A fitful nights sleep after our first day on the track. Dinner last night was a saveloy (plastic sausage) and a serving of Deb (powdered potato) with some tomato sauce. It hit the spot and the porters were delighted to be done with the weight of the meat. The full moon lifted through the cloud and lined all the jungle foliage with a silver edge. It was a pretty special sight. The night was a soft round of noise (a bubbling stream in the background, roosters crowing at the moon), and weird dreams that seemed more real than reality. Pete thought he was sticking his head out of the tent talking to someone only to realise he had not unzipped the tent – his dreams were weird and lucid too, and he had not partaken the betel!
We got going at 7am. And here we are at Ioribaiwa. I can scarce believe we are here. The ascent from the creek up to this high point was steep and hard work. But I get ahead of myself. We passed through Imita Ridge to get here. That was a long, slow ascent too but not hard work and we were very fresh. Also full of Weetbix, muesli and otherwise properly prepared. Shorn had a shot at walking with a full pack but by the time we got to Imita Ridge we called in a porter to assist him. Better he enjoy the trip than bust a boiler. We want him to finish in one piece. The crossing of Imita is through a saw tooth gap with rising rocks spearing up into the sky, supporting the tall hardwood that strives for the same heights. The area would be easy to defend and it is easy to understand why the Australians withdrew to here. But it is sobering to know that from here scratch of dirt in the jungle there was to be no retreat.
We dropped down the north face of Imita, a tough descent and now all our thoughts are focused on the boys who patrolled out of here in 1942. We drop and drop and then drop some more. Some slip and stumble but we all make it to the bottom in one piece where we join a river and follow it, criss crossing more than twenty times until we reach our lunch spot. All the while we have been under canopy. Birds call in the distance. The porters get animated when there hear a bird of paradise but our straining ears are not treated to a repeat performance – the porters shrug and move on. Tree ferns drop their dead frond curtains in massive clumps from high up in the canopy. Boo-woo, boo-woo calls out from the distant ridges and mechanical sounding buzzing ratchet effect is pushed out by another unseen and unknown avian. The porters have no names for them. Last night we heard a very distinctive sound. When we asked what made it the porters said “an insect that lives in the dirt”. Does it have a name? No. we just call it the insect that lives in the dirt. (Later we learn it was called the “Six o’clock crickets” by the soldiers).
As we drop further into this shingled creek we see more and more coloured fungus and toadstools, rotting timber being their staple. A purple butterfly and exotic flowers catch our eye. The moment we stop for lunch we find ourselves beset by bees, all looking for salt. We move carefully around them but they do make putting ones pack on a delicate exercise. Every drink bottle is topped up and a drink is accompanied by a salt tablet. We are getting into our tropical routine. We top up at lunch with as much fluid as we can, together with baked beans, sao biscuits, bully beef and milo. It is a good break for the climb out of here is rapid and we gain altitude quickly. Which is one way to say it is extremely steep. We finally pop out into the Ioribaiwa village and are very relieved to stop. While this is not the war time location of the village we pass weapons pits and we know we are now truly on hallowed ground.
The tents go up in a flash. Pete and I have our routine sorted and the tent is pitched and gear stowed in minutes. That some ominous black clouds might be hanging over the Ioribaiwa peaks and the occasional plopping drop fell from the sky may have had something to do with our alacrity.
Ioribaiwa village is a classic thatched roof collection of huts, lifted off the ground and tiled with fronds. Chickens peep and cheep around our feet, roosters crow (not a good sign for tonight) and stringy dogs quietly sniff around. Gardens spill down the western slopes of the host ridge. Oddly enough a cat comes out to greet us and rolls onto its back for a scratch. It is a remote but homely place.
We have had dinner. Pasta and some sort of meat paste, washed down with a warm Sprite purchased from the locals and retired under a couple of candles in our wooden hut. Thunder has rumbled and threatened a storm, the sense of ominous weather helped by the wind picking up and blowing leaves out of the canopy in a dense, swirling flurry. We quickly retrieved drying clothes (all still damp). In fact my towel is so damp from wiping sweat today that I will not be using it as a pillow tonight. Just as well I am comfortable sleeping without one. My t-shirt is wringing wet – with no dry spot on it at all. The saturation is more complete than I have ever experienced, and I once spent five years living in the tropics. I will be trying to cycle the t-shirts the next few days but wet weather will make that problematic. We watched a spectacular sunset while the thunderheads threatened over head. It has taken a while but we are all down here now in the hut and listening to the rain patter down on the thatch. The thunder is banging off Imita Ridge. Pity the soldiers out in that weather. We are now all anticipating a sticky track tomorrow.
We are staring down the steepest part of the track tomorrow, billed by the porters as the most dreaded section. No one is thinking too much about it though – one step at a time is about the most philosophical one can get in the face of that prospect. An orange moth charges in and is distracted by the candle before Shep rescues him. Heavy thuggish beetles burr and throb in our ears before they vanish back into the dark. Sharing stories around the candles is a great way to build a team.
A second group landed in the village after us. Air Force guys from Townsville but doing the walk in seven rather than nine days. It makes us doubly glad that we are doing it in the timetable we have agreed. Apart from anything else we have that extra little bit of time to explore the battle fields. The Air Force lads grumbled they have had too little briefing on the historical elements of the track. So far that is not a complaint we can justly make at all.