Thank you to all the brave, courageous women who have gone before us
Back in 2010, I was asked to give a talk to a group of women at work, a men’s Minimum Security Correctional Centre, for International Women’s Day. Despite knowing these women, I was still nervous. I was given the brief of talking about my walking activities and travels.
Fast Forward to 8 March 2019
I attended a lunch for International Women’s Day 2019 in my small town and listened to four inspiring women tell their stories. I was reminded of the talk I’d given all those years ago and after finding my notes, I’m sharing a snippet of my talk with you today.
It seems like a different world, a lifetime ago even! At the time I was working in a professional role as the Education Manager in a minimum security men’s correctional centre (prison). Now I’m retired and living a completely different life. (I will add here that I didn’t retire by choice, it was a forced redundancy and was a very difficult time, I was only 56).
I like to do things properly, to get in the mood so to speak, so I wore my beautiful bright Nepalese outfit, as I had done all those years ago. I suppose I wanted to show I was a woman of the world, but to be honest there’s not much call to wear a colourful Salwar Kameez and dupatta in downtown Tumbarumba, so I’ll take any opportunity 🙂
I thought I’d share a snippet of my talk with you here….
I feel I qualify as an an international woman on several fronts –
- I am a woman
- I love anything international, especially travel
- I’m often asked where I am from – most people think it’s France, the Mediterranean or Greece – nowhere as international as that I’m afraid – I’m a genuine Australian, made up of various other bits!
Walking on the wild side
I’m going to give a short talk on my walks on the Wild Side – the Kokoda Track & Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains.
I’d like to inspire you to step out of your comfort zone, as I did at the age of 47, and to see the many benefits of walking. I’ll also talk briefly about the women of PNG and Nepal.
I was only 19 when I married the Mathematician and I can still remember my parents, my father in particular, asking me if I was sure I was doing the right thing – didn’t I want to travel, study, experience more of life before settling down?
I said, quite naively in hindsight, that yes I did want to do all these things and I would get to do them at some stage later in my life with Grant and our (as yet unborn) children. And I have! My father is thrilled to tell me that he is proud of me for actually doing what I said I would do all those years ago. (Sadly I lost my father in January 2018 so this is a great comfort to me).
I have always been active, into team sports, running, cycling, girl guides and scouting movements doing new and exciting outdoor activities and later in life, into walking. I didn’t have any weight issues until I hit my 30s. I’m scared of heights, steep drops, edges, windy roads & crossing chasms on rickety bridges – the reason I’m telling you this becomes clearer later!
My first international travel experience was at 17 on a school excursion and it was a disaster on a monumental scale and earned me a bravery award from the Queen. I didn’t travel overseas again until I was 31, when we relocated our young family to England to live for 12 months. Yes I think we were mad! But it was this move that started us on a whole new path. Now all these years later I can tell you that our family motto is ‘to travel is to live’.
So, onto my first walk on the wild side in 2008
The what, why, how and when
What did I do??
I walked the northern end of the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, starting & finishing in the village of Kokoda.
Who did I do it with??
A mixed group of 7 women and 4 men with 10 native carriers. Our group ranged in age from 22-65. Three of us were from my workplace.
When did I do it??
From April 18 to April 28 2008, we walked for 7 days through the jungle of Papua New Guinea, following parts of the famous Kokoda Track.
How did it all start??
Grant & I have always been active. Grant played touch football at a high level for years and represented Australia in 2004 in Europe & South Africa. After an injury forced him into retirement from touch in 2006, he was approached by two Rotarians who were considering taking a group of high school students to walk the Kokoda Track. They wanted him to be involved as the accompanying teacher. Grant went on to do the walk in 2007. I was involved in the training walks for the 6 months leading up to this trip but I never anticipated going myself as it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I really enjoyed the walks, the camaraderie and helping get the kids ready mentally and physically.
After the success of the trip in 2007, some of the parents and community members expressed an interest in doing the Kokoda Track themselves. This was the catalyst for the tour in April 2008. There were 2 groups, The Ultimate group walked for 12 days and our group, The Taste, walked for 7 days. We met up along the track and finished walking as one big group after commemorating ANZAC Day at the Isurava memorial. This was a highlight of the trip and extremely moving.
We began training in September 2007 with regular group walks, early morning starts and spent hours slogging up & down the steep hills around Tumbarumba with packs on our backs. We walked as a group a few times a week and on our own most days of the week. We had to walk together so that we could learn about each other strengths and weaknesses, get to know each other and learn to trust each other. Our fitness levels had to be high in order to be able to undertake the gruelling walk and this dedicated training schedule paid off on many occasions while on the track. The Kokoda Track is known as one of the toughest walks in the world.
An example of this was when I came to a fallen tree which blocked the track. I had to get over this tree in order to continue but it was on the edge of a steep cliff drop and it was very very scary. I faltered and said that I couldn’t throw my leg over the tree to get over it as I thought I’d fall to my death. Two of my group had to literally talk me through it and I managed to get over this hump. I was sweating buckets I was so scared. I still have nightmares about this tree. I learnt later that someone had died at this point on a previous walk! I trusted my fellow trekkers enough through having trained with them regularly.
While on the track we had to live at close quarters with everyone else and with very little privacy. We shared open huts each night and showered whenever possible under cold water taps/showers set up in villages. We washed our clothes out at the same time as having a shower and none of us were ever entirely clean.
We wore the same walking clothes each day, including socks & underwear. When we got into a village in the afternoons we would clean up as best we could and put on our clean ‘night’ clothes for the evening. This way we always had a dry, relatively clean outfit. I took a spare pair of socks and it was a lovely treat to put them on after a few days of walking. Our socks and boots were of good quality but still became wet and had to be dried out each night around the fire. Walking in the rain was particularly uncomfortable.
I had a porter who carried my big pack (and his own gear) and he was a wiry young man who looked at me as if wondering what on earth I was doing. He soon learnt that I didn’t like bridge crossings and he would appear beside me, taking my hand and helping me whenever things got tricky. He was my fuzzy wuzzy angel.
So why did I do Kokoda at the ripe old age of 47??
- My daughters said I wouldn’t be able to cope with being dirty and smelly and without a hair dryer and luxury items like shampoo, soap etc – this was one reason why I did it – to show them, and myself if I’m honest, that I could cope.
- To gain an understanding of Grant’s experiences in 2007 and try to see why he fell in love with all things Kokoda & PNG
- To gain an insight into the war along the track
- To challenge myself both physically & mentally
- To move outside my comfort zones and to do something wild before I got too old
I did it, I coped well without all my creature comforts. I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did – being sore, sweaty, smelly, dirty & physically exhausted was more fun that I’d ever imagined. It was really quite a liberating experience – it was me and only me without the trappings of clothing, authority and all the other things we sometimes hide behind.
It was one of he hardest things I have ever done.
I found that walking became a priority in my day, the benefits were numerous – weight control, sleep, emotional well being (I can think so clearly when I’m out walking), my posture improves, my fitness improves and I feel alive.
After I returned from Kokoda I earned the title of Forest Gump as I just couldn’t stop walking. I had started walking at lunchtime with my pack on before I went to Kokoda and I continued afterwards, I just found it hard to sit still.
Bring on the next challenge….
Many of the group who walked Kokoda in 2008 continued meeting up for walks and participated in the training sessions for the Kokoda high school trekkers in April 2009. Someone came up with the idea of walking in Nepal in October that year and so we just continued our training with barely a drop in levels of commitment over winter of 2009.
Our Nepal contingent consisted of 17 walkers – 12 from Tumbarumba, all with a Kokoda connection & 5 from Sydney. It was to be a big change from the jungles of Kokoda to the mountains of the Himalayas. But in other ways it was quite similar.
The Nepal trip was from 3-21 October 2009, with 10 days of actual walking. We prepared ourselves well with regular walks, team meetings, discussions on supplies, what clothing would be required, weather conditions and altitude sickness symptoms.
I was excited but also nervous, as although I was fit & healthy, the unknowns were just that – unknown.
We found Kathmandu a very confronting and hectic city, a real eye opener! We started walking after a few nights in a beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara. It rained and rained on the first day of walking and was absolutely miserable. It was a steep climb with torrential rain, leeches and no mountains to be seen! My first view of the Fishtail – Machapacharie was amazing! We had local carriers who were our guides and carriers, they were all young boys and very shy.
Each day we’d dress in yesterday’s walking clothes, have breakfast of eggs, potatoes and tea, pack up and be walking by 8.30am. We’d stop at a village mid morning and then again for lunch. We carried our own snacks and lunches and would arrive in a village, find accommodation in a tea house by mid afternoon, settle into our accommodation, clean up, change into our evening clothes and explore before dinner.
The tea houses were very basic guest houses with twin beds (very hard) in small rooms (like cells) but sometimes we’d come across a solar hot water shower and all rinse our clothes out to dry overnight. Dinner was usually a vegetarian meal served with rice or vegetables. We ate lots of eggs!! We were all in bed by 7.30 /8pm each night and up again by 6am to start all over the next day.
We were physically tired each day as the walking was hard – it was up and down hills at high altitudes which were also taking their toll. The track was made up of steps of rocks & pavers, and apparently made by the women. We walked to Annapurna Base camp at 4110 metres for sunrise and were rewarded with 360 degree views around the Himalayas. This was a real highlight and gave me such a feeling of accomplishment.
The people of Nepal were lovely, friendly, welcoming and hard working. They seemed to have a hard life with little, by our standards, but they were happy. We were struck by the similarities between the women of PNG & Nepal. They were very hardworking, stoic, happy, welcoming, religious, hardy, well organised, shy and always beautifully dressed. Bright clothing was abundant and although they didn’t have access to electric washing machines, their clothes always looked clean. Many of the tea houses we stayed at along the track were run by women.
My outfit is an example of what the Nepalese women wear on a daily basis. It is similar to Indian clothing. It is called a Salwar Kameez with a dupatta. The pants are called Salwar, the tunic is a kameez and the scarf is a dupatta. It is very comfortable to wear. I had this made to measure (in 2009), it took less than a day to make and cost $40.
I have attempted to inspire you into doing something outside your comfort zone and emphasised the importance of trying to walk regularly. I realise not everyone wants to walk in the jungle or in the Himalayas but try to do something that scares you – it’s more fun than you think!
What have I done since then…
I have since visited India as part of a Rotary tour, undertaken a barge/cycle tour from Paris to Bruges, joined a sailing/cycle group in the Southern Dalmatian Islands in Croatia, travelled solo for 4 weeks across UK and Scandinavia, cycled the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand, walked to the top of Australia, Mt Kosciuszko with a walking group, travelled for three months around England, Iceland, The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Switzerland, plus many more adventures around our own beautiful country.
International Women’s Day
So that’s my story for IWD – what’s yours?
Right now is a great and important time in history to do everything possible to help forge a more gender-balanced world. Women have come a long way, yet there’s still more to be achieved.
International Women’s Day has a different campaign theme each year, as a call-to-action.
How will you help make a difference?
It’s also my sister’s birthday today (and every IWD) so I’m taking this opportunity to wish her a very happy birthday!
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A tragic accident at age 17, resulting in a Bravery Award from the Queen, didn’t deter Debbie from travelling the world. A young retiree, after being made redundant from her 22 year career managing education programs in a men’s correctional centre, she now loves reading, blogging, riding her ebike and a good cup of tea! Also known as Granny Debs to her 4 grandchildren.
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