When Mark Jeffree and the GJ Gardner Homes team started planning to walk the iconic Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, it wasn’t just a matter of crossing an item off their bucket list. Instead, they used the milestone trip to raise more than $147,000 for two charities close to their community.
Mark, along with his wife Kylie, operate the Sydney South franchise of home-building company GJ Gardner Homes situated in Caringbah. A builder by trade, he now spends his days running the business, co-ordinating their nine employees and “a whole suite of suppliers and subcontractors” – from allocating work to ensuring they’re safe and paid.
Overhearing a couple of members of the GJ team talk about Kokoda reminded Mark that he had the trail on his bucket list. “I didn't have any relatives that were involved [in the World War II campaign] directly, but it was just something that was on our doorstep and if people didn't keep going and listening to the history of the place, over time it just gets diminished,” he says of his motivation to visit.
The Kokoda Trail campaign was part of a 1942 series of battles in the Pacific during World War II between Japanese forces and an alliance of Australian and US soldiers. The isolated mountain terrain and jungle environment made for notoriously difficult conditions through which the alliance prevailed with help from the well-known hospitality of Papua New Guineans. Today, tour companies such as Adventure Kokoda – which Mark and the GJ team went with – guide hikers along the trail, strengthening the experience with historic commentary and local knowledge.
The GJ team comprised 16 people, including Mark and his 15-year-old son. Due to the iconic nature of the trip, the team decided to turn the walk of a lifetime into a fundraising opportunity. They chose charities with a link to the team and the trip: MATES In Construction, a suicide prevention organisation aimed at construction workers – who are eight times more likely to die by suicide than an accident at work; and Legacy, a 100-year-old charity which supports families of veterans.
The thematic links came in handy when the GJ team reached out to its network to raise funds. “It was something a bit more rewarding when you're asking people to put some money towards it, because it's something that we could all speak about,” Mark explains. “A lot of our subcontractors and suppliers were keen to support. Some of the older ones that had connections to Papua New Guinea were even keener and really excited about hearing about the trip as well. Virtually everyone supported us whichever way they could and in the end we raised just over $147,000.”
While the team trained in Australian conditions – Mark and his son hiked trails around the Illawarra Escarpment and the Blue Mountains – “the track itself is a lot more challenging than any of the training tracks we did,” says Mark. “And doing a walk in the Blue Mountains when it's four degrees doesn't compare to doing a walk in Papua New Guinea where it's 30 degrees and 95 per cent humidity.”
Other research included watching YouTube videos to help with mental preparation, both for understanding the history and context of the area and the difficulty of the trail – though Mark drew the line at showing the more extreme ‘horror hikes’ to his son.
On the trail, there was a mix of a “big sense of accomplishment of finishing every day” interspersed with moments of reflection. “When they're recounting stories about what happened where we were, you go, ‘oh wow, people have lived, breathed and even been killed in this very area’ and it's quite sombre to go through those places seeing what people were doing for their country,” says Mark.
A couple of team members did need to be evacuated out of the area due to injury and it’s at these moments when Mark saw the locals’ hospitality come to the fore, looking after casualties and ensuring they were catered for until handing them over to the helicopter. “You could sense that that's what they did for us during the course of the war and there are stories that are just like that but tenfold,” says Mark. “They're a caring bunch of people.”
It also drove home the importance of the communities who still live in the areas where many Australians may only visit once in a lifetime. “Support the locals where you can because they're there to help you and support you on the trek, and going through their villages,” Mark notes. “On top of that, some of us have gone on and supported some local PNG boxers as our trek leader was involved in that scene. We've supported one of their heavyweight boxers so he can get to competitions and training, because he lives out on Manus Island.”
The best part? “Doing it with my son was a big highlight for me,” nominates Mark. And it has also been a great team-bonding exercise. So much so, many are already thinking about where to go next. “Everyone seemed to get quite a bit out of it and it was all going to worthwhile causes and charities. If you get the opportunity to do it, it's really nice to be able to give something back. It's a win-win for everyone.”
Mark Jeffree from GJ Gardner Homes Sydney South recommends the Port Hacking Yacht Club for lunch. “It’s a really nice place to go on the water, nothing pretentious. It’s like a pub, but with a great outlook.”