An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

My Kokoda Campaign - Part 1

I was involved in an e-mail conversation months ago which went something like this:

Father to son - "Boy, I am on a current fitness campaign, how bout me coming up to PNG and us doing the Kokoda together sometime later this year".

Son to father - "Sure why not".

A month passes and I receive an e-mail from an old school mate.

Mate to me - "Hey I am quitting my job at the end of June and moving to Sydney and will have a month between jobs, how bout me coming up to PNG and doing the Kokoda together then".

Me to mate - "Sure, why not".

Son to father - "How does July suit you?".

Thus a plan was born. Little did I know at that stage what I was getting myself into. Like most of these things I tend to find that it is probably better not to know. Better to just go and do it and find out along the way. Perhaps if I knew what I know now, it may have been different matter.

By not bothering I could have saved myself from over a week of sleeping on something as soft as a concrete tarmac. Being soaked through in sweat from the long days of hiking with a full pack on my back. Forever watching where I plant my steps to make sure they don't trip on a tree root, or slip in mud. And avoid the tropical humidity sapping my energy. But hey what is life for?

The organisation came down to me. The logical choice, seeing as I live in the country. The only problem for the others was that I would try and do the whole thing as cheaply and as independently as possible. No problem for me of course, this is the way I like it.

So with tickets bought, a place to stay at a friends in Port Moresby organised, arrangements made to meet my old man and mate at the International terminal, lists of equipment required sent, accommodation for one night arranged in Popondetta - the town at the northern end of the track - and a track permit purchased, things were set.

The only thing I was worried about was whether I would be fit enough. My regime up to this point had consisted of a 20 minute walk to work, cups of tea during the day and a 20 minute walk home. Not the best preparation I admit for a 90+ km trek over rugged terrain.

At the coordinated time all things went smoothly with the plan. We got to Popondetta without too much of a hitch. And there was only the small detail left of finding someone willing to take us over the track for the next week for me to organise. This was easier than thought when a guy found us instead. Obviously we looked liked the lost tourist types wandering around the big empty streets of the two-horse town. Emmanuel introduced himself and we sussed him out.

He was heading back to his home in Kokoda, so I figured at least we get him to help us get there. I used the cover story that I had sent a letter to a trekking company based in Kokoda and that I had not had a reply from them as yet, so I was just going to play it by ear until I got there. This was in any case all true.

Popondetta on a Sunday is about as lively as a coma patient. We had come here in the hope to have a look down at the beachhead battlefields of Buna and Gona, but our timing was not the best. Sunday was church time and little else.

We did discovered that there was one PMV that would be heading up to Kokoda that day and would be leaving at the later than hoped hour of 4pm. We booked our place on it and headed back to the guesthouse to while away the sleepy afternoon hours - not much else to do in town I can assure you.

The truck eventually turns up after dark at 7pm. Delayed by the need to go halfway up the road to Kokoda, fetch the covering tarpaulin, return to town, attempt to cover the back, find out there is a broken strut that needs welding, find a welder, fix this and then head around and pick up the waiting passengers.

Not long before Dad had informed me about the problem he has with getting grit in his eyes and stuffing up his contacts, when we climbed aboard the back of the truck to take our places on the wooden benches lining the sides at the front we discover that the tarp is covered in dirt and grit. They had obviously left the thing lying on the ground before reattaching it this afternoon. It was a miracle that none managed to get in the old man's eyes, because by the end of the trip it managed to get everywhere else, a fact reconfirmed a week later when it was still falling out of my hair.

Once moving off in the truck I thought we would be lucky enough to have the whole of the thing to ourselves. These hopes were dashed when the truck went to the local bus-stop and managed to fill the entire back to overflowing with villagers returning home. They must have been waiting for the majority of the day just for this truck to show up. It was an eye opener for me to see how many squeezed on, let alone for the PNG new comers joining me on this trip. A rough count was done and it was somewhere in the range between 40 and 50.

Squeezed onto the PMV truck

More PNG style fun was to be had along the road as the truck managed to get itself bogged. Emmanuel jumped off and told us to wait while they hitched a rope and got the paying passengers to pull. I decided to jump off as well and take some pics. In the end my photos were forgotten as I grabbed a free spot on the rope and joined in on
the big tug-of-war. Luckily the truck was not pulling back and managed to be pulled free.

The hilarity didn't stop upon reaching Kokoda three and a half hours after leaving Popondetta. By this stage we had figured that we would hire Emmanuel for the trek, he seemed like a genuine enough guy, so he had offered us his house to sleep in, which in reality is a typical rural school house (his wife is a teacher) with hardly any furniture inside its four walls and a roof. The only problem was that he had to find the key to thing first. He left us stranded in the dark and went off to see if someone had a spare key. Luckily he managed to get one and we got inside and rolled out our bedrolls and promptly dozed off to sleep on the hard floor - the first of many to come.

Day 1 - Kokoda to Isurava
Dawn arrives - I am as stiff as a board. Hard floors take a bit to get used to. A few stretches, the repack of the pack and a cup of Milo seem to straighten me out. We leave the shack and hit the fresh morning air and a few photos later and we are off to see the Kokoda Museum. The Musuem was viewed - after a typical PNG wait to find someone with the key - and finally the track was hit.

The team - (L to R) Emmanuel, Grant, Dad and me. E's house behind.

Long confident strides, along a tractor track and through a cocoa plantation for the first hour and I started to get lulled into a false sense of how easy this thing might be. We pass through the village of Kovolo at the same time as a group was coming the other way on their home stretch out. We chat to them and they were eager to impart their track wisdom just as we were eager to hear what they had to say.

A few tidbits dispensed worried me from then on. "Day 3-4 you start to go loopy!". "We had to evac a couple from our group after they got sick, make sure you pop in your puritabs into your water" - bugger I knew there was something I forgot. Then there was the size of their group, they had about 10 trekkers and an equal number of porters, but most of the trekkers were carrying massive packs as well. Why were they carrying so much stuff I had to wonder? We had three packs between us and one day-pack.

One final bit of advice was heeded "Make sure you get around the Getaway group, they are cutting up the track with their numbers". I had heard about the Australian Channel Nine TV travel show Getaway having a crew on the track beforehand but now I got a chance to find out how many there really were. Apparently the numbers were an astronomical 72 trekkers, including crew, and a 105 porters - was this the biggest ever group on Kokoda since the war? The warning was reinforced, get around them or slush through their wake.

Getaway had a head start on us. They had stayed at the village of Hoi the night before and that was where we were headed next. They were gone by the time we got there at around 10 o'clock, but not by much it seemed. We had a break and the villagers brought out the usual fresh fruit to us to sell. I got a little bit shirty when I discovered that they were trying to hock off a hand of bananas for 5 Kina and a paw paw for the same price. I wasn't born yesterday and this was rip-off territory in my books and I told them subtly so in pidgin. This seemed to have an effect and we ended up leaving with the bananas at a more reasonable half price.

The track starts proper after Hoi. Up and up it goes, through lush vegetation, most of which I recognised as kumu a vegetable staple at my local market, good in stir-fries too. This was about the time that I started to realise that I sweat a lot in these conditions. It was dripping off me and my shirt was already soaking through. I looked around at Grant at various breaks and was stunned to see him hardly in a sheen. Was he from another planet or was it me.

Through the lush green on day one

Endless up and up and up. We had started at the end where there is little relief in the form of a downhill. Along the way was a great spot to overview the valley below and we got to see how far we had come from Kokoda, as the airstrip was now starring us in the face. Not that far away in the scheme of things.

After lunch at a stream we pushed on, through the most undoubtedly hardest section of the day, a steep up to the village of Isurava, which was luckily where we would be staying for the night. Arriving into the village at around 5 was a fantastic feeling, no more bloody walking for the day. We organised a local guesthouse to stay in and got comfortable.

We were trying to conserve food at this point. I realised that we didn't have enough to last us with just what we were carrying so we organised with the guesthouse owner to cook us some local delicacy. Of course delicacy in a PNG village consists of boiled sweet potato and boiled kumu the kind that we had just walked through. I knew I was really going to regret that I couldn't find a small bottle of sweet chilli sauce to bring.

Day 2 - Isurava to Erora Creek
We paid the guesthouse owner and took off for the memorial to a large battle held at Isurava. Word had leaked that the Getaway group had stayed the night there and this would for us be a perfect time to make tracks and get around them.

Luck was with us as by the time we got to the memorial the massive group was still there, and better yet was the fact that they were holding some sort of ceremony. We quietly made our way to the back of the pack and took some seats to watch. NSW member for parliament and Kokoda regular, Charlie Lynn was the organiser of the big group and was holding centre stage at the memorial. He was giving a good speech about the battle which took place here over 60 years ago.

Part of the crowd for the ceremony at Isurava memorial. Getaway camera crew at right

We left when we figured the time was right which was straight after the red shirt donned porters were told to sing hymns, presumably for added ambience. The Getaway team loved this and got them to sing about 10 times while they got a shot from every possible angle no doubt also zooming in on David Reyne looking appreciative. Unfortunately I lucked out in hoping it would be Catriona Rowntree doing the TV hosting.

The day was short compared to the first day. We finished at Erora Creek at 2:30, after a fairly constant amount of up and down. Lunch was at the village of Alolo village and consisted of more kau kau and fruit - we were really saving our food. We bumped into a small group of five Army Reservists from Western Australia heading our way. It seems we were to be tagged with these guys for the rest of the trip, they ending up camping at Erora Creek as well.

At the campsite we set up our tent - no guesthouse here - just as the rain started. There was a lean-to which was good thing because I had only brought a two-man tent for the four of us to use. Dad and Grant could get the relative luxury of that while Emmanuel and me would make do with whatever. In this we had to share with the porters from the other group, thankfully the thing was big enough to hold us all in.

There were some villagers from Alolo camping with us as well, to make sure that we paid them for the campsite. Somehow they also managed to carry in food to cook. Without even asking they prepared about half a dozen different dishes of the best village food I have ever seen to sell to us for a total of five Kina, the mob in Isurava had charged us 15 for their bland effort - I do love a good bargain. The dishes extended way beyond the usual boiled everything, into almost Asian style fried rice and baked pumpkin. Truly unexpected gourmet in the jungle.

The other thing unexpected was the mortar shell that one of the villagers decided to drop in the middle of the campsite. It freaked the Army reservists out no end, but didn't stop us from holding it up and taking photos with it.

Grant inspecting the freshly dug up mortar

We bedded down at the bizarre hour of 7:30 and I got to witness one final unexpected event for the day before drifting off into slumber, a hoard of easily a hundred silent fireflies danced and swirled, blinking their points of greenish light on and off in the campsite clearing in the dark right before my eyes. No one else seemed to notice it, and I felt blessed to witness the five minute spectacle.

... continued in Part 2