[I originally intended this to be a single post and to complete it quite quickly. The difficulties experienced converting my experiences into a concise summary whilst still conveying the beauty of the area and people as well as my personal struggles have surprised me. It is so important to give this special place the respect, time and space it deserves. In order to achieve this, I have split my first Kokoda journey into multiple parts. This, the first, addresses my motivation for the trip and attempts to convey some of the natural beauty of the area as well as my experience of the military history. Making no claim to be in any way objective, this is a collection of perceptions of my own experiences, told in part with the benefit of hindsight, in part through my journal written soon after my return, using notes written on the track. These journal excerpts are presented in italics to differentiate them from more recent thoughts.]
Why trek Kokoda?
My first trip to walk the Kokoda Track came about by a series of happy coincidences, if you believe in that sort of thing. Personally, I don’t. I prefer to think events, invitations and opportunities we encounter in life are perfectly synchronised and curated for our perusal and careful consideration, for us to choose to embrace or reject. Visiting Papua New Guinea or walking the Kokoda Track was neither on my bucket list, nor something I had ever seriously considered. I held those who had walked it in high esteem and considered them way out of my league, so when my trainer and a group of acquaintances started to prepare to walk the Track, I was excited for them, but didn’t really consider it an option for myself. That was until a couple of trainers told me they believed I could do it if I wanted to and asked would I like to come along? My brain went into overdrive. Could I really do this thing which had seemed impossible? Was it something I would even like to attempt? At the time, a friend was battling breast cancer and we’d had conversations around capitalising on opportunities and not putting off doing things until it was too late; carpe diem. She was coming to the realisation she may never get to do things she’d always longed to and had thought could be left until later. Sadly, there was indeed no ‘later’ for her. Although not facing a serious illness, I wasn’t getting any younger and had no idea what my future might hold. If I was to tackle the Kokoda Track, now was my opportunity, now was the time. Who knew if it would be possible later?
I was floundering in my personal life, felt crushed by responsibilities and routines and had lost track of who I was and what I wanted; not unusual for middle aged Mums the world over. Experiencing a mini midlife crisis, I was selfishly motivated, longing to escape reality, push my physical and mental limits and do something purely for me. The decision was made; I really did want to go and I would go, even if it killed me. Having just turned forty, I longed to achieve something BIG for myself and by myself and Kokoda was it! Here was the opportunity. I had the time, health and finances to do it. Who was I to say no?
I came to Kokoda hoping to rediscover me after becoming lost in my family, job and everyday routines. The night before we set out, I felt tired, very nervous and quite excited; after all the build-up, training and talk, it’s finally happening. I am actually about to walk the Kokoda Track and it feels just a bit surreal.
“Don’t forget to look up!”
There’s no denying the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea is a beautiful part of the world. We started our trek at Kokoda village, walking in the opposite direction to that taken by the Australian soldiers in WWII. This meant flying over the range to our starting point before walking back towards Port Moresby. The view from the small plane window was a sobering one as we flew low over the range – rugged, densely vegetated mountains with deep gullies and very little sign of habitation. These are real mountains, a small voice inside my head whispered, certainly not like the hills we’d been training on, steep and cloud-covered in parts. We all felt psyched and ready to tackle them, with just a little trepidation.
Many beautiful locations and natural sights are experienced walking over those imposing mountains. The track varies greatly over its 96km, with a huge variety of vegetation, ranging from scrubby bush to dense jungle to swamp, from flat sections of track (not many), to steep calf burning climbs and painfully slow, knee numbing descents. Even some flat sections of track have steep and dangerous drop-offs right alongside, keeping trekkers on their toes and alert to track conditions at all times. The effort is made worthwhile when every peak or ridge provides a new vista and walking into villages offers so much to take in. Walkers are often protected from the full fury of the sun’s heat by the shade provided by the surrounding canopy, but never more so than in this pretty shaded section covered in lush green vines early in the trek.
Before embarking on my Kokoda adventure, I had advice from others who had preceded me. The one bit of advice they all shared was “make sure you look up.” What they meant was, don’t just look at your feet. On a track which is often steep, slippery and extremely uneven due to rocks, dips, ditches and tree roots, it would indeed be easy to look at your feet the whole time. I have often revoiced this exact advice to others setting off. It’s essential to look around and enjoy the views because they are amazing and you’ll miss them if you’re just worried about where your next step will be. You’re unlikely to return, so soak up every moment you are there. Enjoy the ups and downs, not just of the track itself, but also of your emotions and the physical reality of your body. Be fully aware of your surroundings and make the most of this amazing opportunity. This advice occurs not only literally, but also figuratively. My lowest moments on the track occurred when I was indeed looking down and focused on putting one foot in front of the other rather than taking in and appreciating my beautiful surroundings.
Sunrises are beautiful the world over, but there is something special about a mountain top sunrise and there was something extra special about the sunrise following our first night on the track. Perched on the side of a mountain, we awoke after a fitful night’s sleep to find the valley below cloaked in thick, white clouds, with mountain peaks poking above them and the morning’s first rays of light peeking around mountains to our right. This morning’s view was one of my Kokoda highlights and still is.
It is always a special treat to witness the night sky in a remote area, without the usual light pollution to interfere with the luminous Milky Way. Night skies on the Kokoda Track, when not covered in cloud, were some of the most beautiful I have ever been privileged to see. I looked skyward after stepping out of the guesthouse to discover the clouds and rain had cleared, leaving a beautiful clear night and the most amazing sight – millions of the brightest stars I’ve ever seen – God’s handiwork, laid out for all to admire. I just stood there, mesmerised.
War relics and heroes
Although I was well aware of the military history of the area, having studied it briefly at school, seen numerous documentaries and had a great uncle who had briefly served there, I wasn’t expecting to be hit so hard by it during my visit. No Roads Australian guides arrange memorial services at key points along the track and involve trekkers in reading poetry and quotes as well as laying poppies and observing a minute’s silence. These services are incredibly moving and put things into perspective. It would be impossible to remain unmoved on approaching a clearing full of rows of unlabelled stakes, each representing an unnamed young Australian soldier buried there. Stakes on Brigade Hill were tied with ribbons and many had messages and ribbons left by trekkers whose relatives had fallen there. Our guide explained many stories of individuals and battles along the way, pointing out significant objects such as the hospital rock and the bone collector’s tree, bringing the history to life as we followed in the footsteps of ANZAC and Japanese soldiers alike. Perhaps though, the most touching moment for me was one which took my breath away and had me quietly weeping for those who had fallen here.
Having ditched our laden packs momentarily, we basked in the feeling of lightness and relief and stretched our backs before being led off the track a short distance into the thick jungle. Leaves littered the ground, forming a thick carpet which muffled our footsteps. The humid air felt still, thick and heavy around us. Jungle canopy surrounding our narrow path created heavy shade, giving some relief from the sun’s heat but also making the whole area extremely dark. Around us was silence; not even the sound of insects disturbed the hush. Instinctively, each of us in turn fell silent too, as we slowly followed the local guide, paying attention to each footfall and peering into the jungle for clues of what we were approaching. We paused by a low wall, several metres long, built not of stones or timber, but of mortar shells and grenades, some spent but many unused and presumably still live. If able to overlook the hauntingly beautiful weathered patina on the surface of these weapons, one could almost believe they had only just been abandoned, stacked neatly as if ready for use. Nearby stood a jumbled pile of empty mortar shell cases, but what really made me catch my breath were the more personal items beside them. Leather boots, once worn by living, breathing, fighting soldiers, so full of hopes and dreams, lay, now covered in moss and partially rotten, amongst the rusted metal of guns. The sole stitching was still clearly visible, even over fifty years since last being worn. Three wooden stakes had been cut from nearby trees and driven into the ground nearby. Atop each sat a soldier’s helmet. It was heartbreaking to think of those who had worn these, fighting and dying for their country. Small human details like this are, for me, the most poignant, hitting much harder than the big memorial pillars at Isurava or the stakes and memorial plaque at brigade Hill. For the same reason, I am drawn again and again to clothing and personal items when visiting museums; these ephemeral items reveal the human face of history, allowing me to get up close to those who lived it in a way that less personal items never could. Standing in the dark jungle by the Kokoda Track, these personal belongings demonstrated the price paid for this piece of track all those years ago. Several sites like this one, scattered along the Kokoda Track, are today lovingly cared for by the local guides and residents as memorials to those who fought and died there.
We were honoured to meet one of the last Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels (locals who assisted the soldiers, often carrying them long distances to safety and hospital areas) and to listen to a little of his story, as translated by his grandson. He was very alert and corrected his grandson’s translation several times, which made us chuckle. It was an emotional experience to think this man had lived through the fighting along the Kokoda Track and saved the lives of many Australian soldiers. His grandson explained the reciprocal nature of the relationship between our two countries – we are grateful to the locals for their help during the fighting but they are also grateful to Australia for helping them gain and maintain their independence.
Next instalment: meet the locals and share my personal Kokoda struggles.