After messing around at Port Moresby we got on the road out to Bomana Cemetery where we were reminded in a most sombre way what this is really about. 3,700 headstones gleamed white in the sun marking what Kokoda represents. This is not just any old track after all. We held a brief memorial service, reading some poems and the Ode, then remembering these fallen soldiers with a minutes silence. I am encouraged by that. This will not be just another bush walk but a memorial and tribute as well.
Then we arrive at Owers Corner and we are struck silent for the second time this morning. Blue misty peaks covered in jungle march away to the north. And these are not gentle spines but jagged and dramatic. Is this what we are to be walking through? Whose idea was this? We are waiting for the porters to arrive and the sun beats down on the clearing. Pete discovers the chocolate in his fruit and nut mix (scroggin) us now washing through the mix in liquid form. He needs to get his pack out of the sun. We look in to the far distance at Ioribaiwa Ridge which the Japanese held and which had 25 pounder rounds fired at it from here. What a relief the sound of the artillery must have sounded to the defending Australians. An old 25 pounder artillery piece parked here is a reminder of how serious and desperate things had gotten.
We weigh in with the local track authority at 20kg. I would prefer the pack be much less but 4kg of that 20kg is liquid and that is an appropriate ratio. The breeze is warm and slight and getting under our fur a little – everyone is a mixture of nerves and excitement. We all want to get going. From here we can see Imita Ridge, our first stop.
Photos are taken under the arch. Then all of a sudden we are off. We drop off Owers Corner and gradually enter the jungle. There is no chat. Only the sound of creaking pack harnesses and the soft footfall, boots mixing with the slap of bare feet. The jungle closes in over us, A bird shrills every now and then. The sweat erupts and pours from places I did not know could sweat. The headband is a small dam only and the water pours down my face, sweat stinging my eyes. We are still only descending for goodness sake! We cross Goldie River and the warm water refreshes us while the porters leap in for a swim. The track is not slippery – it is treacherous under foot, in places as if detergent has been sloshed over a glass floor. It is not any old mud but something slimy and greasy. You can’t make any assumptions about it and we quickly learn that every footfall is a calculated one. A fighting patrol through here would have hard work of it – it would be difficult to watch your front while also watching where you put your feet.
Shorn blows a tire half way in and needs his pack taken from him. Somehow he ended up with 23kg and even for the porters that is too much. We are not sure if there are other problems – dehydration perhaps. Or lack of food. We will split his load between us tomorrow and get the weight off him. The lesson that Kokoda is as much mental as physical is so true. But I don’t want him to not enjoy the trip so we will ensure he is fitted up properly for the next day. We help him sort his gear at Dump 66 and move out to our first night’s stop on the lower slopes of Imita Ridge.
There is a bit of faffing around with tents but Barbarian Pete and I press into the routine. My mantra is to have that tent up ASAP in case the rain moves in. The weather is fine which allows us an opportunity to refine the pitching process – that is, the tent has to be readily accessible in such a way that we can extract it from the packs without letting anything else get wet.
The village is on a small creek (Goodwater Creek or something similar) which the lads promptly fall into and the laughter of the swimmers floats through the jungle and up to the spur where I have climbed. The timber here is tall and straight. Vines wind their way round and up their props. Orchids hang in random places off the highest points of moss and lichen patterned trunks. Butterflies stagger through, flashing white and yellow while a perpetual buzz of cicadas and other insects now break the silence as the afternoon wears on. The tree creepers and wrens whistle away but mainly stay hidden while other unknown birds now make their presence felt with their foreign song. A throbbing “boo – boo – boo” resonates through the timber like a distant drum. Leaves gently spiral down in silence to a damp death. An orange bodied fly lands in a small sunny patch which has filtered through the canopy and lit up my hand. He is hoping for a sweaty refill but the insect repellent bites him as he probes around and he reluctantly moves off. The light is dappled and translucent green down here. Oddly a very slight breeze shifts the fern leaves at my knee and stretches the spider web attached to it. Timber rots under my feet, crumbling to soggy matchsticks. Leaves clunk with a rubbery thud. I look around but no one is there. (So I assume it is leaves!) Tiny ferns delicately hang off the tiny saplings rising under the forest debris. Nests of canopy debris hang fifty feet above me, caught by the next layer of canopy.
In the background the gentle mellow tones of the chatting porters drift through. Everyone is in good spirits, Shorn included. I am feeling physically and mentally fit. We are off to an excellent start. The orange fly returns. He discovers he can stab me through my t-shirt at the back where I cannot reach with the repellent. The sun moves behind a cloud and a darkened jungle scene suddenly loses is green lustre and becomes lichen grey and dull camouflage green. The insects pause their chorus when the change occurs then start up again, as if responding to an unseen baton.
The porters walk in bare feet, wrapping their feet around the tree roots we are assiduously avoiding, and happily slopping through the mud. On the way down from that spur where I had been jotting my notes I glance down and see a heel indentation in the leafy mulch. Was it there before or did someone follow me in after all? Maybe those leaves were not clunking on their own. I head for the clearing and don’t glance back.
Betel nut is a tough tonic. The cheery porter showed us how to chew it, add the lime and mustard. The mustard was a stalk of something unknown but that was what the porter called it. The effect was strange to say the least. The initial sensation was that of chewing a bunch of dry twigs. Then my saliva started flowing and wouldn’t stop. Having been warned not swallow the betel nut juice by the porter we (three experimenters) were forced to spit and dribble in a very uncouth way. Then I was struck by a sudden sharp feeling of acute heartburn followed by a light headed sensation. My head then started spinning and I was not sure what needed fixing first – the head or the stomach. I am reduced to hands and knees and dribbling and spitting the red remnants of the nut out of my mouth as quickly as I could. Shep, another experimenter stood by with a bottle of water to aid the recovery process which took fifteen or twenty minutes. The porters chuckled. Put it down to experience.
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