Kokoda trek to be awarded to one lucky student

Kristy-Ann Mays, Mount Evelyn RSL vice president Roger Boness and president Matt Crymble, with the late James Bruce, were the first to jump on board the committee of the Cowey-Selman Kokoda Award. Picture: ON FILE. 205646_02

By Mikayla van Loon

Calling all Lilydale students who have an interest in history, there’s a special scholarship to be awarded to one lucky person from the Shire and it’s time to get researching.

The Cowey-Selman Kokoda Award is returning for 2022 to give a Yarra Ranges Year 11 student the opportunity to win a fully funded scholarship to trek the Kokoda Trail.

Although first launched in 2019, the trek has been delayed twice by the pandemic but program chair Greg Green is hopeful third time’s the charm.

“We were running our first competition in February 2020 but Covid came along a week before entries were due to be submitted,” he said.

“The Kokoda Trail has been closed for two years, we’re very hopeful it’s going to be open next year and next year is the eighth anniversary of the campaign, so we were going to hold the competition regardless.”

Mr Green said the award is meant to encourage students to learn about the history of the 39th Infantry Battalion and the campaign Victorian troops led against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

Supported by the 39th Infantry Battalion (1941-43) Association and Lilydale, Monbulk and Mount Evelyn RSL sub-branches, Mr Green said the committee are now looking for funding.

“We need $8000 to send each student across there. We’re aiming for one student initially but if the fundraising goes we’ll send more.”

So far, Yarra Ranges Council, Turf 1, Vic Power & Data, Passchendaele Cafe, Lilydale Marketplace and Bendigo Community Bank have contributed funds.

The scholarship covers all costs of the trek with Getaway Trekking, including costs for a passport if needed but personal items such as medications, spending money and gifts for the locals won’t be provided in the overall funding.

Researching the history of Kokoda and stories like those of Monbulk veteran Jim Cowey and Lilydale veteran Geoff Selman is a key element of this program.

“They were volunteers so they weren’t allowed to serve offshore but PNG was Australian mandated territory at the time. The average age was 18 and a half. Some of them would have been the same age as Year 11 kids,” Mr Green said.

“Milne Bay, just before the Kokoda Campaign, was the first time the Japanese have been defeated on land and that was by Australian troops. Kokoda was the second time.

“Australian troops were outnumbered five to 10 to one. They were wearing desert fatigues instead of jungle greens and carrying World War I weapons.”

Students will be asked to submit an entry in any format they please, outlining the importance of the Kokoda Campaign in the battle for Australia and why they would like to trek the Kokoda Trail.

“Enjoy your research. Just picture yourself in the position of these 17 and 18 year old kids walking across there to face the Japanese and see whether you think you could do it.”

Mr Green said not only is it about the history but about learning the culture of our close neighbours.

Having walked the Kokoda Trail multiple times, Mr Green said the student will have a personal carrier of their pack, who will walk with them and share stories about their village.

“I think it’s character building. I think it’s going to help them develop some of their leadership qualities, because you’re going to have a kid who wants to do it in the first place anyway.

“I’ve done a few other treks around the place and the Kokoda is the hardest. It’s 30 plus degrees and 95 per cent humidity. You’ve just got to keep going.”

Wanting this to be an annual award, the first student will return to be an ambassador for the program and Mr Green is hopeful local businesses will come on board as regular sponsors.

Secondary colleges in the Yarra Ranges will be contacted in February to gain expressions of interest and submissions can be made until late March through the school, with the winner expected to be announced on Anzac Day in April.

To find out more go to https://www.monbulkrsl.org.au/cowey-selman-kokoda-award