Checkpoint 6 felt like a big children’s picnic when I arrived just before 1pm to start my third and final shift at the Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane. Clusters of families and friends had set up chairs, blankets, eskies and tables all around the edges of the park. They were all in various stages of support-crew life: waiting for teams to arrive, putting their own needs aside to look after their teams, or packing up to cart their bundles of heavy gear back to their cars. Men kicked footballs to boys, toddlers waddled around under the watchful eyes of their parents and the few teenagers who had been dragged along sat with their heads down listening to their iPods.
I was rostered on for an eight-hour shift as an assistant checkpoint coordinator. My main role would be to sign volunteers into their shifts and make sure they were happy. We had a team of 15-20 Oxfam volunteers and numerous health volunteers, such as podiatrists, physios and first aid. The Oxfam volunteers were all allocated to a range of roles. These included:
- trail marshals who stood at trail intersections and road crossings to both guide walkers and cheer them on
- parking marshals who helped support crews getting their cars in and out of the loading zone and carparking spaces efficiently; our team of parking marshals also helped tired support crews carry boxes and bags
- check-in and check-out operators who used laptops to log teams’ in and out of the checkpoint, which also helped keep Event Control and the internet followers appraised of teams’ movements
- checkpoint coordinator who was responsible for the whole checkpoint; a busy role
- a communications officer who was responsible for using a two-way radio to keep in contact with trail marshals, parking marshals and other people as necessary
- checkpoint support who we asked to greet all the teams as they arrived at the checkpoint and cheer them in from the checkpoint gate, about 100m from the check-in desk.
I didn’t have a dull moment during my shift. I did everything from mixing big tubs of sports drink and filling water containers to carrying chairs to trail marshal locations and delivering chocolates to volunteers within walking distance of the checkpoint. As day turned to night, the walkers and their support crews arriving at our checkpoint needed more support because it was so tough to walk into the second night. We set up light wands to help walkers find the trail out of the path and torches to help support crews navigate their entry to the park. Volunteers greeted each team as they exited the trail and walked with them all the way to the check-in desk, encouraging everyone to clap for them as they ended the second-last leg of the walk. We had a walker who needed a taxi and another team of walkers who needed a lift to the finish line; we helped both sort their rides out. Everyone in our volunteer shift went over and above our position descriptions, and hopefully they found the experience as rewarding and enjoyable as I did.
While last night I saw the first and third teams move through checkpoints 5 and 6, tonight’s walkers were going through an entirely different experience than those teams out the front had. The first three teams to the finish spent last night at home in bed and had today to recover. But the teams walking through our checkpoint last night had been out on their feet for between 27 and 35 hours with still 12km to walk. While many would have had a short sleep at a checkpoint last night, they would have been on their feet for most of those 27-35 hours.
Two walkers at our checkpoint had a story that amazed us all. They had arrived from the UK two weeks ago to live in Australia. After they arrived, someone they met here told them he needed an extra two walkers for his team; did they want to fill the spots. The team was to be the local man from Brisbane, the man and woman from the UK, and a woman from Canberra (I think the Brits said she was Russian, but might have my teams mixed up). A few days ago, the man from Brisbane came down with malaria and had to withdraw, leaving the remaining 3 walkers with no support crew because the now ill former teammate had organised the support crew. The three of them made it all the way to checkpoint 6 while carrying all their own food, clothing and water for the entire walk; they had huge packs. At checkpoint 6, the woman from Canberra continued while the Brits stayed behind and took her gear so she could finish with a light pack. They had no transport, no money and no contacts they could call on. Another support crew agreed to take them to the finish line to watch their team mate finish the 100km walk. We kept the disappointed Brits company; they were disappointed and falling asleep in their chairs. But I believe they should not be disappointed. Most teams will have walked with 5-7kg on their backs and support crews to feed them. These three walkers did it all on their own carrying what looked like about 15kg of gear. They achieved an amazing feat.
I left the Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane at about 9:45pm last night. I had an amazing two days working with fantastic people, both Oxfam staff and volunteers. It was a fantastic experience about all that’s good in society and humanity. I can’t speak highly enough of the Oxfam staff who put this amazing event together. Hundreds of volunteers cumulatively gave up thousands of hours of their time to not only support the walkers but also support other volunteers who were supporting the walkers (for example, event couriers, catering crews, IT support and trail markers didn’t cheer on the walkers; they helped make sure other volunteers could do that effectively). Hundreds of people gave up time to be support crews for their friends, families and colleagues who were undertaking the challenge of walking. About 1,400 people had the courage to toe the start line to give this epic adventure a go. And thousands of people donated over a million dollars to support Oxfam’s work.
I know a lot of people today say that the world has become a bad place. I know that our media focus on the crime and cruelty in the world. But the reality is that people today are as kind, generous and decent as we’ve ever been. Events like these are graphic proof of that fact.