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Kokoda Snapshot

Together, Reconciled, We Remember

Memory sticks made for the trekkers by the Buna Brothers

A little under a week ago, the Reconciliation Trekkers returned from what can only be described as a life-changing adventure.

Pulled together over 18 months of planning, consultation and both physical and cultural training, the 2017 Kokoda Track Reconciliation Trek is the first of its kind for the organisation, and perhaps the country. Set up with the objectives of fostering reconciliation within the participating schools, building resilience amongst emerging young leaders and to commemorate the feats and service of both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal servicemen who fought on the track, the Trek exceeded all expectations in these areas. Unforeseen was the immense impact the local crew from Buna and the sharing of music between the two groups had on the trekkers’ experience.

The Reconciliation Trekkers left Adelaide for PNG on Thursday 28th September in a moving send-off that included a Traditional Smoking Ceremony performed by Uncle Moogy Sumner. Offering protection and safe passage, this was the first time a Smoking Ceremony had ever been held at Adelaide Airport.

Uncle Moogy Sumner performing a Smoking Ceremony at the Adelaide Airport to farewell the Reconciliation Trekkers.The extent to which this cultural practice was embraced by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal trekkers alike set the tone for all reconciliation activities moving forward. Perhaps one of the most indicative examples of the reconciliation journey of the trekkers was the inclusion of an Acknowledgement of Country at villages dotted across the track. Upon arriving in a new village, and indeed a new language group’s country, two young Aboriginal leaders took the time and initiative to acknowledge the local ancestors of the land and recognise the spirits of those who fought and died on foreign soil.

The trekkers carried with them the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Australian and Papua New Guinean flag, to highlight their commitment to reconciliation and cultural understanding of both Aboriginal and PNG culture.The cost of war, both in terms of life and wellbeing, was never far from the trekkers’ minds as they traversed the unforgiving terrain of the Kokoda Track, the munition dumps of unexploded missiles and bullets served as a pertinent reminder of the bloodshed. Recognising the incomprehensible sacrifice of Australia’s soldiers, especially those of Aboriginal descent who were rarely acknowledged or appropriately compensated for their service, was an important facet of the Trek.

Over the eight days on the Track, as the trekkers made their way from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda, deeply moving ceremonies and commemorations, honouring the sacrifice of our soldiers, were held at Bomana War Cemetery, Brigade Hill and Isurava and more. Students, mentors and teachers also took the time to research some of the veterans and share these stories as they passed through areas of significance.

Some of the trekkers sing "Danny Boy" in a ceremony of commemoration just outside the village of Isurava.

One particularly memorable presentation came from the heart-breaking story of brothers, Stan and Butch Hissett of the 2/14th Battalion. Standing just a few metres away from the spot where these brothers shared their last few moments together, the group learned how Stan held his dying brother, singing “Danny Boy” to him as he passed. Accompanying this presentation was a stirring rendition of “Danny Boy” by a choir of the more musically inclined trekkers.

Sue Fitcher, CEO of Getaway Trekking then shared with the group that, a few years earlier, she had walked the Track with Stan’s family, who woke in the early hours of the morning to walk in silence from Isurava to the place of Butch’s death. Moved by these two stories and song, the Reconciliation Trekkers and their carriers, together totalling over 100 walkers, opted to follow suit and walk in silence to Isurava.

The entire Kokoda experience is made up by a series of equally touching and moving moments, which reveal not only the inspiring nature of the track, but the calibre of the young people involved in the Trek. Watching their growth and developing confidence and resilience was a highlight for many of their teachers and mentors.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the help of the Carriers from Buna, who held out their hands to guide, balance and support from the very first day. Indeed, many trekkers would not have made it to the high peaks of the Kokoda Track without their brothers, as they came to be known.

The trekkers and brothers formed very deep connections on the track.

Perhaps the most illuminating example of this strong bond came on the final night of the Trek when the group came together to collectively thank their brothers. Having taken the time to learn two of the languages spoken by the Buna Brothers, Pidgin and Ewage, three students delivered a message of gratitude in these languages.  

The relationship between the two cultural groups owes its strength to music, which was an unexpected but welcome component of the Trek. The Brothers, who carried guitars and ukuleles and welcomed the group to each peak or village with song, were pleasantly surprised by the musical and singing talents of the Reconciliation Trekkers. Each night, small groups would form around the guitar as songs and melodies were traded. In a true cross-cultural connection, three of the trekkers taught the brothers to sing Bura Fera in Yorta Yorta.

The Brothers always had a guitar close at hand.

Each of the trekkers, students, teachers and mentors alike, did an amazing job and Reconciliation SA recognises their efforts in starting and finishing this journey as a team. Together, reconciled, they will remember. 

The Reconciliation Trekkers and their brothers at the finish line in Kokoda