I still find it difficult to put into words my experiences on the Kokoda Track. I am often asked what it was like and my response is always totally inadequate. Words like amazing, incredible, life-changing are all true but somehow don’t go far enough; it really is almost impossible to put into words.
Moods often mirrored track terrain; from soaring highs to boggy lows. I struggled. I really did. I battled personal demons as I walked. It was physically exhausting, despite intensive training. Some days I really wondered what I was doing and it was a struggle to place one foot in front of the other, but all of this contributed to the feeling of complete euphoria experienced upon completion.
Kokoda is something anyone can do. Honestly, if I did it, anyone can; however, it’s not to be taken lightly. This is rugged country and the going is tough. Give the track the respect it deserves, train hard and expect it to be an emotional experience. It is every bit as much a mental journey as a physical one.
On arrival in Kokoda village, we were confronted by the mountains we were to spend the next 8 days traversing, up close for the first time. This was certainly going to be a challenge! Challenge embraced.
We started with a wide, flat track…before hitting a steep uphill climb. The first hill of the track was really a killer – steep and long, our calves and lungs really knew we’d started. I found this hill difficult, felt disappointed in myself and was tempted to doubt my ability to do this. Determined not to give up, I quickly banished the thought and focused instead on one hill down. And thus continued the mental and emotional battle with raging self-doubt, begun when I first considered taking on this challenge. Having held others who had completed this trek in high esteem and never considered myself particularly fit, this was a recurring theme. Although I had dabbled in fitness activities from time to time, I’d been an academic rather than sporty child and hadn’t trained consistently until my late thirties, a few years before this Kokoda adventure. With a reasonable fitness level, I then completed five months’ intensive training, resulting in being the fittest in my life.
Embarking on this trip, I was fiercely determined to complete the track carrying my own pack (weighing 10-15kgs, depending on water weight) rather than offloading it to a porter. However, I wasn’t at all convinced I could do it.
I had something to prove to myself as much as to others who doubted me.
Self-doubt was further fuelled by feelings of inferiority. I am a slow walker when it comes to hiking and there were some speed demons amongst us. I can feel the others getting frustrated with how slow I am today. I really am doing my best, but need to take my time to feel safe. I do seem to be struggling more than the others and perhaps my training was too short and my fitness isn’t as great as I thought it was. Self-doubt, be gone! Too late now, I’m here and I’m doing it. .. I am doing the best I can right now and that will have to be enough. No speed records, but I’m determined to make it through! I simply couldn’t keep up even if I wanted to and to be honest, I often didn’t want to. I cherished my quiet walking-behind-the-group times with just one porter or with our guide. Sometimes we chatted as we walked, but often we were silent. These times of silent walking gave me the opportunity to do some deep thinking about who I was and what I wanted. They also gave me praying time, chatting silently with God as I grappled to come to terms with aspects of my life. You see, I had recently turned forty and was experiencing a gentle mid-life crisis. This was a journey of self-questioning and self-discovery, a personal quest of sorts.
It wasn’t all hard work. There were so many beautiful sights and plenty of easier sections where it was plain sailing. The easiest day on the track for me was our swamp day. We’d been warned it was difficult, others complained it was boring, but I loved it. After all, the ground was flat, which meant my knees felt great and everyone had to go slow, so I didn’t fall behind or hold anyone up. Walking slowly was actually recommended – perfect for me! We walked gingerly along planks of wood placed over the swamp, taking our time to ensure we maintained our balance to prevent toppling off into the mud. Porters warned us of sections which were “very deep here. Don’t go off the log.” A few of us poked our sticks into the mud beside the log to find it just kept going down, seemingly forever.
I’d been warned “everyone has a crying day on the track” and mine was day seven, the second last day. It’s interesting to note that day three, also the second last, on the Inca Trail was a crying day for me too. Both involved long, painful downhill hauls where I was separated from the rest of the group, walking with a guide. My advice to anyone tackling a multi-day hike is to give in to the crying if it surfaces. Greet it as a friend, embrace and travel beside it for as long as necessary. Capitalise on its’ cathartic cleansing, refreshing power. In my case, it enabled me to finally leave behind the demons I’d been battling and the aches and pains along with the tears. Once cried out, my focus shifted to finishing the track and enjoying the end result.
Heading down yet another long, steep, slippery and painful hill, way behind the rest of the group, it was just me and Armstrong when the tears started. Just a sniffle and a few tears to start with which soon developed into a torrent and before I knew it I was bawling as I walked. Why? The pain … was almost unbearable; each and every step pure agony. I felt totally alone – the rest of the group was who knows how far ahead. I hadn’t seen them for what felt like hours (possibly less than one though, I don’t really know) and although Armstrong was right there, he was uncomfortable with my tears and doing his best not to notice. I started to feel sorry for myself and desperately wanted to sit down, but made myself continue, with just a short break halfway down, at Armstrong’s instructions. Note to self: it does not make it any easier to walk down a dangerously steep and muddy hill if your eyes are full of tears and you can’t see where you’re going! On reaching the bottom, Armstrong again pointed to a flat rock and instructed me to “sit and rest”. I had never been more relieved in my life! I sat, cried another couple of minutes, blew my nose, cleaned up my face and managed a tiny shadow of a smile. The creek was so pretty.
Armstrong told me to take my boots off and put my wet shoes on. He then carried my muddy boots all the way to camp for me.
This simple, selfless act meant so much to me in that moment. Well aware I wouldn’t allow him to carry my pack or anything out of it (he’d already offered numerous times and been asked to stop offering), he helped by carrying the little he could to lighten my load. What a beautiful gesture, the significance of which was lost on me at the time, although I certainly appreciated it. This seems absolutely extraordinary in hindsight – how could I miss this?! Sensitivity and respect for my wishes and goal as well as the desire to help in whatever way possible were beautifully interwoven in one simple and humble act.
The water was beautifully clear and felt luxuriously cold on my sore, swollen feet. After hitting absolute rock bottom on my way down the hill, the walk along and through the creek was my favourite part of the whole trek. It was peaceful and truly beautiful, with the comforting sound of water trickling over and around the rocks. Rain started to fall gently and this too was comforting and cooling. Walking along the creek was just what I needed to regroup, take some deep breaths and recompose myself before joining the others in camp…. I might just manage to stumble across the finish line. One thing is for sure, I’ve made it this far, so I’m not giving in now!
Looking back, I realise some others were made to feel uncomfortable by my struggles and were caught up in dealing with their own. This experience made me realise how important support is in any struggle. A hug and a kind word can go a long way. Just walking beside someone, whether figuratively or literally can ease their burdens considerably.
It is when we feel alone with our pain that we are most likely to be overcome by it. Be mindful of others’ struggles and seek to lessen them in whatever way you can.
Let’s be clear about this – I was not without support and certainly not alone in my struggles. There was physical support from my amazing porter as well as emotional group support as we discussed the day’s events each evening over our salty popcorn and Milo pre-dinner snack. Others had their own struggles with terrible blisters, allergic reactions, painful joints and digestive issues as well as their own mental and emotional battles, so I really wasn’t alone at all.
The feeling to finally be finished was overwhelming – huge relief, closely followed by an incredible sense of achievement. I thought I would cry, but instead just couldn’t stop smiling. There were hugs all around at the top and congratulations to all. We’d done it! Physically, this has been one of the most demanding things I’ve ever chosen to do. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but pushed through with sheer determination, proving to myself and everyone else that I did indeed have what it takes to walk the Kokoda Track.
It certainly has been a holiday with a difference for me – on my own, without my usual responsibilities, cares and concerns, no-one else to worry about except me, no chores, just time to enjoy my surroundings, push myself to my physical and mental limits and tackle one of the world’s toughest treks. Now that’s something amazing! My total escape from my everyday life has been refreshing and has enabled me to really discover who I am again, without any of my usual defining others around. I really needed this and I will now be able to return to my real life renewed, with a new appreciation of all I have and the energy to make necessary changes.
I came to Kokoda hoping to rediscover me after becoming lost in my family, job and everyday routines. I’ve discovered I can let go and not be in control. With God’s help, I can achieve great things, even when obstacles seem insurmountable. I am strong mentally and physically. I am able to push through pain and other barriers to achieve what really matters to me. I may not have coped as well as I’d hoped, but I did conquer the Kokoda Track with my pack on my back the whole way! The fact that it was so incredibly difficult simply made the final achievement even greater.
Looking back seven years later, almost exactly to the day and on the eve of another group of friends leaving to do a “fast track” Kokoda trek followed by a couple actually running it (my worst nightmare!), I am now left with a treasure trove of memories, relationships forged on the track and those at home improved by a short season of distance. The me who finished the track was very different from the one who started it – stronger, forged by adversity, fortified and ready for life’s inevitable challenges, more confident and self-assured. (Friends commented on the change, so I didn’t just imagine it.) Kokoda remains for me a lesson to believe in myself, to be sure of my decisions and to rest in the knowledge I am doing the right thing for me, whatever others may think or say. It is something I can refer back to when I am struggling and think,
I conquered Kokoda when I didn’t believe I could, how much more can I now achieve if I believe in myself?
And of course, it has got into my blood. I have since returned once to work in schools along the central Kokoda Track and hope to return again later this year for the same purpose. After such a life-changing experience, how could I possibly not give back to the beautiful people who live there and helped make my time there so memorable?
[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 final instalment, tracks some of my thoughts and feelings. 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.]