A Useful Skeleton: a Thing of Beauty

Every dancer has their forte and my Creative Director, Annette Carmichael was just highlighting mine. Sure some can spin and leap and have amazing flexibility – but I was in possession of a “very useful skeleton!”

“Just let him jump on to you, don’t try and catch him”. Simple instruction. Focus. I tried to relax as Scott again tried to put his right leg over my left shoulder and gracefully leap on to my useful skeleton. We were at the start of our intensive journey together. We had a week to recreate the duet in The Beauty Index.

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The duet we were working on was a core part of the performance and the source of a lot of adulation and adoration (and the best photos) in the original performance. For the remount, I was assuming a part held by the very talented Sam le Breton last time around. This was my second time as part of a production and to say the rise was giddying is to put it lightly.

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In the months after Annette confirmed that we were getting (most of) the band back together to remount “our” work, The Beauty Index, I had worked incredibly hard to get myself fit. I wanted to hit “the Sixty” so much harder this time around, so there were months of weights and fitness classes in the lead up to our first rehearsal. I was going to tear my old role apart! As performers, we all held a lot of ownership in the work – being involved in so much of the original choreography had elevated our sense of engagement in the piece – all those who were returning wanted to lift this remount higher than the original. Never mind the fact that we were opening up for a group of flexible, talented young people as part of a two-show bill. Our pride was at stake!

At the first rehearsal back, Annette told us that Sam would not be able to come back and perform in the remount. This meant someone could come forward – or someone would be tapped to step up. I though about this for a while. Last year was my first time dancing on stage. I was not sure I was up for the physicality of the role. I refrained from stepping forward and committed to thinking about it. There were serious doubts.

I got home and there was a missed call from Annette and a message. Would I step in to Sam’s role? Would I perform the solo? The duet with Scott Elstermann? Play such a key role in the performance? I sat on the couch and stared at my phone. I was a lot fitter than last year – but could I actually do it? The performing? Holding the audience? It is a role that demands intensity and focus. I walked in to the kitchen and asked Jas what she thought. We chatted. Was I comfortable? Was I capable? Was I up for the challenge?

I messaged Annette: “Just got your message. I’m keen”.

Mind is keen, body is….

Annette and I went through details, organised rehearsal schedules, chorography, scores, musical cues. I was bursting with excitement. We had a series of one-on-one rehearsals scheduled to nail down the gruelling solo early. Annette was sick for a rehearsal, so I decided to head in alone and work through some dancing. About forty minutes in to the session, I leant forward innocuously, and my breath left me. Pain surged through my chest – wrapping around me like two hot wires stretching around me from between my shoulders – one around my chest, one down my spine. This was bad. My back was screaming.

I chatted with the physio after my second session with him. It had been two weeks. I’d been swimming as often as I could to free up my back. I was still in pain but recovering. He reassured me I would be fine for the dancing– it was probably a 4-6 week injury, so I was ok to ease back in to things. Six weeks had me up to the last week before working with Scott. Five days of intense rehearsals – two hours a day with Scott, two hours with the rest of the cast. There was not a lot of wriggle room if I pinged it again – but I had an entire show to re-learn, a solo to master and a duet to prepare for. There was not time to rest. Only time to recover.

There were weeks of hot and cold packs. Intense stretching. Intense hope that my fitness work before rehearsals would leave me in good stead to not just recover but be at performance standard. As the performance inched forward, my back freed up increasingly and I was able to perform more of the choreography with an improved range of motion. I would hopefully be fine. Hopefully.

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Screaming on the beach. Totes normal

A box, the corner of the shed

One week of intense rehearsals with a professionally trained dancer is a privilege that my football playing, punk rock loving teenage self would never have considered, but here I was. Warm-ups were a treat. Led by some woman who I begrudgingly met in Broome six years ago as I was dragged for an obligation (the incredible, hilarious and talented Sandi Woo) we explored space, movement, our body.

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The Woo Technique

Scott and I worked on our connection as dancers. How to work together. I was in a space that many professional dancers would’ve happily traded for. We worked hard in warm ups to learn how each other moved (well, Scott learned how I moved, I learnt how to move). In footy parlance, we trained bloody hard.

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Scott leaping on the waiting #usefulskeleton (Pic: Alison Bennett-Taylor)

We worked and worked. I slowly got more and more of the details and nuances I needed. Not all, I never got it 100% there – but that is the beauty of working with someone like Annette. No matter how good I got it down, there was the next way to improve. It wasn’t meant to be good enough. It needed to be the best I could do it. And finding that best takes exploration and improvement right up to the final time I did it on stage.

Performance mode

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Acting calm (Pic: Nic Duncan)

We did two shows for this remount – a Friday and a Saturday night in the Albany Entertainment Centre. It is a pretty serious venue. Early rehearsals had gone well. Dress rehearsal not so well. I, personally, was a mess and as a collective we misfired a bit. Didn’t bring the passion. We needed to step up for opening night.

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On stage, pre-show, final words of encouragement (Pic: Nic Duncan)

I’d convinced a few personal VIPs to come both nights – all incredibly supportive individuals that have a special place in my heart. All a long way from contemporary dance devotees. There were some serious personal nerves, but I felt like I could do a solid job. The solo was the killer for me – to go too hard meant being too exhausted for the duet and “the angel” later in the show. There was no recovery time off stage after my solo. Not go hard enough and the solo lacked impact. It was a pretty fine line – the solo channelled anger and hate. Keeping a lid on that is not easy.

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Backstage at the AEC (Pic: Nic Duncan)

The first night, up to the solo felt solid. I was concentrating well. Keeping in time. Keeping myself together. “The Sixty” was so imprinted on my mind and body now that it was ingrained in my muscle fibres. Intensely familiar and personal. There was a zone. I was in it.

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The Sixty – a beast (Pic: Nic Duncan)

The performance progressed, I hit the solo incredibly hard. I screamed, the tortured scream of a broken man. I contorted as my body broke apart. I collapsed in a sopping pool of sweat. Shattered. Chest heaving. I rose for the duet, making my way through the lifts as best I could while my quadriceps screamed at me for rest. Scott and I connected. We broke apart. I focussed on my role. My embodiment of hate and fear and terror.

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My solo – finding all the rage and pain from my life and expressing it on stage (Pic: Nic Duncan)

We hit the crescendo of the duet. A backwards hinge. During rehearsals it had been decided this part needed more action during the remount. We were to run backwards before quickly connecting and hinging backwards together. Annette had wanted us to be more “reckless”. Adrenalin surged through my body, dripping with sweat I came to the point that I ran backwards.

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The reckless double hinge (Pic: Nic Duncan)

I neglected to look back and relied on the fact that I had a highly skilled professional on the other side who would (should) connect and catch me. He always did in the rehearsals anyway. We brushed arms. I threw my head and body backwards. We flicked in to position. We held. My chest heaved. I squeezed my glutes and abs to effortlessly rise in to a standing position and walk into our next position. I fell. Slumping to the ground. Shit. There would be a note for this….

A little less man-love

We ran through notes of the performance the next night. Scott saved me the night before, scooping me up of the ground in a tender embrace. We paused. I walked off in to the next position and tried to forget about it. To move on. We covered it well, but it was not right. The rest of the show had been great – our returning performers had stepped up to a new level. Our new guys were incredible. There was a lot of excitement within the group to go better on the second night, but the duet needed to be perfect. Thankfully, we (I) had a final chance to make amends. We got our note on what to work on for tonight. I would try to not fall over. A little less man love.

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Notes

It was a big night for me. A front row filled with family and friends. There was a lot of nerves. My eldest brother had come along. Tony was a long way from his comfort zone attending and I felt a lot of internalised pressure to perform well. I felt like I couldn’t just be good tonight – I had to go to another level again. This of course, failed to recognise how far I’d come in the eighteen months since I decided to give dancing “a bit of a go” for the first project – but family, ego and emotion aren’t really logical things.

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Side stage

There was also my brother-in-law and good friend who had travelled from Perth just before flying out of the country to make the show. Mikey had attended the previous year’s show (and also Annette’s Creation of Now, which Jasmine had a large part in). He may be the “Manpack’s” greatest fan and is well known to the cast. His infectious enthusiasm and desire to understand the work has made him stand out amongst our impressive throng of groupies and admirers.

Mikey knew Sam wasn’t in the show. He knew rehearsals had gone well. He knew I was pumped up to perform again and he was surprised to hear that there had been changes to the show overall. We had breakfast together that morning, but I still hadn’t told Mikey I was now in the lead role. I was excited for the surprise to hit him – as it wouldn’t become apparent until just before the solo. There were a lot of things go through my head.

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Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Breathe, breathe
We were on to the second round of the Sixty and I realised I wasn’t breathing. My heart was pumping so hard I could hear it above the snare in the music. Adrenalin was reaching towards redline. I had gotten myself a little too wound up.

This wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. In some games of football and soccer, if it was too big an occasion and I got myself too lathered up, I would struggle to get “in” to the game. I would float through, not performing at the level I wanted. In those situations, I needed a reset. Either a long break or a big hit to the body. I careered through the rest of the Sixty, missing a beat, slightly out of time here, slightly fast there. Imperceivably to most in the audience, screamingly obvious to me. We lurched in to the second last group of sixty beats, a time to “break apart”. I bent my back, almost falling. I broke again, arching and driving my shoulders back. And again. I fell. On to my back. Fuck that hurt. I looked up and flipped myself to continue to dance. I think I was back in the zone now. I could hear the music again. Feel the timing. My head was back in the game. Just. I found my hit to the body.

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Me resting at the back while the Manpack hyperventilates (Pic: Nic Duncan)

The performance raced though time and space. The solo didn’t exhaust me this time. Scott and improved our duet. The reckless bend was just right. My body allowed me to unhinge. There was less man love. There were small moments of panic. Of adjustment. Of problem solving on the fly. I didn’t dance as well as I did the first night, but I fixed my mistakes better. Our duet was better the second night.

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Scott looks light, but is not. Here I am gracefully lowering his impressive bulk to the stage with my very strong legs and back (Pic: Nic Duncan)

And most importantly in a team sport – the rest of the cast were more solid the second night. As a group we had improved again. The young performers in A Light Shade of Red hit their straps too, shining and rising to another level. We joined them onstage for the finale, took our bows and danced on stage. We’d done it. Somehow.

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What a team (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Final reflections
Community dance is incredible. The growth I’ve felt within myself is immeasurable. The bonds and friendships that develop priceless. I’ve been able to role model to my two young boys that men can dance and choked back tears during their stage debuts perform just a few weeks after our remount. I’ve been able to show to family and friends that dance is a lot different than they may think it is. Even if the appreciation is mainly on the physical requirements – a lot of those who came would never have come to a dance performance without a community connection.

This remount was a huge moment for me. Last time around was a leap out of comfort zone to discover I enjoyed dance. This time around was a nervous return to explore a new level. It was like SCUBA diving after learning to snorkel. There were serious moments of doubt. There was a strong feeling of being held by those around me. There was just incredible support from everyone–  James with his genuine words of support, Sym, Rob and Nic’s notes on my progression, all the other critical components that got this off the ground and me on the stage.  I refuse to list you all in an arbitrary shopping list – but these productions require many hands, many minds and many hearts.

The Manpack 2.0 was incredible. What a group of talented, well rounded, supportive and empathetic Aussie blokes who happened to do a bit of dancing. Everyone a brilliant person – everyone in their own way, critical to the success of this show the second time around.

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The amazing A Light Shade of Red cast with the wisened (old) The Beauty Index Cast – and Annette (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Community dance has given me the chance to interact with some incredible professionals. Some incredible gracious, generous and genuine individuals who created an environment for me to step up and thrive. Sandi Woo was a reassuring force for me in both performances. We have come a long way since our first meet and greet and I would like to think I’ve stepped up the quality of our interactions since then. It was such a privilege to have had such a quality human being and seasoned professional support our cast through these two seasons. A talented champion.

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Sandi Woo, keeping it serious in the high pressure zone back stage (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Pina Busch Fellowship Alumni Scott Elstermann. Our bro-love got a bit too much for everyone else by the end, but what a bloody talent. Seriously. My admiration (bordering on adulation) was not unusual – the ManPack were transfixed whenever Scott rehearsed with us. To have not just the honour to rehearse so closely was so special, let alone watch him perform. And personally, to actually have the chance to perform a duet alongside Scott is something I’ll never forget. I don’t know what Scott is going to achieve over the next few years, but I’ll watching. You should too.

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Scott (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Finally, the force that is Annette Carmichael. Annette has an amazing ability to turn everyday people in to performers. It is not about 15 minutes of fame – but an opportunity to expand their personal identity. It draws you in and allows you to grow. Annette convinced us that we were worthy of the audience’s gaze. She built us up to be ready to take on the challenge – and stepped back as we stepped up. Her ability to weave a special place of magic for everyday humans to do something extraordinary is unique. Denmark and rural WA is fortunate to have her.

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Annette found a way to turn a footy player in to a dancer. I still don’t know how (Pic: Alison Bennett-Taylor)

I love this project. It has given me far more than I feel that I have given it, as the returns were so great. From the mental health benefits from expanding my creative mind; to becoming part of a Manpack; to taking up a new challenge. The physical benefits. The new opportunities. The improvements and impacts for our family and my relationship. The joy of seeing two small boys take to the stage a few weeks after my own show – the original reason to jump off and be involved was to show my sons they too could dance if they wanted to.

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Jack performing a solo onstage
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Henrik onstage

This project has brought me so much and genuinely made my life better than it was. I owe this project. I owe Annette for believing in me to fulfill my role in it. There is no pressure or obligation to repay the debt, but a passion to ensure that others have the chance to challenge themselves and reap their own personal benefits.

The next chapter: Annette is seeking Two hundred women (!) to perform in her next dance performance called Chorus (Denmark, Albany, Mandurah, Bunbury, Perth and Ravensthorpe) Workshops will take place across the South of WA July – Dec 2019 leading to performances in March 2020. Don’t make excuses – if I can, anyone can. Email your interest at projects@annettecarmichael.com.au.

A beautiful and honouring documentary from Rob Castiglione from last time around:

We made the paper:

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Another review:

https://www.seesawmag.com.au/news/youthful-exuberance-creates-a-future-from-the-past/

And the full show on Youtube:

 

How to trek Kokoda on a broken leg – and other things I learnt

I’d like to indulgently start with the two things I learnt about that I treasured the most from my Kokoda trek – a greater understanding of my beautiful Grandfather and what I learnt about myself and my family. They were my greatest learning and my greatest gains from my trek – but there were things that made that possible. This is what I learnt.

Family history

I learnt about why my Grandfather never really talked about his time in PNG. It was horrific. From being isolated as a platoon on ridge during the Battle of Isurava, fighting for his life; to being severely wounded trying to carry his platoon leader (Butch Bissett) out of the field; to being lost; to seeing his mates die; to fearing for his life; to thinking he probably wouldn’t get home; to fighting a foe that was battle hardened, unscrupulous and unforgiving.

We learnt about the battles. We learnt about the atrocities. We heard about mates having to bury their mates in interim grave sites. We heard about mates finding their mate’s graves so they could exhume and re-inter those mates at Bomana Cemetery. We learnt so much about what those young men faced. We were lucky to have an experienced guide that could explain the stages of battle, the way things worked out and give another layer of insight. It taught me much about my Grandfather.

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Personal learning

I got to learn a lot about myself and my family. I was able to learn that my Mum is an amazingly strong woman – determined and driven by the desire to pay tribute to her father – she pushed through excruciating pain to achieve her dream. To trek with what we thought was a sprained ankle (actually a broken leg) for eight days through mud and hills is beyond tough. I was able to learn that my Aunty Berna was also an incredibly strong woman – who rather than conquering pain (though she had some) – she overcame a genuine fear of being hurt. Berna successfully overcame her mind. Her doubts.

I learnt that my brother, Greg and I have different ways of showing support and love – neither are better or worse than the other – just different. I learnt that Greg can push himself to succeed. I learnt about him as a person, a brother and a man. I learnt about myself. I discovered new boundaries on how hard I could push myself. About the limits of my empathy and compassion. I I re-evaluated some of my life concerns and rebooted my brain. I thought a lot about my Grandfather and my Dad – and what great men and amazing influences the both were on me.

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Be realistic

Train your guts out for Kokoda. We put in hours and hours of strength and cardio training. I prepared carrying a 18kg pack. Soft sand. Middle of the day. Rain. Get out there and train. Most importantly, all the training you will do will not replicate Kokoda conditions or really prepare you for it. It is unique and bloody tough. What you need to do is get your body ready to recover quickly. Multi-day training programs are a must – get your body used to walking up big hills with sore legs. You’ll have sore legs on your trek.

Be ready

I spent our trek wet. It was rainy season and we got a lot of it. I would hang my wet shirt and pants on a stick outside my tent each night and put it on wet in the dark in the morning. It was rained on normally within a few hours anyway. That was when it wasn’t soaked with sweat or wet from a river. Don’t be precious about being wet. I gave up on taking my shoes off to cross creeks early on the first day. IF you somehow keep them dry across the creeks, if it rains, they’ll get wet anyway. Just get on with it. I also gave up drying them. After the first night of putting on my damp, smoke smelling shirt, I figured stuff it. I also wore the same shirt and pants the entire trek, just changing socks and jocks. I had dry clothes for night and sleeping. Everyone is different, but it really worked for me.

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Get good gear

Don’t buy cheap shit. Buy the best gear you can afford. Borrow it. Steal it. Spend a lot of money on a really high-quality blow-up pillow and light mattress. I splurged on my pillow and thanked myself every night. Buy a great, light sleeping bag. It is bloody cold high in the mountains. One night I was only sleeping in my silk sleeping bag liner and woke up at 3am shivering and confused. Take heaps of seal-able plastic bags to keep your precious stuff dry. Buy really good socks and get used to the idea they will be wet. Bring really good quality underwear and try to keep it dry. Bring really good foot-care stuff and use it often.

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Good shoes, poles, packs, shoes, make this easier

Boots or shoes

There are message boards filled with people asking questions and no real answers. I think I was the only person on my trek to wear shoes rather than boots. I wore Scarpa Vortex shoes (from paddy pallin) because I already owned them and they cost lots of money. They were great. I have terrible ankles and they were perfect for what we were doing. I wore low grieves and trousers, so they were mud free (inside) for my entire trek. Others wore boots and thought they were ok. Wear what you normally wear and make sure they are light.

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Note my muddy boots

Walking poles

Buy them. Seriously, don’t be a hero. Get them, they are great, almost everyone had them, they saved me from falling twice and helped me get up hills. I had really fancy Black Diamond Carbon Distance poles from doing Oxfam Trailwalker events, others had cheaper ones. Just remember, you get what you pay for.

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Walking poles

Picking a trek company

I learnt that not all tour companies are the same. Yeah, some talk about small groups and minimal impact. Some talk about their speed. Some are much cheaper than others. What I learnt during my trek is that if you are gong to a remote area of the world – don’t try and save money. Our trek had an enormous retinue of porters and support crew – and I really appreciated the layers of support they provided.

Adventure Kokoda and Charlie Lynn are the only people I would recommend. Are there others that do a great job? Probably, but I saw enough to know who I would go again with, or would trust my family and friends with.

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Sleeping situation

On the trail, there is no coordinated booking system for camp-sites – it is first in first served. No room? Keep walking. Adventure Kokoda sends your tent crew steaming ahead to secure a camp spot. Adventure Kokoda cook decent food for you (we watched another group cooking their own meals – there is no way I could’ve done that after getting in after dark and sorting out Mum). Adventure Kokoda has a one-person-per-tent policy – if I’d shared a tent with Gregory, I would’ve killed him in Efogi. You NEED space from each other.This applies to sleeping in huts. No thanks.

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Safety

Not every company makes sure you get home safe – Adventure Kokoda gave a stranded tour group one of our planes to make sure they got back to Port Moresby safely, while Charlie waited at Kokoda for a replacement plane to take him back. He put his time and convenience behind another tour company (whose guide had left them at Kokoda “Airport” with no way home, waiting for a  plane that wasn’t coming). Don’t try and save money trekking Kokoda. If you can’t afford to go with an established company, re-think doing it this year.

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Kokoda airport boarding lounge

Do I need a porter

I learnt that you should hire a porter. Seriously. Just do it.

Yes, you can walk without one, you big strong man you – but get over yourself and support the local economy and give a guy one of the only forms of employment available to him. You’re not proving anything trekking without one. Literally nothing. If you do walk the whole way without one, no-one cares. There’s no extra certificate. And you miss the opportunity to learn about the language and culture from your porter. The insights (and laughs) my porter shared with me really made my trek. Greg’s porter and mine did spend a lot of time helping Mum and Berna – so if you DON’T need one – consider who you are trekking with and if a spare pair of hands would be useful.

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Get a porter

How your porters are treated

As for the conditions for porters – please make sure your trek company looks after their guys really well. Use this as the guide on how to pick your company: if you give half a shit about the legacy of Kokoda and the amazing job the Fuzzy-Wuzzy angels did during that campaign, don’t use a company that rips off their descendants to save you a dollar.

Pick a company with strict and reasonable weight limits – some say 22.5kg is the max they’ll let a porter carry – that is huge. Our porters were limited at 18kg (keep in mind, things get heavy after a tropical deluge). My guy carried 16kg, I carried 14kg.

Make sure your company hires spare carriers for the extra gear that needs to be carried and hires spare hands if a carrier goes down with malaria. Make sure they supply sleeping mats and sleep bags (some expect porters to buy their own – from a meagre wage). Make sure they are paid. Make sure they are ethical. Think about why you are trekking and think about if those reasons align with your company.

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Isurava with our angels

Knowledge

If you want to trek Kokoda as a bucket-list trek and have no interest in military history – pick anyone. Or better yet, pick a far more picturesque trek elsewhere in the world. I saw a lot of jungle on my trek. And a heap of mud. Cinque Terre sounded lovely in comparison. Otherwise, pick a company that doesn’t just know the wartime history, but understands it. I’ve read a lot since I’ve come back – but never served in the army. The ability to have the stages of battle explained in particular sites really helped my understand what I was looking at and what my grandfather would have been expected to do upon arriving at a site. Shell-scrapes, trenches, defensive outposts and ambushes.

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Battle briefing with Charlie

Finally

Be present when you trek Kokoda.

I couldn’t get my head in to reading the history books before my trek and didn’t know my Alola’s from Efogi’s – so when you are there, take it in. Once I was home, I was able to connect with the books and understand what they were detailing.

Be interested in your support crew. Ask them about their village, their family, their culture (when appropriate), their language.

Buy things form the villages along the trail – fruit, hot cans of coke, snacks, trinkets.

Talk to your fellow trekkers.

Talk to your guide – ask relevant questions about the battles you are discussing.

Make the most of your time there.

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We did it: Isurava and the end of the line

The wrap-up of the trek. Learning more about Grandad’s time in Isurava and getting home.

Read the Introduction here

Read Part one here

Read Part two here

A Rock, but much more

I’ll never forget the feeling of wandering in to Isurava. The moment the huts and memorial came into view. It was such a relief. Our trek from Alola to Isurava had only taken two hours, but this was our eighth day of trekking. Mum collapsed on the ground, buggered. We were able to lay up for four hours waiting for the rest of the trekking group to roll in. We did our washing. Had lunch. Lay in the sun. We had prime camping real estate too for our tents.

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Arrival at Isurava. Mum was a little tired.

Moments after the rest of our group arrived, torrential rain started. Our clothes were clean(ish) and dry. We just nipped undercover and watched the tired walkers scramble about trying to get into their tents. It was nice to be on the right side of things for a change.

Isurava is the most impressive and imposing memorial along the Kokoda Trail. It is one of the few examples of things that the Australian government has done right. After seeing significant battlefields marked with memorials individual RSL’s or battalion groups had fund-raised for and installed; after seeing the lack of infrastructure along the trail; after seeing disused clinics built in completely forgotten villages far from where they were needed, it was nice to see a memorial that in some way was appropriate.

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That didn’t stop the land-owner of the memorial “closing” it for access to trekkers unless we coughed up extra money to walk in there. Greg and I were perplexed. We’d trekked hard to get here and now couldn’t get in. Once Charlie and his head security man, Big Joe rolled in – there were some stern words, some stern postures and the ropes came down.

There had been an issue with payment for the owner of the land in the past, and ‘surprise, surprise’ at some point in the past, the wrong family got paid by the Australian government for access to the site and had moved on – with the cash. Now this guy was left mowing the lawns in preparation for Australian dignitaries who would be choppered in for ANZAC day, but not getting paid right. More prime Australian bureaucracy at work.

On our way from Alola that morning, Mum needed a rest on a log. “In behind the log was a sign saying “Cons Rock” and asking for five Kina per trekker to enter. Roger’s porter, Sebs told us it was the surgeon’s rock during the campaign and was the setting for the field medic during the Battle of Isurava. I stood at the top, keen to make it to camp – but compelled to look at what the medics dealt with during the war.”

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Still smiling. Just.

“I made my way down a short but steep track and saw a large flat rock covered in beautiful red flowers in a clearing. My eyes welled with tears and it took my breath away as I thought of the brave work the medics would have done – faced with hopeless cases and broken young men.”

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“Con’s rock”

“As I walked closer I noticed a plaque on another rock – this was the place Butch Bisset was carried to after he was wounded. This was the place Stan Bisset held his brother as he died in his arms. This was the place Grandad and his mates were trying to get Butch back to camp when the Japanese attacked them, where Grandad was wounded, and lead to him being left for dead. This was part of our story.”

I grabbed the others and we spent some time by the rock. There were more tears. This was close to Grandad. We knew – somewhere between this rock and somewhere at Isurava – he was wounded. Kombi, the trek medic came down the hill with a bunch of red flowers to place on the rock with us. It was a special moment on our way to a special place.

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Mum meeting the curator of the rock.

Dawn at Isurava

“We held an incredibly moving dawn service today at Isurava memorial. Charlie explained the Battle of Isurava to us, and pointed out the important aspects of the battle ground. One such aspect was the hill that Butch Bisset was wounded upon.”

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With all this information, when we returned to Australia – the books that had meant next to nothing – meant so much. Records of the Battle of Isurava meant working out Grandad’s time there, was now possible. As part of the 2/14th’s B Company, his platoon (commanded by Butch Bisset) had relieved 11 platoon on the ridge. They withstood heavy attack and “close-quarter fighting” (Peter Brune, A Bastard of a Place, pg. 147). The 10th inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese soldiers.

“When you fly by helicopter over this Isurava high ground you are struck by its isolation” (Peter Brune, A Bastard of a Place, pg. 148). Standing at Isurava, looking at this ridge (and later that morning walking part of it), it really was isolated. Grandad and his mates had serious “work” to do up there. It was no wonder he never spoke of it. Again, written by Brune about this ridge and the 10th: “this type of close fighting the individual soldier, as the enemy gains ground under attack, fights an exceedingly personal war…….. the high ground and its cane field had to be held – lose it and lose Isurava”.

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Eventually the battle required the 10th to withdraw. In an effort to carry out their platoon leader Bisset, Grandad and his mates had come under fire again, while attempting to descend uneven ground and as darkness was encroaching. A grenade caught Grandad. He was severely wounded and lost an eye to the shrapnel. He lay unconscious and amidst the fighting – presumed dead. The others pushed on, getting Bisset back to safe ground where he would die with his brother.

Grandad eventually came to as the Japanese soldiers took the ground, bayoneting and kicking the dead as they went. The Japanese went on to take Isurava, and it took Grandad five days to make his way around their lines and back in to Myola. Missing an eye. Scared. Alone. Presumed dead.

His mother was notified that he was missing, presumed killed in action. He was listed in a memorial book as KIA. Some of his mates from the 2/14th, being a Victorian battalion, didn’t hear from him after the war. When he walked into a reunion in Victoria some fifty years later, his mates who believed he was dead in a world before Facebook were shocked he’d survived.

Amazingly he made it. He survived. He avoided horrific tropical infection. He trekked out from Myola to Ower’s Corner, bandaged, but mobile – there were too many wounded for him to be stretchered. He was offered, but refused, knowing others couldn’t walk. He made it home to Australia. He got married. He had fifteen children. He only applied for his war medals in 1991. He rarely spoke of the army, the war or Kokoda. My only memory of him mentioning the trail (he did call it a “track” out of respect for the PNG and the battle honour, I’ve called it the trail) was on seeing the Sydney Swans trek it in a television documentary, he had quipped: “It looks like a highway compared to when I was there.”

All of this made much more sense as the Battle of Isurava was explained. I had no idea where he had been actually wounded before the trek. Berna and Mum knew more – I just knew it was “Kokoda”. Everything made sense. We hadn’t just learned more about Grandad’s time here – we had been able to see it. We stood after the last post and a moments silence, before our porters and support crew sung for us. “Their voices were absolutely beautiful. They sung a number of songs and finished with the wonderful PNG national anthem. We gave ours a decent crack, but lacked the ability the PNG boys displayed.”

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“We then took some time to soak up the monument. It’s a travesty this is the only real monument on the trail.” We then took several hundred photos before heading for Hoi. We passed ADF security hiking in for ANZAC day, who were keen to hear about our trek; and other Adventure Kokoda trekkers, fresh on their second day looking shiny and new compared to us. We had reception for the first time in eight days – I didn’t message Jas and she hadn’t messaged me – I was glad because my head was firmly here on the trek and I didn’t want the emotion of home just yet.

Greg had a proper stack that morning hurting his elbow and his knee. It slowed us down a bit and reminded both of us, that while Mum and Berna seemed like they could fall at any moment – they weren’t alone – and it hurt.

At Hoi we were welcomed by a traditional dance performance in torrential rain. “I’ve never not cared about the rain so much in my life.” In fact my idea of rain, mud, sleeping comfort and hills have been changed forever.

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“We are to be woken at 3.30 tomorrow – will walk to the airfield, then breakfast, presentations and goodbyes to our porters. This will be sad.”

My porter, the 28 year old Vene from Sogeri is a real character. His sense of humour has really helped me get through some very tough long days. He was a legend that bloke. He lived with his sister and her kids. He would trek back to Ower’s Corner from Kokoda in two days, pocketing his airfare allowance. It took us ten. He does it in double-plugger thongs.

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These men were worth their weight in gold – Henson, Toni, Warina and Vene.

“This trip has been really emotional, and at times draining. I really missed Jas, Jack and Henrik and can’t wait to tell them about what I’ve seen and done. It will be a long journey home – starting from a 3.30am wake up call – but I’m ready to go home. I’m tired of mud – thick, gooey, sticky mud. I’m tired of insects and spiders. I’m tired of helping others. I’m tired of walking. I’m tired of wet clothes and wet shoes and socks. I’m tired of sleeping in a tent. I’m tired of being away from my family.”

As much as I wanted home, I was grateful and thankful of what I’d been able to see and learn – about Kokoda, my family and myself. “The word adventure is used too often. So is brave and courageous. I’ll use all three and they should be used – my courageous mother took on an amazing, brave adventure in Kokoda and I was lucky enough to go on the ride.”

The end of the line

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We made it to Kokoda and the incredibly underwhelming “museum” there. An Australian government sign told us the newly upgraded one would be opened in early 2016. It was April. There was no new building.

The trek was a downhill roll through the fog and mist. Mum did her best to power along but came in second last, just ahead of the incredible Bev and Roger. The group made a guard of honour for the last two groups, and clapped and cheered them in. The resilience and perseverance from Mum and Bev, in particular, had struck everyone. Yes they were slow but God – they had kept going.

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It was emotional getting to Kokoda – and in many ways, I was completely raw and exhausted. There were only so many more tears I could shed, but I managed quite a few. Our fellow trekkers were awesome. Their support and love to us all helped get us through.

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I couldn’t believe she had done it.

We had a “hearty breakfast”, farewelled our porters and headed for the airport for what would be a long wait. A thick fog ruled out landings for a few hours. I was keen to get back to Port Moresby and call Jas. I could call from Kokoda but I wanted the trek “done” before I checked in.

We eventually made it out in small caravan planes. One of our groups got stuck for several hours in Kokoda – another tour group from another company had been stranded by their leader without a plane. Charlie sorted them out with one of ours, which meant a long wait for some of our group. I was already three bourbons and a shower deep at Sogeri lodge when they rocked up, tired and over it all. Expect the unexpected.

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Kokoda Airport Business Lounge.

When we landed – I called Jas. As she answered I couldn’t speak. After a few minutes I got enough sentences through to let her know that somehow Mum had done it on a “sprained ankle”, and we were safe. I had a lot to tell but couldn’t do it at the time.

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The next day we attended another Dawn Service at Bomana Cemetery before having a “hearty breakfast” and getting out of the lodge. Being back in Australia after such an epic adventure was bizarre. “You want to scream that you’ve just done this amazing thing – this huge achievement – but given the lack of recognition and understanding of the Kokoda campaign, you wonder what is the point.” Our Australian taxi driver from Brisbane airport didn’t know where Kokoda was, or what it was a part of. I was determined to pass on the “Spirit of Kokoda” once I got back to the real world – and that has manifested in speaking regularly to the Year 10’s at my local high school about Kokoda and the Battle of Isurava. We talk about my Grandad, who grew up in their town; about Stan and Butch Bisset; the 2/14th and the 39th and the rest; about Bruce Kingsbury, VC; about war; about sacrifice; about losing your mates; and about remembering. It’s an honour. One I am grateful for.

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At the start.

“I hope one day I can go back to the trail. Back to Myola. Back to Isurava. Not soon, but one day. Perhaps with Jack and Henrik so they can learn about their heritage – learn about the amazing war-time efforts of their Great-Grandad Jack. Allow them to learn about the great peace-time efforts of their amazing Gran. Allow them to continue the story of Kokoda – to build on our family’s story. Build on our history.”

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Band of Benson Brothers. Granny’s four boys saw active service in WW2, including Kokoda, Borneo and Tobruk. All came home.

 

Note 1: There will be one more post about the things I have learnt and some tips for surviving a trek. Thank you for reading.

Note 2: As explained in the introduction, it turned out my mum, Anne, had not sprained her ankle on the second day of our trek – she had actually broken her leg. The x-rays performed two weeks (!) after she returned home showed a fracture to her tibia and fibula. Nine weeks in a moon boot had it fixed. The shoulder took a little longer.

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Mum’s leg back in Brisbane.

 

 

A “sing-sing” in Efogi, a big cry at Myola, and sleeping on a hill in Alola

The next instalment in my revisit to my Kokoda trip with Adventure Kokoda in 2016.

Read the introduction here

Part one here

This next instalment explores our trek to Myola – why it was significant and the good grace of the shovel man.

“Sing-sing”

Morning broke and we were milling about starting to get ready. The word from our tour leader Charlie, was to get Mum and Aunty Berna out ahead of the group and on their way before the rest of the group left.

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Pre-‘sing-sing’

This would put them ahead of the shovel man, but this would be ok. This was also the morning we were meant to meet the school children in Efogi, pass on our books and gifts, and hear them sing. I realised I was going to miss it leaving early. I felt sick.

Before leaving Denmark, my son Jack knew I was going to pass on some gifts to some children in a village. As a parting gift he had drawn a picture of me holding a little girl’s hand and passing her a present. This image – a simple kids drawing – had got me through the last couple of days when I wasn’t sure if we would even make it to Efogi. Jack wanted me to tell him all about the children when I got back. And I was going to miss it.

Greg and I were getting ready to leave with Mum when I attempted to tell him how I was feeling about missing this. It was really not that significant I told myself, as I tried to explain my disappointment in missing this little ceremony. We’d both really pissed each other off the night before and things weren’t 100% yet. I tried to talk, my voice cracked – and then the tears ran. The sheer exhaustion and emotion of the past few days, plus missing my kids – hit me like a train.

We finally hugged and made up, and he told me we had to stay. For Jack and Henrik. Mum would be fine without us – and this was important. Part of me felt silly for being so upset. Part of me felt so relieved he knew how important it was to me at that point.

Mum and Berna set off towards Kagi with Greg’s porter, Henson and my mate, Vene. The two other back-markers of our trek, Bev and Roger, took off just after them.

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The children of the village sung for us – wonderful little songs about frogs and friends, and of course a spirited rendition of O Arise, All You Sons. We were given fresh flowers and had the chance of taking a heap of photos. I was partnered with a delightful little boy called MK. Our trekking group responded to their singing with a lame attempt at our national anthem – lacking a lot in melody and cuteness. We were given a prayer send-off and pointed in the direction of the track.

Greg and I made sure we were at the front of the group initially. We didn’t want the pack to catch Mum and Berna, and the trail was narrow. Perhaps we might slow them down. We didn’t need to worry about that. On the Adventure Kokoda treks, you have a shovel man – ours was Bradley.

Bradley was from Efogi and had a teenage son. He had a great sense of humour and an even greater sense of what was going on with our trek – consistently stopping the group to “feel the breeze” or “take a look at that view”. At one point, Bradley was trying to get us to look at a mist-covered mountain from a mist-covered mountain.

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No-one is allowed to pass the shovel man, even at a rest point (the shovel may find its way in to the back of your head). Bradley was stalling our group and holding us back to give Mum and Berna more of a chance.

“We eventually got to mum at Kagi village. Her and Berna were the first in to lunch – a mighty, mighty effort”. They were exuberant. Mum looked like the cat that got the cream. Maybe this sprained ankle was coming good. They took off soon after we got in, full steam ahead to Bomber’s Camp. Our highest altitude camp.

I spent the day talking to the other trekkers – particularly Richard, from Newcastle. He got it. Everything. Mum, Grandad, us. He had his own things to explore and work through on our walk – but his conversations were golden.

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Just down here…

“Mum, Gregory and I made it before dark (first time in four days!) and were able to have a wash in the freezing cold river, which will be great for recovery.” Up until that day, I had been washing in the dark in the river, often after carrying buckets of water up to the tent for Mum and Berna to wash in. I would wade into the water in my hiking clothes and boots, get undressed while washing my clothes, throw them back on, and walk back to my tent. I would then hang my dripping clothes on my tent spikes – to be put on cold and wet in the dark the next morning. Doing this in the light was a nice change.”

I went to bed tired, but surely less tired than Mum. I have had everyone in the group tell me “she is so inspirational.” I tended to agree.

“Tomorrow we finally reach Myola and the site of the field hospital. It will be emotional.”

Our pilgrimage

We had been sent straight to Big Myola, while the rest of the group headed for the US bomber site and Little Myola. This was what we’d come to see – the site of the field hospital Grandad had wandered in to, severely wounded from the battle of Isurava. After being left – presumed dead – he’d spent five days wandering the jungle to get here. Our wander had been dramatically easier – but we were still anxious to see this site. Grandad ended up naming his property in Albany, Myola. This was our pilgrimage site.

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Grandad’s father was Swedish – we had reconnected with our Swedish family a few years before.

“The walk wasn’t too tough compared to previous days and we arrived in time for morning tea – and in good shape. It was incredible to make it to this almost sacred place. There was plenty of tears – from all of us. I can’t really describe the feelings I felt, starting across this flat grass “lake” to the point Grandad would’ve come in to. A mixture of happiness, sadness and pride.”

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Mum. Exhausted and relieved.

“The porter’s crew were incredibly respectful of our family during our time there – very quiet – and gave us a lot of space (and time). This was a welcome and beautiful thing for them all to recognise. I personally thanked Warina (Mum’s porter), for helping Mum to get to this point – it had looked doubtful a number of times.”

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Success.

The space the porters and support crew gave us was incredible. They had all heard why we were going there – and the usual Pidgin sing-song chatter and teasing that was the soundtrack to our morning tea breaks was held for us. It was silent. There was hand shakes and hugs. Respect.

We eventually tore ourselves away from this place and made our way back to the trail. We were emotionally weary. The next few days were going to be tough – we’d reached our goal. We needed another one.

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We climbed Mt Bellamy (2,400m) and started our descent towards our camp site at Templeton’s crossing 2. “As we came down the hill the main group finally caught us. Mum kept pushing on, while my porter, Vene kept telling Bradley to slow down and let Mum come in first”. I know the main group wanted to push on past us, but Bradley – rising to the occasion – held the group back and Mum was the first trekker in to camp. Great for morale.

We did “wash-wash” and thought about dinner and what lay ahead.  I wasn’t sure what the motivation would be to get us to Isurava. Its significance wasn’t quite real to me yet. I chatted to Greg (one of the other trekkers, not my brother) about what lay ahead. Then he nailed it – “you’re probably keen to get to the Isurava memorial to pay your respects to your Grandfather’s mates who didn’t make it back”. It was so right. Our focus had been so much on Myola – the importance of the memorial hadn’t made it to our minds until now. That would get us there.

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“Just before dinner we had a quick toast of whisky to Grandad (his favourite). There were more tears and we said a few words to honour such a great man. The whisky almost tasted like Grandad, and I could almost feel him sitting there with us – whisky in hand, a grin on his beautiful face and a twinkle in his eye.”

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Little Jack and Big Jack (2010)

Eora and Alola

We left camp and hiked our way along to Eora creek. It took the Australian soldiers 13 days to fight their way from Templeton’s 2 to Eora – it took us a mere four and half hours. Charlie explained the battle for Eora creek and the various feats of bravery. This was the real benefit of having an experienced military guide – Charlie didn’t explain things like a book – he made the battle fields come to life.

We also learnt much of the atrocities here. The cannibalism, slaughter of surrendered troops, and using wounded Australian’s as bait. “By the time the Australians had got back to Eora creek – they didn’t just want to defeat their enemy – they hated them.”

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“We left Eora on the wartime Kokoda Trail for Alola. We were told it may take 2-2.5 hours. It took 3.5. Heavy mud all the way and a massive downpour slowed progress. Mum’s ankle is sore and her back is very sore. Berna’s feet are hurting and an early fall stripped her confidence and really slowed her down. Greg has a very sore leg and my left knee is playing up.”

We were to spend the night in Alola separate from the main group – just us four, Bev and Roger, and our new friend Rachel – with dinner prepared by 2IC “Kuk”, Sam. We spent the night chatting in the dark before a semi-restful sleep. Our tents had been set up on a steep slope so I kept ending up in the door of my tent. We had no idea how long the walk to Isurava would be – we had been told it was 4 kms and should take 45 minutes. “I’ve told the group to allow for 6 hours – just in case”.

 

 

 

 

“What the hell were we thinking?” – the first few days of my Kokoda Trek

In 2016 I walked the Kokoda Trail with my mother, my brother and my aunt. Now you’ve read that introduction – this post deals with our first few days, our flight to Port Moresby, the introduction to the rivers and the rain, and how one butterfly gave us the hope and faith to keep climbing.

NOTE: Any direct quotes from my diary will be in “quoted italics”. The rest are my thoughts and reflections from now, looking back.

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Our trip to Port Moresby wasn’t too difficult, but wasn’t all that straight-forward either. I left Jas with our two boys and set off on a journey of a life-time. “Leaving Jasmine, Jack and Henrik was really hard this morning. I didn’t shed any tears, but I was crying inside. I partly didn’t want to be too upset for Jack and distress him – and partly as I know this is the first steps of the journey – it will be much harder once we are are in Papua and out of touch”.

It was certainly a journey before the journey. A 5-hour car trip to Perth, with a brief break for a breath – and the chance to listen to Mum and myself interviewed on ABC radio; a flight to Brisbane; an overnight stay in perhaps the smallest three-bedded hotel room in the Southern Hemisphere; an aborted take-off due to issues with the brakes (better to find that out prior to being in the air); the eventual flight after a long delay; and an hour long drive up the hill to Sogeri Lodge. Looking back this week in my diary, I laughed when I noted:

“Mum’s ability to turn simple travel in to a pressure cooker situation is incredible”.

Mum is a lot of things. A chilled-out travel companion is not one of them.

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On our way to Sogeri Lodge

Our afternoon at Sogeri Lodge was full of nervous energy. We had a big group doing this trek. Mum wasn’t the oldest (by a few months), but Mum and Berna were the only people whose father had served on the track. We were trekking with Adventure Kokoda. Charlie Lynn was our guide and he seemed quite a character on early introductions.

Everyone had different reasons for being there. Some shared them. Some chose to keep the reasons private. Some people were bullish about what lay ahead. Some (like me) were full of nervous trepidation.

Greg and I returned to our room and set about packing our bags for the trek.

Who knew packing (and re-packing) could be so hard, hot, stressful, confusing and time-consuming.

We were to leave the non-essentials here at the lodge, pack a bag of things to carry ourselves, and pack a dry bag our porter would carry for us. We’d both debated carrying all our own gear. We’d both decided not to. I’d trained with an 18kg pack in the final weeks, but decided to be cautious with this unknown beast. In the end the pack I was carrying came to 12kg (with water anyway). It weighed more wet. My porter carried 10kg of my kit, plus his gear. Finally, at the end of the night, sweaty and strung out, “I realised my toothbrush is SOLIDLY packed in my gear. It’s not coming out”.

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Where did I leave my jocks?

A start on the trail

The next day was an early start and then hours of pensive waiting. I wanted to get cracking, but we were held by Adventure Kokoda at the lodge for what felt like an age. This in hindsight was smart. We did a tour of the farm and were exposed to the sun and the heat before heading back to the fans (we weren’t just thrown into the jungle and physical danger as our bodies adapted).

We took the obligatory photos at the start of the trail and met out porters. My porter was Vene. He was enormous. And quiet. Friendly enough, but not much to say in those early interactions. My initial thoughts were he wasn’t going to be much of a conversationalist, but this changed over the trek and I grew to love his sense of humour.

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Mum and Greg – Greg doing his best Jim Heslop impersonation

We cracked into the first stages of the walk and navigated the slippery downward slopes that took us into the jungle. The hundred strong trekking group were quickly swallowed up by the green, and our little group was soon plodding along at our own pace.

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Our group, moments before being sucked in to the jungle

We were trekking in the rainy season, so the trails were muddy and the rivers were flowing. The Goldie River was our first real adventure. We kept our shoes and boots on – they were wet already (others chose to swap into sandals) and crossed the river clutching a rope line in one hand – our porters hand in the other. I felt like a child, but the river wasn’t to be messed with.

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The Goldie River

We rolled into camp not far behind the main group, threw our gear in our tents and headed down for a wash-wash in the river. I passed out in my tent straight after and missed the first course of dinner before being woken up by Greg. The next day was a 4.30 cooee call and a big day planned – heading across the Imita Ridge to Ofi Creek.

Trouble strikes

We started the day full of pep and bluster. Mum was trekking really well – and I was feeling confident the fitness she’d worked so bloody hard for in the months leading up to this – would have her in good stead. The conditions were slippery, the rain at times torrential. Nothing could have prepared me for the physical demands but my fitness was keeping me going. Just after morning tea heading down a steep slop – disaster struck.

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Imita Ridge – just before things got tough

This is the full page from my diary that night:

2154 16 April 2016

That was tough.

Pretty buggered. 14-hour walking day.

Mum has rolled her ankle quite badly and I’m unsure how/if she can continue.

Difficult situation.

Since Mum rolled it, she did manage to walk for another 8 or so hours.

It will all depend on how it goes overnight.

I wish I could write more, but very tired,emotional and a 4.30 wake up call tomorrow.

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Just climb

The next day, I got out of my tent, did my foot care, put my wet shirt and pants back on (I gave up trying to dry my wet clothes over the fire – even if they did dry, they were wet within the hour from rain or sweat), put my wet shoes on and ate a “hearty breakfast” in the dark. We strapped Mum’s ankle as rigidly as we could and pumped some over-the-counter pain killers into her before setting off. It was a tough day.

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Setting off

We were to climb the “mighty Maguli Range,” as Charlie kept calling it. It was mighty. It was mighty big. Straight out of our camp at Ofi Creek, we were in what seemed like a vertical hill. Mum’s leg wasn’t great but her determination was massive. She ground away at the climb, being passed by every other trekker until we were at the rear of the field. Greg went ahead, keen to trek at pace. I walked behind Mum, keeping her company – keeping an eye on her. I wasn’t convinced she could pull this off any more and didn’t want to leave her alone, in case she worked that out herself.

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Not letting her out of my sight

We crested the summit, then headed downhill to Nauro. The downward pressure wasn’t making Mum’s trek any easier and the trail was slippery and difficult to navigate. We kept walking. For hours upon hours. We chatted when we could.

We crossed streams and rivers – a bamboo log crossing collapsed under Mum as she crossed it. Of course. More pain. We then reached the Brown River. Our guides had been pushing us to get to the river as quickly as we could, as the rain had been pouring down for an hour. As we came around the bend and saw the river streaming along, my quiet, almost silent companion in Vene looked at the river and just said, “Ah, shit!”.

The log bridge across the Brown River had partially washed away, and we were to wade out into the river, using the rope our guys were stringing up to avoid being washed away (like the eponymous Lieutenant Brown who drowned in this river in 1906). We were then to clamber onto what was left of the bridge and shuffle across to the other side. This was not the plan – and as it turned out – not what the rest of the group had faced.

Infrastructure on the trail is rudimentary. Despite our nation’s history and connection to this trail and its wartime history – our government seems to have no interest in supporting appropriate trail infrastructure. From washed-out bridges to long-drop toilets with no doors and beehives under the seat – our government seems keen on sponsoring consultants from Canberra and Port Moresby, and not so keen on ensuring the ongoing curation of our wartime history [rant over – for now].

We made it through the water and over the bridge – and on to some fabled flat land. 4 kilometres of it. I was excited. We were going to get a good head of steam up along this and get into camp before dark this time.

Then I saw it. 4 kilometres of root-infested swamp. Calf-deep sucking sludge, and slippery (AF) tree roots. We trudged along to camp and awaited dinner of bully-beef. I lay in bed and diligently wrote out my diary. I couldn’t be bothered but it seemed important to do – for myself and for my boys back home. I signed off that night with this:

I’ve walked each step with Mum today – as a tribute to Dad and Grandad. If I can help her through – to pay my dues to those two special men – then I’ll be happy. I loved them both and hope they’ll give me the strength to help Mum along.

A tough day

The next day was the walk to Efogi. Over Brigade Hill. And the Ladavi Saddle. It was “a really tough day – big slog and a lot of grunt work”.

We started the day walking from 5am with hard climbs in the dark. It was a 4-hour slog to make it to Menari for breakfast. Mum pushed herself and we were going to make it in only 45 minutes behind the main group. Considering the work we’d just done and our previous few days walking – this was great going. We were in great spirits. We were killing it.

Until, Mum stepped on a small slippery rock 20 metres from breakfast in Menari, crossing a steam no more than a metre wide. She crashed into the ground with a thud, and hit her head and shoulder. She bruised immediately and I wasn’t certain she didn’t have mild concussion. Mum assured me she didn’t. Mum would’ve assured me she wasn’t missing a leg at this point, so I took that with a grain of salt. A few dry crackers with peanut butter and honey and she started to perk up. Mum was rattled and sore – and no longer able to carry her own pack or water – but still going.

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Leaving Menari – just going up that hill over there

Charlie decided that it would be better for our group to split from the group and head straight up the face of Brigade Hill. He was taking the rest of the group a longer way through a valley and thought this would be a shorter and faster route. “He reassured us it wasn’t easier”.

He was right. It was hell.

It was like climbing a mud ladder. For hours. We had to drag ourselves and each other up seemingly impossible high steps, upwards from the river. We were covered in mud. It was hot. My legs and arms were burning. I had no concept how Mum was doing it – but we felt like there was a guardian helping us along the way.

After my Grandfather died, my Mum was particularly upset on the day before noticing a single black and white butterfly that flew around the corner. It hovered nearby for a while before fluttering off. Mum joked that it was Grandad – letting her know everything was ok.

Over the next few months on our hardest training walks together, we would often see a single black and white butterfly fluttering out of nowhere, keeping us company (one day for nearly an hour) before fluttering off.

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Tough going

This day as we dragged ourselves up the mud of Brigade Hill – a single black and white butterfly fluttered just ahead of us – climbing with us. It would hover nearby as we would stop every 10 minutes or so for a breath and to let our heart-rates drop, before fluttering ahead again once we started walking. It had appeared at the base of the climb, and stayed with us until the worst of the climbing was done. It kept us together mentally. We laughed at it and talked to it. As much as this was hurting – Grandad was with us.

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Not easy

We reached the top of Brigade Hill with the rest of the mob. Some suffering from unwelcome bursts of gastric disturbance, struggled in quite far behind us. It was nice not to be the back markers. There was a few comments that we must have been sent an easier way. I assured people it wasn’t – but got the feeling some felt we must have taken Mum up some sort of elevator. There wasn’t. “I’m not sure what she drew on to get her up that hill, but she made it”.

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Just getting to the top of Bridage Hill. Finally.

We had a service at the top of the hill after Charlie explained the failed defence of the area. It had been a disaster and many lives had been lost. It was sombre up there. There were so many moments along the trek that the thought of young men dying next to their mates overwhelmed me.

We finally headed off for Efogi – “a complex walk that had us walking along a sheer drop. I was a bit nerve-wracked, but we did ok”.

Despite our best efforts we failed to beat the sun to the camp. Our porters were a bit upset. They were doing serious overtime with Mum while their mates were resting up. I was wondering If Charlie would pull the pin on Mum’s efforts and fly her back for not being fast enough. I knew Mum was desperate to get to Myola and that not doing that would crush her – but this was not going to be our call. I needed us all to stay positive though and Mum had put in 14-hours of hard graft today to get us to camp – I wanted to celebrate that.

As we sat down in camp, I was pulling Mum’s boots and gear off as she slumped on a stool. She reminded me of a heavyweight boxer that was being really beaten up. I felt like a trainer or cut man. I mopped her brow, treated her wounds, and reassured her that she had this in her as she sipped the warm Coke I’d handed her. Mum was perking up. It had been a big day, but she’d done it. Surely tomorrow was going to be easier? At that moment, Greg and Berna asked Mum if she wanted to be taken by helicopter to Myola – to rest and try and walk the rest of the way if she could. There was a chopper coming the next day and it would be an extra $3,000 to fly her there. I was furious.

The conversation sucked the wind out of Mum instantly. What buoyancy there was, was gone. I wanted to scream and shout and carry on – we should have been celebrating a job well done.

What was said was completely reasonable. The idea was fine. The timing of the delivery wasn’t.

I sulked for the rest of the night before asking Charlie how he though Mum was going and how he thought things were going to pan out. He reassured me the hardest days were done (as he would) and that “he thinks Mum taking this trek on adds to the story of Kokoda.”

I took that as enough of a sign that Mum wasn’t going to be forced off the trek, and told Greg his timing was shit-house and he should have kept his opinion for a better time. Quite possibly back in Australia. I tried my hardest not to cry or yell and kept it all to a dark simmering rage. Greg didn’t agree with me. I told him what I thought of that too.

I went off to bed, filling my little one-person tent with steam and trying to work out how the hell we were going to make it through tomorrow.

Taking my mind back to Kokoda

Last week I went and spoke to some Year 10 students about Kokoda and my trek in April of 2016. It has inspired me to revisit my trek on the Kokoda Trail with Charlie Lynn and the Adventure Kokoda team, and over the next few weeks, I’m going to delve in to my diary and revisit a bloody long walk. . This trek was the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through physically: from the 4am wake-up calls to the mud. It was a trek that broke me down, then broke me some more. What made it even more special and even more challenging – was completing it with my mother – who finished the trek on what turned out to be a broken leg. 

NOTE: The next chapter to this story can be found here

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My mother, the media star upon her return

I’m not a super athlete by any means but I’ve done some challenging things in the past. I already had a couple of 100 km Oxfam Trailwalker treks under my belt (and all of the associated hours of training), plus some long trail running events – and been owned by them). Looking back (and since), Kokoda was by far the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever taken on. We trained hard for this thing – but nothing prepares you for it.

 

It wasn’t just the climbing and descending – the metres climbed comparable to an Everest summit attempt. What made it tough was the mud and the uncertainty of your foot placements. It was the relentless nature of the heat – only dissipating when the heaven opened up and you were drowned in heavy tropical downpours. It was the lack of respite that your wafer-thin blow-up mattress gave you inside your damp, cramped little tent. It was the isolation from the outside world – not speaking to my wife and children for 10 days when I really needed to debrief and vent with someone not going through this thing themselves.

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Ower’s Corner to Kokoda. Over those bumps.

Whenever I look back on this trek, there is a flood of emotions. There were times I was ready to go home. Not that going home was an option – there are no roads. You trek in and fly out of Kokoda. The only way of pulling the pin and escaping is a $10,000 helicopter ride. There were times that I was sick of walking behind my Mum. I stuck with her, but as her pain rose, her pace slowed – which meant hours of extra time on feet as we would crawl our way down dangerous mud cliffs to make it to camp hours after our fellow trekkers had washed up and one some occasions, eaten.

There were times I was sick of my fellow trekkers. Everyone had a story and a reason for being there – even if it was just a whim; nevertheless when my back and legs were aching and I knew I had another seven hours of trekking ahead of me, I didn’t want to chat. There were times as the nurse on the trek that I didn’t want to help with any more blisters or rashes or minor injuries. I was already treating Mum’s swollen and deformed leg. I didn’t really want extra work. I took it on though, knowing that everyone just wanted to get through this thing, and a nurse’s nature is often to help.

Physically, this place was exhausting, but when we layered in the other elements – it was beyond draining. We were trekking as a group of four – my Mum; my aunty, Berna; my brother, Gregory; and myself. My Grandfather, Jack had fought and been wounded here during the Battle of Isurava. My knowledge of his time in Kokoda was sketchy at best. I still to-this-day get his battalion (the 2/14th), mixed up with another battalion that served alongside them (the 2/16th). In my defence, the 2/16th were primarily West Australian, while the 2/14th were primarily Victorian. Before setting off, I didn’t really know much else about his time in Kokoda – in fact all I knew was he was severely wounded somewhere and walked back to Myola, before getting out to Port Moresby. I was to learn and experience a whole lot more.

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Granny Benson and her family

As each day of our trek progressed, the reality that Grandad, his brother Peter, and all their mates had faced during the war, started to become clearer and clearer. The heat. The thick jungle. The isolation. The threat of ambush. The bloodshed. As each day went by we learnt more and more about the battles, the skirmishes, the war-time atrocities that the Australian’s encountered, the selflessness, the loss, the death, and the agony.

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Jack and Peter Benson. Brothers first and foremost.

Each day our trek become more and more sombre – more reflective. Hearing about the rotting dead on the banks of the beautiful river we sat next to resting – in the areas the Australian’s were pinned down – was harrowing. The bloodshed at Butcher’s Corner (Brigade Hill). The blind courage of young men facing death at Isurava. The ingenuity and sacrifice of the 39th Battalion. The fallibility of commander officers. Every break was pre-faced with an explanation of the battle of that site. It seemed each of our steps on this trek wasn’t just in a soldier’s footstep – but in a soldier’s blood.

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Soldier being carried out during WW2

If we were distanced from this information – as many in our group were – it would have been simply upsetting and serious subject matter. However, knowing Grandad as the man he became, and picturing him seeing and hearing these things, gave the information a strong gravity. How he and his mates went on to live the lives they did once they got home is a miracle.

The hours of trekking each day and reflective nature of the walk left me exposed to a raft of emotions and feelings that I wasn’t planning on confronting during my time in Papua New Guinea. From pride and astonishment in my mother’s ability to push through the pain barrier, came pride that she had pushed through the emotional pain barrier of losing my Dad – to do such an amazing job of raising me. From there, came anger – and angry silent tears at the back of the trekking group that my Dad had gone and died on us when I still needed him so much – and anger my son’s wouldn’t meet him. From there, came sadness at that situation: sadness for them and sadness I was away from them. More tears. There was sadness my Grandad was gone. Sadness and regret for things I’ve done and not done in the past. Angry at myself for my shortcomings back in the real world – for the crap that I worried about that seemed really insignificant as I sweated my arse up yet another fucking big mud hill. Anger at the stupid things I’d argued with my wife about over the years – or things I’d said that I shouldn’t have. Anger at regrets. Anger at focusing on regrets. Regret for being angry at my Dad. Regret that I hadn’t done even more to spend time with him. Tears. Tears from pain. Tears from watching Mum in pain. Tears for being the one stupid enough to walk behind her each day – just in her footsteps – helping her along the way. Anger at the suggestion she should stop trekking. Anger at the thought she would continue. More tears. Tears as I’d chat to the other trekkers about how tough Mum was and how determined she was to get to Myola, and to Isurava, and then to Kokoda, and then home. Pain and exhaustion as I lay alone in my tiny damp tent. Tears from the loneliness as I wrote in my stupid diary each night. The feeling of dread having Charlie’s “COO-EE” shatter the darkness and force me out of the warmth of my sleeping bag and into my dripping wet clothes, wet shoes and wet backpack in the cool dark, inhale a “hearty breakfast,” and start another 10 or 12 or 14 hours of more bloody trekking. Fear over what this day would bring. What physical torment would we face? How big a climb and descent today? How many river crossings? What emotional torment would the day throw up?

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One man tents. Try putting a pair of skins on while damp from a wash in a creek in one of these

What thoughts would I be forced to process as I trekked along at the back of our little party, keeping an eye on Mum and wishing us closer and closer to our destination?

The biggest advantage of being such a big ball of emotions in this environment, being at the back and either covered in sweat or torrential rain, was that no-one could see your tears. Provided you kept it to silent sobbing. That’s not a joke.

It was more than a trek. It was more than some bucket list pilgrimage. It was more than a remembrance of Grandad and his fallen mates. It changed my brain. It challenged my being. Over the next few weeks I’ll dip back in to my diary and finally share some parts of my trek over a few posts in the lead-up to ANZAC day: to share the things I learnt about Grandad, my mum, and myself.

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Touchdown in Brisbane. 7 Kgs lighter and happy to be home

 

NOTE: The next chapter to this story can be found here

Part two

Part Three

A crash course in Javanese culture – ten years on

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first trip to Indonesia. From the chaos I witnessed outside my car window on the way from the airport, to the culture I had no idea about – it was an experience I will never forget.

There are many striking things about Indonesia. The sounds, the sights, the smells – good and bad. It’s an ever-changing, and intriguing place. The majority of my time in Indonesia has been spent on the island of Java. The majority of that time the university city of Yogyakarta. Don’t ask me about the best villa in Bali, or tips for exploring that Island- I have no idea – the majority of my time in Bali has been spent in hotels near the airport waiting for my next flight to Yogya.

Yogya is a fascinating City – town with more universities than the entire tertiary system of Australia. It stakes its claims as cultural capital of Java and in many ways Indonesia; claims the best batik; the birth of the nation; the original capital city; longest running sultanate in the archipelago; the best dancers. All of these claims can be disputed – either by the neighbouring City and fierce rival Surakarta, or by other cities or even Islands within the archipelago, or Malaysia – let’s not go there.

My first visit to Java was over 10 years ago. I was going head first into a Javanese wedding ceremony – intricate detail, importance, ceremonial splendour.

It was our wedding I was going to. We were married in Australia in the March- and were now going  to have the chance to have a traditional Javanese ceremony. My mother-in-law had always wanted one of her children to have a traditional Javanese ceremony; and I was determined not to say no so this kind of experience.

After arriving in Yogya, I had one afternoon to acclimatise and familiarise myself with the place, the language, and the culture before the wedding ceremony. It was rapid cultural immersion.

We arrived at my mother in-law’s only to be whisked away for what I was told would be a few photos. We were some traditional clothing and headed into down-town Yoyga to withstand several hours of staged photography. By the fourth hour we were to head to the kraton or Palace some more photos. I was cooked – physically and mentally. Hot. Sick of posing. Overwhelmed with the entire experience.

I was ready to go home, so pulled rank on more photos.

That night the men and women from the kampung or village gathered in separate houses for a bit of a get together. It was kind of a Javanese bucks party. Apart from everything that makes a bucks party a bucks party, segregation of genders.

The local Imam came and read a few words from the Quran and gave us his blessing. In our kampung there’s a mix of Muslims and Catholics, there’s no segregation of religion, the Imam was a friendly guy who did a good job and everyone seems pretty pleased with his input.

Well least I think. I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, but it all felt pretty positive.

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Not in anyway overwhelmed

The next morning saw an early start for Jas. It’s good to see across cultures that women are still expected to do the bulk of the dressing up and beatification. Jasmine had the most incredibly elaborate arrangement of fresh flowers I had ever seen, tarring of her hair to create Widow Peaks, which all included an intricate Gold Leaf outline.

I on the other hand was only being wrapped in several metres of sarong material and having elven ears pinned to my head.

I had been given the option of wearing the full traditional Javanese outfit – with an unusual hat with fake ponytail- or a Dutch variation which was basically a sarong with a blazer.

I was only going to do this once so I went the whole hog.

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What had I got myself in to

Huge sarong in place. Bare chest. Kris. Flat top hat. Eye make-up. Pointy ears. Fake ponytail. I was in this big time. I was wishing I had a few more weeks to prepare my upper body to be exposed to several hundred people, but my pecs were as good as they were gonna get with the shorter notice so I just went with it.

One could have excused me of laughing at myself, dressed in this way – but to everyone else involved in dressing me, this outfit and every symbol it represented carrying huge gravity and respect.

The Javanese lady (a Pemaes) that walked me through my enrobement did so with an almost holy reverence – including the form of Javanese language she used to explain things to me, the most formal version of the language. Unfortunately, this formal version of the language is not used that often – so even those translating for me had moments of confusion.

There was great Reverence and seriousness of everyone around which really set the tone. I did my best to embody the respect and regality my clothing represented.

This was not big kids fancy dress, this was respecting centuries of tradition and culture.

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Act casual

Once we were dressed, we headed out through the kampung, to our waiting car. Jas looked incredible. The detail in her hair, and her outfit was amazing. She moved so gracefully and looked every part of the Javanese princess. I did my best to look strong and regal. It was not easy, but I tried my hardest.

Upon arriving to the hall we were separated once again. Jas had her mother as support and translator. I had to elders from the kampung. They knew no English. I knew know Indonesian or Javanese. They were meant to explain the ceremony and the process to me before we hit it head first. We gave it a go for a few minutes before resigning ourselves to just winging it.

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Who me?

We headed back in to the hall and to the waiting throng of around 400 people. Our first task was to throw betel leaves at each other. One with the right, one with the left, one more with the right. This got lost in translation, so I stuffed the order up a little. There was howls of laughter and cheering, before the betel leaves were returned to me for another go. I quickly asked what this all symbolised, and were met with vacant stares. The Pemaes (the lady running the show) had moved on to the next thing, and no-one had a quick answer.

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Me and my homies throwing betel leaves at demons

This happened several times during the ceremony, or afterwards. No-one seemed to have a straight answer. It wasn’t until we moved to Yogyakarta for six months that we learnt about the symbols – and why no-one could tell us.

These elaborate, traditional ceremonies are expensive, and nowadays not fully embraced by the Muslim side of things who want traditional Islamic ceremonies. People were favouring different ceremonies, either from cost or religion. Roll in to the detail that most of the explanations are in the most formal version of Javanese that no-one really speaks (sort of like Old English or even Latin).

Years later, we learnt that the throwing of the betel leaves is to show everyone that we are real people. Not ghosts or spirits. The betel leaves had the power to chase away evil spirits, so if they hit us, we were flesh; not demonic impostors.

Next job for the bewildered bule was to crack an egg with my foot. I’m not huge on textures, so was a little apprehensive, but got it done. My egg smashing prowess was observed by the crowd and appreciated before it was time for Jas to wash my feet. These two acts were symbols of our readiness to become parents. Not too difficult to work out.

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Foot washing post egg; pre-pedicure

The Pemaes then escorted us to the ritual chair – where it was my solemn duty to provide Jasmine with a selection of goods to signify the handing over of all of my wealth to her. Given her earlier foot-washing, it was the least I could do.

We the sat in front of our guests on a stage adorned with incredible fresh floral arrangements and proceeded with the ceremony. I had to make three balls of rice, very particularly, under strict instructions from the Pemaes. Jas then had to eat first. Then I. Then we drank sweet tea. Everyone was happy.

We then received a blessing from our parents. Well, Jasmine’s mum and step-dad. I had to leave my Kris with the Pemaes while we headed over, which seemed very reasonable.

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Simple subservience

 

After kneeling subserviently before them, we were then allowed back to our seats to watch Traditional Javanese dancing and an extended gamelan performances, before withstand  enjoying the efforts of a local rock cover band.

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Observing the dancing

While we sat and sweated, our guests feasted on an amazing spread of food. We were regal and gracious (and a little drippy from the heat) as we allowed EVERYONE to eat while we watched. My despair at the end of the ceremony to find all the food gone was immense.

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Guests enjoying the food I did not get to

To close our ceremony, all 400 guests came briefly to the stage; one by one and shook our hands, kissed us, passed on messages of congratulations, etc. Everyone had been having such a great time that there was a lot of positivity and love.

My elf ears had really started to pinch by then and my hat was too tight, so I was having trouble faking my smiles with my throbbing head and my little shoes were pinching my toes; by I shook every hand and got over myself. Jas had a couple of kilos of flowers pinned in to her scalp so I wasn’t suffering alone (or even suffering comparatively).

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We had to focus on our serious faces for the traditional photos

We eventually headed home to wash in the cold bucket of water that serves as our shower and attempt to scrub the tar out of Jasmine’s hair. Pak Wid/Oom/Jasmine’s stepdad had arranged a night in the best local hotel for us, so we were quiet happy to make use of the hot water to wash up.

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You guys are great!

It was a whirlwind experience – my first trip to Yogya was only seven days long and included the photo shoot, the amazing wedding ceremony, a trip to Borodur temple, Prambanan temple, the Merapi volcano and the fish restaurant.

It sparked something inside of me, the understanding that if was to understand my wife, her mother and her family better – I was going to have to learn more about Java, Javanese culture and some language.

It was a life-changing experience, and ten years on, I’m glad I did it. It was the start of a journey, the start of a range of awesome new experiences.

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