Saving Kokoda’s spirit from corporate team-builders
To walk the Kokoda Trail is increasingly becoming one of life’s big ‘must do’ experiences. But if you’re thinking of taking it on as an extreme endurance sport or wilderness adventure, then think again.
While it is all of these things, it is not the reason to trek down to your wilderness store and max out your credit card. The Kokoda Trail is a memorial pilgrimage on sacred ground.
On Anzac Day this year, federal Labor MP Jason Clare and I crossed the political aisle to walk the trail. We called our six and half days of pain, the Kokoda Mateship Trek.
The Trek brought together young leaders from our electorates in Cronulla (Cook) and Bankstown (Blaxland) from very different religious and cultural backgrounds and experiences of Australian life.
We were an odd bunch. Two politicians, four young surf life savers, four young Muslim Australians, two young PNG nationals, a doctor, a school principal, a fitness trainer and a journalist – all under the guidance of our veteran trek leader Charlie Lynn on his 55th crossing of the trail. The purpose was to build bridges between our communities, following the shameful events that took place in southern Sydney in December 2005 - the riots and revenge attacks - there, I said it out loud.
In contrast to these events, the Kokoda Mateship Trek demonstrated the true spirit of our communities as these fine young Australians walked their memorial to our Diggers in the footsteps of the 39th Battalion, who set out from Owers Corner to defend Australia, on Australian soil, at Kokoda in July 1942.
Along the trail these young leaders shared stories of their culture, breaking down myths and barriers. However most importantly they joined together to honour the courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice of those who fought and died along this bloody, muddy track.
Our Diggers died for the future of all Australians, regardless of our backgrounds. We share in their sacrifice because we all live together in the future that they made possible, bringing fresh meaning to the opening stanza of our National Anthem - ‘Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free’.
The heroes of the Kokoda campaign are legendary: William Owen, Bruce Kingsbury VC, Stan and ‘Butch’ Bissett, Charlie McCallum, Lindsay Bear, Breton, Langridge, Ralph Honnor, Dr Geoffrey Vernon and, of course, the fuzzy wuzzy angels.
In their day, on that unforgiving ground, they found something special within themselves to rise to the challenge—ordinary men called on to do extraordinary things. Having stood upon and walked the ground of their sacrifice, a new generation of Australians will now carry forward their names and their stories in our communities, and Anzac Day will never be the same again.
Having observed closely the spirit of the young Australians who walked the trail, as they worked together, assisted each other and showed a moving respect in their tributes along the way, especially at Isurava, I have no doubt that the spirit of Bruce Kingsbury and his comrades is alive and well in their generation.
When we returned to the Bomana War Cemetery, the young trekkers stood and faced the graves of 3,000 fallen Australian soldiers and made a pledge to be the best they could be—to honour those who were denied their opportunity of life more than 60 years earlier. In making this pledge they decided to be the change we need for our future, to the great benefit of our respective communities.
I hope the Kokoda Trail will continue to grow as a pilgrimage for young Australians. We must not allow expressions of national pride to be reduced to a tattoo or a day of drunkenness wrapped in a flag. We must encourage real contact with the spirit of courage, mateship, endurance and sacrifice that defines our Australian character.
For this to happen, we must protect the integrity of the Kokoda trail as a memorial pilgrimage. We must ensure that the stories of Kokoda and similar campaigns gain greater recognition in our national educational curriculum. A memorial master plan is needed to enable new generations to understand, appreciate and honour the sacrifices of our diggers as they walk the trail.
Having walked past the spot where a 37 year old mother from Melbourne died a week before it is clear that tougher mandatory regulation of trek operators must be introduced to keep the trail safe, or more Australians will die needlessly. This is a dangerous trek in a lethal environment. It should not be taken on lightly or walked with those ill equipped to do so.
We also need to make sure our pilgrimage benefits the local indigenous population. We must ensure that their communities and their environment are not exploited, remembering it was their grandfathers who came to our aid, to carry our grandfathers to safety, so many years ago.
Whether you walk the trail or not, I hope Kokoda will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of us, especially in these tough times, and remind us all of what we are truly capable of when we are true to the values that made our nation great. Lest we forget.
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