Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Walking the Kokoda Trail

Trekkers at Kokoda before departing on the journey of a lifetime
The four granite sentinels at Isurava

The author (right) with his faithful guide Kevau

Rotunda at Isurava
Porter Paul urges on exhausted trekker Amelia

Australia and Papua New Guinea flags fly high at Isurava

The Kokoda Trail is the most-famous walking track in Papua New Guinea, and played a significant role in World War 11, and to this day remains one of the WW11 icons of PNG.I walked the trail in 2003 and found it to be one of toughest things I’d done in my life. This is the story of my 2003 trek...

As I struggled up the grueling last climb from Goldie River to Ower's Corner, finally reaching the top at exactly 10.45am on Saturday, June 7, 2003, I staggered on to the memorial arch, punched the air, and tears started uncontrollably streaming down my eyes.
Exhilaration filled my heart as I felt what Sir Edmund Hillary must have felt 50 years ago when he was the first to climb Mount Everest.
And the words of that great man, which I had read time and again in my build - up towards walking the Kokoda Trail, reverberated through my whole being:" It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves."
The sense of achievement, of having overcome adversity after being through the most - excruciating physical pain in my life, overwhelmed me.
I had become ill with flu and malaria along the grueling WW11 trail, had inflamed both knees that I could hardly walk and was on the verge of being airlifted out, but had overcome these to complete the trek in seven days
Fears about the trek, hopes about reaching the end of the journey, at first seemed insurmountable; but they were met and conquered.
It brought out of me hidden physical and mental reserves that I never knew that I had!
Walking the Kokoda Trail made me envision the journey of life itself beginning with one small step, followed by another and another, until somehow, with time, you ultimately reach the pinnacle by taking it step after painful step.
And I now know that although there will be many more mountains to climb and rivers to cross in my life, I will be stronger because of "the spirit of Kokoda".
I was part of a group of 19 - nine trekkers (eight Australians and myself), nine porters and a guide - who walked the Kokoda Trail from June 1 to 7, 2003.
We left Port Moresby at 9.55am on Saturday, May 31, 2003, on an Airlines of PNG Twin Otter piloted by the experienced Captain Michael Butler, flying over the spectacular Owen Stanley Ranges starting from Sogeri on through the Kokoda Gap into rural Kokoda which we arrived in at 10.20am.
Kokoda is a sleepy little outback town whose serenity completely belies what happened there 61 years ago.
The Japanese captured Kokoda on July 28, 1942, and advanced over the Owen Stanley Ranges towards Port Moresby.
Australian soldiers delayed and finally halted the enemy at Ioribaiwa Ridge on September 26, 1942.
The 7th Australian Division began an offensive, which drew the enemy back through Kokoda to the coast, around Buna, where Australian and American troops combined to destroy the entire Japanese force.
We had a look around the Kokoda War Museum, memorials, and the Australian - funded hospital before trekking off to Hoi village at 12pm.
Hoi, an hour's walk from Kokoda, is a clean, well - kept village besides a clean mountain stream.
We overnighted there amidst thousands of fireflies lighting up the night.
We left Hoi at 9am on Sunday, June 1, for the start of our exhaustive week - long trek.
From the onset, I realised that I had not done sufficient training, as the strain of mountain climbing and equally stressful descents started to take their toll.
We had a break from 10.30am till 12pm besides a cool mountain stream, before trudging on to Isurava, arriving there at 2pm.
Isurava, which Australian Prime Minister John Howard visited in August 2002 to open the magnificent war memorial, was the site of a significant WW11 battle and now one of the most - sacred sites along the trail.
The four-day Battle of Isurava along the Kokoda Trail in 1942 would not, in isolation, be regarded as a victory for Australian forces.
During the period from 27-30 August 1942, under almost constant attack, soldiers of the 39th Australian Militia Battalion and the 2/14th Battalion, Second Australian Imperial Force, with the help of the 2/16th Battalion and the 53rd Battalions, held back the advancing Japanese at Isurava.
It was here that Private Bruce Kingsbury of the 2/14th Battalion was post - humously awarded the first Victorial Cross ever won on Australian territory, as Papua then was, for bravery.
On Monday, June 2, we left Isurava at 7am for the next village of Alola, which we arrived in at 8.30am.
After a brief stop for fruit and vegetables, it was more descending and ascending.
We had lunch at Eora Creek, by which time the beginnings of flu and malaria were beginning to make their presence felt.
The exhaustive climb and ensuring descent to Templeton's Crossing was an absolute nightmare as I struggled with flu and malaria, my knees and hips felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets, and I was constantly out of breath.
I stopped on several occasions, and at one stage even slept on a mat of leaves for a good 30 minutes, so as to regain my strength and energy.
As I wandered, zombie - like in a delirious state through the forest, my thoughts went to the most precious things in my life: my wife and two sons.
The two boys had been down with flu the night before I left for Kokoda, and I would have cancelled the trip, had it not been for the insistence of the wife.
All I could think about was the ice cream and pizza I would have with my two sons once I completed this hellish journey.
I arrived at Templeton's Crossing at 4pm, the very last person, and immediately dived into my sleeping bag in a feverish state.
I awoke later in the evening covered in the sweat of fever, had dinner, and went back to the sack under the forest canopy and millions of twinkling stars in the night sky.
I got up early the next morning, Tuesday, June 3, feeling much better and stronger than the previous day.
We started at 8am and struggled up Mount Bellamy, which at 2190 metres is the highest point of the trail, reaching the summit at 10am.
I felt as if I had climbed Everest!
From then on it was down, up, down, up, down, up, ad infinitum - on a painful left knee - until we took a detour from the main track to the village of Naduri.
One of the best villages along the trail, Naduri is the home of Ovuru Ndiki, one of the last surviving 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels'.
We had plenty of fresh bananas, oranges, mandarins, sugar fruit, kaukau, taro, and - needless to say - good sleep at Naduri.
Both knees started giving me problems when I started off at 7am on Wednesday, June 4, with Kevau, my personal guide and porter, who stood alongside me all the way.
Unlike the other guides and porters, who are all Koiaris, 19 - year - old Kevau is from Rigo in the Central Province and his father is the United Church pastor at Sogeri.
We took an exhaustive two - hour climb to Efogi No. 2 village, arriving at 9am, and then the steep and painful one - hour descent descent to Efogi.
At Efogi, we picked up much-needed food supplies, which had been dropped off a week earlier by chartered aircraft.
Efogi, like the other villages along the trail, do not have regular airline flights like in the past and chartered flights and helicopters only use its airstrip.
We had a good rest and lunch before Kevau and I started on the climb up Brigade Hill, little knowing that I was going to go through the most - hellish, painful experience in my life.
Climbing up the hill overlooking Efogi was a walk in the park; however, the same cannot be said for what ensued.
Climbing up to the top of Brigade Hill - which together with Isurava is one of the most sacred sites of the track - pain started in both knees.
I was in the most-excruciating agony, every step I took I felt a sharp knife driving through my knees, and I can honestly say now that I do not know where I found the mental and physical reserves to carry on.
I had read about the “pain barrier” of humans; now I was undergoing my own.
Brigade Hill down to the village of Menari is one of the steepest and most-tiresome descents of the trail, one, which I will always remember as the longest and most-painful walk in my life.
The body was screaming for mercy while the mind countered: "Go on Malum!"
To ask for help from the guides and porters would have been throwing in the towel.
It took me five agonising hours to hobble down from the top of Brigade Hill to Menari.
The considerate guides and porters rubbed hot leaves on my knees and with some powerful painkillers from Andrew, a South African who works as an IT specialist in Brisbane, and his lawyer girlfriend Amelia, the pain was alleviated to some degree.
Thursday, June 5, was I day I'll remember for all the wrong reasons, as it was pain, pain, pain all the way up the steep saddle and swampy, stinky, and muddy descent to Naoro village.
It was then that the guides and porters - by consensus - told me that they would have to radio for a helicopter to carry me out.
Who was I to argue with them? In the state I was in?
Before coming, friends, colleagues, and workmates had jokingly told me that I wouldn't make it; that I wasn't fit enough.
And now, my worst fears were about to come true: I wouldn't be able to complete Kokoda Trail! I would be the butt of jokes around the office! I'd die of shame!
More leaves and traditional medicine from the guides and porters, coupled with powerful painkilling and anti-inflammatory drugs from the Australian trekkers, and sprinkled with physical and mental reserves I never knew I had saw me make an amazing about turn.
I started walking at 4am on Friday, June 6 - for 12 straight hours - up the heartbreaking nine false peaks of the Maguli Range and then took the long, steep, and muddy descent to Ofi Creek where we spent the night.
Same story next day as I was up early, and with the finish line in sight, easily tackled the remaining steep hills, Ioribaiwa, Imita Ridge, and then descended 'The Golden Stairs' to Goldie River.
A last refreshing dip and I climbed up to Owers' Corner like a man possessed, reaching the top in record time ahead of everyone else.
Kokoda has made me realise many things.
I now better appreciate the rugged and heartbreaking terrain the Australians, the 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels', and the Japanese encountered during those dark days of WW11.
The hardships the forgotten Orokaiva and Koiari people who live on the mountains, ridges, and gullies of the Owen Stanley Ranges endure daily bring tears to your eyes.
The smiling, happy faces of children as they called out a “hello” to visitors - amidst these abject hardships - bring so much joy to your heart.
You find peace and beauty in nature, with answers to troubling questions being found on the wind, in the trees, in the song of birds, in the pure voice of an ever-flowing mountain stream splashing over the rocks, and in the stillness of the forest.
Being along the Kokoda Trail, one becomes aware of the infinite circle of life: there is evidence of decay, destruction and death; there are also examples of rejuvenation, restoration and renewal.
But most of all, it has shown me that the human spirit can triumph over adversity.
Do it again? Of course I will!

No comments:

Post a Comment