Warrnambool’s Let’s Talk walkers on the Kokoda Trail

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For John Parkinson, the link between walking the Kokoda Trail and the Let’s Talk Foundation is clear.

The Australian soldiers who fought along the Kokoda Trail had to rely upon each to survive and those doing the Let’s Talk walk also developed strong bonds with each other to get through the arduous conditions.

“If one fell over, others looked after them,” Mr Parkinson said of the Let’s Talk walkers.

“If someone was struggling, others were up to them.

“If we started together, we were going to finish together,” he said.

Mr Parkinson, the mental health and community relations manager at St John of God Warrnambool, said having a good wellbeing had a lot to do with having good social connectness and the walk enhanced the importance of that to participants.

He was one of the instigators of the Let’s Talk walk that involved 23 people, 21 of whom were from the Warrnambool area.

All completed the eight-day walk from November 13-21, trekking 138 kilometres in conditions that sometimes reached 38 degrees with 90 per cent humidity, and in torrential rain.

While the Kokoda Trail itself is 96 kilometres long, the group added on another 42 going off trail to visit significant sites.

The jungle track involved 1924 flights of stairs and most of the time if they were not going up, they were going down, Mr Parkinson said.

“There was plenty of time to get to know each other,” he said.

“But what is said on the track, stays on the track,” Mr Parkinson said.

The group suffered lots of blisters, sore muscles and feet on the track, but otherwise survived uninjured.

Mr Parkinson said most in the group had already bonded well before the walk, taking part in regular long training walks.

But all agreed nothing could have prepared them for rigours of walking Kokoda.

Five of the group were in their sixties, seven were in their fifties and the youngest was 18 years old.

Many knew of Australian soldiers who had fought on Kokoda and one of their reasons for taking on the challenge of the walk was to acknowledge the sacrifice the soldiers had made.

Visits to solemn sites along the trail such as the Bomana war cemetery at Port Moresby, which holds 3779 graves, the Kokoda memorial at the site of Isuravu battle, and the Surgeon’s Table, a large rock slab where the decision was made about which of the wounded were unlikely to survive, brought home the battle’s terrible toll.

Among those on the trek was Damian Killeen who paid his respects at the war cemetery to Gerard J Hyland from Port Fairy who died in 1943 at the age of 21.

Gerard Hyland had been a great great uncle to Mr Killeen’s eldest children.

Mr Killeen said the walk had given him a glimpse of what the young Australian soldiers had endured on the Kokoda Trail.

He had a long-standing interest in Kokoda, after previously missing out on a chance to visit the trail for its 50th anniversary when he serving in the Australian Army.

The walk gave him a sense of the historical importance of the battle along the Kokoda Trail

It also gave him an opportunity to experience the hospitality of the Papuan people and the importance of mateship.

“We had a great group, It was very supportive,” Mr Killeen said.

Mr Parkinson also paid his respects at Bomana cemetery at the grave of indigenous soldier, Harry Saunders, of Condah, who died in the fighting on the trail.

He unfurled an Aboriginal flag next to Mr Saunders’ headstone for a photo that was passed on to Mr Saunders’ sister.

Another participant, Denis Thompson, 63, said his father had served in northern Australia for four years during the Second World War and the walk gave him an idea of what servicemen endured there.

Mark Powell and John Parkinson unfurl an Aboriginal flag next to the grave of Harry Saunders, of Condah, who died on the Kokoda Trail.

“It was really interesting seeing all the war sites,” Mr Thompson said.

Group members all got on well and he made some great friends, he said.

Another group member, Stephen Philpot, 50,.said he took part because he was interested in the history of the trail and the sacrifice that had been made to give Australians the way of life they enjoyed today.

It was one of the biggest physical challenges he had ever taken on and he lost about five kilograms in weight.

The trek had also given him more respect for the Let’s Talk Foundation and its efforts to get people to connect more with each other.

Let’s Talk is a program that has developed from the initiative of Michael and Jane Fitzgibbon, Mr Parkinson and others and aims to reduce the stigma of mental illness and encourage early intervention.

The program has been presented to thousands of people at south-west schools and sporting clubs and was initiated after the Fitzgibbons’s son, Sam, took his own life.

Mr Parkinson said the young inexperienced Australian soldiers who fought on the Kokoda Trail had been initially been described as “chocolate soldiers,” liable to melt in the heat of battle.

However they had succeeded in stopping the Japanese from reaching Port Moresby. There were more than 1600 casualties from the fighting but thousands more from sickness.

Mr Parkinson believed all Australians should be exposed more to the story of the Kokoda trail to inspire them to take up the attributes of the Australians who fought.

He said.the four pillars at the Isurava battle memorial were inscribed with the words Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice and those attributes could be transferred to Let’s Talk goals.

They were the courage for people to step out and acknowledge they were not OK and struggling, endurance to realise that things could change for the better, mateship to be aware of others around them and approach them if concerned about their wellbeing, and the sacrifice of giving to others.

 Another Let’s Talk walk along the Kokoda Trail will take place next year, kicking off on October 28.

Source: The Standard