Hiking the infamous Kokoda Track would nudge me out of my comfort zone, offering challenges both physical and mental I thought. As it turned out (really, I should have known better) I wasn't so much as nudged but thrown off the deep end. I'd challenged myself to a level I'd never reached before and physically I was worked harder than I've ever done before... but my gosh I enjoyed the experience.
You don't go to Gallipoli for a swim; similarly you don't go to Kokoda for a walk.... There's far more to it than that. Understanding more fully the courageous battle our Aussie Digger's fought against the Japanese in the mountains on PNG during the Second World War was also a motivating factor.
Every forum I read online screamed the same message... don't even consider this hike if you're not an accomplished long distance hiker, used to roughing it, carrying a pack, sleeping out in extreme weather conditions for several days at a time. I did seriously take on board the advice on training, equipment, clothing, hydration, blisters and the like but decided I'd just take one day at a time and let the rest sort itself out.
Two hours a day, up and down the Darling River bank with 12kg of brown sugar (sticky date pudding with caramel sauce is one of my most popular deserts for visitors!!) in my backpack for a few weeks prior to my departure to Papua New Guinea proved to be more than adequate preparation, despite the inherent challenges associated with trekking in difficult conditions in a third world country.
My tourists visiting Trilby during the lead up to the trek used to at laugh at me, saying "my dear, the Owen Stanley Ranges are a little bigger than this river bank", but I had to work with what I had. There are no hills in the outback, nor multi storey buildings with stairs, so the river bank – alternated with my ritual 10km daylight runs – was it. And it worked perfectly. I had become very accustomed to climbing and descending with a heavy backpack and walking poles, even to having constantly wet feet as I'd continue down the river bank into the water before turning to make the next ascent. Surprisingly, I found the training enjoyable ... and knew it was going to set me up to, barring illness or injury, achieve my goal of hiking this 98km infamous single file track. There was no room for failure in my mind – my husband Gary, who thought this hike was a bit of an ego trip, would have never stopped laughing.
Our group, consisting of 15 trekkers from around Australia, two guides and about 16 locals assisting us as our porters brought together many different dynamics and whilst some in the group may not have enjoyed themselves as much as I did at the time, the look on everyone's faces as they walked under the arches at Owers Corner, realizing they'd actually made it, was priceless.
Even now I'm still finding it difficult to put into words the humbling experience of this trek. There were steep rugged mountains, treacherous ridges, jungle terrain, unforgiving rivers and rainforests with giant trees that tower over you and look down, mocking you, at every opportunity. We embraced the local culture and experienced nature at its wildest – just as our diggers did in 1942. We were guided by an experienced Australian leader who had comprehensive local knowledge and an unwavering passion for the Kokoda Track history, the hidden battle sites, treasures and most importantly its legacy.
My porter, Ben Benjamin, was second to none. He carried the majority of my gear, (leaving me with only the day's requirements and my water), bare-footed, holding my hand much of the time – dragging me up ridges, encouraging me to not look down and just keep creeping across wet, slippery logs over raging rock covered rivers and helping me scramble down the tree-root covered gullies in teaming rain and impossible mud.
On the flight from Port Moresby to Popondetta I stared down at the massive Owen Stanley ranges and thick jungle, wondering just what I'd let myself in for, and what took a mere 25 minutes by air would take me 9 days to trek back over. I was expecting to be challenged, but was sure my hike was going to be nowhere near as tough as it was for the diggers in World War Two and I remember thinking, flying low under the cloud, seemingly skimming the tops of the mountainous terrain ,that this was most probably going to be the greatest challenge I've ever faced. The fact that several Australians had died on the track in the months before I headed off wasn't going down well with my family and friends, who thought that, as a 48 year old mother of 4 I should be at home doing what I did best... looking after my family.
We began trekking south from about 10km north of the village of Kokoda and the first of many obstacles was to cross the Kumusi River, the bridge having been washed away in the previous wet season. This was a raging river with a very strong current and the idea was for 2 of us to sit on either side of a truck tyre tube, daypacks and backpacks between us, and pay a couple of local guys to get us to the other side. It worked in principal but we ended up saturated and about 500 metres downstream of our starting point... and pretty much from then on in we were wet, either from the torrential rain the PNG highlands are renowned for or from sweat.
Most nights I slept in a small tent, erected by my porter Ben at the end of the long day's hiking. Occasionally, if it was teeming with rain on our arrival into camp, we'd roll our sleeping mats out in a guesthouse instead. These were buildings on stilts with half walls made from woven bamboo and a thatched roof (not necessarily waterproof either) – usually with a pack of dogs and the odd rooster and hens underneath, who scratched flees and crowed all damned night long.
Camps were always on a hill beside a crystal clear creek, where we bathed and washed our clothes each evening, and the icy cold water was a welcome relief for tired and aching muscles. The weather being so humid my clothes never dried, but I soon became accustomed to shinnying into wet compression sports skins sitting down in my tiny tent at 5am each morning – after I'd firstly washed my face with them. I forgot to pack 'wet ones' and had presumed I'd just wash in the creek. Little did I know however that a walk to the creek involved sliding down a treacherous slippery track with the use of walking poles. The first morning I did this to wash but never again. I figured I did enough walking, slipping and sliding each day without adding to it just for a wash.
The outhouses were the real rooms with a view. Always a slippery walk down the hill from our tents and facing out over the valley with no door, and a few more steps and you would be off the edge. Some nights I'd only be a few steps from my tent when I'd hear a rustling; Ben would be there to make sure I made the journey there and back, half asleep in the predawn darkness and mist in one piece.
During our trek the meals were very basic but filling with lots of carbohydrates and energy food. I'd carry a day's worth of meals and Ben, my fuzzy wuzzy angel carried the rest. He also carried my tent, sleeping bag, mat, mozzie net, major first aid kit, my one change of clothes to sleep in, spare socks and knickers, toiletries, lollies (I had 2kg!!), staminade etc – plus his own things. I was responsible for carrying everything I needed for the day – my food, plate, cup and cutlery, lollies, stamindae, water and purification tablets, first aid, rain jacket, camera and spare batteries, toilet paper and latrine shovel etc. Having trained with 12kg I was very comfortable carrying about 6-7kg on the track. Fortunately, with the constant rain, there were plenty of streams to refill my water supply, reducing the amount of water I needed to carry at any one time. This was the only positive for the rain though; it made the track very challenging to say the least.
I have so many memories from this hike but those particularly poignant for me were the 4 massive granite pillars at Isurava, erected in a clearing overlooking a magnificent forested valley, symbolizing the values of courage, mateship, endurance and sacrifice; our Irish tour leader's soulful rendition of Danny Boy at Cairns rock, a large flattish rock used as a hospital staging post during the battle – in memory of Butch Bisset who died there, in the arms of his brother Stan. (Stan had sung to him all night long and was singing Danny Boy when Butch passed away at 4am); and peaceful Bomana cemetery, the largest war cemetery in the pacific, a beautiful final resting place for 3,779 Australians. Many of the headstones simply proclaimed "here lies a soldier known only unto God himself". With the aid of the directory I made my way to the grave of an Uncle of a good friend of mine, having promised that I would carry some Aussie soil and Coolabah leaves with me across the track and then dig them into the PNG soil at his resting place.
After one night back in Pt Moresby I headed out to Loloata Island, just off the PNG coast in Bootless Bay, for a few days scuba diving. The diving was magic and most days I found myself diving in pristine conditions with just my dive Guide and the boat skipper. Sure beats the Great Barrier Reef, where it's often like Pitt Street in peak hour. I dived on several coral bommies, a large sundken gas tanker, two smaller boats and my favourite, a WW2 US Boston Bomber. Loloata resort would be equivalent to maybe a two star rating in Australia, however the ambience, local cuisine, superb diving sites and staff certainly made up for any lacking in facilities.