The day started with the occasional whooshing car alerting me to the pending dawn. Tradies getting to site early and telling me to wake up long before the alarms chimed at 0530. But if it wasn’t the tradies waking me up it would have been the dodgy mattress on the church hall floor where we had camped anticipating the early start and a lift to the airport by Liz and Leanne which is where we are now, watching the fog wipe out a crystal clear morning and make us wonder at our real departure time. After some raisin toast and coffee the fog seems to have lifted and so too our worries about getting started.
Now we are thinking about the track. I am too. After spending weeks watching fellow trekkers train and wondering at their mental stamina I am having some introspective worries of my own. I have been out for longer, and with less support and in more precarious situations. But the spectre of the Track hangs over us and it is hard to avoid the ominous warnings everyone spouts about its remoteness and toughness. On the other hand one wonders how much of that is over-engineering our minds and expectations in order to better prepare us. Better to discover we have over-prepared than the the reverse. We will know in a few days.
Chris D (there are three walkers called Chris) has been shorn and three years have dropped off his head, along with his curls. It’s a slightly startling transformation and a reminder that a couple of the lads are very much younger than the rest of us. We actually have a good spread of ages – 16, 19, 34, 39, 47, 48 and 64. It will be very interesting to see how the group welds together and deals not just with the track but also with each other. Given the radical nature of Chris’s haircut we have decided he shall be known as “Shorn”. He will be christened as such at the first available creek. Call for the flight and the frisson of nervous tension sizzles through me. No turning back.
The usual shuffle into the plane. The destination is Cairns, something of a playground for the kids and backpackers travelling with us. We are scattered through the aircraft which is a shame. But I suspect we will all be asleep soon. Tears from Brad’s lad as we left. The promises of the rest of us that we would look after Dad fell on deaf ears. But perhaps it was really a matter of our levity not translating to the boy which is fair enough. Or was it that he now realised he had to go to school, an anticlimax after the thrill of a morning at the airport?
The humidity in Cairns wraps its arms around us and welcomes us to the tropics. It’s good to be back, and nor does it hurt to have a gradual reminder of what we are heading in to. We are kept cooling our heels for a couple of hours in a deserted terminal, sufficient downtime to allow us to dwell on the adventure on which we are embarking. Last minute checks of emails and messages on Facebook, connections home we can’t quite sever. The smudge of grey black cloud rips off the hills around Cairns and the smell of rain fills the air. It too is a salutary reminder that things may well be wet underfoot, and everywhere else. We are walking in the close of the dry season in PNG so there is all sorts of potential for wet weather.
I am reminded of a French soldier in Vietnam. In “Street without Joy” the author tells of a bottle of champagne carried in the pack of a sergeant, the soldier intending to drink it chilled or otherwise on the day of his daughter’s birthday. Barbarian Pete has stashed away a bottle of ginger beer to drink on arrival in Kokoda village. It is a nice touch.
We beat our way out of Cairns bumping over a turquoise sea and wondering where we will be this time tomorrow. Shorn has his food tray down and is madly filling his diary. I am glad of that. He will look back on this in years to come as a formative experience. I hope he writes about what he is feeling, something I am never good at and regret not doing more of over the years. So what am I feeling today? Apart from the mounting nerves? (Yes, they are there). A desire to purge myself of all the distractions of Sydney is foremost in my mind. It’s a shame to be starting an adventure like this with recent debates and arguments and even regrets milling around in my head. On the other hand I am glad the situation at work has been straightening out. Over the last few years any time away from work has been tainted by the nervous worry about the health of the company. This is probably the first trip in many years that concern does not hang over me. Going away with the blessing rather than the tolerance of colleagues is a relief. And a tonic. I am praying for their success with various projects while I am away.
I look over at Shorn on the other side of the aircraft and see he is looking up a list of helpful verses in his Bible. It’s one way to prepare for the Kokoda Track I guess.
The cliche of humidity settling like a wet blanket remains true. We have checked in and have moved to the pool area of the Gateway Airport hotel. Or rather, I have moved down there very quickly. I am not sure where the others are but we are to have a briefing by Kokoda Spirit at 6pm “poolside”. Dropping bags and getting out of my room straightaway is a good habit – hotel rooms can be depressing places and are prone to trigger thoughts of what might have been. But poolside scenes can be pretty ordinary too. The expat look always grates. But then here I am as a foreign visitor sitting here with an expensive beer and contributing to the look. The humidity triggers the gecko gene in me and I find myself attuning my tempo straight away, something I learned from those years living in Townsville. Brad has jumped into the pool only to discover that it is a hot tub and not refreshing at all. Stick with the cold beer.
Others join us and we make introductions. Alan, Jason, Shane, and Grant. Shane is travelling on his own but the other three seem like a band of brothers who know each other well. We are introduced to another Alan, a local lad who is our Trekmaster. A quietly spoken man he strikes me as quietly confident and competent. John from Queensland is our trek leader and he briefs us on safety – river crossings, the danger of stepping on roots, the need to maintain our malaria medicine regime, and the fact that he is equipped with a sat phone if things go really pear shaped. He seems passionate about the track and has the feel of a good leader – no tickets on himself. Time and pressure will tell how we weld together or don’t. It will be critical to a successful trip that we all get along.
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