I think although every story has a beginning and an end, who we were is less important than who we become. The past is only important in how it shapes our future. The most important lesson the past can teach us is letting go. Moving forward.
That’s what my BIG WALK is all about, it’s a metaphor for life, really.
No matter how hard life tries to grind you down, to hurt you, to make you feel weak and helpless .. STAND UP. Find ways to lift yourself up and move forward, and ideally help others to do the same.
But it’s a Big Walk, that’s for sure. It’s not easy.
The two important things from my childhood are that we moved around a lot, and that I never knew my father. It taught me resilience and independance.
I left home at the age of 15, to escape a dark domestic situation. I slung a pack over my shoulder and walked from Brisbane to Sydney (about 1000km), sleeping rough, not hitch-hiking or anything, avoiding police detection. My goal was to go and live with my Grandma, who I adored. That walk was like escaping the hospital room where you felt doomed to die. It restored my hope, gave me a sense of future, personal strength.
The Captain Australia Years (2008-2013)
As an adult and a corporate citizen, I was a responsible person. I fell in love, I had children. I created a life that was sweet and fulfilling. But I always felt there was something broken with the world. That it was darkening. Not always visible on the surface, but somehow there was a pervasive unwholesomeness slowly and insidiously spreading through society. Our world was rotting like a piece of fruit, from the inside out. We could no longer trust our leaders. We did not consistently pursue moral excellence, or even ethicality. I feel this largely still holds true today.
The Captain Australia Experiment was my way to try and face this. My specific personal way to try and take on darkness. I wanted it to be fun, joyful, strange, intriguing. I wanted to do good, ideally even make a career out of kindness. Sell t-shirts, quit my day job, give the money to people in need. I did some of those things, but ultimately my Quest failed. I retired when my second son started to show disturbing and self-harming behaviours, as a young toddler. I dropped everything and committed all of my resources to his care. (He is thriving today).
Autism & COVID
So it turns out my beautiful little boy was moderately autistic. I transitioned from my somewhat senior corporate job into co-owning a startup travel insurance company, which over the next few years we developed into a successful business. (Ultimately the COVID border closures killed it).
This allowed me to spend the maximum amount of time with my three sons, especially the little guy who had developmental problems. Simple life, and very satisfying. Most of my efforts (and joys) were spent on my family.
Facing up to Cancer
I got sick. I remember the hospital room, where the young doctor was telling me that ‘he’s sorry’. I remember the shock, the feeling of drifting, free-fall, without any kind of anchor to hold you. It was a Stage 4 invasive squamous cell carcinoma of the head & neck. (It started on my tonsil, but on detection was abutting the jaw and soft palate, spread to my lymph nodes, basically in the next six months it would block my airway, spread to my lungs and kill me).
They gave me a 40-60% chance that chemoradiation could destroy the cancer: total curative treatment.
But at a cost.
The treatment was grueling, the side effects even worse. Severe burns to the neck. Vomiting blood. I could no longer take food or even water, I had to feed formula via a PEG tube surgically placed directly into my stomach.
The thing that I truly struggled with was when I would see children facing up to the same treatment (and lifelong side effects) that I was. It broke my heart. Truly.
Recovery and Existential Crisis
In the four years that followed, I grappled with my ‘new normal’. It was only the fact that I lived in the light of the love of my wife and three children, that I was able to keep up a mask of normality. Do the bare minimum of daily living.
But I was under-performing in every area of life that mattered to me.
A couple of times I’d wake up choking, unable to breathe – or with horrible cramps in my neck and face, or my legs. Tinnitus, a condition you can earn from too many too loud rock concerts – a constant ringing in the ears. For me it NEVER abates. It is there at all times, with moderate to severe intensity.
I can no longer taste food, not really.
But my existential crisis wasn’t about any of that stuff, I was pretty strong with treatment and side effects. It was about HOPE. Cancer had stolen it from me. The worst part of cancer was the fear of abandoning my wife and young children. The worst part of recovery was that I still lived under that threat. In the first two years my likelihood of recurrence was something like 30%.
The radiation did significant damage to my thyroid, and before I got the correct dose of medication to fix it, I slowly piled on about 60kg. I was tottering on the edge of a cliff, I saw no realistic hope that I could turn my life around, that I could be healed.
Then, one day, I was walking down the road. I looked up at the sky. I felt the cool summer breeze on my face.
I remembered that feeling of hope and healing, when I did my BIG WALK as a child.
I resolved to do it again.
Captain Australia’s BIG WALK
At first I was just going to negotiate with my wife about an honourable leave-of-absence, get a backpack and some food, and WALK. Hit the road, Jack. Find that healing, that sense of hope. Obese. In pain (physical and spiritual), I almost set out that very afternoon.
But something else happened.
Right from the moment I decided to walk, I started healing. Every night, I left the house, and I just .. walked.
I made this video when I was at my most broken, and covering the first few months. It’s a bit cringy and hard to watch, but it shows you what happened.
Hope is what happened. It kindled inside me. Because I’d realised, if I was going to walk, it was a theatrical thing, a big thing, maybe an INSPIRING thing.
I realised I should bring Captain Australia back. I could be of service.
That made all the difference, the idea that I could help people.
So I reached out to The Kids’ Cancer Project and talked to a really lovely manager they have there, Natasha. She helped me pull together a strategy for CAPTAIN AUSTRALIA’S BIG WALK.
Those first nights, I struggled to walk even 5 kilometres. I was 60kg overweight. It hurt. Horribly. But I never stopped. Today, it’s August 2021, and I’ve been walking daily since. My daily minimum is 20km, often I do more, and one time I did 55km. My pace is decent too.
So that’s the background.
I actually completed my Quest, Captain Australia’s BIG WALK, and discovered such light and healing that I was stunned, humbled and deeply grateful. During the walk, I was able to help others, and this led me to decide that it wasn’t enough.
So .. I’m going to treat the BIG WALK as a ‘practice run’ and start over – but this time the goal is bigger, I will walk completely around Australia.
I’m doing this because I’ve learned that kindness is the antidote to sorrow. If I can do this monolithic thing and earn the regard of the public, then I have the chance to keep helping people, showing them that a broken life can be fixed, and that if we lift each other up, show kindness and support, we can all do remarkable things.