KOKODA claimed Don Vale’s best mate when he was just 16.
More than 60 years on, Mr Vale was not going to let age stand in his way when he took on the notorious jungle trek in honour of his friend.
At 83, Mr Vale is thought to be the oldest person to complete the gruelling 130km trek that has claimed the lives of four Australians this year.
And he did it with just three locals for company after the others in his tour group pulled out following the PNG air crash that killed 13 Australians.
Mr Vale, from Lisarow on the NSW Central Coast, returned home from his walk last Friday, just two days before 55-year-old Epping accountant Phillip Brunskill died attempting the same feat.
He said despite his age he was determined to honour his childhood friend who was killed during World War II somewhere in that inhospitable PNG jungle.
Also, after his wife’s death two decades ago, he has been on his own and has had the time to prepare, he said.
“I had a mate when I was at school back in the ’30s and ’40s,” Mr Vale said yesterday.
“He was my best friend, he was part Aboriginal and part of the Stolen Generation.
“He put his age up and I think even changed his name to enlist. He was up there, and dead, by the time he was 16.”
It took Mr Vale 10 days to complete the trek. “I was extremely slow up the hills – you can’t believe how big the hills are. It was probably one hundred times harder then I thought it would be.”
This was despite Mr Vale training and working with medical specialists for months ahead of his walk.
“I walked nine days straight for four hours a day with a pack, I had a few days off, and then did it again,” he said.
His training was in addition to exercises put together by his physiotherapist and having a doctor carry out a battery of tests to ensure his body was up to the challenge.
Despite his preparation, Mr Vale said he was concerned about the number of deaths on the track recently but was not going to let fear stop him.
“My wife died of cancer. It took three years for her to die,” he said.
“Doctors cut bits out of her and she had no dignity. I’d just as soon die by dropping dead on Kokoda.”
Completing Kokoda was one of the best moments of Mr Vale’s life but he said there should be more checks in place to ensure all trekkers were fit and healthy.
“It is really a great thing, you just have to prepare. No smoking and beering,” he said.
“It was one of the most magnificent experiences of my life. I danced with joy when I finally got to the end.”
Around 6,000 people, mostly Australians, attempt to walk the track every year.
Following the recent spate of deaths on the track, there have been calls to make medical checks mandatory.
Some tour companies insist on checks for their older trekkers, however it is largely left up to an individual’s discretion. –www.dailytelegraph.com.au