journey across the country, stepping off from Sydney’s northern beaches on Monday, May 2, and passing through Sale on Tuesday, June 21.

It all started eight months ago when the 68-year-old Sydney painter and his partner Debbie Tennant watched a documentary about the diminishing existence of the native Australian Koala.

“I was watching a program probably about eight months ago, about the Northern Rivers and the Koala corridor,” Mr Van Pijlen said.

“I was watching it with my partner, and she was just crying, and I just felt so,” a deep sigh finishing his sentence.

“So I said, you know what, I am just going to do something about it instead of sitting on my hands.

“I’ve got eight grandchildren; instead of complaining, I just want to make a difference and plant trees.

“So, I am walking from Sydney to Perth to raise money for Landcare Australia to plant one million trees.”

Australia’s koala population is on life support after torrential rains yielded horrific floods and the cataclysmic 2019/20 bushfires that incinerated 338,000 square kilometres along the east coast, the size of Sale nearly 7350 times over, in which 61,000 koalas perished.

The ACT, NSW, and QLD declared koalas an endangered species in February 2022, dismissing the Australian Koala Foundation’s (AKF) arguments for the species to be classed as endangered in every state.

Mr Van Pijlen knew that with the AKF estimating less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild, possibly as few as 43,000, without immediate intervention, the iconic Australian native mammal will soon be extinct.

Richard Van Pijlen, the man walking from Sydney to Perth raising money for Landcare Australia.
Richard Van Pijlen, the man walking from Sydney to Perth raising money for Landcare Australia, stopped in Sale.Photo: Zoe Askew

“I want to leave a legacy behind for the grandchildren,” Mr Van Pijlen said.

“I have been painting for over 50 years, and I am nearly retired, and I felt like instead of being at home, I just want to make a difference.

“I have always had a passion for bush regeneration and gardening. It’s always been there from a very young age, and I love adventure as well.”

In his endeavour to raise enough money for one million trees, Mr Van Pijlen has received praise from Landcare Australia CEO Dr Shane Norrish.

“This fantastic initiative by Mr van Pijlen shows just how passionate Australians are about Landcare and bush regeneration, especially following the Black Summer Bushfires and recent floods,” Dr Norrish said.

“Planting native trees and shrubs not only helps to restore valuable natural assets and native habitat, but it also benefits local communities by having a positive impact on mental and physical health. It’s a win-win.”

So far, the 68-year-old has walked more than 900 kilometres along Australia’s east coast in a journey that hasn’t been without its challenges.

“I have been on the road for about seven weeks,” Mr Van Pijlen said.

“I’ve slept in bus shelters, picnic tables, out the front of churches; I really have slept in all sorts of places.”

“Sometimes, when it has been really rough, I just go into a motel, clean up and reorganise.”

The night before reaching Sale, Mr Van Pijlen slept on a shrub in the bush between Bairnsdale and Sale, laughing as he said, “it was a rough night”.

Even if a shrub in the middle of a bush is not the ideal destination to sleep, it was still preferable to the night he spent in Genoa, which, according to Mr Van Pijlen, was the most brutal night on his journey to date.

“Just before I got to Cann River, I was in this place called Genoa. Oh my god, it is a very small town,” said Mr Van Pijlen.

“I sort of got there, and there was only like one street light, and I said to myself, ‘oh Lord, what am I going to do?’

“Then it started to rain, so I started walking a bit, and cause it only has the one street light there, it kind of looked like one of those cardboard towns, you know, like the wild west, or a scary movie, really that’s what it looked like.

“Then I saw this bus shelter, and I thought, well, at least I’ve got shelter.

“So I put my tarpaulin down in the bus shelter and put my sleeping bag up there,” he explained theatrically.

“And I went to sleep. It was absolutely freezing; it was below zero.

“I woke up in the morning, and everything was frozen. My whole trolley was frozen, and everything was white.

“So I packed up as early as I could, as soon as there was daylight, and I started walking to Cann River.

“I walked the whole day. I think it was 48 kilometres or something, up and down hills. So that was a very, very tough day.”

The trolley holds the necessities for Richard Van Pijlen as he walks across Australia. Photo Zoe Askew

With sights sets on Melbourne, where he will meet his partner Ms Tennant to celebrate his 69th birthday on July 7, Mr Van Pijlen said goodbye to Sale and continued “Freeway Ricardo”.

“Freeway Ricardo” is the name for Mr Van Pijlen’s cross-country journey, which he feels perfectly represents “the whole post-COVID freedom feeling” and acknowledges his Dutch heritage; Ricardo being the European version of Richard.

Mr Van Pijlen migrated from Holland when he was 25 in the Christmas of 1979.

You can follow Richard Van Pijlen on his journey from Sydney to Perth on Instagram, @freewayricardo.

If you want to donate to the cause and help Mr Van Pijlen plant one million trees to prevent Koalas from extinction, head to https://www.gofundme.com/f/walking-syd-perth-and-planting-1000000-trees?utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer