The Kokoda Track is a route over the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea. It is 92 kilometres long and crosses some of the most rugged territory imaginable. Along the track there is a memorial which simply states the words
courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. These words embrace the spirit of the Australian soldiers of World War II during fierce battles along the infamous track. The trek is now a major pilgrimage for many Australians. John Saunders is one such pilgrim.
John recently celebrated his 70th birthday and as part of the celebrations walked the Kokoda Track. This is a massive challenge for anyone this age. However, what makes this effort a stand out is John is legally blind with retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
RP is an inherited and deteriorating eye condition causing various degree of blindness. It commences with loss of peripheral or outer vision and night blindness. The disorder can also lead to total blindness.
Because I’ve lived with RP all my life I have learnt that there is always a way around things. I’ve also learnt never put logs (obstacles) in front of myself and I don’t allow others to put logs in front of me either.
It wasn’t John’s intention to walk Kokoda. Nevertheless, it was his intention to become fitter. John explains,
One day my son James and his friends were here. They were discussing plans to walk Kokoda.
Remember Ron Barassi, the famous AFL footballer? Even though he played for the wrong team, he was still an inspiration. Well! He walked Kokoda when he was 70. I thought if he could do it, what’s stopping me?
John increased his exercise routine to five days a week. He practised walking hours on end with a weighted backpack. Up and down stairs for two hours at a time also added endurance. Then there was pumping classes and water aerobics as well as body and balance classes.
John and his son James joined their friends on Kokoda.
Walking Kokoda was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done in my life. You were up at 5am and on the track at 6am every day. Each day was an endurance test. You couldn’t look at it in the main picture. You could only take one day at a time. And when things got tough, it was the comradeship that got you through.
John believes the stories from Kokoda relayed by their team leader Andrew also helped.
They (the soldiers) never had the creams and sprays to stop blisters and bugs. They never had the hydration packs and electrolyte balances we had. And with many paying the ultimate sacrifice in horrendous conditions, their stories inspired and encouraged us, says John.
And although, the trek was physically hard, John was constantly reminded of the good things.
The heat and humidity wasn’t as bad as expected. And some of the river crossings can be treacherous, but we were there at the end of the dry season and the water levels were a lot lower. And as far as my vision went, as long as I could see my feet and what was around my feet, that was all I needed to see.
There were many highlights on his trip. Doing the trek with his son James was one. The welcome given by the villagers along the trail was another. And meeting one of the last local villagers assisted the Australian soldiers in World War II was a great experience.
Although John doesn’t talk much about his vision loss, his positive attitude says it all. The spirit of Kokoda; courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice survives. It survives for all those who push out of their comfort zones. It also survives for those who walk Kokoda, including John Saunders.