Newcastle Knights legends trek Kokoda for The Mark Hughes Foundation

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By Sydney Morning Herald  


Mark Hughes at camp in the village of Efogi during the Kokoda Coast to Coast ChallengeMark Hughes at camp in the village of Efogi during the Kokoda Coast to Coast Challenge Photo: James Brickwood

Just one foot in front of the other. One revolution of the bike wheel before the next. One river crossing to conquer. One more ascent to scale.

Mark Hughes, diagnosed with brain cancer three years ago, could metaphorically be talking about life. He is describing his trek through Kokoda, one so demanding only a handful of people have completed the exhausting and extended journey.

Unbelievably to everyone bar those who know him, the popular former Newcastle Knights and NSW rugby league player is still in good spirits.

The group are welcomed to Sanananda Guest house at Buna where our journey begins. We are greeted in traditional dress and welcomed by dance.

NRL player Mark Hughes’ adventure on PNG’s Kokoda Trek

Fairfax photographer James Brickwood documents NRL player Mark Hughes’ inspirational 284 km epic journey on the Kokoda trek for the Mark Hughes Foundation which raises money for brain cancer research.

“You’ve just got to put one foot after the other and keep going,” Hughes said. “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. That’s what we did out there and the same principle applies in life. It was physical and emotional, but one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Spawned by a Christmas Day text message from his former teammate Billy Peden to another Knights legend in Paul Harragon, the pair drummed up the idea of raising $50,000 for The Mark Hughes Foundation from the arduous journey through the World War II battlegrounds.

Realistically, they thought they should lower their target to $20,000. As it stands they’ve raised more than $140,000, the proceeds of which will fund research and support brain cancer patients.

“I said, ‘it’s got to be hard because there’s no point asking people to sponsor something if it’s going to be a walk in the park’,” Peden said. “That’s where he came up with the Coast to Coast.”

So a select group of 20 – including Hughes, Harragon, Peden, David Fairleigh and Fairfax Mediaphotographer James Brickwood – took things up a notch. Incidentally, Fairleigh who lost four toenails during the eight-night adventure.

They mapped a route from Buna on the northern tip of Papua New Guinea right down to Port Moresby in the south. They rode 120km on unforgiving terrain just to reach the Kokoda trail. They did the trek in five days when most take eight or nine and cycled the last 50km into the capital.

Kokoda Spirit adventurer Wayne Wetherall reckons he has only ever taken a couple of groups of four on the extended trip before the Hughes and footballer-led excursion.

And it is on Brigade Hill where he saw burly men reduced to tears. Reciting poems and reading tributes to those that have fought for their country. And remembering how lucky they were it wasn’t one of them.

“It is mentally challenging as well as spiritually uplifting,” Wetherall said. “You’re still picking up bullets, there’s grenades … this is on a living and breathing track. You have this emotional connection to it. No one was broken, but they went to places they haven’t been before.”

Spiritually more than anything else.

“We had grown men tearing up with emotion at the sacrifice of our diggers,” Wetherall said. “They’re hardened footballers and to see those sorts of guys with tears in their eyes … that was really powerful.”

Added Harragon: “That’s when it really hits home. And there are only a couple of times where you get that feeling of euphoria in your life when you eventually accomplish something like that.”

Like when the trekking party handed out Newcastle Knights footballs to villagers at the behest of the club’s boss Matt Gidley.

“One of the boys gave a kid a footy in one of the villages and you could see he was just going to sleep with it everywhere we went,” Peden said. “He was cuddling the footy. That was really fulfilling.”

Harragon has been a driving force behind Hughes’ foundation. Another ex-Knight Adam MacDougall will donate money from his upcoming Man Shake program. Johnathan Thurston has been a big advocate, as well as the Queensland Former Origin Greats (FOGS) organisation.

“We saw some amazing things there and I can’t get my head around how [the diggers] did it,” Hughes said. “Thinking about patients with brain cancer and their families certainly helped and I was surrounded by a lot of positive attitudes. But the biggest thing was it being about a team effort and all the support we have had.”

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/newcastle-knights-legends-trek-kokoda-for-the-mark-hughes-foundation-20160623-gppuea.html#ixzz4CeA2iJkT
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