We are happy to report that the recent Kokoda+ campaign was a huge success. I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one who supported us and helped to get us there. It was definitely one of the most extraordinary things we have ever been fortunate enough to do.
Kokoda is exactly what you'd imagine, as ruthless as it is beautiful and as relentless on the body as it is easy on the eye. Wake up was at 530am sharp for a 630am departure, with some oats and a strong cup of instant coffee (sometimes two) to get the heart pumping but most importantly, the head ready, for another 7-8 hour hike through lush rain forests, muddy trails that were slippery and dangerous and also river crossings with make shift "bridges" of whatever the locals could find. The highlights for me personally was getting to a patch or break in forestry and looking out across the mountains, with clouds below us and green as far as the eye could see. It was truly breathtaking!
We quickly learnt that there are only two ways the hike can go... either UP... or DOWN... and that there are no 'easy spots' on Kokoda. Its not just about which way you're heading but alsotheneed for constant and unwavering concentration, as one wrong step or muddy patch that you're not ready for can turn an already hard hike, into your worst hiking nightmare. For if you were to injure yourself anywhere along the trail, you will be nursing that injury every step of the way, every day until you reach the end, as there is no other way out.
To make time go by as we dragged ourselves along the trail, we sang, told stories and chatted about everything and anything that popped into our heads. Some days were spent talking the whole way with other days perfect for some introspection and “me time”. There are no rules and it really was up to the individual on how they wanted to get through it all. The evenings were spent swimming in any waterway we could find, this was also the only way to have a "shower", followed by dinner, a quick update on what lies ahead and straight to bed. Believe me, a 5 degree sleeping bag and self inflating mattress has NEVER been so comfortable and sleep came quickly.
I wanted to give thanks and pay my respects to PLHIV who have gone before us, and also acknowledge the long term survivors who became HIV+ in a very different time than today. For this I spent a whole day in silence, and for those of you who know me, even 10 minutes of silence can be hard! The fact is, the stigma faced by them was a hundred times what it is today and coupled with the very effective "grim reaper" add campaign, they never had a chance at a normal life once they were diagnosed. Some were told they had 6 months to live, they said their goodbyes, gave up their jobs and waited for death... Then when effective treatments appeared they had to put their lives back together and have been living with the repercussions their whole lives. They have been silenced by HIV and I wanted to raise awareness about it somehow and give them a voice. They put their bodies on the line to test initial drugs, they protected the wider community by containing the virus and through education, they did anything they could to try and stop an epidemic who were taking 1000's of lives a day and said goodbye to more friends and family members than I can imagine. They were the heroes of that time and I believe they need to be recognised for it, not silenced. I can only hope that my day of silence will raise some awareness when the documentary comes out and in turn direct some support and thanks to that part of our community.
We were also joined by a local HIV activist and community leader, Carol Habin, who spent the last of her Kena to get there and completed the trail without a single complaint. She was truly an inspiration to us all and she quickly gained the respect of the people in the villages along the way, as well as our porters. Carol spent some of the evenings engaging with the locals, educating them on all things HIV as well as raising awareness about violence against women, which is unfortunately still happening in PNG today. Carol has since been given a role as community educator and will spend her time doing outreach and educational talks across rural PNG, fighting HIV related stigma and empowering communities to make better informed decisions when it comes to personal and sexual health. We wish Carol all the best and will endeavour to support her in any way we can. She has proven to be a true leader and role model for PLHIV in PNG.
What it did for HIV awareness in PNG:
The campaign ended with a cocktail function at our hotel which was covered by local media and had government dignitaries, socialites and even miss PNG in attendance. Other than it being broadcasted on PNG television, the one thing it did was get people talking about HIV again. It raised much needed awareness about funding restraints, transmission rates in PNG but also the lack of education in rural communities. A few of the attendants were UNAIDS and local non-profit orgs whig were made very aware of the issues and problems that PNG face with regards to His today. This was also were Carol Habin was formally introduced and given her new role as Community educator. I believe our presence and this campaign has ignited a much needed flame at PNG government level and I am hopeful that more support and funding will be directed towards our common goal of educating communities, fighting HIV related stigma and ending HIV transmission in the near future.
What it will do for HIV awareness in AUS:
We were accompanied by am esteemed documentary film crew who filmed, interviewed and documented every step of the way. They are in the process of producing a documentary which will be screened in Australia with the hope of educating the wider community about the face of HIV today and also combat the stigmas faced by many PLHIV. To have a group of people living with HIV as well as people from the sector & healthcare attempt and accomplish something as big as the Kokoda trail will no doubt speak volumes to anyone who watches this documentary and I am confident that it WILL make a big impact on the wider community as well as the lived experience of PLHIV all over Australia. Look out for the documentary’s release!
What it did for the walkers:
It proved that PLHIV can truly do ANYTHING they put their minds to and that they are not held back or silenced by this virus.
In life we all have “porters” who we need to rely on and who without their help we cannot make it through in one piece. They are the friends and family who are there to pick us up when we fall and help get us back up and ready to keep going. We all have to conquer our own “Kokoda’s” when something big, bad or unexpected happens to us. And just like the real deal, we need to rely on our “porters” more and know that they will be there to catch us, dust us off and get us back on our feet to keep going at it and help us get to the end.