The Kokoda Track

 
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The 96-kilometre Kokoda Track winds its way through the rugged mountains and jungles of the Papua New Guinea highlands. The single- file track, only passable by foot, is characterised by misty ridges, seemingly vertical peaks and valleys carved out by raging rivers and crystal clear streams that you walk through or over via log crossings. Also common is dense swampland riddled with mosscovered boulders, ferns, palms and paths that weave their way through trees with deep buttress roots that extend through the muddy rainforest floor.

The country is as spectacular as it is isolated. We didn’t see anyone but local villagers for days at a time. Usually hot, steamy and wet, we were lucky to experience only one real shower while walking on the track. But the torrential rain at night is a different story. We had to dig a trench around one of our campsites to avoid the mountain creating a new stream through our sleeping bags.

It can take five to nine days to walk the Kokoda Track depending on the weather, your physical condition, how much food and clothing your choose to take and how much you value sleep.

We carried our own gear with the help of three local porters and spaced the journey out over nine days. The record to run the track is just under 19 hours, which we humbly acknowledged is well beyond our capabilities.

the history In 1942, Japan invaded Papua New Guinea and while Australia’s most experienced soldiers fought Germany through the Middle East, the last line of defence was a bunch of quickly trained, ill-equipped militiamen. In one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II, the Australians eventually prevailed, preventing the capture of Port Moresby and access to Australian shores. We walked past several trenches where the Japanese and Australian soldiers dug themselves in to defend a ridge or make a stand against the enemy.

When you experience how difficult the track can be, you begin to understand what the troops endured and how remarkable their effort was.

We thought we were brave taking on Kokoda, but we were armed with a satellite phone, malaria tablets, purified water, waterproof boots, wet-weather gear, hearty dinners, protein bars, sports drinks and an iPod. And we weren’t being shot at by the enemy.

The Bomana Cemetery, just out of Port Morsby, is the final resting place for thousands of Australian soldiers, and others, who fought on the Kokoda Track during World War II. The tombstones tell the stories of thousands of men who died under the age of 21 and of more than 500 men who couldn’t be identified. There is also a memorial at the mountain village of Isuarava that has etched in stone four words that symbolise the Kokoda legend: “Courage, endurance, sacrifice and mateship.” In our own small way, and as a mark of respect, we rediscovered what these words mean some 60 years later.

the villages Scattered along the track are more than a dozen small villages where the greeting always comes with a smile.

One of the larger centres, Naduri, is a Seventh-day Adventist village where songs from the local church echo through the valley. At some villages we stopped for a rest, water refill or welldeserved meal, while others became our home for the night.

Without tents, we were subjected to whatever accommodation the locals had to offer. One night was spent under a tarpaulin that was so riddled with holes we may as well have been under the stars. Most nights, however, were spent in small huts with thatched roofs, complete with optional walls, fireplace, nearby raging stream and rooster alarm clocks. Our porters negotiated everything, ranging from the price of a night’s accommodation to a bowl of fruit or vegetables.

Along the track we were offered fresh pineapple, bananas, pawpaw, cucumber, taro, smoked trout and passion- fruit that was like nothing we had ever tasted. The people have no electricity, no phones, no transport and no worries. At first it seems like they have nothing, but you soon realise they have everything.

Some of the smaller villages have only two or three dwellings, so we’d lay down in a hut only metres away from complete strangers. But they were welcoming and friendly, and there was a feeling of complete safety.

The villages are usually located near fresh running water. To bathe in a fresh mountain stream certainly makes you feel alive. It’s hard to speak quite so highly of the drop toilets, but they are better than nothing! the physical and mental challenge I spent three months training specifically for Kokoda by carrying my baby daughter, Chloe, in a harness up and down the steepest hills I could find. Unfortunately, her 10 kilogram frame didn’t prepare my shoulders for the deep impact that my 23 kilogram backpack would make. Carrying this weight for up to 11 hours each day brought on some of the longest and deepest sleeps I’ve had since I was a child. A few lads in our party got pretty sore knees and found the going a little tougher, but we all pushed each other along and enjoyed the company.

In the end, I got through the nine days reasonably well, and actually enjoyed the physical challenge of Kokoda. The mental journey was another story, as we became obsessed with how many hours walking we had to do each day. Our porters would advise us how far it was to the next village and it was hard not to get frustrated when they underestimated the journey by two or three hours. It was also very muddy and slippery underfoot and we battled hard not to fall over. There were large parts of the track where you had to concentrate on the placement of your foot for every step or you would end up with sodden boots and a wet behind. Ultimately, you can’t win, as every member of our party fell over in the mud, slipped on a boulder, lost balance on a log or ended up ankle deep in mud or an icecold stream.

It tested our mental toughness to look up at the steep terrain and face the day knowing what we had to put our bodies through. But it also made us realise that many of the obstacles we place in front of ourselves are in our own minds. As the days passed, we not only looked forward, but also looked back at the terrain we had already conquered and our confidence grew. With great effort comes great reward, especially if you believe in yourself and those around you.

what you take home from Kokoda Instead of being a monument to war and death, Kokoda is a monument to living. It helps you appreciate the wonderful life and freedom we so easily take for granted. You almost feel compelled to have an energetic and fulfilling life just to make up for thousands of men who lost theirs at such a young age.

The locals are inspiring when you witness the pride and joy they take from having a roof over their heads, food in their belly and family around them. While I often tell my wife that I feel like the luckiest man in the world, you can’t help but feel envious of people who are so happy in such a simple existence. When your biggest problem is to decide what type of fruit to grow, or when to take a swim in the creek, life doesn’t seem so complicated. We have so much more to fill up our busy lives, but it doesn’t always make us happier.

The extremely close bond between family members was something else I noticed during the trip. With my wife due to have a baby within a few weeks of my return, it reinforced how important family is and how much we have to look forward to.

It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that I shared 10 days and nine nights in extremely close proximity with six travelling companions. It’s not exactly normal to bathe together or sleep as one under a small tarp with guys you normally see at a picnic or barbecue, but that’s all part of the Kokoda experience.

There were many hours during the track where some of your best friends were never more than a metre or two away from you, but you are all so exhausted that barely a word was uttered. In this way, Kokoda also gives you a lot of time to yourself, allowing you to reflect on the whole experience and the legacy it leaves in you.

Image: porbital / FreeDigitalPhotos.net