In the movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a character screams, “Shit, I’ve been shot!” His friend exasperatedly replies, “Can everybody please stop getting shot?”
I couldn’t help thinking of this when I read that a fourth Australian, 55-year-old Philip Brunskill, died of a heart attack this week while trekking the Kokoda Track. Paul Bradfield, 38, had earlier died in his sleep on the track of a suspected heart attack. Two more people died earlier this year. I even remember reading a Good Weekend feature a few months ago about more Kokoda trekkers who’ve died in the last few years. Each year, between 80 and 100 hikers have to be evacuated by helicopter in treacherous conditions – we know precisely how treacherous, seeing as one of these helicopters crashed in August, killing all 13 on board.
Now trekking leaders and health authorities are coming out in support of far more stringent health and fitness training and testing requirements. Others are advocating stronger regulation of the booming Kokoda trekking industry. Still others, clearly, must believe that they’ll be right, that bad stuff just won’t happen to them.
But the way to prevent more deaths on Kokoda is forehead-smackingly simple – don’t do the frickin’ trek. The rhetoric of war is that soldiers undergo hardship and risk their lives as sacrificial lambs for their nations. In short, the diggers trekked Kokoda so we don’t have to.
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Trekking Kokoda smacks of an irritating literal-mindedness. To honour the suffering of Australian soldiers, you re-enact that suffering – but to what purpose? Sure, you might come back with a deeper appreciation of what previous generations went through. Perhaps you could also make a pilgrimage to your local RSL to gain a deeper appreciation for the pokies that Australian soldiers have played and the meat raffles they have won. Or perhaps you and your mates can beat each other up and spit on each other, just to give yourselves a deeper appreciation of what it’s like in the Royal Australian Navy.
Some attempt the trek as a family bonding exercise. Perhaps a relative was directly involved in the original trek, or in war more generally. Perhaps it’s just a way for parents and adult children to spend quality time together, which is why it’s so bitterly ironic when people die on Kokoda and tear their families apart. Perhaps Shirley Seal, 60, and her 35-year-old son had some quality time together in the helicopter as she was being evacuated from the same trek that killed Brunskill.
Still others trek Kokoda as a community fundraising exercise. Not even Paul Bradfield’s death could stop the Camp Quality fundraisers with whom he’d embarked on the trek. Honestly, there are better team-building exercises and ways to support community organisations. If old-fashioned tin-rattling, raffles, fetes and sales aren’t XXXtreme Fundraising enough, you can do all sorts of runs, walks, head-shavings, swims, rope-skips and time-limited famines for charity.
If you’re determined to incorporate travel into your fundraising and quality-time-sharing, some adventure tour companies even offer programs where you can travel in groups to remote villages to help build communal infrastructure and teach in local schools. Y’know, contributing to another culture rather than just trampling all over it – or throwing your life away, far from home.