Kia Ora, jingeri, g’day and warm Pacific greetings my name is Azania, and I’m a Kokoda Kid. 

I was part of the 2022 Kokoda Challenge Youth Program (KCYP). I came across KCYP through an email that was sent out to my school, Trinity College. My mum and my teacher Mr. Cappleman, an avid advocate for KCYP, encouraged me to apply. I read a description of the program and made an application immediately! Unaware of the full commitment, besides knowing they did long, uninterrupted walks through the bush, and that my school participated in the Kokoda Challenge annually, I was excited about the opportunity. 

When joining the program, I was anxious. The thought of meeting a bunch of strangers wondering if they were going to like me, and the doubt of completing 96KMs was playing out in my head before even attending our first meeting.  I didn’t know what the next 9 months of my life would look like or even if KCYP was for me. One thing that was constant, was the excitement and adventures that may lay ahead of me. Later, I learned this was how everyone else felt at orientation.  

We were allocated our groups by districts; I was a part of Gold Coast KCYP. This included our four volunteer leaders eleven Kokoda Kids.  We broke the ice at orientation with some games and by sharing a meal with our families. Here we received the infamous red KCYP shirts. This set a foundation for our time at Camp Kokoda. On this camp, we connected on a deeper level. Complete strangers turned into connections likened to family. 

During the program, there were weekly training sessions on Wednesday at the Pimpama Sports Hub. Each week my team and I would alternate in leading the training sessions. This included cardio, resistance training, callisthenics, and playing different games such as Red Rover. All these activities are beneficial for trekking through the bush. Personally, Red Rover was my favourite activity, because we would get really competitive and work as a team. Mateship, a pillar of the Kokoda Spirit, is the key to successfully completing KCYP as a cohesive cohort.  

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Each person in the Gold Coast team brought different experiences and personalities which enriched the group.  On reflection, I don’t remember how physically demanding the numerous hills we climbed were. But, I remember all the random conversations I had with my team. Like Mo, the academic team member, telling us about science and singing songs… only so many bottles can fall off the wall. During our training hikes, we came up with a friendly game involving a rock. The rock would circulate within our group, and the person who had it at the end of the hike had to hold it on the next hike, adding a new accessory each time. Eventually, we began placing random items in each other’s bags for amusement. 

Our first Kokoda Challenge was the Sunshine Coast 48km event. We had one supported checkpoint where we enjoyed a warm meal and encouragement from our families to recharge us.  Naturally, some team members required emotional, mental, and physical support throughout. And we supported each other with each step. Thank goodness we had amazing leaders who diverted negative thoughts and helped us cross that finish line. I felt like I personally smashed it and was ready to go again, I finished that race on a colossal rush, feeling irrepressible!

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Fast forward to July 16th, 2022, the day of the 96km Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge, one of my favourite memories. I know I definitely had my peaks and troughs on the track, as did my team members. On arrival, we found out that due to illness one of our leaders was unable to walk with us. That left an empty space within the team, but we carried Matt in our thoughts. The atmosphere was electrifying, buzzing with excitement, I had to contain myself because I wanted to conserve energy. There were hot air balloons in the air, hundreds of supporters, army members, a drumline, and most importantly my family. We all lined up at the starting line and the Gold Coast KCYP team was given the honour of being the first ones to step off. There I was, standing side by side with my team about to embark on the best journey of my life thus far. “BANG!” sounded the canon. Off we went, one foot in front of the other. The crowd was roaring. I spotted my family and gave them one last hug. The immense feeling of pride to be wearing the red KCYP shirt was indescribable.  

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We reached the water circuit at night. We were belting out the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, and our infectious energy prompted other contestants to request songs, keeping their spirits high. Later that night most of us girls had our first of many pit stops in the bushes, as well as our first group experience using nature as our bathroom.  I never imagined team bonding would occur this way. By the end of the program something that was so foreign before now seems so normal. 

During the challenge I experienced weaknesses I never felt before. Not only mentally but physically, it was a humbling experience. I injured my calf just over the halfway mark. This impacted me significantly and had a flow-on effect on my team. With each step I took, I felt a sharp pain pulsating through my leg. The physical ailments started affecting me mentally. But I kept asking myself, “Why am I still walking? Who am I walking for?“. My biological dad passed away on that day in 2006, before I was born. I dedicated this walk to his memory and spirit. I knew that I had to prove to myself that I couldn’t let anything stop me and called on all the spiritual strength I conjured up to help me physically. We arrived at Clagiraba, the last supported checkpoint. I limped into the checkpoint, crying. My parents took me in their arms, gave me reassurance, and strapped my leg. My dad wrapped my biological dad’s bandana around my wrist so I could look at it, to draw on him when I felt low.  

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My clearest memory was in Nerang State Forest at checkpoint 13. I walked out of the checkpoint with Meg, my KCYP sister, and Carmen, our KCYP leader, on each of my sides with the boys holding our bags. I was beyond struggling, almost medically unfit to continue. But having them both support me, knowing I wasn’t alone gave me strength to persevere.  We all suffered as one and were bound to cross that finish line together. Nothing was going to stop us. 

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Crossing that finish line with linked arms with one another full of unknown sensations.  The emotions were unreal. The pride I had for my team, our leaders, the families and myself, the happiness that we completed the 96km challenge will always be indescribable, as no words can fully comprehend the journey we had. We completed the challenge in 34 hours 43 minutes and 53 seconds. I was unable to walk for 5 days after due to my injury. With no hesitation, I would do it all over again. 

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Buy now the focus had shifted to the Peak Experience in Cairns.  All the KCYP teams were dispersed, and we would be experiencing the trip with another set of friends. Once we landed in Cairns, we promptly collected our bags and filled our water bladders with water from the airport bathroom basins. Then we were ushered to our bus and taken directly to our first hike of the trip.  While hiking it was extremely hot and the humidity hit differently than back home. The views were breathtaking, along with the rich history that lay upon the tracks.

While waiting for our lunch from Subway to arrive, we rested next to a freshwater mini waterfall. To help us cool down we soaked our trekking shirts and dunked our heads in the water. We even filled our bladders up. Once we all started to get a little bit peckish, we lent on nature to feed us. Ryan, from KCYP Tweed, told us it was okay to eat the bums of green ants. I initially had to get over the fact that it was crawling around before entering my mouth. We indeed ate the bums of green ants. 

The next day we had our tour around Cairns where we visited different historical sites, ranging from memorial sites to runways. We visited a dam that day. The water was gushing out creating strong winds, which was trying to steal our hats from us, but we held on tight. 

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We had the privilege to hike beside Milo, Mr Chips, Duffy, Jack, Priscilla, Bella, Snow, Casper, and Murphy. The famous 9 Donkeys. Each and every donkey had their own personality. Hiking alongside Milo on the first day was something truly magical. Although he was stubborn and would attempt to go off on his own journey, he and I bonded that day. We were also shown and taught indigenous techniques to gather food through spearfishing. And let’s just say, that if the village had to rely on me to bring food back, we would have starved.

At one point we were in the Daintree Rainforest swimming and rafting with turtles. Trekking around Cairns and sleeping at various locations was very therapeutic. We would set up our own campsite including our tents and a kitchen, something I have never been exposed to previously. I feel like I could rival Bear Grills with the experience Cairns has gifted me. One of the nights we were star gazing and listening to stories being told. The experience was captivating. Laying amongst my friends, it felt like we were there for hours, in reality, it was only 20-30 minutes. Staring up into the stars was a peaceful experience, that I will never forget.   

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After the peak experience, we volunteered for community events and organisations such as Kokoda Legacy, Raw Challenge, Surfing with the Disabled, Sea Shepherd Australia and many more. One of my favourite volunteering events was the Raw Challenge. We filled cups with water and handed them out, while cheering for the contestants, giving them motivation to carry on. I also did this at Kokoda Legacy, at the start and at the finish line. Surfing with the Disabled was so rewarding, you get to help the disabled by giving them a fun experience in a safe environment.  

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The program taught me that the only limitation in life is one’s mindset. The program enabled me to push myself beyond my perceived limits. Now I know I can do far more than I originally thought I could. I’ve also discovered that relying on others when you are vulnerable signifies trust and comfort in our relationships. And that in order to grow, you have to experience discomfort. Because of these experiences, I am a better version of myself.

I really believe that KCYP changes people and the way they look at life. It taught me to challenge myself more in everyday life. It is an opportunity to learn about yourself and gain a new perspective on everything you embark on. It also allows you to meet new people who will make an immediate impact. To those who are thinking about doing the program, I say “Do it!” you will regret not taking a chance on yourself.

I have been involved with the Kokoda Youth Foundation since graduating from the program. I’ve shared my journey preparing for the  48km Gold Coast Kokoda Challenge and volunteering at the challenge after completing the 48km trek. Thank you, KYF, for the experiences. Thank you to my leaders Leigh, Beau, Carmen and Matt. Thank you to my Gold Coast KCYP members Abi, Febe, Kai, Liv, Lochie, Meg and Mo. 

Once a Kokoda Kid, always a Kokoda Kid!

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