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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

My Kokoda Campaign - Part 2

Day 3 - Erora Creek to 1900
Grey pale dawn, rustling, campfires lit, quiet chatting, smoke wafting, stiff neck, sleeping bag kicked off - another day starts.

It takes a while to get organised. We attempt to dry the tent from the overnight rain, to leech off some of the beaded water. I am carrying the fly and any excess weight was not wanted. The drying starts with a shake and hang over a pole, then progresses later to using my chamois towel to mop up.

The WA guys leave ahead of us. We slowly stumble behind at our usual time of 7:30, with dad taking off first to get a head start. The first part of the day is another long climb up and we have already worked out that the old man will make it in his own time, better for him to start early and for us to catch up. Which is what we do after about 10 minutes on the uphill trek.

After about 2 hours of the uphill struggle we finally get the chance to really test out our downhill skills on the way down to Templeton's Crossing 2, and these require a whole new lot of muscles. Some of us do better than others. Dad it seems doesn't like the downhill at all. On the first day he broke his super-duper carbon fibre light-weight walking stick, with compass in the handle, by slipping and falling onto it. I had shook my head when he told me he had bought it, and now he was using a hewn sapling like the rest of us.

The old man successfully negotiating a typical downhill section

It was good to know as well that it wasn't only me who sweats buckets. The old man must have passed me his genes. Unfortunately he had only brought along cotton shirts, which while good in most situations here they are a pain to dry once they get wet. Being the kind son that I am I give him my spare shirt made of one those new fibres that dries quickly, unfortunately it was my only other shirt and it means that I would be wearing the same shirt for the rest of the trek.

Lunch was a relief at Templeton's Crossing 1. Getting there was an exhausting affair from TC2 and involved another unwanted climb and down. Once arrived I collapsed in a sweaty heap and rested while the ever swift Emmanuel got a fire going and cooked us some two-minute noodles. He was turning into a big asset, not only lugging a 20kilo pack full of food for us, but cooking it as well.

It was after 2 o'clock when we took off. We had caught the WA guys at the lunch spot but they had again taken off before us. We wanted to make tracks this day seeing as the day before had turned into a shorter one, luckily the weather was perfect for hiking all day - mist enshrouded to keep it cool along with the altitude. This part of the track would take us over the highest point on the whole track, a nice 2190 metres as it passed nearby to Mount Bellamy.

At the track high point we were running a tad late, and Emmanuel started to worry about getting caught in afternoon rains, so I was given the rest of the tent, and me and Grant headed off quickly downhill for the campsite to set it up, while Dad and Emmanuel came behind.

We reached 1900 (the campsite is named after its altitude) at 4:30 and set up our tent near to the WA guys. A similar sized group who were heading the other way joined the site and although it was a long time before we got to see the trekkers come in we were contented with watching the porters lug in all their gear and set it up. One porter came in carrying two packs, one as normal on his back and the other carried bilum style, with the shoulder strap around his forehead and rest balancing on top of the other pack.

I was blown away at the amount of gear they had. All the trekkers, which turned out to be about eight of them, had their own one man tents. Plastic stools to sit on were produced, an aluminium table was unfolded, a kilogram of flour to make damper arose, and in the morning a huge box of cereal and a monster coffee plunger held centre court on the table top. This wasn't rough trekking, it was luxury camping. Even the WA guys with their big daily rations packs and airdropped food supply had to laugh, we just felt like the poor cousins sitting on the ground around a fire.

Dinner, needless to say, for us was a tad bland affair. Rice coupled with noodles and some added chewy beef jerky. At least I was allowed to sleep comfortably in the large guesthouse with the rest of the porters instead of a single-man tent.

Day 4 - 1900 to Efogi Creek 1
The days were starting to blur into one. It was getting harder to distinguish what we had had done the day before with what had passed two days ago. The all important score in the previous nights Rugby League State of Origin spread through the campsite. There was a radio somewhere that someone had brought. I caught snippets of the coverage as I drifted off into the land of nod.

Emmanuel turned out to be a Queensland supported so was a bit sulky at our breakfast. This consisted as it had done the previous days of cracker biscuits and a cup of Milo. We eyed the nearby cereal and coffee plunger with jealous distain.

A table. Who brings a table?

We never got to really chat to the live-it-up style trekkers before we broke camp and continued south, following again in the tracks of the Army Reservist guys. We overtook them at any rate as they decided to do a side trip to Myola Lakes to see a plane wreck, unfortunately for them there was a current long running land dispute around the area and the disputee had decided to sneak off with most of the wreck as a vendetta against the alleged owner.

The day was mostly downhill all the way. We had made it over the high point in the track and it was time to reap its rewards. I pitied the poor souls who would have to climb up what we were going down because we even passed locals, with boxes of supplies for the Getaway group, looking puffed.

The wooded track that we had been following so far for the entire length finally decided to change into an open kunai grassland type. This was good in the fact that we got a chance to have a clear look over the valley we were in and not so good because the sun was now beating down and incredibly hot.

We passed through the village of Naduli and down another steep decent to a creek side to spend lunch at. On the way we passed a red-face group climbing up on their day 5. Grant and me were a tad disappointed to see some cute girls in their group who we chatted to and wondered why we couldn't have been luckier and got them going our way. Instead we got a bunch of 40 year old Army Reservists to play tag team with.

Lunch time billy at a creek

After lunch we got a chance to do some serious uphill climbing. Easily the steepest ascent so far with the track like a root and mud ladder in some parts. It persisted for a painful puff inducing 45 minutes before easing out into a gentler uphill of the kind we were used to.

We passed through Efogi Creek village number 2 and got a great view of where we would be staying at number 1. The Army Reservists finally caught up to us at this point and we headed down to the village together, stopping at the creek to jointly do some washing. What they say about smelling yourself is true, you can't, but you can certainly smell your clothes and mine stunk.

The guesthouse was a big and pleasant surprise (there were even pillows, but unfortunately no mattresses) when we arrived at 3:30, and we whiled away the rest of the daylight hours finishing off some clothes washing, and eying off the WA guys food supply drop - Efogi Creek has a airstrip. They were restocking on everything, including a hell of a lot of Milo, which we were running out of.

Day 5 - Efogi Creek 1 to Menari
The shortest day so far. The usual leave at 7:30 and a steep ascent up and over Brigand hill and the easy descent for the rest of the time down to another creek. We managed to pass a huge number of trekkers going the other way, a total of 3 different groups in all, they all seemed to be on their day 5.

In the last group I got chatting to a guide who is the only PNG expert in white-water rafting. It was no surprise then to find out that he had been part of the Israeli white-water rafting group on the Watut. He told me all the details of what happened on that fateful day, even though clearly he was sick of telling the story.

Lunch at the creek was joined by yet another group, before we hiked the short distance up to the village of Menari. We were there by 1:30 and it was here that we would stay in another nice guesthouse. We arranged for the guesthouse owner to cook us a meal, and because it was a Seventh Day Adventist village this meant that it was prepared long before the Sabbath was due to start at around 5pm. I don't think I have ever sat down to dinner at 3:30, but there is always a first time for everything.

There was another group staying in the village, but it was full of rather fat blokes who decided to make a hell of a racket and play touch football. Not a pretty picture watching man boobs flying around. Our WA Reservists mates had made a dash to escape from us and had headed off ahead to the next village. We were going to have to make tracks so that we would have someone to be sociable with. Sadly the male-female ratio on the Kokoda track is unsurprisingly weighed heavily to one side.

Speaking of ratios I was really starting to ponder at this stage if we had done something wrong. Every other group we passed had more porters than trekkers and here we were out-numbering Emmanuel 3 to one. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I wasn't paying Au$450 to $600 for the privilege of someone to carry my gear.

We chatted briefly to the other group and they gave us some more things to ponder. There had been a trekker who had been airlifted out in the morning after slipping and knocking his head on a rock. There were also a couple of sick guys in their group - bad water? It made us count our blessings that we were having an easy time of it, even without Puritabs.

Day 6 - Menari to Ofi Creek
If the previous day had been the easiest one, this one was the time we played catch-up. Dawn had only just broke and we were already hitting our strides out of the village. Unfortunately as per usual the strides shortened and slowed as we had to make our way up and over a mountain.

Back on day one I had been told you go a bit loopy on day 3 and 4, well I never encountered that, but I was starting to dream that we were almost finished. We were certainly over the half way mark and we were scheduling ourselves to complete the thing on Monday morning. It was now Saturday morning and I could almost smell the finish line. I kept looking at the map marking our progress and saying "not that far now".

The mid section of the days trek took us through a new landscape, a swampy area along the banks of the Brown river. It was here that we passed another large group heading to Kokoda, they were again on their fifth day. I was beginning to wonder if there were any groups that weren't on day 5. We decided that we would inform any new group we now passed that we were on day 5 - that should screw with their minds we thought.

Lunch at the village of Narao. We enviously eyed off the guesthouse, which we were passing up - they had mattresses! I was tempted to just say "fuck it! Enough for the day, I am sleeping on that". But we kept going as usual up one of the worst sections for the entire trek - the twelve false crescents.

The false crescent section means that you struggle up a hill seeing what you think is the peak, only to get to the top, go along a flat section and then see there is more to climb. Highly demoralising and to make matters worse it had decided to rain. So we had to pull out the yet unused rain gear and cover up. Mine was just a plastic poncho, which caused me to look like I had just run away from the Notre Dame belfry. But who's for vanity in the middle of the Papuan bush.

Rain causes the hunchbacks to emerge

Getting down from the top was almost as bad as getting there. A descent of 750 metres with the last section one of the steepest of the whole track. Needless to say by the time we arrived at the Ofi Creek campsite at 5pm, to the stunned greetings of the WA Reservists, we were absolutely had it. On the map we had made massive ground, the day's trek had been over 20kms unfortunately the next day something similar was planned.

Day 7 - Ofi Creek to Uberi
The bones were old and stiff and unwilling to move. The tent had been needed again for the night and that had meant Emmanuel and me slept in the only building available, the house of the family that looked after the campsite. I awoke at various times to hear a baby cry from behind the thin dividing wall or the building shake when someone rolled over or the dreadful smell from my disgusting T-shirt that I was wearing, the same one I had been wearing most days underneath my shirt.

My main shirt was now starting to look worse for wear as well. I had lost a couple of buttons wringing the thing out during washing at Efogi Creek and I had now melted part of the inside webbing when I draped it over the fire to warm it up. I consoled myself that it only had to last a couple more days now.

Like the previous day we had two mountains to cross. The first one was Ioribaiwa the furthest advance the Japanese made during the war and the second was Imita Ridge, where the Australians had held the line against that advance.

Climbing up to the top of Ioribaiwa was for me the hardest part of the whole trek. Not so much physically as more mentally. I was at the stage where I was dreaming about all the luxuries that lay at the end of the track. Hot showers. Cold beer. Soft bed. Variety of food. And the biggest problem was that it was all so close now. Just one more full day of hiking and then the small climb out of here.

We conquered this second last mountain (we were counting them down now) and headed into a new type of territory - the many rocky creek crossings of Va Ure creek. I discovered that my boots were excellent at climbing and descending muddy tracks, but hopeless at getting grip on the slippery rocks. After a couple of moments when I almost went arse-over-tit, I took it especially slow through this area. The last thing we all wanted to do was crack our heads slipping over here.

We made it through unscathed, and had lunch at the bottom of the last mountain we had to cross. It took over an hour to recover, as all of us had found the 20 or so creek crossings particularly exhausting. After the break we reluctantly hoisted our packs for the final big ascent - the 450 metre climb to the top of Imita Ridge.

On the way up we passed a new group coming the other way. They informed us they were on day 1. Finally a group not on Day 5 and a chance for me to mess with someone else's head just like those bastards did on our day 1. Alas they were in a hurry and didn't want to chat for long, one though was cheeky enough to inform me "you've got a bit to go", my retort was "so have you!".

Getting to the top Imita Ridge was a great feeling mentally, even if physically we were close to spent. We made it there a lot later in the day than we had planned, at around 4pm, so obviously we didn't stay long and headed down to the last campsite before darkness or the threatening rain descended.

Absolutely stuffed on Imita Ridge

At camp the WA guys were there already and they greeted us and we all set up ourselves underneath one giant communal tent. Everyone had a party like feel as we joked and talked about the track so far and the fact that it was almost completed. Spirits were indeed high.

Day 8 - Uberi to Port Moresby
Early rise and shine. We were making tracks before 7. I am not sure why we were leaving so bloody early on the last day when we had all day to walk a few kilometres. But the WA guys were heading out and we wanted to tag along so that we could catch a lift on their truck back to Moresby.

We made it to Goldie River before 8 and had one last bit of track fun before we hiked up the hill to Ower's Corner. We got a chance to wade through the river up to our waist. Thankfully the porters carried through our packs on their heads as the current was quite strong and took some surefootedness to stop us going for a swim.

The climb out was deceptively hard, and just kept on going. Why wouldn't this bloody thing end was all I could think. I had trekked over 90kms, over some of the roughest terrain in this country if not the world and still I had to slog and push the legs to get out of it. Finally we broke out into grassland and the memorial marking the finish line could be seen, and happiness descended upon me. I had survived the Kokoda Track.

Elated and buggered at the finish line

A very happy trio underneath the Ower's Corner memorial

Pats on backs. Handshakes. A sweaty hug with the old guy. Group photos. Broad smiles. A massive sense of achievement. It was all there in that relative obscure place.

No one could now take away that we had finished the Kokoda track. Equally no one would be convincing us to do it again any time soon. I can assure everyone that I won't be rushing back in a hurry. Once is enough for the time being. I can predict the future though and no doubt once the pain and exhaustion is forgotten, nostalgia will creep back. Perhaps I will have to remind myself by looking at the photos.

So why do it in the first place then anyway? Well for me mainly, because it was on the tick box list of things to do in PNG, and the time was right to be able to do it with others. A lot of people go because of the history - the wartime events that were a defining moment in my country's psyche. For me that was never a huge motivation. I was more curious to see what it was like and if I could do it, and in this I achieved my goal.

One more goal had to be achieved though and that was to get into Port Moresby. We didn't as yet have a ride but this didn't bother me, I had just conquered the Kokoda track. It had bothered Emmanuel from the start though and was part of the reason that we had tried to keep up with the WA crowd.

Some highlanders were waiting with a Coaster bus. They had just dropped off a group and were going to be heading back into town empty. When Emmanuel came back from being propositioned by the bus crew with an offer to take us into town for K200, I said forget it. I was sure that they would either drop their price or we could get a lift on the WA guys truck.

We walked on up the hill with the WA blokes and past the waiting bus. They started up and followed us, and then stopped. They offered to take us for K100, I said forget it again, they offered us K30 to Sogeri, where we would have to catch a PMV. I told them K60 to town or nothing, surprisingly they took it and we climbed in. It turned out that being from Mt Hagen they of course knew who my boss was and everyone was happy after that, coupled with me buying them a Coke at a stop along the way.

We got dropped off in the centre of town, at my mate's place and the end of the road had been reached. Hot showers, cold beers, good food to eat, veg out time to be had and TV to immerse in. It had taken no time to find out the score of the State of Origin, but it had taken 3 days to find out there had been bombings in London. It was time to get back to reality.