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The Toongabbie trailblazer

He's run the New York Marathon and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; now Charlie McConnell can add trekking the Kokoda Trail to his list of achievements. Charlie, who is blind, completed the epic walk late in 2006 with his friend Ellis Janks.

Charlie on the Kokoda Trail.

On finishing the eight-day trek, he flew home and completed the 90km Sydney to the Gong Bike Ride on a tandem bike.

"This walk has it all," Charlie says of the Kokoda Trail. "There's running water, which I love as you know you're getting somewhere when you hear a creek up ahead. At night there are the sounds of the jungle - birds, wild dogs. Then there are the smells of the earth and the feel as you go along and kick it up and there's the interaction with others on the trail.

"We were in a group of eight people. On the first night we met, I wondered what they were thinking - whether they thought we'd slow them down. But no matter how hard others wanted to push on we were determined to go at our own pace.

"I'm mindful that their first thought probably was 'this guy will hold us up'. I tried not to do that, more to live up to my own expectations than anything. Luckily, we bonded really, really well as a team and you never felt anyone was ever waiting for us. We fed off each other - their expectation and admiration helped you go on."

Charlie and Ellis were well prepared. Before heading off to Papua New Guinea in October 2006, they practised their bushwalking techniques and calls on the Sydney Trail - a two-day trek through the city's northern national parks.

The pair created a series of calls to assist with the guiding process. For example, if a tree was over the path that was shin-high and angled left to right, Ellis would call "step over, shin left". And they referred to two trees or rocks close together, about a leg's width apart, as a gully, so Ellis would call 'ankle gully, skin gully or knee gully' to let Charlie know what was up ahead.

"We try to walk as fluently as possible," says Charlie. "I have a rope attached to Ellis's back and wrapped around a couple of fingers, so he cops the consequences if I stumble!"

The Kokoda Trail was a deeply moving experience for the 47-year-old Sydneysider: "On the third day we reached territory where there were war relics such as plaques and other reminders. It made you think 'hang on, I thought I was doing it tough but I'm not carrying a heavy pack and a rifle'."

Having acquired computer skills at Vision Australia's Enfield centre and attained a TAFE Teleservice II Certificate, Charlie is now a customer service representative at the Australia Post call centre in Strawberry Hills. And he believes the lessons of Kokoda can be applied to daily life: "There are four words on the memorial on the track - courage, endurance, sacrifice and mateship. They sum up the Kokoda experience. Even at work the same thing applies."

Charlie's office job is a long way from where he began. Hailing from Forbes, in the central west of New South Wales, he started his working life training and preparing horses for barrier trials and riding at picnic races.

Born with glaucoma, which resulted from his mother contracting chickenpox when she was pregnant, Charlie's eyesight has deteriorated throughout his life. For the past 17 years he has only had light perception.

As a child he attended the North Rocks School for the Blind in Sydney, leaving in 1976 to do trackwork in Goulburn. After five years he moved to Forbes where he loaded hay carts and worked in an abattoir. When his low vision caused him to accidentally walk off the back of a cart, Charlie knew it was time to retrain.

He moved to Sydney in 1984 to find a new job. "I couldn't drive and anything going in the country needed you to be able to drive, so it was time to move."

Around the same time he visited a doctor who asked if he was taking anything for glaucoma. "No-one had told me you could take drops to control the pressure and halt the deterioration," he says. "But to be fair, I wasn't good at taking them and just ended up with a lot of eye infections."

In Sydney he found work in the Rank Arena factory in Blacktown. Back then, getting employers to look past his disability was a major challenge: "Whenever I excluded the word blind from my resume I got an interview," he says. "And when that happened, I usually got a start."

"It was money for jam after working in the country," Charlie says of his first factory job. "The hours were set and you'd get home clean."

Charlie and Ellis walking the Kokoda Trail together.

Three years later he started work at the Hoover factory in Meadowbank, where he became a team leader: "My sight was not a big problem at work. - in my position I could always conscript other people to help," he says. "When I was working there it faded away to not much."

He worked at Hoover until 2000 when the company moved production to South Australia. As a valued employee, Charlie was offered a job in the new factory (the recognition "was a feather in my cap"), but decided to stay in Sydney. In the 16 years he'd lived in the city, Charlie had built strong friendships, including many through the Achilles Running Club, which promotes and encourages disabled people to keep fit.

Charlie had always been active. In his twenties he was a keen runner until training and competing alone began to prove difficult. His sight was already severely limited when he ran his first Wang Marathon in1985. "My eyesight was failing and I could barely see the difference between tar and grass," Charlie recalls. "I remember running into gates and into the back of a lady. I thought I'd give it up."

Thirteen years later, when he had lost "a significant amount of vision", Charlie joined the Achilles Club, having found out about it through Vision Australia Community Development Officer Nick Gleeson, also a keen runner. Charlie knew Nick were old friends, meeting when they represented their respective states - New South Wales and Victoria - in blind cricket.

"The group is fantastic," says Charlie of the Achilles Club. "Everyone's heart is in the right place and they will do anything for you."

Charlie was mainly training around Sydney, but his running and trekking started to take him further afield. In 2001 he and a group that included Nick Gleeson took on mighty Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

He made it to within 200 vertical metres from the top, which is quite an achievement considering that more than half those who attempt to climb the formidable mountain never reach the summit.

"It was a great challenge and a very tough walk," he says. "We were walking along a four foot wide path and because we were doing a live webcast we had to carry a lot of equipment. The packs weighed you down a lot.

"But it was exciting to go over there and see how other countries work. I like to get out when I travel, not do the touristy things."

The following year, Charlie took part in the 2002 New York Marathon, which he completed in four hours 54 minutes. "It was amazing," he says, "but I underestimated how crowded it was." New York is the world's largest marathon - last year more than 38,000 people entered.

Around this time, Charlie was also making career moves. "I went back to Vision Australia after Hoover closed and said I had to do office work. I had worked out that I needed to find a job that involved talking, which I'm good at, and what better place to find it than a call centre," he says.

"To do that I had to learn to use computers. I don't like it if I can't compete equally with others and I felt with computer skills would allow me to market myself better."

Through Vision Australia Charlie received training in JAWS screen reading software. He also completed a TAFE Teleservice II Certificate, which improved his telephone and computer skills.

"Vision Australia helps you with training but you also need to network a little to find work," he says.

When he found his current job at Australia Post's Call Centre in Strawberry Hills in April 2001, Vision Australia adaptive technology staff ran his through the programs in his new workplace and installed JAWS on his work computer. They also went into bat for him when he experienced difficulties with a team leader.

"They got me through the difficult start-up period," he says. "The first few months are hard in any job - it always takes a while to adjust. Now I love the place and have made a lot of friends through work."

Charlie is a big believer in giving back to the community, and has given talks at schools to educated students about vision impairment.

"In my life I have come across adults who have problems with people who are disabled. But if you teach kids early they become accustomed to it," he says.

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