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Walking, Talking and Reconciling Together

Kokoda Trek participants.jpg

Three men and one woman wearing red and blue short sleeve shirts standing outside with mountain ranges in background.
Torrens Valley Christian School - Jeremy Last, Tom Vaughan, Justin Wilkey & Fiona Partridge
5 Feb 2018

A South Australian group of Year 10 and 11 students and their leaders have returned from an experience of a lifetime, sharing in the importance of Reconciliation in Australia. The 2017 Kokoda Track Reconciliation Trek, organised by Reconciliation SA, commemorated 75 years since Australian soldiers fought the Japanese in Papua New Guinea, lasting eight days and covering 106 kilometres.

State Manager of Reconciliation SA, Mark Waters said the trek provided students from many different backgrounds with the opportunity to walk and talk together while learning about those that served, including 11 South Australian Aboriginal servicemen.

By participating in the trek, students learnt about their own resilience, leadership capabilities and the power of reflection.

‘The way in which the group came together and supported each other through commemoration and the depth of feeling of what the diggers did right through World War II was just profound,’ Mr Waters said.

Reconciliation activities along the track included yarning circles, commemorative services and sharing the stories of soldiers, as well as cultural exchanges between the trekkers and their ‘personal porters’ (who all trekkers fondly referred to as ‘brothers’). 

For 16-year-old Torrens Valley Christian School student, Jeremy Last, having the opportunity to speak with 93-year-old Kokoda veteran Les Arnel before the trek was humbling.

‘Every time I felt like giving up or complaining I just thought of him (Les) and what he went through. We had it easy, he was getting shot at,’ he said. 

Three men and one woman seated. From left to right, student wearing red jumper, older man with glasses in checked blue shirt, man in black shirt leaning over with glasses and one woman in black patterned shirt holding photo frame.
Torrens Valley Christian School Student Jeremy Last, Indigenous Student Mentor, Justin Wilkey & Teacher, Fiona Partridge with Kokoda Veteran Les Arnel

Mr Arnel was born in Victoria and signed up at the age of 16, lying about his age to be accepted into the forces.

He spent nine months in Papua New Guinea as part of the original 39th Battalion, before falling ill with appendicitis, dysentery and malaria and returning to Australia for treatment.

Mr Arnel admits his time at war did come at a cost, and hopes younger generations never directly experience war.

‘I was just too young, it’s detrimental to your health and the rest of your life.’

One thing Mr Arnel looks back on fondly of his time at war, was the comradery between soldiers.

‘We all had something in common, so mateship was the most important thing we had. It was good,’ he said.  

Jeremy said the bonds made between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students helped when hearing the war stories.

“I made a few friends and got to know all the trekkers more and I thought if the diggers could walk the track while getting shot at, with little gear and losing their mates, we could do it because we had the right equipment and were safe”, he said.

The 2017 trek instilled an overwhelming sense of togetherness and comradery and provided all trekkers with the opportunity to walk, talk and connect with one another.

An experience that is sure to shape their identity and impact on their futures.

Find out more

Reconciliation South Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes the people's movement for reconciliation at a state level. 

Participating schools on the 2017 Kokoda Track Reconciliation Trek included Torrens Valley Christian School, Tyndale Christian School, Immanuel College, Ceduna Area School, Balaklava High School and Brighton Secondary School. 

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