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Forgetting First World problems at Kokoda

May 1, 2013

Recently I was fortunate enough to spend the 8 days leading up to ANZAC Day in Papua New Guinea. Along with my business partner, Stuart McLeod, and 6 other friends and acquaintances, we re-traced the steps of our heroic forefathers along the infamous Kokoda Track. Commencing at Kokoda Village deep in the Owen Stanley Ranges, the Kokoda Track winds for 96 gruelling kilometres through some of the most inhospitable jungle terrain in the world, ending at Owers Corner, a couple of hours outside Port Moresby. Our 8 day trek, up and down steep inclines, through flooded rivers and ankle deep mud, in extremely humid, wet conditions, exposed us to the very conditions the PNG jungle is known for.

The key objective for me in undertaking the trek was to gain a better understanding of the key World War 2 battles that our brave soldiers engaged in against the Japanese, an interest sparked several years ago after reading some of the Kokoda history. In addition to this, I was keen to take myself well outside my comfort zone in regard to physically and mentally challenging myself, in an extreme environment. Finally, the trek enabled me to form strong relationships with my fellow trekkers, and gain an understanding of life ‘PNG style’.

While the trek certainly assisted me in achieving all of my objectives, since I returned it’s probably that last point that has resonated with me the most. The tribal people of PNG lead very simple lives, in villages accessible only by foot hours from anywhere, with limited food supplies, no electricity, TV or refrigeration, and other than passing trekkers, little contact with the outside world. It was probably only a day into the trek before we realised that we’d really immersed ourselves in their lives. Mobile phones were switched off, normal food items became a mere craving, all we had were ourselves, our small group of trekkers, and the packs on our back. Some might find that prospect unappealing. Let me assure you this was no holiday, the physical aspect of it was incredibly gruelling, particularly after a poor nights sleep every night on hard ground, and a 5am wake up call every morning…usually from a rooster.

Surprisingly though, of any ‘holiday’ I’ve had in the last 10 years, this more than any allowed me to clear my head, switch off from problems in the outside world, and totally enjoy my surroundings. No contact with families, no mobile phones or email, no doom or gloom from around the world. This was one sure way to recharge the batteries. It probably wasn’t until several days after I returned home that  began to appreciate this more. It doesn’t take long for one to re-immerse themselves into the every day life that they’re used to – business, family, sport to name but a few. After a couple of days, while I was enjoying some of the luxuries of home, I yearned for some of the more simple things that PNG had to offer – a chance to clear the mind, the smiling faces of the children in the villages, little focus on the outside world, and no hustle and bustle.

In reality, I know that life as it is goes on, and before too long the memories of PNG will be consigned to photos and reminiscing with my fellow trekkers. However, I reckon we could learn a bit from the resourceful villagers of the PNG jungle. Life need not be so complicated, and often the luxuries that we desire only add to the pressure in our lives and steal away valuable family time. I would love to take my 3 young boys to a PNG jungle village for a few days, just to see how those people live. Kids so happy, but kids with so little – none of the material items that our kids are accustomed to these days. Just happy to be with family and friends, and able to find activities to occupy themselves.

I also mentioned an objective to take myself outside my physical and mental comfort zones. While I expected a gruelling trek, I was still in for a big shock. Incredibly steep mountain ascents, often climbing from a tree root or rock to the next step, were followed by similarly steep, slippery descents down muddy mountain terrain that could barely be called a ‘Track’. Throw in the sun, humidity, rain and sweat, and the physical challenge quickly became more than I even expected. The trek also tests one extremely from a mental perspective. Some of the mountain ascents seemed to go on for ever. It can be extremely demoralising to walk through the aforementioned conditions, reaching false peak after false peak, only to look up again and realise you’re a quarter of the way through the climb. One of the benefits of being in such a remote area is that you don’t really have an option, you just need to keep moving on! I know that I reached mental and physical limits that I would never have imagined possible, and really hope that I can apply some of that strength in my personal and business life in the future.

One final point. As I mentioned, the trek gave me a wonderful insight into the War battles. The Kokoda Memorial at Isurava extolls the 4 key aspects of life for our soldiers on the Kokoda Track – Courage, Mateship, Sacrifice & Endurance. One doesn’t have to spend long hearing of the brave, heroic actions of our young men to appreciate what they did to earn those 4 badges of honour. We spent ANZAC Day morning attending a dawn service at the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby. I’ve attended similar services before, but to stand in a War Cemetery, listen to the Last Post and gaze over 3000+ Australian War Graves, is a truly moving experience. Lest we Forget.

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