Right of Way – A Pilgrim on the Camino – Episode 2

“You don’t choose a life, you live a life”.

It’s what Daniel says to his father as he leaves for the Camino de Santiago in Spain in the movie The Way. I love the movie and I’ve seen it about half a dozen times over the years.

I know it’s a movie and I know some of it wasn’t filmed on the Camino, but I also know that the producer nailed it with some of the storylines. I know because I’m here on the Camino and I’m seeing it happen.

The movie revolves around the concept of a Camino family forming from 4 strangers walking. I’d heard of Camino families forming in the first few days of walking the Camino.

I’ve found that each day brings new experiences on the Camino. Each day seems to offer so much that I feel no other day will compare. And then the next day arrives and shows me that there is more the Camino needs to show me, more love I need to feel, more experiences I have the opportunity to absorb, more opportunities for me to know myself more intimately.

I left Australia on this journey not intending for a moment that I would become part of any Camino family. In fact, I was going to try to avoid it. I expected my Camino journey should be about time alone, walking in silence, pondering my life, my strengths and weaknesses and letting myself hear my soul.

And then I found myself, 12 days in to this journey, with 7 other pilgrims from all over the world in an apartment in Logrono.

I had found myself with my Camino family. The one I said I didn’t need, didn’t want. Eight of us – 3 Irish, 2 Americans, 1 Aussie, 1 Dutch and me, aged between 17 and 65 years.

We had been together for the most part of the previous 12 days and were here sharing an apartment for two nights and having a rest day.

Two pilgrims had cooked us all a wonderful meal, we were drinking a lovely Rioja wine, laughing and enjoying the experience.

The evening was a standout for me, and was topped off by the 8 of us, big fans of The Way movie, sitting together, eating popcorn and watching the film on the apartment’s TV.

Tears came readily and surprisingly for me during the movie. It wasn’t the movie so much, more the emotions that snuck up on me while watching it there, in that apartment, with my Camino family, each of us on our own journey along the way.

I cried for the effort it took to get here, for the friendships, for the passing of time, for my loved ones back home. I cried in gratitude that I could make this journey and that I was allowing the journey to provide for me. I cried at the thought of losing my Camino family as the weeks went on. I cried at the thought of the journey not being as I had expected. I cried because I was so damn happy and grateful that there seemed no other way to express my emotion.

10 days ago, these people were complete strangers. Today, they are my Camino family.

The Camino family I never wanted. And the Camino family I will soon walk away from.

And I suppose that’s the point of it all isn’t it.

Sometimes you don’t get what you want, you get what you need.

The Camino provides.


“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi

The Kokoda Track – it gets stuck in your heart

Have you walked it yet – the Kokoda Track?

I was standing in the aisles of the aircraft on the tarmac after an early morning flight from Brisbane when the Captain came over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentleman, there will be a short delay as we seem to have misplaced the key to the airbridge”. I had arrived. Welcome to Papua New Guinea – Hurry up and wait!

It started, like many great ideas, over a wine with my simple comment “I’d love to trek Kokoda one day”.  My word for that year was ‘action’ so I did just that, I took action, booked in and started training. I trained and researched and read up about the Kokoda Campaign, and before I knew it, I was off and here I was in Port Moresby, albeit stuck on the plane until they found the key!

What is the Kokoda Track?
The Kokoda Track (or Trail) is a mostly single-file track that runs 96 kilometres overland – 60 kilometres in a straight line – through the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea. The track was the location of the 1942 World War II battle between Japanese and Allied (primarily Australian) forces in what was then the Australian territory of Papua. Here, it rains, a lot. It’s humid and hot even when it’s raining, and it’s beautiful country and it’s tough country.

Why the Kokoda Track?
Well honestly at that time, I didn’t have a good knowledge or appreciation for the Kokoda Campaign. I can’t recall learning about it at school. So it wasn’t primarily for the historical aspect that I was going. I was going because I wanted a challenge, I wanted to stretch myself and what better way than to embark on one of the most arduous long distance walks in the world. The Kokoda Track is known for being physically exhausting, but it is also without a doubt, one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging things you will ever put yourself through.


It’s no walk in the park

Well they found that key to the airbridge, and after a night in Port Moresby, I was off for nine days, and eight nights, to trek along 96 kilometres of treacherous terrain over the Owen Stanley Ranges, in the footsteps of heroes.

That trek was at that time in my life, the most challenging thing I had ever done in a physical, mental and emotional sense. It tested my mettle on many occasions, and also provided me with endless opportunities and memories along the way.

In fact, it was such a life changing experience for me, I just knew I had to go back. I fell in love with the people and places and learnt so much about the sacred history.


Swimming, bathing, laundry

So go back I did. I’ve hiked the Kokoda Track five times now (four of those as a Track Guide). It is such an honour and privilege to be one of the guides on the Track, to hold that history and be able to impart that to others, to support, guide and assist others achieve what is for most trekkers, the single most challenging thing they have ever done in their lives.

You would think my strongest memories would be of the hardship, the hills, the mud, the exhaustion, the pain and the blisters, but they’re not. There was definitely all of that – but my most vivid memories are those that taught me something, about me or about life. The ones that gave me pleasure or made me smile. The ones that gave me goosebumps.

Like when the village children would come to sing for us, not for reward but to please us. I remember vividly the feeling when taking my boots off after those 11 hour hiking days. Icy cold swims in crystal clear rivers. Children laughing and playing. The rain, I recall the rain, dripping on my face. Our porters and local crew, quiet men, very capable and proud of their job, and with unforgettable voices when they sang to us. I will never forget meeting on a number of occasions, Ovuru Indiki who has now passed away, and was one of the few remaining Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – such a privilege and honour. Crossing rivers raging with icy cold torrents on flimsy tree branches, but with sturdy and trustworthy hands holding mine.


So much joy

Thirty metre high pandanus palms and everything so green. So green, almost unnatural, that it’s like someone photoshopped the trees. Remembering at old weapons pits from the war, long trenches for the Australians, and deep holes for the Japanese. Avocados so creamy you’ll think you’re in avocado heaven – and some the size of your head! Fresh fruit everywhere, and the best passionfruit I’ve ever tasted. Reconstituted meals, tea, popcorn, choko vine, noodles, crackers and tinned meat – and never going hungry.

The simple but compelling Isurava Memorial – Mateship, Courage, Endurance and Sacrifice. These are the things I remember.

Of course my first trek holds very special memories for me. I will always remember the tears as I crossed under the archway at the end of that trek.

Tears for what happened there so many years ago, for all the horror and the lives lost. Tears for my mates with me that day for overcoming their struggles to make this journey, tears of relief because I made it, tears of happiness because I fulfilled my own dream.

The trek ends with a visit to the Bomana War Cemetery which contains Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. I still remember how I felt the first time I saw it, it brought more tears, and goosebumps, with over 3800 graves of soldiers, 700 of them unidentified, and many too young to have been fighting, let alone dying.


Bomana War Cemetary

Each year as I journey back to Papua New Guinea and to Kokoda to guide and share the experience with a new group, I am reminded of what is so special about this hike, and what brings me back each year.

1. People and connections
Material wealth doesn’t make people, character does. We could learn a lot from our porters in Kokoda. What’s important to them is not whether or not they have a smart TV, a new car or even a pair of shoes. What is important is their family and their friends. I meet up each year with friends in Villages along the Track. We see each other only once a year, they never know when I’m coming, but when they see me, it’s like they were expecting me. They have gifts for me, they ask about my family, I ask about theirs. I walk on, and I see them again the next year. It’s uncomplicated, it’s familiar, and it’s a blessing. To top it off, the children you come across in the villages along the Track are some of the happiest I have ever seen and their laughter is contagious.


My porter and his family

Sometimes you travel for the scenery, the structures, the adventure, and most times it’s none of that you remember, it’s the people. They get stuck in your heart.

2. Natural Beauty
From streams to raging rivers, almost all icy cold, to hot, humid, dense jungle, to open plains, the Kokoda Track will provide you with a sensory overload of natural beauty – I never tire of it. Swimming in crystal clear rivers, laying on the grass looking over at the sun setting behind the ranges, the colours vibrant and calming at the same time. The Kokoda Track shows us some of the most untouched and amazing natural beauty you will ever see.


Upstream – Goldie River

Lift your eyes, today, tomorrow. Lift your eyes to see the beauty around you.

3. Physical Challenge
In repeating the trek each year I also remind myself of just how challenging the Kokoda Track is to walk. I can say that even after five times, it doesn’t get any easier physically. I’m reminded each time how important my training and preparation was. I am also reminded that I can keep on going, long after I think I can’t. We all have a reserve in us and we can all do hard things.


What goes up….

I can do hard things – we can all do hard things

4. Technology Free
It might sound counter-intuitive but the unplugging, the releasing of our technology for nine days is surely the best way to recharge. You won’t hear mobile phones ringing and pinging, and you won’t hear people talking on their phones. The people you are with will be really there, with you, not in some faraway place inside their mind connected to their phones and tablets. This trek reminds me to get back to the basics, to be present where I am. To recharge from the energy in the natural environment, not an electrical socket.


Real people, face to face

Sometimes it takes a decision to unplug, in order for us to recharge.

5. Reminders to be grateful
I try to always practice gratitude but my first world problems sometimes get the better of me. Spending nine days on the Kokoda Track each year reminds me to be grateful. Grateful for the sure footed angels of today who guide my way, grateful for the meals I can enjoy in the middle of the jungle, grateful for a safe trek each time I cross under the finishing archway at Owers Corner.

This excerpt from my journal from my first Kokoda Trek says it all.
´My little toes were black and bleeding when I took my boots off this afternoon. I laughed a lot again today. I’m now in bed and it’s 7.30pm. The dinner tonight was amazing – spaghetti with reconstituted mince and Tim Tams for dessert! It’s raining hard, the tent is leaking and dripping on me, and my legs are so sore I can’t even touch them. What a wonderful day.” Private Journal August 2011.

Of course, gratitude abounds when I hit Port Moresby at the end of the trek too – that shower, club sandwich and cold beer are always cause for much thanks.


Colour and laughter

It’s not just about remembering to be grateful in the moment for all we have, we should also be grateful for all we don’t have. This is the key to abundance.

6. One day at a time
It’s a strict rule that I, and most of the other trek leaders I know, like to adhere to. One day at a time. When you’re on a trek like Kokoda where each day is the same, and at the same time, very different from the last, you and others, can get carried away worried about what’s coming up on day five, or day eight, rather than being in the moment of the day we’re in. So to counter that, I was taught (and readily adopted) to have a once a day (normally in the evening) news bulletin.

It is here that I take the opportunity to outline to my team of trekkers what the next day and night would hold for us, where we could get water, where we might have lunch, what terrain we would be covering and if we were crossing any rivers. We have a chat about the day coming, I answer questions and concerns and we stay right there, in that moment. Just one day at a time. No worrying about that very steep looking incline on day seven, no worrying about whether the swamp was going to be wet or dry. One day at a time. It’s a concept I think we could all benefit from adopting.


One step, one day at a time

Just today. Just now. What’s our next 24 hours look like? What’s right now look like? What’s right now feel like?

If you’re considering trekking the Kokoda Track – check out Back Track Adventures. You can find me on the Track Guides page there. I can’t recommend this adventure highly enough. It changes lives, I’ve seen it happen so many times.

In case you’re wondering, even after five treks, I still cry a lot. Some happy tears, some sad. It’s just that kind of place.

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi