Since my recovery from cancer and my remission I had always considered myself to be a cancer survivor until my friend put it into perspective. My friend Fran who successfully beat breast cancer in 2011 was the one who put it into perspective. She said “I had cancer now I don’t” a statement that clearly shows strength, determination and is a positive affirmation.
Unfortunately all of us either have a family member or know someone who has cancer, has had cancer or died from cancer. I have always lived a healthy lifestyle, have never drunk alcohol or smoked cigarettes nor partaken of recreational drugs, so I naturally thought, I, would never have life threatening cancer. I was a single parent who was working 60 hours per week as a Financial Controller in the IT Industry plus I had commenced study for my MBA. I initially ignored the first signs that I could be sick because I was simply too busy and kept working. We all think we are bullet proof and never stop to consider that perhaps something sinister is growing inside of us. I was diagnosed in December 2000 with advanced bowel cancer that had spread from my bowel into my ovaries and also into a couple of lymph nodes. I was diagnosed on a Friday and operated on the Saturday and commenced chemotherapy early February.
I had a long and difficult battle against my cancer and survived seven weeks in palliative care halfway through my treatment. I don’t want to focus on that aspect because each person’s journey through the turmoil of cancer is personal. I want this to be a positive story full of inspiration and hope. What I will say is that never once did I think or accept that I may not survive. I would endure any form of treatment and continue fighting this insidious disease as leaving my beloved sons without their mother was not an option.
I would like to say that my experience with cancer bought about massive positive changes in my life, however it didn’t. I immediately went back to work to provide for my children and continued living my life as I previously had with one exception I stopped planning for the future as something deep down inside despite my positive attitude was saying perhaps I didn’t have one.
2012 had some periods of lows and some remarkable highs, but it was without doubt a year of positive change for me. I was struggling both emotionally and physically in 2011 due to a number of issues that were going on in my personal and professional life. At one stage I said to my former partner I hate my life because I have no life, I want my old life back. He looked at me with total bewilderment not understanding what my problem could be. My best friend was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in March which required surgery and chemotherapy and my good friend Justin was losing his 8 year battle against bowel cancer on Anzac Day. I was working 90 hours per week because I had relocated my business and turnover had dropped dramatically, exercise was a distant memory as I simply didn’t have the time and my personal relationship was not working. I believe that balance is the most important aspect to a healthy life and my balance was totally skewed. My relationship ended in November 2011 and I immediately started to gain some perspective and started making the right decisions in respect to myself and my business. My New Year’s resolution for 2012 was that I was going to be able to say honestly each and every day that I am blessed.
A first step was to recommence my exercise regime that prior to 2011 had consisted of daily two hour beach walks and the balance started returning to my life. My son Daniel and his girlfriend Julissa took me out to celebrate my 57th birthday in March. Julissa told us about a group of women she is involved with who had recently walked the Kokoda track. That night I googled Kokoda and decided to embark on an adventure that would confront a number of long held fears, limitations and would challenge me both physically and mentally. I found the website of Inspired Adventures https://inspiredadventures.com.au/ which is a company that has been set up to arrange a number of adventures that raise funds for numerous charities. Everything then fell into place in that it just happened to be the 70th anniversary of Kokoda and Cure Cancer Australia’s charity fundraiser coincided with the Fuzzy Wuzzy Day celebrations.
After walking Kokoda I can honestly say that nothing can prepare you for it and in particular Perth has no natural features or manmade facility that replicates any of the terrain on Kokoda. It is not an adventure that is suited for everyone though people of all ages successfully walk Kokoda, it is gruelling, challenging, inspirational and life changing.
I was fortunate to be part of an incredible team of people who walked the track in the footsteps of our diggers, eight of us doing it to raise money to fund cancer research and the other eight doing it for their own challenge. The eight of us who walked Kokoda for Cure Cancer Australia had two objectives in signing up for the adventure. Of course the aim of raising funds was prominent however to sign up initially we all had a personal reason. We started out a group of people from five different states some of whom knew each other previously or had met whilst training and we became a tight team who will forever more have that shared experience. My life is richer for sharing this experience with my team and we will forever share a special bond. The funds that our team raised will fund a Cancer Researcher for nine months which is amazing.
Our adventure started at Brisbane airport on Wednesday October 31 when our team flew to Port Moresby. We are warned prior to arriving in Port Moresby that it is not safe to venture outside of the hotel complex so some of us are naturally a little concerned. We have a team dinner to get to know each other and receive our back pack that is to be carried by our personal porters and will contain all of our belongings. We each carry a small backpack for the supplies we will need during the day. Early on Thursday morning we board a couple of buses to be taken to the domestic airport for our flight to Popondetta At the airport you soon realise that there is actual time and PNG time, however as we have no time constraints we spend the time becoming acquainted with members of our team. At Popondetta we board an army type truck with two wooden seats down each side to travel four hours to Kokoda. It is an interesting trip with several river crossings most without a bridge. We were all amazed at the local petrol station PNG style when our truck stopped to be refuelled.
We spent our first night under canvas and I was surprised at how comfortable sleeping on the ground on very thin self inflating mattress could be. We awoke to the sounds of the roosters crowing well before dawn a pattern that would continue every morning of the trek. It didn’t take long for someone to christen them “those fucking roosters”.
A few diggers who had fought on the Kokoda trail had returned for the first time since the war for the Wuzzy Day celebrations. It was a very moving ceremony and a great honour to talk to some of the diggers afterwards. We were introduced to the core values of the diggers which is MATESHIP, ENDURANCE, COURAGE and SACRIFICE and I am sure that we all reflected upon these qualities often during our trek. Until you walk the track you do not appreciate what these men when through to ensure that Australia was safe for future generations.
Mid afternoon we had elected to commence our trek as we were itching to get started instead of spending another night in Kokoda. We were introduced to our porters who would carry our packs and walk beside us to assist in areas of difficult terrain.
Day One consisted of a relatively flat walk of 8.4k from Kokoda to our first camping spot at Hoi Village. It didn’t take long before the humidity and heat was getting to us and we realised this was just the beginning. We experienced the first of many creek crossings on that day and in the days that followed. First priority on the track is to ensure that when you come to any water source you replenish your water bottles, so you always have purified water on hand. That night we experienced our first taste of doing it tougher as we washed in the cold stream without soap as the water source must be kept free of pollutants. Toilet facilities from now onwards were the delightful drop toilets in the village or finding a secluded spot in the jungle. We drifted off to sleep tonight as we would on every other night to the harmonious sound of the porter’s voices singing in their hut.
Day Two starts with a 5am wakeup call and we experience our first day of putting on damp clothes because it has rained overnight, a pattern that would continue for the remainder of our days. We had about a 1 ½ each morning to dress, pack our back packs and have breakfast and be ready to trek at 6.30. According to our Tour Leader Jim from Outback Adventures, today will be the test for us. If we make it through today the rest of the trek will get easier. It is an 8 hour 35 minutes steep mainly uphill climb of 1000 metres from Hoi Village to Alola Village and we will trek 12.9 kilometres. It didn’t take long before I was struggling to breathe because I had woken up with a chest infection and as usual that flared up my asthma. The narrow path is simply roots and mud and without the assistance of our walking sticks and porters it would be near impossible to climb.
The highlight of today was the Isarava memorial battle site where four large stone pillars which were quarried in South Australia, carved in Queensland & then bought in by helicopter have been erected to honour the memory of the soldiers who fought honourably at this significant site and along the Kokoda track. The words Courage, Endurance, Sacrifice and Mateship have been carved into the stone, words that reflect the values displayed by our soldiers during this campaign. We spent time at Isarava memorial reflecting on the spirit of the diggers and how those simple words reflected in our own lives. Jim tells us that we are all displaying these values by walking in the footsteps of our Aussie Diggers.
Despite today being physically challenging due to the steep unrelenting climb it was also very emotional. We stopped at Surgeons Rock which is a massive flat rock in the middle of the jungle track after another massive climb upwards. This rock was used as the name suggests as a makeup operating table for amputations and operations. Jim tells us the story of the Bisset brothers and their escapades during the campaign and how less than 50 metres away Stan held his beloved brother in his arms as the life ebbed out of him. They shared childhood memories and then Stan who had an amazing Baritone voice sang Danny Boy as his brother took his last breath. Jim then played Danny Boy on his IPod and Ben knowing this story had a copy of the words for all of us. We sat in the middle of the jungle singing Danny Boy at the top of our lungs and looking around I saw that all of us had tears in our eyes or were freely crying. This was the first of many emotional and bonding experiences our team would share on Kokoda.
Day Three Alola Village to Templeton’s Crossing 2 a trek of 7 hours duration to cover 10.1kms.
Overnight due to the dampness my chest infection escalated and I self medicated with my hopefully cure all Antibiotics. After talking to Jim and our Head Porter Andy it was agreed that I had the fitness necessary to complete Kokoda and I would continue walking at the back of the team and rest whenever I needed to. Despite having spent over $500 at the pharmacy to stock up on necessary supplies I didn’t have the simple things such as Lozenges or mouth gargle, fortunately my team mates willingly shared.
First up today we had a very slippery downhill section which required some fancy footwork by our porters to stop us slipping and sliding. At the bottom of the hill and following a short break we faced a one hour steep uphill climb. After a short break we had another couple of hours of climbing interspersed with some creek crossings before we arrived at the Lost Japanese Battle Grounds. Despite the fact we were all exhausted from the arduous climb, the humidity and heat most of us managed to explore the hillside trenches looking for long forgotten ammunition.
After lunch we had a very steep climb for 45 minutes which Ben named “Rooty Hill” as there were tree roots all the way up. The patterns of uphill climbs on Kokoda are either slippery, sticky mud or a path woven with tree roots whereby you have to carefully consider the placement of your feet constantly.
Our campsite for the night was next to a fast flowing river in which we bathed ourselves fully clothed. After dinner our porters who numbered 40 in all sang a number of songs to us.
Day 4 Templeton’s Crossing 2 to Naduri Village a distance of 16.5kms in 8 hours. This was to be our longest day of trekking and we would be climbing to the highest peak namely Mount Bellamy which is at an elevation of 2240 metres. We have a steep climb for two hours with a final push for 40 minutes on exceptionally steep terrain. Jim decides that despite the fact this is our longest most difficult day it would be a good idea to take an hour detour through a beautiful rainforest. We all agree it was worth the extra kilometres we had to walk
Our camping site for tonight is in Naduri Village which is where our head porter Andy lives with his family and a number of our porters come from. The luxury of a shower is welcome however the added bonus is we can actually wash the mud off with soap. Andy’s wife cooked us an amazing feast which included some bread rolls and pizza and other treats which added variety to our bland diet.
Today was an eleven hour day with nine hours spent trekking which is why I think we were under the assumption that Day 5 would be relatively cruisey or we were simply too exhausted to listen fully. The nightly six o’clock evening camp news promised a short day of four hours duration. I think we should have asked more questions when the term “ball breaker hills” was mentioned.
Day Five Naduri Village to Efogi a trek of 1.38km over 3 hours and the promise of plenty of rest. Today was supposedly sleep in day as we were to be woken at 7am, however those roosters commenced their crowing well before dawn. Breakfast consisted of another special feast of fresh bread rolls, pikelets and fried bananas. Prior to farewelling the village of Naduri a number of the local children came to sing for us.
Naduri is a special village on the Kokoda track because it is the home of Ovuru Ndiki who is one of the few surviving Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and is reportedly 108. He is very frail and confined to a wheel chair and proudly displays his medals and memorabilia on his shirt. We all proudly have a group photo with this amazing man and it is an emotional time once again for the team.
Our day’s trek officially starts around 9am, the sun was blistering hot and we had little shade. We had a very steep decline down to the river in the valley. River crossings were always interesting and each one was different and challenging. Despite the promise of an easy day we soon realised that we had our steepest climb ahead of us. It was only 600 metres however we were scrambling up the side of the hill. The reward for today’s challenge was the fresh fruit we could purchase at Efogi 2 before we had to conquer the last 30 minute climb to our camp site.
Today was Melbourne Cup day and I had bought along the field and form of the 1942 Melbourne Cup race so we could have a sweep. Ben volunteered to call the race and he was a natural. We had all drawn horses and Ben attached our individual trip adventure when he mentioned our horses name. Falls, embarrassing moments, sickness, determination or whatever he felt was appropriate. Shared lighthearted moments such as these increased the bonds that were being formed with our team mates.
Day 6 Efogi 1 to Menari Village a 4 hour trek covering 9.4km. The day started with a steep descent downhill which was followed by a steep uphill climb. At Brigade Hill we stopped to remember the fallen soldiers and Ben and Sam gave very emotive speeches which caused all of us to shed a few tears. The days trekking concluded with a further two hour downhill descent. Arriving into camp just after midday allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the creek and rest before the next challenging day. We were entertained that evening by the local church choir of adults and children singing to us. We all donated money to enable the choir to buy uniforms.
Day 7 Menari Village to Nauro Village which was a 5 hour trek over 10.8kms. It had rained continuously overnight so we knew we were in for a difficult hard climb for the first hour. I was still recovering from the chest infection and my asthma was causing me a lot of breathing problems. I had no problem with the downhill sections however the uphill ones called on every ounce of strength and determination that I had. The two hour decent was quickly christened “the wall” as we were confronted with thick, sticky wet clay and began the slippery sliding often out of control decent. Our porters certainly earned their money that day as they would place a foot in front of us to stop us sliding over the cliff or crashing below. The porters are amazing always good humoured, appear to never sleep, even though they are given money to buy shoes before the trek a number wear thongs or no shoes and they are constantly vigilant in case we need assistance. It would be impossible to do the trek without their support. Two of the male members of our team who elected to carry their own packs for the extra challenge had to enlist the help of a porter for a couple of days during the trek. One due to illness and the second because he rolled his ankle badly.
We knew that at the bottom of the decent we had the swamp to walk or wade through depending upon how much rain we had had. We were fortunate that we had been able to keep our boots relatively dry which protected our feet up until this day. When you put on wet clothes every morning having that dry pair of socks is bliss. I didn’t find the swamp difficult as the ground was flat and my breathing was under control whilst some of the fitter ones struggled because they had pushed themselves continuously in previous days whilst I went at my place which improved daily. It was a challenge to find dry places to walk through the swamp and we often slipped down into the mud as we crossed logs placed on the track.
We had been looking forward to the challenge of crossing the Brown River all day and hoped that the water wasn’t too high for us to cross. It is famous for stranding trekkers for one night or more whilst they wait for the water to subside. We stripped off our boots and gators and waited for our time to cross whilst the porter took our back packs across. The current was strong and water waist deep so wasn’t any easy crossing and those of us who had a porter on either side of us managed the best.
We rested after lunch knowing that we faced a gruelling climb which would take about an hour, however we would be confronted with 9 false peaks. I think we powered through this because we knew our rest stop tonight had a shower and we could use soap. A few of us were fortunate tonight to have our tents pitched inside a large hut which was off the ground instead of on the open muddy ground which sloped down the hill. This village had the most picturesque view from the drop toilet, however the pathway was very narrow and had a sheer drop which meant not a place I would visit at night.
Day 8 Nauro Village to Ua Ule Creek a distance of 14.7 kms which trekking time of 7 hrs 45 mins. We are all exhilarated today as we know we are on the homeward leg of the trip with warm showers and comfy beds awaiting us.
The day started with a challenging 1 hour 15 min steep uphill climb and we quickly realised that Jim had been right in that this would be our second biggest challenging day on the track. We then had to contend with the slipperiest decent that required constant attention so that we didn’t fall over the edge or down. Very few of our team got through the nine days without having at least one fall. I got my first and only leech which I had been dreading and in fact if Andy the head porter had of just removed it without saying anything I would have been unaware. Next up was another heart breaker of a hill and a number of our team struggled due to the steepness, humidity, heat and general fatigue.
At the top of the hill the rain started and continued heavily for the next three hours whilst we navigated the difficult steep descent. This was the first substantial rain we had had whilst trekking as fortunately the rain had fallen every night. We changed into our outdoor sandals because for the next 45 minutes we would cross the same river nine times as we zigzagged our way around the hill to our campsite.
Day 9 Ua Ule Creek to Ower’s Corner which would take us five hours and cover the last 9.4 kms.
We are excited but also sad today as we know that in about 5 hours our adventure will come to an end. We have formed very close bonds with our team mates, been challenged both physically and mentally and our lives have changed forever as a result of our shared experience.
Jim decided that I and my porters would lead off first as we had a difficult climb of 850 metres in front of us to the top of the Imita Ridge and by the time the rest of the team caught up I would be near the top. Elliott who had rolled his ankle badly the day before followed close behind me. I don’t know how he managed to walk on that ankle as he had injured it badly. We really pushed hard up that hill as I knew the others would be closing in on us, this was the first day on the track that I experienced any pain as my body had stood up to the challenge very well. As with every up on Kokoda we had also a descent before the final ascent to Ower’s Corner.
Conversations on today’s trek centred on all of the comforts, facilities, food and beverages that awaited us at our hotel accommodation in Port Moresby.
Today highlight was the last river crossing or water crossing on the trip which was the Goldie River and lucky for us the water was at a safe level to wade across.
We have one final climb of 40 minutes ahead of us before we reach the arches marking the end of the Kokoda track for us. Jim was discussing with Andy whether I would lead off first when Courtney says Beverly will go first. Jim replied we are discussing that, she said more insistently we (meanly the team) have decided that Beverly is to be the first to the top of this last hill. I felt so humbled and emotional that despite the fact I had been so sick and all of the hill climbs had been difficult for me due to my asthma and chest infection, my team supported and respected me for my determination and courage in never complaining or giving in. The last climb wasn’t as arduous as in parts it had steps made out of logs and knowing it was our last climb also helped. Elliott and I stopped just short of the top to wait for the rest of our team so we could all walk through the arches together. Once again I was humbled when our team wanted me to walk through the arches first. Our porters had all passed us so they could form a guard of honour for us to walk through as we passed through the arches. Elliott and I walked through arm and arm and both had tears freely rolling down our cheeks. All of our team were similarly overwhelmed with the feelings of wonder, accomplishment. fatigue and elation that we had actually successfully conquered Kokoda.
The Kokoda experience concluded with a visit to the Bomona War Cemetery and we looked at the official records and located the graves of heroes we had learnt about on the trek.
In summary Team 19A who trekked Kokoda with Jim as our leader from Backtrack Adventures were an interesting, amazing and inspiring group of people. We shared many adventures, laughter, tears and our life experiences. http://www.backtrackadventures.com.au/
Team 19 at Ower’s Corner (arches in background)
Team 19 with oldest Fuzzy Wuzzy (now deceased)
Tree house built by Andy
Petrol Station PNG style
Bloody Tree Roots
Camp Fire Naru Village
Children singing to us in Naru Village
Delightful Drop Toilets
Diggers at wreath laying
Jim Brigade Hill
Repairing a Bridge
Rained all night