Setting and achieving a challenge for herself was on this Cardiff resident’s bucket list; though the details of what, where and when were not defined. So, when an opportunity came up to tick off ‘challenge’ and raise money for a local charity, she thought maybe this is the one.
After some research, Louise Walshe signed up for 2014 Camp Quality Sandakan Death March in Borneo.
“At the time, I worked at Camp Quality and had seen others do challenge-events such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the Kokoda Trail. When I looked at this trek, it seemed like the right time. I knew people interested in doing it and felt their friendship would keep me going when it got tough,” Louise said.
The trek retraces part of the 260-kilometre enforced march used by the Japanese to relocate thousands of Australian and British soldiers from prisoner-of-war camps in Sandakan to Ranau.
Sick and starving, in rags and with no shoes, the men were herded through dense jungle. Those who could not do it or became sick or made it; were killed. It is estimated that about 2420 Allied prisoners died. There were only six survivors, all Australians, who escaped during the marches, described as the “greatest single atrocity committed against Australians in war”.
Once committed, Louise dedicated herself to fundraising, getting fitter and walking every day.
“The preparation alone forced me outside my comfort zone, but the trek really pushed me, and I was so proud of myself at the end.”
In April 2014, Louise set out with 12 companions and five guides for an eight-day trek through the Sabah jungle.
“The first day was horrendous as they didn’t tell me the nitty-gritty. I am a details girl: I need to know. I wasn’t ready for the true jungle. There were no tracks - the lead guide had a GPS to keep our course, and two other guides used machetes to chop through the dense vegetation that grabbed at us,” she said.
Louise had decided to set her pace to her physical ability, to absorb the natural beauty and honour the men, who had died protecting Australia from the Japanese.
“So, I was at the back with a guide. However, the jungle was so thick; I couldn’t see or hear anyone. It was terrifying. As a group, we needed to backtrack several times, as we were off course.”
After day one, Louise knew what to expect and was more at ease with the jungle trekking, the steep terrain of roller coaster ascents and descents, sweltering heat and slippery conditions. During the pilgrimage, retracing the soldiers’ footsteps, Louise felt some strong ties, especially during two interactions with locals.
The first was when the group camped under a stilted family house, sharing the space with dogs, goats, hens. The family – the grandparents, parents and children – cooked and ate dinner with them. With a guide as an interpreter, the group discovered the grandfather was seven when the Japanese came through the area. He described it as a horrific experience due to the cruelty he witnessed.
Then at the village of Paginatan, they met the Ring Lady, Domima Akoi, who at the age of 13 with her father’s help, fed five escapees hiding in the forest for six days. On the seventh day, the food was not taken, and they had left six gold wedding rings in a tin. Giving five of the rings to relatives, she still has one and wonders what happened to its owner.
“These first-hand stories made it feel real for me and brought it into my heart. It was a privilege to shake their hands and pay my respects.”
On day seven, the head guide decided the group could push on and finish. They trekked for nine hours, walking in the dark to Sandakan Memorial.
“When I finished, I felt a bunch of emotions; I was scared from walking the last part in the pitch dark; I cried for the thousands of lives lost; I felt relieved it was over and joy as I pushed myself to my outer limits and done it.”
“We had also raised more than $200,000 for Camp Quality. I knew my trials on the trek were nothing compared to what the kids go through with their treatments and this money would stay in the Hunter to help them.”
Louise’s other bucket-list ticks include jumping out of a plane, seeing the pyramids in Egypt and going on safari in Kenya. She still wants to go to Antarctica and volunteer on Mercy Ships. Her next adventure is following the Danube River through Hungary and Romania to the Black Sea.