RSL & Services Clubs

James Patrick Andrew Fitzsimmons April 2007

Adventurous Journey Section Reflection
RSL Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge

My challenge is to appreciate, honor and remember the ANZAC /Kokoda spirit by following in the footsteps of our heroes of the Kokoda track.

My passion to go to New Guinea and explore was sparked in primary school by magazines photos of ditched planes and watery graves of sunken ships left behind after the war. Dad told me stories when he and my uncle lived and worked in New Guinea. After learning a little about the history of the Kokoda trail my fate was sealed, I had to carve out my own path across the Owen Stanley ranges. The earlier the better if I am to bring the story alive since the track is constantly evolving and that small bit of Australian history disappearing like a jungle mist.

I came crashing back to reality when I realised I had no way of getting there. If God gave me just three wishes, one of my wishes would be to walk the Kokoda trail by the time I was 21 years old. I would forgo some self indulgent, perfect getaway to Hawaii just for the opportunity. Here in the solitude of the jungle, I felt I could solve the mystery of what makes me Australian.

After surviving my teenage years, most of my hopes had been shattered but somewhere deep down the dream still lived. I discovered the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award in 2007 and it challenged me to identify my dreams again and follow my heart where my true interests lie. I began scouring all sources for information on the Trail but soon learnt that with my resources alone, my dream wouldn’t be a reality, again! Then I stumbled upon the ‘RSL Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge’, NSW and after some enquiries, the Bentleigh RSL answered my prayers and graciously sponsored me. My Kokoda Trail odyssey had begun, at age 21.

The Bentleigh RSL had given me their full support at great cost and Jim Buchanan, the Bentleigh RSL manager at the time, who sadly passed away in 2009, personally paid for my expensive trekking boots. Unfortunately there was trouble with sizes and my size boots arrived the week before I departed which meant breaking them in on the trail. After a brief two hour walk from the Brisbane Airport to my in transit accommodation, where I rendezvoused with two Coffs Harbour trekkers, the heel of each of my feet were shredded with raw blisters the size of 50cent pieces. Not a good start. On the trail, I taped them up and every time we pushed on, my feet numbed to the pain after the first half hour of trekking.

During our initial briefing in Papua New Guinea, we were asked, why are you here? Why do you want to walk the Kokoda Trail? What do you hope to gain or lose? I was lost for words. I couldn’t give justice to the reasons why. Achieving this lifelong dream was going to change my life for the better and be a soul searching journey for us all about: healing and forgiveness, finding space to let go the past, and discovering our worth as Australians; knowing that we, ordinary Australians like our diggers in 1942 on the trail, can make a difference no matter what kind of trouble we have been through in our lives or are now facing. We are the captains of our own destiny, no matter the cost.

Deep inside the thick, dense rainforest wilderness, I met my greatest challenge; here we shed our blood, sweat and tears. On the morning of the fourth day, my health changed drastically. Overnight I didn’t sleep and was experiencing hot and cold flushes, dizziness, aching stomach, head and eyes. Giving up wasn’t an option. Our trek leader sent me and another disabled trekker down a short cut in the morning which the porters took, while the rest of the gang took a much longer, winding stretch of track to a site of significance. Fifteen minuets into the short cut I experienced severe diarrhea. I struggled to make it back to the track and fell in a heap.

I eventually mustered a little strength to open my eyes, see and stand. I asked a porter to put my back pack on for me because I couldn’t lift it and slowly toiled up the hill with tears in my eyes. I did it tough for the next two days and scarcely ate much food to combat the diarrhea. I had mostly recovered by the seventh day but by then had caught a cold due to long stretches of trekking in the cold pouring tropical rain. This is probably what it is like when the track is being hospitable, God only knows how those young Aussies of 42 felt after months of savage fighting in those tropical conditions with scarce resources.

Upon return, I delivered a power point presentation of my experience to the Bentleigh RSL members, highlighting the digger’s stories which we learnt tied in with our own journey along the track. It felt like preaching to the converted. When I said, “we started with 24 trekkers including some old blokes…” They asked, “how old?” When I answered, they strongly objected, “That’s not old!” Tough crowd… must work on my presentation skills.

I am sincerely thankful for everything Adventure Kokoda have done for me and especially for supplying a poster size map of the track as a presentation aid, free of charge, for me to plaster photos around with string linking each to a position on the track. This I greatly appreciated and put to good use. I still have it up in my room today to remind me each day that through courage, endurance, sacrifice and mateship you will succeed.

Some of the highlights from completing this grueling adventure are: having the Bentleigh RSL’s full sponsorship and support because without them this would not have been possible, being apart of a truly amazing journey with such an awesome group of young Aussies including Ali and his story of redemption covered by the brilliant ABC Compass crew, who accompanied us across the Owen Stanley ranges documenting each step, meeting in person the last of our faithful ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ of Papua New Guinea and passing on Australia’s sincerest thanks to them and having a friend point out to me in 2009 that they saw me at school in the Compass ‘Cronulla to Kokoda’ episode which was being used to educate them about what our diggers have done for us.

My future goals are to:
  • a project to see troubled Victorian youth given a fair go and opportunity to discover change in their lives by setting the Kokoda track as a worthy challenge for themselves by participating in the ‘RSL Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge’. This will only be possible through the support of local communities and RSL’s across Victoria.
  • Walk the trail again, this time starting from the southern end.

The adventurous journey section of the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award has helped me to fulfill a lifelong dream by walking in our digger’s foot steps and to piece together their adventure and discover first hand about the perilous conditions, heroic ANZAC stories and this great Australian spirit. Most importantly, I will remember, cobber.