Youth Program Ben
Written by Ben Tuckwell, age 17
When Dan visited my school at the start of 2009 he captured my full attention and created a compulsive desire to participate in this program, but when it came to collect the necessary forms my heart sank – how could I be chosen from so many. Nevertheless I applied, and before I knew it, I was in an interview with Joh and Dan struggling to find any confidence to speak properly. I left that day feeling there was no chance and yet I foolishly held onto hope. Finally I received a call telling me that I had been accepted, and all I could say was “Cool, thanks.”
In the initial weeks of training I was waiting to encounter that one person I just wouldn’t get along with, but I soon came to realise that just wasn’t going to happen. So together we trained, struggling at first but helping each other through. Each Sunday morning I couldn’t wait until training – knowing full well how much it took out of me – and as a result, frequently arrived too early for early starts. As the weeks progressed we learnt a great deal more about the Owen Stanley campaign than we ever would have; I know that for me it had never been a chore but something I looked forward to and made time for.
Quite quickly the Kokoda Challenge was upon us; with spirits high, we were rearing to go. Before long the injuries that plagued some of our team started to send them into pain, compounding on the exhaustion we all felt. Eventually we started to lose to team members; our efforts to help them endure were conquered, but it was not without pushing them far above their conceived limits. I remember being amazed at just how much pain one person was taking and still trying to continue on. At that point I realised that anything I would be up against would be incomparable to what they endured and so began to ignore just how tired I was or which muscles were hurting. With the finish line drawing nearer we soon took another participant into our group who was also suffering from an injured knee. Together we crossed into the final checkpoint bellowing out our song and signing in after 38 hours and 22 minutes – we had endured almost the complete 39 hours.
Though there are others who might think of our time as a disappointment I see no problem with it, I only wish that those that had to pull out could’ve finished with us. Thinking about how tired and sore we all were on the Challenge only goes to amaze me of the incredible feats of our Australian Diggers, who had to cope with the pains and exhaustion - that would have been much more extensive than ours – whilst also maintaining vigilance of their surroundings and carrying heavier packs and weapons.
We had completed the first half of our training and our first goal, now it was time to look to our main goal – Papua New Guinea. Another couple months of pack training with weights between 1 and 2 thirds of what our soldier’s carried and we were to be off. Using our packs to train certainly increased just how difficult the sessions were but we all pushed through, knowing we needed it for the upcoming trip. After what seemed like a blink of the eye it was September and the nerves that had previously been quelled again started to bubble to the surface. It was time to find whether we would be walking the track or be a part of the village experience – which are both great opportunities but I had been set on wanting to walk the Kokoda track. When I found out I was to be part of the group walking the track I was obviously relieved but it could not compare to the realisation that I actually would be walking the Kokoda Track – a weird feeling that went unparalleled until we landed in PNG.
After farewelling the village crew and the Gold Coast group the day before, the combined Brisbane/Tweed trekking group landed in Papua New Guinea. Over the next 11 days we would experience an unforgettable journey. Eight days were spent walking the Kokoda Track, waking each morning to amazing scenic views, stumbling, tripping and falling as we made our way to the next stop and enjoying the company of all those with us. We swam in creeks, played touch football against the porters and were even frightened as camouflaged porters jumped out as us; but the true reason for walking the track was never forgotten – in remembrance and respect for our soldiers. The area we played touch in Menari was the specific point where Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner delivered his “Ragged Bloody Heroes” speech and the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ final role call was held; the next day we were even lucky enough to meet Faeola – one of only three remaining Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. Being frightened by the porters made us realise just how difficult it was to see anyone who didn’t want to be seen. Along the track we paid our respects at sites including Ioribaiwa Ridge, Brigade Hill, Isurava and Kokoda, all of which confront you with the realisation of just what your life has cost.
Ioribaiwa Ridge, the critical point where the Japanese Advance was never able to pass but could see the lights of Port Moresby, was a site where we first saw signs of the Japanese Advance. Brigade Hill was the site of a major battle where the Australian soldiers even had to witness the Japanese Lantern Parade before the assault on their position. Isurava now is home to a memorial, but it was once the place of another horrific battle, in which Bruce Kingsbury earned his Victoria Cross – the first person to have been awarded a VC on Australian soil. And Kokoda, the most recognised of all the sites, saw several battles over the all important, strategic airstrip. These are all areas where our soldiers gave their lives for us to live as we do today, the very least we can do is remember, and honour them.
When we eventually made it to Kokoda we had little knowledge of the lifestyles of the local villages, only what we had learnt from the porters and the villages along the track. So over the next three days we spent time in Fala Village in Kokoda, helped out at the school as we could, and visited the memorial. We came to realise just how different our lives were. Across Papua New Guinea we saw the kindness of the people and the beauty of the country, yet the conditions they lived in would frighten most who have known only the lives we have here in Australia. Papua New Guinea is an amazing place and is intimately linked to Australia, it deserves to be protected sustained and healthy. If it were not for this country and its people, our troops might not have been able to survive and save the country we call home.
Returning to Australia, we all left a part of ourselves in PNG, but we had yet to finish our time in the Youth Program. A community service requirement may seem forced and boring, but it is because of the community that we were able to reach our goals and to give back what we can comes naturally. It is not only in thanks but also slightly selfish, helping others is rewarding no matter how you look at it.
Without the efforts of everyone involved: our leaders, friends and everyone behind the scenes; we could never have learnt, achieved and grown so much. Doug’s idea of this program has given me so much; I have gained friends, amazing memories and an immeasurable amount of confidence. I am forever in their debt.