“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

Macho Macho Men

Macho, macho man; I wanna be, a macho man; Macho, macho man (yeah, yeah); I wanna be a macho! You’ve gotta be a certain type of man in our world – particularly in the rural area. Welcome to this rambling thought piece that wanders through some ideas on how railing against a stereotype can be challenging – and at times, you have to think, why bother?

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Apologies for the Village People reference. I mean, who doesn’t absolutely love them –  but it is more than dated, and the link to my macho man post is a little tenuous. The Village People song was more about getting as fit possible and being ready to get down with, anyone you can – while this is more about being a certain type of man and acting in a certain way. A macho way all the same.

Now, as a man who chose nursing as a profession – I’ve experienced questioning on my sexuality based on that choice. From the start of my university studies, some of the men that I played football alongside would regularly call me gay. Or a faggot. For studying nursing. Some of it was “harmless” (see homophobic) joshing that was more about having some fun than actually thinking I was a homosexual, but sometimes I actually wondered if they thought I was.

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I was quite comfortable with my sexuality, so didn’t pay much attention to this borderline homophobic abuse; but looking back, I really feel for anyone who was in my presence that may have been gay, or bisexual, or questioning; and hit by any of the ricochet. I wish, having my time again – that instead of laughing this abuse off or even playing along to cope – that I was a stronger ally and called out the language that was being sent my way for what it was. It wasn’t until years later, at the WA launch of the Safe Schools Coalition, an amazing two day workshop; that it really dawned on me that I should have been stronger.

I’ve been involved in male-dominated sporting groups for most of my life and they have times that they are wonderfully supportive – provided you fit the mould and do and say the right things. As a young nurse who doesn’t drink beer, there were times that I felt like my club mates thought I was really quite odd. Again, I was pretty comfortable being me, but there were times that, in that hyper-masculine setting, that I felt pressured into conforming with behaviour I wasn’t proud of or comfortable with; or letting things slide when I should have stood up stronger.

For instance, it has taken me a long time to feel comfortable enough to challenge people’s blatant racism or sexism within this setting – particularly when I know I am in the absolute minority. My wife comes from a Muslim family, I have Muslim friends, and have travelled mainly in Muslim-majority countries – so when some life-expert who hasn’t left the state wants to give a lecture on what “they” are all like, I can’t help but introduce the fact that, in my experience, the Muslim’s I know personally, haven’t waged jihad on me. Well, I don’t think my mother-in-law has….

I’ve also tried to model better behaviour and language in my own conduct – particularly know that I am coaching young men, particularly around attitudes to women. I’ve tried to change the language we use as a team – no homophobic or transphobic slurs; no one is a pussy; we do modified push-ups, not girl push-ups; the world girl is not to be used as a slur; I try to casually bring up female sporting achievements, the AFLW has helped with relevance, as casually bringing up Elaine Thompson was a challenge. I’m not a feminist – I don’t feel worthy of using that label to describe myself when I feel that there are many more people, women in particular, who are doing much more to be advocates, leaders and revolutionaries. All I’m doing is not being a douche canoe. I don’t deserve a medal.

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I also try to model this behaviour, language and attitudes for my sons. I’ve also, always, been physically affectionate with them. I was wary of the concept of “handling” them like boys from the beginning, and while you can’t break from everything that is engrained, you can try. I am determined to continue to show them that kisses, cuddles and touch are normal between men. I’ve tried to model it with their uncles and our male friends. Reading this excellent piece by Clementine Ford (and being lucky for her to tell me about it discuss it before it was published) has made me even more certain that we have to challenge the social norms around male touch. We just need to chip away to normalise it. My father was wonderfully affectionate to me up until the time he died. As a young teenager, I felt really embarrassed when he would hug me or give me a kiss goodbye. Mortified. Now, I look back thankful he did, and miss it greatly.

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My father was forced, through ill-health, to be the “stay-at-home” parent for me in my first years of life. He eventually went back to work and resumed his cultural norms, but for a while there, he was on the other side. Since my eldest son was born, I haven’t worked full-time. I’ve taken time away from formal work; to work within our home, raising our children.

I currently study from home and work part-time while my wife is the major breadwinner in our family. Working as a teacher in a primary school as well as running her own tutoring business is seriously hard work – hard work that few actually recognise or acknowledge. I find her dedication to both roles both tiring and inspiring. A perfectionist, incredibly intelligent and highly-qualified – my wife does not do things by halves and does not phone in a session in either role.

Part of taking on this role, of majority breadwinner, as a mother, is fraught with judgement (both external and internal), guilt and and fear of letting others down. Society views working mothers as choosing work over their children. Of letting down their kids. This isn’t my thought bubble, a really intelligent women called Dr Judy Rose, did her PhD on the phenomena. Working fathers do exactly what my wife does – in fact typically greater hours away from the home, with arguably less engagement with it when home – but men are just doing what they are supposed to do. It is bollocks.

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By taking on this high level of work and earning capacity, my wife has enabled me to focus on my study. I would not be able to do this without her. By taking on this role, my wife has also enabled me to be the main worker in our home. Something I am comfortable undertaking, and feel grateful for the challenge – it’s bloody hard work. I have many peers that don’t understand this, wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it, or are in professions that wouldn’t allow them to do it. It’s a shame. Until more men understand the division of home-based labour that currently exists is entirely unfair, particularly around the mental load of organising the home – the less likely we are to see more women re-enter the workforce and bring their talent and expertise with them. We are poorer for it.

The other attempt to challenge norms in behaviour that I’ve recently embarked on is a men’s dance project. I’ve never done any form of structured dance. I’ve been an active participant in large-scale dance events that involve no structure, but lots of fun (concerts, festivals, gigs), but real dancing – as in choreography, timing, and visualisation, is a whole new thing. I’m well beyond my comfort zone. I’m working with an amazing group of community dancers – other men with no experience. We are physiotherapists, tradesmen, a mussel farmer, teachers, vineyard workers, and farmers. We are being led by an amazing director and dancer in Annette Carmichael.

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My involvement in this project isn’t just about “having a go”. I am determined to show my sons that men can dance too. And my young footballers. And anyone else caught in the collateral. I tried to encourage some friends to join alongside me, but was met with a resounding chorus of NO! Like nursing – dancing is seen as a realm for women. Like nursing – dancing is seen as something gay men do. Like nursing – there are plenty of raging cisgender heteros who do dancing. Even if you are a gay man who dances, or nurses, or both – you should be free to do it without being reduced to some tacky stereotype. Just as if you are a homosexual man who likes playing football – you shouldn’t have to listen to homophobic slurs, even if they aren’t directed at you.

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My boys have already responded really positively to my dancing involvement. They are hanging out for our performance in November. They join in when I practise my routines at home. They ask me about things I have been doing in practise. They are even putting on dance performances for me at home, regularly exploring movement and expression in their own – and feeling comfortable doing it. It’s great.

Now, dancing for myself is fun. I’ll get congratulated for doing it and patted on the back. Similarly to not being a douche canoe above – there are many professional dancers who are men, who deserve amazing recognition and praise – just as there are thousands of talented community dancers (and professionals) who are women, who deserve it too. A former country footballer giving it a go is a cultural curio – the bar is set low for me as far as expectations go, so the urge is to pat my back for trying.

Which, if personal recognition, was what I was chasing, then it would be worth, as I will be recognised. and congratulated for being brave for doing something thousands of people do every day. Don’t get me wrong- it is terrifying and I’m proud of myself for taking the challenge, but I am doing it for my sons, not to be heralded. I want them to feel that that dancing is a bit more normal, and if they want to challenge the norms and take it up, they’ve seen a male role model do it.

In talking with my mother, after I signed up for this dance project – she told me a story about my father. It turns out he was a very active Irish dancer when he was younger, regularly performing and competing. He loved it. Now, he never encouraged me to dance – but never discouraged me either. I always remember him being able to dance at weddings during traditional dances, cutting a rug with my Mum. It explains, perhaps, my electrically fast feet (ha); or perhaps, more closely, explains why I felt it was ok to take on a men’s dancing project in the first place. Dancing had never been rubbished to me by my role model. And like home-based work, physical affection and the many other areas of influence my father had on me – if I can just build on each of them a little more – they’ll become more and more the norm for my sons. And hopefully their children.

 

Being a Dad

I’m not a fathering expert. I’m not an expert in anything, really. I’m a general nurse. I have a Masters in THE MOST general health area you could think off. I am average, ordinary and general in many, many areas. I am a father, an average, ordinary one and my kids are challenging, but pretty ordinary and average really. This is just some thoughts – take it or leave it. No expert. Just a Dad.

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Doing cross country with my two boys

Being a Dad can be a tough gig. Now – mothers, I know yours is a special kind of hell. You carry a child; accepting numerous changes to your bodies; birth a child in a variety of different manners, none of them gentle; feed, or not feed a child with milk that your body produces, while having to cope with the judgement and shaming of doing it/not doing it/not doing it long enough/doing it too long. You have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, are the one your child is predominantly attached to in the early years and more often than not give up a career for the privilege. Or put it on pause. Or go return to work with your kids in day-care, while being judged for your time away from work and doing it/not doing it/not doing it long enough/doing it too long. Or have a stay-at-home Dad help you in return to work, who will be held up as bastion of selflessness for doing what the majority of mothers do with zero praise or adulation. Its balls. I get it. I really do.

Being a Dad is different. It is confusing at times and there are challenges. You don’t have anything to do with the gestation of a child beyond the fun part at the beginning. Unless your child has been conceived through IVF, where your fun bit was in a dark room, alone. Come the birth, you’re really a spare wheel. No matter how doting, caring and empathetic you are – you’re never going to get it. The midwife knows this intrinsically and will pay you no attention, beyond scoffing at any minor complaint you may make, no matter how quietly you thought you were voicing your concern about being tired or stressed. Save it for later. There will be no sympathy here.

The baby is born and you are largely forgotten. Child health nurses will largely ignore you, regardless of how involved you are. Friends will ask how the baby and the mum are going. Workmates don’t care, but will ask. They don’t care. They’ll pretend they do, but really, they’re only asking to be polite. Stop explaining what is happening and go back to work so everyone else can move on. Seriously, no-one cares. If they’ve got kids, they’re just waiting for you to finish talking so they can share their story – if they don’t have kids they are purely waiting for you to finish talking. Its not new to everyone else man. You are not the first Dad on the planet. Move on.

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Being a Dad is a challenge. Being a Mum is more of a challenge, and we should cut our whining and consider ourselves lucky and be more supportive, but it is still a challenge.  You feel like a spare part – but society expects you to be a major player. You feel like there is something you should do to help – but it isn’t very obvious. You want to be involved, but workplaces don’t support that really. Oh yeah – the department has got a family friendly policy, but don’t ask your boss for a morning off to attend an assembly. You’ll get laughed out of the office.

You’ll want to get involved and you’ll want to be supportive and you’ll also want some recognition from society that you are more than a walking inseminator – but none of that is probably going to happen so just try and keep yourself busy and engaged and for God’s sake, don’t complain. DO NOT COMPLAIN.

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Here are a few things you can do, to make yourself be less annoying and improve your life, and the lives of those around you:

  1. Forget about sex. For now anyway. Seriously, forget it. Just move on.  For the next few months just sort yourself out. You know what I mean. But even do that quietly and respectfully. You might feel great, and now the baby is sleeping a little more, your feeling a little more like you should try it on and look for a little bit of action. Your partner, despite having grown a 4.5kg parasite for nine months, looks amazing. You’ve never thought she has looked more beautiful. That incredible thing she has gone and done in growing and delivering a child has led to you thinking she is probably the most amazing human being on the planet. She’s also had an unexpected, chest related bonus you weren’t planning on. She is amazing. She looks amazing. She’s the sexiest creature ever. The issue is – she’s lactating. 62035291.jpgYep, those massive fun-bags you want to pounce on don’t belong to you any more (not that they did), they don’t even belong to your partner any more either. She is a walking food source and no amount of sleep, back rubs or gifts are going to change that. She’s also had massive body changes, is feeling incredibly responsible for a brand new, super needy human being and has more things to think of than you’ll ever know. Eventually (I hope for your sake), she’ll bring sexy back and you’ll be back in business – but until then, cool your expectations, be incredibly loving and supportive and focus on being useful. giphy.gif
  2. Focus on being useful. I spent six months as the stay at home parent when my first son was 3 months old. This was in another country, with an incredibly supportive Aunty helping out around the place, but primarily, child rearing was my gig (during the day). IT WAS HARD. Harder than work. Harder than manual labour. Harder than deciding whether to have a macchiato or a latte at lunch. SERIOUSLY HARD. latte-vs-latte-macchiato.jpgSo, when you come home from an INCREDIBLY stressful day at the office, doing whatever the hell it is you do; or get in after a really solid day on the tools and your back is throbbing – get useful. Now, this may not mean coming through the door and helping out by cooking. If you cook dinner, your partner is still looking after your kids. You need to ASK what is the most useful thing to do and muck in and do it. Then, when its sorted and baby is sleeping – turn your attention away from the couch and take on the next most useful thing you can tackle. You need to help the hell out. Raising a child is a full time job. Cleaning the kitchen and doing the laundry is ON TOP OF THAT. It is not an all inclusive deal, my friend – you need to do you share (as in an equal share) of the housework on top of the invaluable work you do earning money, because your partner is doing the invaluable work of raising your child for nothing. It is sometimes called domestic foreplay. If point one really resonated with you and you’re in a massive dry patch right now, try point two on for size. See if you can launder your way back to loving. Try to scrub your way to sex. Seriously, worst case scenario, you’ll actually help out by doing a small portion of the amount of housework you should be doing. Best case, you might gain some appreciation.images
  3. Don’t baby-sit your kids. Don’t do it. And don’t let ANYONE say that you are. You’re not babysitting. You’re not a desperate teenager saving money for next weekend’s binge drinking (or responsibly buying a car, or uni text books). You’re parenting. You’re fathering. You’re not doing a favour or taking on some additional task. You’re being involved in the most important thing in the world to you, aside from your partner. If someone asks if your babysitting your own kids. Tell them to go away (in much more colourful language). If your partner says your babysitting your kids – correct them. AAEAAQAAAAAAAAOQAAAAJGIxM2NiMTYxLTFiN2ItNDU5ZS1hZWRhLTcxYWIxZWIyYjMyNQ.jpgOn a slightly related side note: if your partner refers to you as “one of the kids” or a “mother of three” and includes you in the count – you need to grow some balls and man up. I don’t care how completely useless you are as a partner and a father, if you let your partner believe that you are as useful as a child in her life – forget point one. In fact, forget having any sort of meaningful adult relationship with your partner. Man up, stand up and change what ever has to be changed man-child. 635688549940642012-1245705170_man child.jpg
  4. They’re your kids. Yep, get involved big guy. You’re not doing a “favour” by being involved and taking them to swimming on the weekend. You’re not special. You are just doing what is expected of you – so don’t expect a pat on the head for just being an average father. Being involved in your own child’s life when you are not at work is not amazing. You don’t get a Father of the Year nomination for doing what is basically expected of you, having decided to bring another human being in to the world. tywinlannisterfar_893624.jpgJeez, if you think it is some big deal that you are involved in the most rudimentary way in the raising of your own child – you’re probably expecting a medal Ceremony for Domestic Services for that load of washing you put on. Pull your head in. It is your child, your house, your family. Take responsibility for what is yours and do what is expected of you without wanting a pat on the head every time you fulfil your most basic obligations.
  5. Work on your relationship. Once you’ve got your head around covering off the basics above – put some extra special effort in to getting along with your partner and work on your relationship. Take time out to spend together. Use eager grandparents to care for your child. Don’t feel bad for taking up a grandparent’s offer to look after your kids if your going to spend time with your partner. Your parents or in-laws remember how banal and mind-numbing raising kids can be, and they want to show off to their friends about how engaged and supportive they are. Exploit this for your own gain. They did. Don’t you remember being dropped off to Nanna and Grandad for the school holidays? THE SCHOOL HOLIDAYS! Not an evening so you can watch a movie – extended bloody periods. My parents even went over seas. article-2501704-195AE59800000578-881_306x423.jpgHonestly, get over your self and how important you think you are in the raising of your own children and give Gran and Pop a turn. They want to prove to you they still have it. And seriously, as much as you think you’re critical to your kid’s well being day to day, you are so quickly forgotten once the milo and lollipops come out. Honestly, your kids will go to sleep without you, they’ll be safe(ish), they’ll enjoy bonding without you hovering around being clingy, they’ll love it. Get out and spend some time with your partner and reconnect. Keep dating, well beyond the birth of your kids. Make your relationship a major priority. you’re a team in this childrearing thing, and if that isn’t your number one priority, ahead of kids, work and craft beers – you still have time to re-jig things. Make time. Exploit your parents generosity and reconnect. You never know, point one may be back in play if you’ve done well in the other areas.

So that’s it. I could go on all day – but who needs that. We’re all losing interest. So that ends my general advice to Dads. Its nothing more than the basics really: don’t be a demanding tool, be respectful and fair, and don’t expect a ticker tape for doing the basics. Again, I’m no expert and my advice in general – but I’ve been trying to follow it for a while now and, despite the small sample size, it seems to be working.

My Amazing Grandfather

This is a simple, yet sad post that I wrote in the days after my grandfather died. He was an amazing, gentle man. A fishermen by trade. A member of the 2/14th, severely wounded attempting to evacuate his CO during the Battle of Isurava. A leader through actions. A man of God. I was hurting in the days after he died, and putting this post up brought a tear to my eye.

My Grandad was more than a Grandfather. After my Dad died, he was the man to step in and helped fill a void in my life, becoming an influence on me in the only way he knew how – gently, quietly and patiently. He put up with my teenage attitudes while we lived next door. He was just there. Waiting. Waiting for me to come around and want to talk.

That time eventually came. We talked. For hours. On the phone, in letters, in person with a little scotch. We laughed. We solved the world’s problems. We talked crap. We teased Mum. I loved his company. Once we were back, living nearby, I would just go sit and read next to Grandad. I was desperate for peace away from the kids to get through my uni readings, he loved the company and never felt the need to fill the air with unnecessary words. We would read together for hours. Silent. Present in each other company. Happy.

In his later years, Grandad’s frailty became more and more apparent. For years I was convinced each time I left his home, it would be the last time I would see him. There were many tears shed as I would head back up north to Darwin, convinced there would be no more. Especially just after my Nanna died – my old mate seemed broken. His heart certainly was.

The love of his life was gone. My grandparents were married for over 60 years. They had 15 children together. A herd of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They had fun together. Adventures. Camping trips around Australia in to their 70’s and 80’s They spent days and days together. Chatting. Laughing. Teasing each other. No one would have begrudged him if he had left then. But I think he knew the family couldn’t handle so much grief in such a short time. He stuck around. I always felt it was more for us than him.

He did more than stick around though. He lived. He travelled. Sydney. Broome. Darwin. Copenhagen. Herrljunga – Sweden. Oh, Sweden. He was welcomed like a rock star and treated like a king. A life-long dream realised in his early 90’s. He was reunited with his father’s family after a mere 125 years of separation. Diligent genealogy had opened a door and my Grandad shuffled through it, ready to meet some more family and make the most of it.

There was afternoon teas, dinners, a lunch attended by nearly 100 people who came purely to meet him. Our hosts moved out of their house in the embodiment of Swedish hospitality to allow their elderly relative to be comfortable. He stayed for six weeks. A passionate patriot, I asked him towards the end if he was actually going to go home. He smiled wistfully, and for a while and said, “Maybe not”. He did shuffle home eventually, but he made a mark far larger than his frame. There are family there that will be shedding a tear for Dear Old Jack, such was his impact on that trip.

Now, I’m left to prepare for a life without my dear old mate. No more stopping in to see him. No more hugs – those big, meaty hands, clasped on to my shoulders. No more chats, about little things and big. No more sitting, watching him sleep, as the twilight of his life became so tiring. No more silent scotches, their air full of mutual appreciation and love, rather than words and noise.

My heart is broken, Grandad. Simple words do it no justice. I never wanted you to go, but I could never wish you back. You are in the arms of your Lord and your God. In the arms of your beautiful Vera. There are plenty of mates waiting there for you too– and I reckon your Mother and Father, Charlie, Joe, Peter, Gerard and Margie are at the front of the queue, desperate to share a whisky and hear about how nice that mob over in Sweden were to you. To sit and to chat. To reminisce about old times.

God Speed.