Bendigo man Andrew Flanagan says his life changed while walking the Kokoda Track. Now the former school teacher is helping to transform the lives of others at home and abroad.
Walking the Kokoda Track is on many people’s bucket list, but few manage to tick it off.
For Bendigo man Andrew Flanagan, that dream came true in 2012.
Six years later, he’s preparing to walk the 96km track for a tenth time.
“My initial experience was very much wanting to come home and feeling that I had an obligation to tell the story that I learnt over there,” he says.
“Because it’s a story that should be told.”
Mr Flanagan’s first trip to Kokoda was as a client and it was also his first overseas.
He went with no knowledge of the campaign in Papua New Guinea, just a keen interest in military history.
While he was there, he fell in love with the story of Kokoda – a story he believes lives in the shadow of Gallipoli and Australia’s military history.
“It’s a unique story because it was probably the only time in Australian history where Australian soldiers were actually fighting for Australia in the belief that we were going to be invaded by another country,” he says.
What followed was an incredibly moving and emotional journey that led him to become a guide the following year.
“As much as it is a physical journey, and it is a very difficult physical undertaking to walk the Kokoda Track, what you can’t factor in is the emotional experience that you will have while you’re over there,” he says.
“And that was very much the case for me, where there were times where you are walking along that same ground that they walked along – the Australian soldiers – and fought and died along, and you can feel something there.”
Mr Flanagan signed up with travel company No Roads in 2013, and since then, has averaged two trips to Kokoda each year, minus a two-year break in 2015 when he joined the Australia Defence Force.
It was a career change inspired by his time at Kokoda, but propelled by his son Liam at the end of a father and son trek along the track in 2014.
The then 14-year-old questioned his father for giving a speech about honoring the soldiers’ sacrifices through following your passions, when he hadn’t fulfilled his.
Becoming a solider was always a dream of Mr Flanagan’s and he says the very next day, he rang Defence Force Recruiting.
“Best thing I ever did.
“Kokoda has that effect on people. It changes your life, not just the military side of things, but the medical side, the educational side, interacting with the villagers and interacting with the porters. It changes your life.”
On each of his trips, Mr Flanagan carries in additional medical supplies to help the locals living without resources or the knowledge of how to treat minor infections.
In Papua New Guinea one in 12 children die before the age of five and there is one community health care worker per 2333 people.
Mr Flanagan’s daughters, driven by a desire to help the people of Papua New Guinea, launched a social media campaign in 2017 calling for medical supplies.
“Over there you can get a cut from a machete because you are chopping the grass and, untreated, that cut will fester and potentially involves either that person dying or having to go into [Port] Moresby to get medical care,” Mr Flanagan says.
“And that’s tragic that there are children over there who die all the time for common things like scrapes and cuts, let alone more serious things in the jungle terrain.”
Jemma and Georgia’s campaign was overwhelmingly successful and saw their father take about 30 kilograms of supplies into the country on his next two trips.
His first was with a group of central Victorian firefighters in April, who also took their own donations of medical supplies, and his second was in September guiding Australian Army Cadets.
Instead of medical supplies, the cadets took school packs purchased through No Roads’ non-for-profit charity.
“We go to school and consider it nothing to have pens and pencils and paper to write on, whereas the people along the track they don’t have that,” the former Bendigo school teacher of 25 years says.
“We take so much for granted over here, and that’s OK because that’s our life as it is now and we can’t save the world, it’s not just PNG that has those circumstances.
“But we have an obligation with regards to PNG. We owe them a debt.”
This year, Mr Flanagan has three trips planned to Kokoda – one in April, another in June and the final in September.
He says for him, the Kokoda campaign is not about facts and figures.
“I tell the story of the individual soldiers that were there.
“My job as a trek guide is to paint in your mind and your heart a picture of what happened in that place because that’s how you connect with the story.”
It’s the story of Corporal John Metson who was shot through the ankles and crawled through the jungle for three weeks, refusing to be carried on a stretcher as he believed there were soldiers worse off than him.
The story of Corporal Charlie McCallum who at Isurava held off waves of Japanese attacking his position to give time for his platoon to fall back. The Japanese were clawing at his webbing they were so close, while he was buying time for his mates to get back.
“When you’re over there, you hear these stories, because that’s what matters,” says Mr Flanagan.
“The stories of the individual soldiers. The fact that 632 Australians died along the Kokoda Track that doesn’t connect people. But hearing their stories while you walk in their footsteps, that’s what matters.
“If you are Australian, you should know these stories.”
- Anyone wishing to donate medical supplies to be taken on Mr Flanagan’s upcoming trips can contact him at email@example.com