I came to Kokoda the first time hoping to rediscover me after becoming lost in my family, job and everyday routines. Little did I realise, I would also discover a love for the country and the people I encountered, one which was not easily brushed aside nor forgotten and which would draw me back in five years’ time.
Bare feet and big smiles
During our trek, we passed many local families along the track. This is their main way in and out of their villages and walking is their only option. Many regularly walk several days to the end of the track before catching a bus or even continuing to walk into Port Moresby in order to visit family and more. As we passed each group of walkers, we were always greeted by a smile, although the women in particular were often very shy. Their eyes downcast, they would glance shyly up, smile and look back at their bare or thong-clad feet. Approaching most villages, we were greeted by children running out to wave
and call greetings. Small naked and semi-naked children could be seen splashing in
creeks and playing around each village. Almost all of them gave us a thumbs up or waved, some peering shyly out from behind their homes, their mother’s or an elder sibling’s legs, others running right up to us, full of confident exuberance. Their grins
were contagious, their happiness and curiosity unable to be contained. The kids love interacting with trekkers, whether a distant wave, playing a game of footy in the village or the favourite – photos. Most of the children we met were very keen to be photographed, but their favourite part was viewing the photos on the tiny screens on the back of digital cameras or on smartphones. They gathered round, gently jostling each other for a better view of the screen, hands reaching out to grasp the device in order to move the image on to the next photo. This is something I experienced during both trips and it was a strict rule that the photographer show the photo to the subjects before moving on. During my second trip, a little boy grabbed a camera and expertly scrolled through a series of photos before unwillingly handing it back to its owner.
As we climbed up to Kagi, we passed a group of about ten little boys, ranging in age from three to eight. Every one of them carried a machete, some bigger than others, and they were heading down towards the school. One held a machete that was almost as big as he was! Each boy called hello as we passed and had huge smiles for us. How I longed to join those little boys and sit in on their classes that day. The seed was planted, my passion ignited. Little did I realise I would indeed have the opportunity to not only sit in on but actually teach classes at that very school, amongst others, in five years’ time.
Not all children along the track had the luxury of playing though. Descending a steep hill
one afternoon, we were passed by large groups of women and children climbing up, burdened by heavy loads of vegetables they’d spent the day tending and picking. Some families had three or four generations walking together, all with huge parcels carried on their heads and in large dilly bags secured around their foreheads. We were amazed to see a tiny girl, possibly about three years old, walking with her mother and grandmother. She carried a bag hanging around her forehead and a parcel on her head, both full of leafy vegetables, and was walking steadily uphill carrying her heavy burdens. The determination on her little face as she walked past, glancing shyly sideways at us as we were privileged to observe her everyday life, is something I will always remember.
The locals along the Kokoda Track during WWII were known as ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ and I was interested to discover some of the present day locals also refer to themselves as ‘fuzzy wuzzies’, at least when speaking to us tourists. They are very proud of their heritage and the contribution their recent ancestors have made to Australian history. With their ability to help others and their beautiful singing voices, the modern day porters could still be considered angels.
These men are beyond incredible in their ability to be there just when you need them. They know the track inside out, the easy and more difficult sections, slippery rocks and muddy slopes. Almost before you know you are slipping, they are instantly there, steadying you from the side with gentle but firm support under your elbow or pulling you up by your pack before your bottom even hits the ground after stumbling over a tree root or tripping over your own feet at the end of an exhausting day. They go from out of sight to by your side and offering assistance in a matter of seconds – a true superpower! Help is provided in such a fleeting, gentle manner you’re sometimes left wondering if it actually occurred or you just imagined it. After witnessing others, in their turn, also receiving assistance, it all makes sense. At one stage, I tipped backwards ever so slightly going uphill. (easily done with an altered centre of gravity due to a 15kg pack on your back) Instantly, I felt a gentle hand on my pack from behind, pushing me upright again. Even on the very last uphill section of track, heading into Ower’s Corner, I desperately needed the assistance of the porters. Poor Armstrong pulled me up a few especially steep sections and Henry was right behind me in case I slipped backwards. I did slip once and it took Henry pushing and Armstrong pulling to get me off the slippery section of mud and heading uphill once again. If not for the help of those amazing porters, I may well still be sitting at the bottom of that very hill all these years later. Although I was proud of walking Kokoda ‘on my own’, the reality is I would never had made it without the assistance and support of the porters along the way.
Creek crossings added extra excitement and gave the porters a chance to really show off their skills. We soon learnt the porters jogging past meant there was a creek crossing coming up. Each time we approached a creek, the porters rushed ahead to set up ropes. We all took our packs off and crossed, using ropes to hold onto and often holding a porter’s hand for extra support. The porters followed, often carrying several packs, before taking down the ropes and continuing on.
The porter team were not only talented in offering practical support along the track, but prepared delicious meals for us, keeping our bellies full and our energy supplies topped up; essential on any multi day trek. Salty popcorn at the end of a long day of trekking, followed by hearty vegetable curries and Kokoda donuts or fritters for dessert kept us all very satisfied. On one of the final nights, feeling sore and weary with the mental battle was well and truly kicking in, the porter team lifted our spirits by giving us an after dinner concert.
After dinner tonight the porters came and sang for us. They had beautiful, harmonising singing voices and we all ended up a little teary. Several songs were sung, some in their own language, then a gospel song in English. The song was called Not An Easy Road and some of the words were, “no, it’s not an easy road, but Jesus is beside us all the way. He lightens every heavy load.” How true and what a perfect song to encourage us and keep us going as we near the end of the trek. I’d been praying all the way along the track, but the words of this song truly encouraged me for the final couple of days and I felt their truth sink into me. This song kept me going to complete the trek, as I recalled it throughout the remaining time.
Next instalment – my personal Kokoda struggles.
[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 second, attempts to provide a glimpse at the life and nature of some of the local people. 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.]