Macleay Argus by Luke Horton
SIX days into walking Kokoda Olivia Pratley had had enough.
Physically she was being worked harder than ever before.
Mentally and emotionally, she was struggling being away from her beloved family in a foreign country amidst some of the most remote – and technologically isolated – terrain on earth.
“I was really questioning why I was there. I was physically stuffed and crying almost every day,” she said.
“Then on day seven John, our guide, came up to me and handed me Clarrie Meredith’s dog tags.
“We’d met Clarrie (a WWII vet) before we flew out from Sydney and John said to me he had promised to give the tags to someone on the walk who was trying hard, but wasn’t quite doing their best.
“He told me he wanted me to make the top of the next ridge without stopping once and I did. When I got to the top I handed the tags back to John.”
It instilled the confidence Olivia needed to complete the gruelling 120km journey and made her re-evaluate exactly why she was doing the walk.
The 17-year-old Melville High student had been chosen to participate in the trek as part of a Clubs NSW initiative.
Young people between the ages of 16 and 22 are given the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the many brave souls who fought and perished along the track during the Second World War.
Olivia, whose great grandfather and great uncle both served along Kokoda, said before she left that she expected the experience to be life changing.
Upon returning home she was certain it had.
“John had a saying. You don’t go to Gallipoli for a swim and you don’t go to Kokoda for a walk, there’s far more to it than that,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I got home I realised this is a major achievement. I never thought by age 17 I’d be completing the Kokoda track.”
After touching down in Port Moresby, Olivia and the 21 other trekkers were driven to a small regional airport before flying in to Kokoda.
They had originally intended to bus in following the tragic plane accident which claimed the lives of several Australians earlier this year, but civil unrest in the area meant they had to fly in instead.
Upon landing at Kokoda airfield the group was met by around 250 Papuans, all clamouring for a position as a porter or guide on the trek.
Tour company Adventure Kokoda employs about 250 Papuans as guides and porters on a rotating roster.
The first day of the trek would prove the easiest, with a short walk across flat, open terrain to a small village just out of Kokoda where the group spent its first night.
“Really the first day was about getting used to the humidity and acclimatising,” Olivia said.
Day two was the start of the gruelling climbs Kokoda is best known for, which do not abate until the trekkers complete their journey at Ower’s Corner 10 days later.
Every morning began with a Cooee call at 5.30am and trekkers were required to be on the road no later than 7.30am.
“Each day we’d have two trek leaders who would basically eat last and make sure everyone was up and ready,” Olivia said.
“Part of your job was motivating people to keep going, while at the same time each day you’re pushing your boundaries further and further.
“I challenged myself to a level I’d never before reached.”
A stop at the Isurava Pillars memorial midway through the track was a particularly poignant moment for Olivia.
The four pillars, in a clearing overlooking a magnificent forested valley, symbolise the values of courage, mateship, endurance and sacrifice.
Each of the trekkers was asked to stand beside the pillar they felt best embodied them.
“I stood next to courage, because it takes courage to start anything,” Olivia said.