Man who filmed Hillary helps rebuild Nepal

Filmmaker Michael Dillion and his church raise +$50,000 for nation after devastating earthquake

Robyn Leeder and Michael Dillion

By Stephen Cauchi

April 12 2017Famed Mt Everest documentary maker Michael Dillon and his church, St Mary’s Anglican in Woodend, have raised over $50,000 for Nepal following the devastating 2015 earthquake.

Mr Dillon, who filmed Sir Edmund Hillary’s mountain adventures as well as the first Australian ascent of Mt Everest in 1984, raised the money with his wife Robyn by organising screenings of his documentaries.

The money was used to build three classrooms in the Nepalese village of Himaganga, while a knitting operation conducted by St Mary’s resulted in over 100 kilograms of beanies, rugs and jumpers being shipped to children in the villages of Sotang, Phaplu and Bung.

And a visit by the couple to Himaganga in November was rapturously received by local Nepalese.

The April 2015 earthquake, which killed nearly 90,000 and left 250,000 homeless out of a population of 26 million, was Nepal’s worst natural disaster since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake. The quake triggered an avalanche on Mt Everest that killed 21, the deadliest such incident on the mountain.

“We were fairly shocked that it happened but everyone we knew said that something like this was going to happen,” said Mr Dillon, 71. “They have a big earthquake every 80 years and it was a bit overdue. In fact what was amazing was that more people were not killed.”

Fortunately, the quake happened on a Saturday when children were not at school, he said. However, many homes were destroyed in a country where very few people have insurance.

“I thought, well, what can we personally do and I thought of my (1992) film, Everest: Sea to Summit. I thought, we’ll just hire halls around where we live and show the film to raise money for Nepal. We raised in the end about $50,000 through the screenings.”

Mr Dillon’s award-winning film depicts the 1990 Mt Everest climb of Australian mountaineer Tim Macartney-Snape. That climb was notable because Mr Macartney-Snape climbed Mt Everest from sea level – and the nearest sea was India’s Bay of Bengal, 1200 kilometres away.

Mr Macartney-Snape also made the climb solo, unsupported, and without bottled oxygen.

A week after the earthquake, the film was shown at St Mary’s – to great response. “We couldn’t believe it – the hall was so packed we ended up having to go to the Uniting Church for chairs,” said Mr Dillon’s wife, Robyn Leeder, 62. “It was amazing. I think we had almost 200 people. We raised nearly $6000 that first night. We thought, this is working – we’ll do some more.”

The film was then shown at Kyneton’s Anglican church, followed by screenings at Trentham and Gisborne. Screenings in New South Wales followed at Orange and Mount Victoria and in Sydney at Croydon and St James Anglican church in the city.

The knitting operation, said Mr Dillon, was co-ordinated by the ladies of the St Mary’s Anglican Church Guild. Knitters from Woodend, the Macedon Ranges, Wangaratta, and further afield donated over 100 kilograms of handmade items, including 750 beanies, 150 rugs and over 80 jumpers – not a bad result given the initial target was 40 beanies.

“Once a month in the winter the ladies at St Mary’s have soup and bread and sit and chat and knit,” said Ms Leeder. “One of the organisers of that said to us one day, we’d really love to knit for Nepal – could you use some rugs and things. That’s how the knitting thing started.”

The knitting and the money were shipped to Nepal last year. In the case of the knitting, it was sent over 12 kilograms at a time with friends of Mr Dillion who were going to Nepal.

Nepalese children wearing knitting donated by St Mary's

Mr Dillon said the money and knitting were given to Dr Jangmoo Sherpa and her husband Lakpa, who ran a successful and reputable non-government aid agency in Kathmandu that knew where best to distribute any aid.

After the classrooms had been built and the knitting distributed, Mr Dillon and Ms Leeder paid a two-week visit to Nepal in November.

The classrooms were built in Himaganga, in remote Ramechhap district. It was the second time money donated by the couple had been used to build classrooms in the village, the first being 2013.

“We were the only Europeans to have ever been to the village in 2013 so it was quite overwhelming for them and for us, really,” said Ms Leeder.

Their November visit was no less overwhelming. About a thousand locals turned out to welcome the convoy of jeeps carrying the couple. “There was a band that played and trumpeted us in,” said Ms Leeder. “Pretty much everyone who was there had flower wreaths which they were putting on us. As we were walking in we were basically being covered in wreaths of marigolds, to the degree that people would come in and take them off so that more people could put them on.

“I had to take my glasses off because I thought they were going to get broken – everyone was so excitedly enthusiastic. We had the kids doing dances, we had speeches and we had some ribbons cut.

“We had a look at one of the classrooms and one of the teachers gave a powerpoint presentation.”

The classrooms – while basic – are clean, neat, are built on a sturdy concrete slab (as opposed to a dirt floor), have masonry walls, corrugated iron roofs and glass windows.

And they are earthquake resistant. The 2013 classrooms were still standing whereas the “extremely ramshackle” government classrooms had collapsed.

About 60 homes had been destroyed in Himaganga in the earthquake, said Ms Leeder, and as far as she knew, people in the village had been killed as a result. “There were a lot of houses that still had half their walls missing. Many of the houses are masonry, so they’re deadly if they fall down. Also, it’s so steep and there’s monsoons and landslides.”

Although the couple were not able to visit the villages where the knitting was distributed – and all three are in a particularly chilly part of Nepal – the photos said it all, she said.

“You can tell by the looks on their faces. You can see the excitement in their eyes.”

Many poor Nepalese are still living in temporary shelters – which are very cold in winter – following the earthquake, she said.

Mr Dillon said he had made around 30 trips to Nepal and his wife, six. He said he was originally attracted to the country’s scenery, but “like most people, I find the best thing about Nepal ends up being the people”.

He filmed Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who in 1953 first climbed Mt Everest, for 25 years – covering Sir Edmund’s work in building Nepalese schools as well as his mountaineering.

Mr Dillon is heavily involved in Himalayan aid projects and was a founding director of the Australian Himalayan Foundation, which aims to raise money for those living in remote areas of the Himalayas.

After living in Sydney for many years, the couple moved to Woodend three years ago. “We wanted to join a local church and there’s a great spiritual community here,” said Ms Leeder. “We’ve become quite involved.”