A group of high school students who walked the gruelling Kokoda track recently discovered the untold stories of eleven South Australian Aboriginal servicemen, their own resilience and leadership capacity and the power of music for reconciliation.
The 2017 Kokoda Track Reconciliation Trek, organised by Reconciliation SA, saw a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal high school students, along with teachers and university mentors, walk the 106kms of the gruelling Kokoda track in southern Papua New Guinea.
Alex Witty is a music student at Brighton High, and he told Aboriginal Way that while stories from the 1942 battles at Kokoda are familiar, being on location made history come alive.
“Like it was hell, it was just hell for those boys… you couldn’t imagine what those boys went through so it was good to be able to be there and pay respect to them.
“I mean I read a book about it before I went to Kokoda but it was just so much different being in the places where all these stories took place and hearing about all the different stories a lot of these soldiers went through, what they all individually went through both physically and mentally” he said.
The trip was designed to be a reconciliation journey and was a powerful experience for Alex and other students.
“Well it was able to put us all in a completely uncomfortable zone and deal with the whole trek and everything that happened on the trek together as a group, which was amazing, you know I was surrounded by friends, in the end practically a family, we all grew so close” he said
Samara Ferndandez is a Psychology student at UniSA and she attended the trek as a mentor for the high school students.She says she witnessed them grow and learn along the track.
“I think a lot of people truly found who they were as a person and they really dug deep and you know left a lot of their negativity on the trip and everyone’s probably changed a lot from the trek.
“There were obviously the students and they had their mentors and their teachers, but at times you also saw them mentoring each other and supporting each other so that was really nice to see” she said.
One intense time for both Alex and Samara came at the village of Isurava.While there they heard heart-breaking story of brothers, Stan and Butch Hissett of the 2/14th Battalion.
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 trekkers.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done emotionally, to have to sit through” Alex said
“Everyone was on the same page you know, you couldn’t see a dry eye anywhere, everyone was in tears and you know it was quite memorable, we had a small little choir, and we sang and we just remembered all together and it was beautiful to do that all in such a group.
“Because it was towards the end of the trek as well, everyone had become so familiar with each other, it was just beautiful to see how we all reacted and helped each other out afterwards and that will always just stick with me” he said.
For Alex, a keen musician, the experience proved the power of music in reconciliation.
“It was incredible, it brought our culture as well with the Buna Boys (local guides) all together and we all came around almost every night and we’d sing songs together by the fire
“It really brought everyone together, just being able to communicate with the locals in something they love as much as we do, it was just amazing” he said.
For more information on the 2017 Kokoda Track Reconciliation Trek – Reconciliation SA