Member Profile: Tam Geritz
Wow what an inspiration Tam has just returned from the Kokaoda Trail ( yes the real Kakoda Trail) , 8 days of trekking through the jungles, and mountains of Paua New Guinea, meeting the locals and facing obstacles just as our war hero’s did so long ago. Tam has been kind enough to share her experience with us and I highly recommend the read. Such a great inspiration and tribute to our war veterans. Thanks Tam you’re a champion!
My ‘ Kokoda’
It has been a week since I have landed back in Australia after completing the Kokoda Track. I’m finding it hard finding the words to describe my experience, I will do my best to portray my story.
The Kokoda Track first peaked my interest as a very young girl. I was visiting my Grandfather and I noticed a nasty scar on his abdomen and being as inquisitive as I was asked what it was from? The war. That answer triggered many questions, and sparked an interest that after 25 years of intrigue has finally taken me on a journey to what seems like another world.
A couple years ago I went through a lifestyle change and started making personal goals such as lose weight, live healthy, compete in triathlons etc and at the top of my list was ‘do the Kokoda Track’. At that point, it seemed like an untouchable goal. Little did I know, that what I told myself back then would be exactly what I would tell myself constantly on the track – ‘one step at a time Tam, one step at a time’.
To help myself be accountable I told everybody I was doing Kokoda in 2014, the year I turn 30. I had given myself 2 years to accomplish the biggest achievement I had ever set myself while putting to rest a lifetime of wonder of the place my Grandfather spoke about at the age of 5.
Unbelievably those 2 years flew by with research, conversations and training all completed, I now sat on a plane to another country to join a trekking group of strangers that soon would become friends that could never be forgotten. The journey had begun.
We flew from Port Moresy to Popondetta, across the Owen Stanley Range, this is what we were to spend the next 8 days trekking through, and it was quite daunting. Driving from Popondetta to Kokoda, seeing the locals and witnessing their culture and lifestyle was my first hit of reality. The simplicity of their lives was confronting, they have nothing and yet they are so happy. Children running from huts to wave to the ‘white man’, women in creek beds washing pots, pans and clothes smile the biggest smiles and cheer for us, the men make way for us and selflessly offer help as it is the only thing they have to offer, and yet give it freely. By the time we drove into Kokoda village, I could feel a shift in my inner self, I wasn’t on just a physical journey, I was on a journey that was going to challenge me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually also. It had already begun and I hadn’t put my pack on yet.
At Kokoda we met our porters and little did we know our life long bond to a complete stranger had already initiated. I could never have anticipated the impact the porters would have on us. Saying that they are incredible men is an understatement. All the people we met on the track oozed a caring nature that I never witnessed before in my life. The ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ are still alive and well. Only by experiencing it firsthand can you imagine what the term meant to our men in WWII. My porter, Keito, soon became my personal saviour, frequently finding ourselves in the jungle alone, he held my hand through the tough parts, explained their culture and our war history at the right moments, saved my life more times than I can ever repay and laughed together until we could no longer trek due to the pain in our bellies and the tears in our eyes. Each and every trekker has a bond with their porter that will never be broken. The respect we have for these men by the end of our Kokoda Track will never falter. They are our modern day heroes, our Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.
Counting down the days before Kokoda, training was my number one priority. Every spare moment was spent climbing mountains, walking around the block with my pack on, or on the stairmaster at the gym, and while training I would think to myself ‘am I doing enough?’. The answer to that question? You can never train enough. The physical demands on your body on the track tax you well beyond your boundaries, past the point of tears, past the ‘I can’t do this’ through to one saying, one well wish you received before leaving or the thought of one person that gets you to your next goal… and sometimes, that goal, was just to take the next step. I had three things that kept me going: the first was ‘if my grandfather and his mates can do this with minimal supplies, no food, in poor health and bullets aimed to end their lives, I can do this, so take the next step’, I also heard my best friends advice many times a day ‘just breathe’ and finally, a mantra I had heard ‘Pain is only temporary, it may last a minute, an hour or a day, but it will subside. But if I give up and give in, I will feel this pain forever’ – these three things would keep my mind positive and my feet moving. And more often than not, it is all you can do to put the next foot forward. The burn in your legs, back and shoulders, the sweat sheeting down your body and the desire for more breath to stop your heart pumping out of your chest is only the start of explaining the hurt you feel. Yet, I still find myself unable to imagine what our men endured. It really is impossible…
The Kokoda Track challenged me in many ways, I expected to be physically and mentally tested, what I did not expect was the spiritual and emotional connection. Tears would form at the mere thoughts of what the troops endured, or trying to imagine their fear and their strength of pushing forward through it. Whether we were having a memorial at Isurava, sitting at a Japanese machine gun station with bullet shells and mortars surrounding us or just walking on the track and not being able to see centimetres into the jungle beside you, you felt an understanding you could never achieve by researching in a book or online. There were times where if you listened hard enough, you can still hear the troops. They are still there. There is an understanding and a care for the Japanese in the jungle also. We can connect to all the soldiers, everyone was there being told what to do, and we can never hold that against them. We were just on the winning side, but who really wins? We all lost loved ones, we all suffered, and we all grieved, no matter if they won, lost or drew. There were many times the tears formed behind my sunglasses as we trekked across that Bloody Track. Tears for the stranger I will never get to thank for our freedom, tears for all the lives lost and tears for the kindness and support from the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, then and now.
The track changes you from the inside out. On the tough days, the simplest gesture, the gift that is worthless in monetary terms and the voice of support is all that matters. Whether it was from our porters or fellow trekkers, we all experienced it. Clapping and cheering when a fellow trekker who is clearly hurting finally makes it to the top of the mountain, sharing your lollies with strangers to help raise their spirits, offering the last of your medical supplies to someone who needs them more and how could I ever forget that outstretch helping hand from who use to be a complete stranger who is now forever etched in my heart? The pillars at Isurava: Endurance, Courage, Mateship and Sacrifice lives on in our trekkers, never to compare with the men that lay before us, though these values still linger in our blood. Be proud, be thankful, and respect what those before you have given. For you and I will never truly understand.
The rugged beauty of the Owen Stanley Ranges are breath taking. The varied and dangerous conditions of the track make it impossible to concentrate on anything other than your next step, but when you do stop, even for a moment, to take in the scenery it is truly magical. The place itself is just spectacular and you will never witness such beauty in not only views but people and culture also. To hear the village people sing can only be described as making your soul glow. Their singing is incredible and will stop you in your tracks to ensure you hear every note. As you walk the track, you can be forgiven for forgetting every now and then that this place is the site of such loss.
As we made our way up the final incline and through the arches at Ower’s Corner, I think we all left a part of our heart on the track. We find that even though we have pride for ourselves for walking the track, it is our pride for our soldiers, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels and yes, even the Japanese that has us reflecting. ‘How did they do it?’ was the most common, yet unanswered question on our lips as we look back over the mountains we have toiled over for the past 8 days. Trying to ponder the question you look at the ground, and stare at the mud that lay on your boots, unable to even conceive what they must have endured you finally conclude with a shake of the head, in either disbelief or to stop the forming tears from coming to the surface.
Being back in Australia after completing the Kokoda Track has been a bigger adjustment than anticipated. We really do live in the lucky country. If you have clothes on your back, food in your belly, kids in school and access to medical facilities there is nothing else you could ever wish for. For where I have just been, they consider themselves lucky to have just one of these four things and yet they are the most happy, caring and giving people I have ever met. We need to learn the lesson they are teaching us.
I thought my stories upon returning from this adventure would be of trekking through mud, tree roots, falls, bruises, and military history, but instead, I have come home enriched with the Kokoda spirit.
Courage. Endurance. Mateship. Sacrifice.
LEST WE FORGET.
Written by Tam Geritz