Doris Cowan and Graeme McIntosh have just returned from the experience of a lifetime, walking the arduous Kokoda Trail. The pair is employed by C.ex Coffs and are both members of the club’s Community Crew. Lauren Florian from C.ex explains that the club regularly arranges for its staff to take part in this trek, and the benefits of this experience are threefold: it’s an amazing personal development opportunity for staff; awareness of the contributions our Aussie Diggers made in PNG during the war is highlighted; and funds are raised for a worthwhile charity in the process.
What roles do you fill at C.ex Coffs, and how long have you worked there?
Graeme: Courtesy bus driver/reception attendant for the past 4 years.
Doris: Cook/Cutlers Coffee Shop since January 2010.
Why did you decide to walk the Kokoda Trail?
Graeme: To gain a better understanding of our military history and see first hand the environment in which the war was fought.
Doris: To experience first hand a taste of what our Australian soldiers did for us. Many thanks to them.
What expectations (if any) did you have before you made the trip? Were these expectations met, or completely shattered?
Graeme: I was expecting the trek to be quite difficult and the terrain extremely harsh, and it was. Yes … my expectations were met.
Doris: I expected the worst with weather and leeches etc. and to become mentally stronger.
My experience was much more than expected. We were lucky with the weather (only a few wet days), there were no leeches and on an emotional and social side, I gained so much more than I would have ever expected from both fellow trackers and the PNG staff and village people.
What an opportunity of a lifetime, and I really thank the C.ex Group and all who helped my trip become a dream come true.
How far did you actually walk, how long did it take you … can you estimate how many steps you may actually have taken on the trek?
Graeme: The trek was approx. 130 to 140 km, taking in walks to various weapons sites and a plane crash site just off the actual track. We walked approximately 250,000 footsteps over the 10 days.
Doris: Every day was different. We walked for around 8 hours a day, sometimes only covering 6 km and others double that, depending on the terrain and of course, the tiredness of fellow trekkers.
When I return from my second Kokoda adventure, I will count the steps taken – yet I’m not sure I can count that many numbers. According to a co-trekker, we burnt around 5,000 calories a day.
What was the standout experience from the whole trip for you both?
Graeme: Dawn service at the Isurava Memorial … also, getting a detailed ‘battle briefing’ at particular focal points along the track by Charlie Lynn, our Trek Leader, including areas such as Eora Creek and Brigade Hill.
I enjoyed meeting the many children from the local villages and sharing in the local feasts from the village elders.
Bomana War Cemetery was very moving; to see 4,000 pure white headstones and to read the names and ages inscribed on some of them puts it into much more perspective.
Doris: This is a difficult question, as there were so many standout experiences along the way. I would say being privileged to experience how the descendants of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ live life with little assets, yet are richer than us in the way they protect Australian trekkers and each other.
Did either of you have much knowledge of the history behind the Kokoda Trail prior to your travels – and has any of this history now become more ‘real’ to you after your recent experience?
Graeme: I had a little knowledge and had read a few books on the area, but now having been there, and reading the same books again, it becomes easier to understand.
Doris: I had a bit of knowledge, but nothing like the stories told by our trek leader, Charlie Lynn. Now returning, I am re-reading and reliving all the history with a clearer understanding, hoping to pass this knowledge on to others.
What were some of the difficulties you encountered on the trip, and how did you overcome them?
Graeme: The weather was quite warm and humid in the lower parts, then the higher we got, the colder it became. I was very tired by the end of each day, and my feet were so sore … Bepanthen cream on the feet in the morning and tea tree oil at night helped to keep the blisters at bay.
Doris: I was lucky enough not to encounter any difficulties, other than not being able to help myself to add input such as cooking with the locals to expand their recipe knowledge, showing them how to keep your upper body fit and offering stretch classes to fellow trekkers in need.
I am now working closely with Charlie to become part of the Kokoda staff offering training programs and nutritional advice to future trekkers prior to their journey.
The locals all sang their national anthem and sounded beautiful, and then our group of 32 Aussie trekkers had to sing our national anthem and it was terrible – a bit embarrassing, especially after the locals had made such a wonderful effort with theirs.
One of the objects of the trip was to raise money for the local War Women’s Guild, and you’ve actively fundraised for this purpose. How has the fundraising gone so far?
Graeme: The fundraising is going well. We have had money boxes in all three clubs, and I have also been getting sponsors. I couldn’t think of a better charity to raise money for on this particular occasion.
Doris: Fundraising has been OK, thanks to my mum, all the lovely clients I train, and Genesis gym, who had a donation tin for me.
Hopefully we will raise even more at our Bingo Fundraiser, which is being held at the end of August.
Thanks Graeme and Doris.
What’s involved with your role/position with C.ex?
I am the Community Relations Officer at C.ex Group. This role is responsible for the implementation and rollout of C.ex Group’s Community Engagement Program, which commenced early 2012. I’m responsible for the co-ordination and management of our C.ex Community Crew – the C.ex Group staff members who participate in a myriad of community projects, events and fundraisers as volunteers, giving their own time to better our local community.
The role also encompasses public relations with the local not for profit organisations and charities, discussing future projects and partnerships to help those less fortunate, so the C.ex Community Crew can sustainably and effectively assist our local community.
The Community Engagement Program’s motto is directly inspired by C.ex Group’s mission and core values to Engage, Effect and Exceed in all we do in the community. On top of this, our ambition is to also be inclusive, caring and proactive.
The C.ex Group Community Engagement Program encourages all staff within the group to be inclusive and committed citizens of all three localities: Coffs Harbour, Woolgoolga and Urunga.
Please explain some more about who the C.ex Community Crew is, and what exactly they do for the local community …
The C.ex Community Crew is C.ex Group staff members who have volunteered their time to support projects the Community Engagement Program supports. The Crew has many skills and work in a very diverse business and are still able to devote their time to those who are less fortunate or to a better cause.
The events and projects the Crew have been involved in are Relay for Life 2012,Trauma Teddy Knit a Thon for Red Cross Coffs Harbour, National Tree Day, Dune Care Coffs Harbour, RSPCA Million Paws Walk, Men’s Shed and more recently, they have starting assisting Meals on Wheels, just to name a few.
Why does C.ex Coffs make available the opportunity for its staff members to travel the Kokoda Trail?
In addition to training to facilitate professional development for its staff, the Club sees the value of personal development for its staff, and this is a great example of how we provide that.
The Kokoda Trail is a significant experience for every person who undertakes it, and we’re glad to be able to provide the opportunity to our staff. The initiative to fundraise for a good cause was also an idea suggested by staff.
Do participants have to raise their own funds to cover the costs of the trip, or does the Club offer financial support?
No, the participants selected are completely paid for by the C.ex Group.
How many staff members to date have now taken advantage of this opportunity? Is it predominantly men or women, younger or older staff members who’ve gone?
We began sending staff to Kokoda in April 2007 – generally two people per annum.
To date, 9 people have experienced the trek, including our current trekkers – Doris and Graeme.
The great thing about the Kokoda challenge is that there is no discrimination of age, gender or position. There have been some men and women in their late fifties go over, a few in their early twenties and thirties – so a great mix really.
Up until 2010, senior management would select the staff to go; however, in the past two years the Club has invited expressions of interest from staff, and we select the best entries based primarily on people’s motivations to be considered for the experience. Last year we had eight entries.
What has some of the feedback from the various participants been?
Everyone who has returned says:
• It was the hardest challenge that they have undertaken – not just from a physical sense, but the trek also tests people’s mental and emotional toughness.
• No matter how well prepared you think you are, you still feel under prepared when you get there.
• There is no such thing as flat ground. New Guinea is just one beautiful hill after another; the terrain is tough, and the views are breathtaking.
• It is a truly humbling experience – the native NG people living in the villages along the trek have very little by our standards, but they are always smiling; they are sharing and caring. Just simply – they are beautiful people. We learned a great deal from them.
• Many people who start the trek have little knowledge of just what our Aussie Diggers endured during this part of our war history. As you complete each leg of the trek, you marvel at the spirit, endurance and courage these men displayed on both sides. You can’t even begin to describe it adequately – you have to experience it for yourself.
• In your trekking group, you start out as strangers, and after a day or two you are working together for a common goal, helping each other – and in a small way experiencing the mateship that our diggers depended on many years ago.
• It becomes incredibly important to complete the trek with honour and pride, to show respect for the many men who paid the ultimate price.
• Visiting the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby is a sight I will never forget. It is beautifully maintained, eerily peaceful and has row upon row of headstones – over 3,000, with some 800 of them marked ‘Unknown Soldier’. As you silently walk through, you can’t help but notice how young the soldiers were – 18 , 19, 20. They have these unforgettable words at the entrance: “When you go home, tell them of us. Tell them … for their today, we gave our tomorrow”.
• “COURAGE”, “ENDURANCE”, “MATESHIP” and “SACRIFICE” best describe the key lessons that most people will take away from their Kokoda adventure. These words were inscribed on 4 plaques at the Isurava Memorial and as each day passed, their message became more powerful.
• Quite simply – it is a life changing experience. You come back a better person for the experience and hopefully never take the life we enjoy for granted again.
Interviews by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue 24 of the Coffs Coast Focus