RSL & Services Clubs

Olivia Pratley October 2009

MY KOKODA EXPERIENCE AND HOW IT HAS CHANGED MY LIFE

At the beginning of 2009 I applied to participate in a ClubsNSW Youth Leadership Challenge to trek the Kokoda Trail.
It was towards the end of April when I received a phone call, from Jeremy Bath, asking me to attend an interview. I had been one of nine chosen from over five hundred applications for NSW.
Half way through July, I received another phone call, again from Jeremy, telling me that out of the nine interviews I was one of five selected to trek the Kokoda Trail.
Overwhelmed with excitement from the fantastic news, I called everyone I knew to tell them of my achievement; however this was only the beginning.
I soon realised that I had a little over seven weeks to prepare and train for this arduous trek.
I joined my local 5 Star Fitness gym and began my intense training every day for the seven weeks.
When my local RSL club discovered I had been selected for this amazing experience, they invited me up for a meeting, to see what they could do to help me complete the trek.
I was surprised when the Kempsey Sub-Branch President Terry Hunt and Kempsey RSL Club President Darrell Crilley assisted with funds. This was an amazing gift of generosity which helped purchase various necessary items for the trek.
It was September 27th when I was saying my goodbyes to my family and friends, and saying hello to all the new people I was meeting, these where the people I would be trekking with. Each of them had also been selected from their states or local RSL club to participate in the Challenge.
We arrived in Papua New Guinea on the 28th of September, it was hot and humid. Not one of us knew exactly what we were in for.
That night we met our trek leader John Nalder who briefed us with his insight about the track. We then packed our backpacks.
The ten day trek across the Owen Stanley Ranges, was a once in a lifetime opportunity in which I was able to walk in the footsteps of my Great Grandfather and many other Australian soldiers.
My Great Grandfather, Keith Charles Judd and his brother, were among those who fought for our freedom at Kokoda and survived.
This close connection to the land I was walking across had a significant impact on me emotionally.
Although I was prepared physically for this trek there is nothing that could of prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster I was about to endure.
Reading about World War 2 and studying it in class is one thing, actually being in the same place in which it happened is a completely different feeling. It was through this that I was able to grasp the emotion that it entailed.
It was at the end of Day 2 on the Track when we set up camp at the Isurava Memorial. At this memorial stand four pillars, labelled COURAGE, ENDURANCE, MATESHIP and SACRIFICE. I believe that these four words completely reflect the hardship that the Australian soldiers and the Papuans went through. We were asked to stand next to the pillar which meant the most to us. I stood next to COURAGE.
Talking about the typical young Australian fighting on the Kokoda Track, historian WB Russell said,
Whenever men speak of COURAGE,
Whenever men speak of SACRIFICE,
HE will be remembered,
His name ever an inspiration and a challenge.
On the Track I gained a greater appreciation and understanding of the Kokoda Campaign. I learnt that it is important for Australians to know their history. It is important for the spirit of Kokoda to live. And it IS important to remember.
I discovered a sense of self belief, I learnt that I do not need the acceptance of others; I need to accept myself, and believe in myself. I learnt not to let others bring me down, and not to take anything for granted, especially my life.
Finishing the trek on the 9th of October and upon returning to Australia on the 10th, was when the whole experience hit home, I then realised the significant impact it not only had on me, but my whole family.
I believe that through my experience of trekking the Kokoda trail, I have in a sense filled the gap between the generations. I am able to understand more so of the circumstances our soldiers were in during the Kokoda campaign. Therefore I can share my understanding along with their personal experience.
I have come to realise that my Kokoda experience did not end on the 9th October 2009. It is one that will never end because of the life lessons I have learnt on the Track. They are with me every second of every day. And the importance of these lessons is known as I share them with my family, my friends and the wider community. One of the biggest life lessons I gained was, “have big dreams, and don’t be afraid of hard work”. This is and will be the inspiration in everything I do.
Recently I had the pleasure of marching in the Kempsey ANZAC service in honour of my great grandfather. In light of my Kokoda experience this made it a very emotional day. Through my involvement and participation in the day’s commemorations I had the opportunity to join the luncheon at Kempsey RSL and speak with many ex service men, women, their relative friends and family, and other significant members of the community.
One moment moved me in particular, I found myself seated alongside relatives of a local fallen soldier of the Kokoda campaign. Before my trek of the Kokoda trail Kempsey RSL had given me a book called Streets of Honour, this was The Macleay Valley’s tribute to its silent heroes. Along with this book they gave me some poppies, and marked the pages of the soldiers who were buried at Bomana War Cemetery in Papua New Guinea. They then asked me to place the poppies on their graves. The relative whom I was seated near was the niece of Frank Richard Archibald of the 2/2 Aust. Infantry Battalion A.I.F. a young man from Kempsey’s Aboriginal community, who paid the supreme sacrifice in New Guinea after surviving action in the Middle East, Greece and Crete. Frank lies buried at the Bomana War Cemetery, and I had placed a poppy on his grave on behalf of our community. This immediate connection with Frank’s close relatives and their grandchildren was not only touching it was another moment of bringing together non-indigenous and indigenous as we found ourselves in tears. To think my experience has now had a significant impact on their family is amazing.
ANZAC day in its self was incredible to see how much I have enriched my life within the local community, through my journey of Kokoda.
I find myself everyday keeping the spirit of Kokoda alive, through the telling and retelling of my experience, along with the significance of our history, to the local community and schools. In recent times I was asked to return to my primary school and give a presentation about my journey, as the senior classes were studying Papua New Guinea and its history. The gratification I gain from the thought that I am helping to pass on forgotten history and its importance is the most amazing feeling.