Aidan Grimes Found His Purpose in a Bold Leap and a Long Journey
I sat on a stone bench with my sons Jeremy and Nick as the moon rose over the mountains above Isurava, Papua New Guinea. We stared at the black stone sentinels in front of us in the moonlight and repeated the words out loud. Courage. Endurance. Sacrifice. Mateship. We talked about life and death, poverty and disease, and the journey ahead of us on the Kokoda Track. These words would come to represent not only the brave Australian soldiers that fought alongside the local Papuans in WWII, but also the quality of the men and our leader, Aidan Grimes, that we were trekking with that week. Four colleagues and their sons formed their own life-long Mateship bonds during that memorable week; but more importantly we got to know the story of Aidan and his passion, and how he got to where he was, and what we could learn from him.
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There are many angles to choose from when telling the story of Aidan Grimes—and the forces and choices that have shaped his life. An obvious place to begin is in Dublin, Ireland, in 1964, the place of his birth. Throughout his childhood, he battled through undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder that hampers a person’s ability to socialize and communicate. When Aidan was twenty-one his father died of a sudden heart attack, leaving the family without a chance to say goodbye. In truth, many important things left unsaid. Then in 1987, Aidan made a fateful and gut-wrenching decision to leave Ireland for a fresh start on the far side of the world in Australia. Three decades later, he is still there—and has become highly respected in the fields of coaching, sports psychology, and motivational speaking. As well, he is an unsurpassed leader of a grueling and infamous ninety-six-kilometer trek through the mountainous jungle of Papua New Guinea.
Those are important details, to be sure. But to truly understand Aidan’s story, you need to view it in a much larger context. You must start with a World War II history lesson and the story of the legendary Kokoda Track Campaign in Papua New Guinea. It’s a tale of integrity, honor, sacrifice, and extreme endurance in the face of overwhelming odds—all the values that have fueled Aidan’s extraordinary life and shaped his vision for the world.
Kokoda is a village situated in the coastal lowlands north of the Owen Stanley Range, roughly halfway across the southeastern finger of Papua New Guinea. The Kokoda Track traverses some of the most difficult and remote terrain in the world. Starting at just over eleven hundred feet in Kokoda, the track climbs to the dizzying height of 7,380 feet (2,249 meters) at Mount Bellamy—though the total elevation gain experienced by hikers across the rugged landscape is much greater. The jungle there is dense and unforgiving and is home to numerous tropical diseases such as malaria. The climate is hot, humid, and prone to torrential amounts of rain. In other words, this is among the least ideal places on earth for a modern mechanized military operation.
This Thing Called “Mateship”
Today, Aidan Grimes is one of Australia’s leading authorities on the Kokoda Track Campaign. But his point of view is not that of an academic historian, remaining at a distance and searching dusty libraries for clues to what really happened during those fateful months of battle. Over the past thirty-years, Aidan has retraced the steps of those heroic diggers and ill-fated Japanese soldiers—many times over. Nine times a year, he leads diverse groups of westerners on an eleven-day trek the length of the ninety-six-kilometer Kokoda Track. In fact, it’s believed that having logged over a hundred trips (and counting), Aidan has walked the Kokoda Track more times than any other westerner.
His purpose? In part, to keep the history of the heroic campaign alive. His treks are punctuated by periodic presentations in which Aidan evokes the names and faces of young diggers, the sounds of gunfire, and the smell of powder.
“These kids had no training. They were just Australians off the street with a gung-ho attitude, and they didn’t give up,” says Aidan, admiringly. “The story’s about being totally overwhelmed and outnumbered, with no training or supplies, and yet they still came through. At the heart of it is a thing called ‘mateship.’”
Mateship is the Australian term for human relationships that go beyond ordinary social ties. It’s about being able to count on people in your community—in your tribe—no matter what. It’s a concept that resonates with Aidan, hearkening back to his boyhood on the streets of Dublin, where being Irish was more than a label—it was a badge of belonging.
In addition, through the years Aidan has befriended the indigenous people who live in the jungles along the track. As a sign of respect for his strength and courage, locals have given him the name “Uda Baroma,” meaning Wild Boar.
But that’s only half the story. Even more important to him than providing a living history lesson, Aidan has learned that the grueling physical, mental, and emotional challenge of completing the trip is good medicine for many of the ills suffered by members of modern society—himself included. His clients include top executives from global companies like Apple and Microsoft.
“On the Kokoda Track, hikers are faced with a massive physical challenge, which of course becomes a massive mental challenge,” Aidan says. “What we see quite clearly is that people have mental ‘viruses.’ When people are stressed, when they are put in environments where they are insecure, these unhealthy thoughts and beliefs become visible for us to see and to possibly heal.”
According to Aidan, what people most often lack on day one of the trek is a sense of purpose in life, a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves.
“What they are looking for is, ‘Where do I fit in? Where is my place in the tribe?’” Aidan says. “What happens is you peel back the layers of the onion, all the layers of society. What that does is help to activate the survival instinct. It’s black and white—you’re either going to die or you’re not. There’s no point in pretending, no point in telling lies, because it’s not going to work. Up there, it’s pure honesty.”
That’s what people get when they embark on the track—the rare opportunity for brutally frank self-appraisal. For many, that results in a complete overhaul and a whole new set of goals by the time they reach the end.
“I get a lot of people around fifty-five years of age,” Aidan says. “At eighteen, they went straight from school into university on the promise that they would get a degree and make a bunch of money. Then they get the job, the car, the house, and the kids. Along the way they sell their souls to these companies. There comes a point in time when they start asking, ‘What am I doing? Where do I fit in? What are my values? Who am I?’”
That’s where Aidan and the Kokoda expedition become so valuable. “Come with me up into the jungle,” he says, “and I’ll give you an opportunity to reset the clock back to when you started.”
But it’s not just older people who have already achieved “success” in life who find the ability to realign their lives according to new priorities. Aidan is especially proud of results he sees among soldiers returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq who suffer from psychological distress as a result of their experiences. He also works with at-risk youth, teaching them how to find their place in the world by discovering their purpose and becoming useful to their tribe.
“From where I’m sitting now, I know that the journey I’ve led people on in the jungle has been my own journey,” he says. “All these years, I’ve been the one in search of a tribe. How does an Irishman from the streets of Dublin end up in Papua New Guinea lecturing Australians on their history? All those things were about my search. I’ve dragged people along that journey and been able to pass along some of what I’ve learned.”
How do you endure the Kokoda Track in tropical heat? By placing one foot in front of the other. And how do you break free of inertia and create the life you want? Don’t be afraid to stand naked on a hill—like an Irishman in the jungle.
To honor our trip, we carried an Australian flag with us throughout our trek. At the Isurava Memorial, together with our sons, we (Scott Weber, Kevin Ackhurst, Mark Burrows and myself) all signed with our personal messages. Upon our return, Mark had the flag framed and presented to our CFO at the time, Robyn Denholm (being an Aussie native). Over the years with the five of us moving on from Juniper Networks, the memento was returned to Mark where he holds in sacred care-giving honor.
For more information on Aidan and his Our Spirit Tours’ Kokoda treks, talks and articles, please go to: https://www.ourspirit.com.au/about-us/. To read more about Aidan also please see Climb Higher; Pursue Your Passion With Purpose to get more insights and background.