“Look,” says Vivien, “before this, you would have been more likely to find me in the lobby of the Hilton hotel than in a campsite.”
Given that we’ve just spent the last twenty minutes talking about her experiences hiking one of the most arduous treks in the world, I can’t help but be surprised. “I’ve lived in the Mountains for 28 years. Never been for a bushwalk before I started training for this.”
I’m not surprised any more. I’m astonished. But let’s go back a little.
Vivien did not initially apply to join the Kokoda Trek, but when the opportunity came up, she says it felt like a gift from the universe. And taking the opportunity seems to have been one of the best decisions of her life. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done, but the best.”
With just nine weeks to get into shape, she went to the gym, walked on her treadmill, and went hiking with a friend in her previously unexplored neighbourhood of the Blue Mountains. She got fit fast, but like most of the trekkers, found that nothing can really prepare you for the real thing.
She talks about the endless hills and mud, about the exhaustion, about how you have to concentrate on every step for fear of falling. “I don’t think anyone didn’t have a fall.” Except the Legends, as the local guides are universally known. To her they have absolutely earned their right to that title, always there to help on the hills or the treacherous river crossings.
And all of this hardship brought back the hardship faced by the troops all those years ago. “It would be quiet for a while, and then someone would say How did they do it?” You never escape the sense of history, and of awe, and she carries with her a profound new sense of respect for those young men.
Before Viv left, her daughters and husband gave her a parcel of letters to open, one for each night. They were deep and thoughtful, full of family and connection, and opened floodgates of tears, for both Viv and the people she passed them to, as everybody connected to their own feelings of loss and love and honour and memory. It was not unlike the letters that soldiers on the track would have received, and it was one more thing to bring the two worlds closer together.
And then the last day. They all made the final climb, and waited before walking through the finish gate together. “I just remember standing there thinking, My God. We did it.” She found herself crying, and turned to her friend to find her crying too.
And then she laughs, coming back from that sunrise moment on the hilltop. “And then I thought, Give me a beer. And an egg and bacon roll.”
The next morning they all went to the Anzac Day dawn service, a first for Viv. But having been there, having witnessed firsthand the suffering and the loss, she will definitely be attending more.
And after all this, the key question: would she do it all again? “Yes. Absolutely. If you’d asked me on the day I finished, it would have been a different answer, but I’ve been telling people it’s like childbirth. It hurts like hell, but then you forget.”
It’s an apt simile, because it seems like a new spirit has been born in Vivien. Long may it live on.