A pillar of the Riverlife community, at 87 Athol Alcorn is the oldest person to ever complete the Kokoda track in Papua New Guinea.
Not for the feint-hearted, this track marks the location of the battle that took place between Japanese and predominantly Australian allied forces during World War II in 1942. Tropical weather conditions including intense humidity, cold nights and diseases such as malaria make this a challenging ordeal that usually takes between four to twelve days to complete. On top of that, Athol is completely blind in one eye from macular degeneration and has just ten percent peripheral vision in his other eye.
Born in 1932 as the first baby in the Bundaberg Hospital, Athol Alcorn has always excelled in challenging circumstances. He was one of six children born to Margaret and David Alcorn and because he was the firstborn at the new hospital, Athol was presented with a commemorative silver mug at birth by the later to be the 26th Queensland Premier Ned Hanlon. Sadly, this treasured memento was lost on a canoeing trip when Athol was a teenager.
After losing his Dad when he was just 18 months old, Athol and his five siblings were brought to Brisbane to be closer to family. Athol’s Dad had enlisted in World War I when he was just 16 (stating on his papers that he was 18) and upon returning, married Margaret and opened a bakehouse. Unfortunately, a deadly flour contamination spread throughout the bakehouse during the Depression, leaving the business in ruins. Feeling unable to continue, Athol’s Dad ended his life, leaving Margaret with six children under the age of nine.
“Mum used to take us down to Toowong Presbyterian every Sunday as little critters, but our mates from school went to Taringa Baptist, so we started going to Sunday School there with them. They’re still our mates today and were eventually the group that started Kenmore Baptist Church in the early days,” Athol remembers.
“I didn’t like school – in early years I did – but after Grade Five I got into bad company and left school. My two standout subjects at Primary School were athletics and sport – there wasn’t much learning that went on! At 13, a lady who was like a second mum to me found me a job at Taringa in timber venetian blind making for a father-and-son business, where I stayed for 18 years. I eventually left and started my own business, which I ran for 35 years until I retired.”
A keen sports fanatic, Athol also played in Melbourne at the World Masters Games for Badminton, taking home a silver medal in the men’s singles and a gold in the mixed doubles. Athol’s saddest memory of retirement though was the fact that he had to retire from playing AFL at 78 because his eyesight deteriorated so badly.
“I wanted to play AFL until I was 80, but I couldn’t manage it as I couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad guys in the end,” he said.
“I’ve battled all my life because I didn’t get a good education, but thankfully I loved to work. Not having a Dad, I had trouble at school, but when I went to work alongside grown men, I was right as rain.”
Always one to sow into the younger generations, Athol reflects on several men from church who were his biggest mentors, one of whom later became his father-in-law.
“They would always put a hand on my shoulder and enquire about me. I didn’t do it real tough for a fatherless lad because being amongst God’s people, there were those good guys to look after me. It’s turned around for me now because so many people come up to me on a Sunday and put a hand on my shoulder and ask how I’m going. I think God’s honouring what I was able to do with young people because of those men who sowed into me. The body of Christ is so powerful if we really belong to it. You will answer a lot of your problems, just being a part of the body of Christ.”
Athol was presented with the opportunity to walk Kokoda after listening to audio books about the events that took place there in 1942. Agreeing to walk the track with his nephew Bruce Alcorn, Athol signed up with tour group Adventure Excellence knowing that God was on his side. “You see, God was so good to me – I don’t have sick days – the only time I ever had a sick day in 18 years was the day I cut my finger off,” Athol said, shaking his head. “I came home from Kokoda and nothing hurt or ached. I don’t understand it, but God is so good to me. So, I wanted to do Kokoda as a testimony to God’s goodness to me – that at this age, because of God, I could do it” he said.
Training for 17 months through two summers and a winter, Athol had to complete a stress test and subsequent fitness assessment up on Mount Coot-tha to prove his capability. At one of the final dinners on the track, one of the group leaders said that he knew within the first ten minutes that Athol was more than capable of doing the walk. While Athol feels he did ‘ok’ at the physical component of the trip, he felt like the excellence came from the opportunities God gave him to witness to others on the trip.
“The company I trained with was called Adventure Excellence and my results of the stress test were also ‘excellent’. I then heard Will Hart speak at the Live to Love Conference about excelling for Christ and so I thought God was going to use me to excel for him in a physical capacity on the trip. But that wasn’t it – the excellence came in the opportunities God gave to me at mealtimes to share my testimony. I was able to share stories of my life with them and in the end, they asked me to pray with them,” Athol said.
The group visited Isurava, the Australian memorial erected at the site where both sides suffered countless casualties in the last days of August 1942. Four black marble pillars remind visitors that the story of Kokoda was one of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. Some 20 porters sang a moving rendition of the national anthem at the site and Athol bravely asked to pray for the group. Later over dinner that night, many shared how their highlight of the day had been when Athol prayed at Isurava.
Not deterred by daily rainfall, the group covered the 96 kilometres of rugged, isolated track, walking single file in the footsteps of those soldiers many years past. On one day, they completed a staggering 1,000 metres in ascents, as they covered the overland trail through the Owen Stanley Range. Determined to push on, Athol said while the terrain was hard, nothing was impossible with God. Given daily food rations in bags, Athol found he didn’t eat much on the trip, but really valued the cups of tea his nephew, Bruce, made for him. With his deteriorating eyesight making boiling water dangerous, the gift of a hot cup of tea was something he treasures about the trip in more ways than one. Shared mealtimes proved equally important for the group as the trek, as God’s plan for excellence began to unfold.
“When we first started out sharing around the dinner table at night, I was chosen to speak first up. I hadn’t had time to prepare so just shared my testimony and how I came to know Jesus as a teenager,” Athol said.
Upon hearing this story, the Kokoda crew presented Athol with a replica of the silver mug he’d lost as a teenager, which they then had inscribed to commemorate his trek.
“God gives me beautiful words in my quiet times, and I put them into poems. I got to share one of those poems on the Kokoda trip called ‘He is Majesty’. It’s a confronting poem and as I spoke it out at the table that night, I knew there wasn’t another Christian on the trip. There was so much swearing and bad language, but by the time the trip ended, there was none. The leader said to me, “I’m going to stop swearing now – I have two teenage boys and they don’t need to hear that”. That’s where God used me – not in my physical attributes, but in my ability to share my story and God’s majesty through conversation”.
Having nursed his beloved wife Estelle before she passed away four years ago, Athol now volunteers at the children’s hospice Hummingbird House two days a week where children and families facing life-limiting conditions can enjoy short breaks and care. When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Athol replied ‘that I loved the Lord’.
“I know I’m going to live into my nineties; David Wagner told me that, and I believe it. Kokoda was not an obstacle because the Great Physician has my heart in His hands. I’m not planning anything marvellous to follow up. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, and God knows. He’ll sort me out.”
“It’s all to do with Jesus. I learnt that in India – when you delight in Jesus, you will know the heartbeat of God. God loves to see people adoring and delighting in Jesus. It’s going that bit further than believing and knowing we have salvation and actually delighting in Him. It’s a close walk with the Lord that makes all the difference. I’m sure as I’ve got older that I’ve got closer,” he said.
“When Pastor Ric Benson first came to Kenmore Baptist Church many years ago, he bought a word to us that when you do something for the Lord, you do it with excellence. It’s still stuck with me all these years later,” he said.
“Today it’s all about Jesus. It has to be all about Jesus. That’s what I’d want them to remember about me – that I love the Lord”.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Athol does love the Lord. Excellently.
“The body of Christ is so powerful if we really belong to it.
You will answer a lot of your problems, just being a part of the body of Christ.”