I wake early and gaze into the dark. The sky is backlit by a dying moon so its hard to determine the time. No one is moving so I drift back to sleep. Eventually the sound of a morning start filters through. Tent flies are unzipped with a riiiiiiiiiip. Bodies roll over in their sleeping bags. A staggered chorus of farts – all that lunchtime spam and beans create consequences. A snore still erupts every now and then. A pot clatters and there is a low murmur of conversation from the hut next door where the porters are camped. Then some laughter, more zips rip and the chat among our own group picks up.We are starting out damp this morning. Socks and t-shirts remain smoulderingly damp even in front of the fire. It is not a drying fire and there was little heat to really get things properly dry. So we all climb into wet clothes and brace up to the chill. The redeeming aspect to the start of the day is the fact that I have dry socks, kept sealed from day 1. Dry feet are really key to keeping some momentum through wet weather.
We step out along a ridge on which Nauro village sits. Women in colourful garments stand in a clump and silently watch us pass. The usual “good morning” gets no response from them at all. The children are a different matter. Every friendly and gregarious a handful of pickaninnies (the local use of the word for “child”) swinging on ropes under a house cheerfully call out to us. Along the ridge houses prop up over a gorgeous valley which is a mash of greens, mostly dark. Banks of fog suck along the valleys and contrast the peaks dropping away in the distance. The fartherst and bluest have cloud creeping over the top of them.
We descend into the valley and find ourselves in thick forest and misty confines. That eventually cleared as we got to the bottom and we crossed a stream into a long flat stretch which was swamp by any other definition. Under the canopy we meandered through brightly coloured greens and occasional reds of foliage until we hit the Brown River. It is just was we have seen in the war time documentaries and is very distinctive. Once crossed we braced for ‘the Wall’, a climb that launched us very high, very quickly. With a belly full of breakfast I am doing a whole lot better than yesterday.
A shorter walk today (5 hours) brings us to Menari where we stop at about midday. The camp is set beside the airstrip on the down side of the village which we have to walk through to get there. It’s Saturday so a church service is underway and the congregation’s singing welcomed us as we strolled through the village square and on down to our site. Menari is a much larger village than anything we have seen so far. A medical centre. A school. An airstrip. And plenty of huts.
We pause for lunch, unusual but welcome fare – hard biscuits, heated spam, baked beans, salmon, and two minute noodles. All the porters have retired into their hut for the afternoon but reappear later for a game of touch footy and to chat in their soft murmur that we have come to welcome already. Brad surprises the porters with his footy skills – we tell them afterwards that he used to represent NSW. I don’t think they were expecting state level skills.
A stream runs past on the other side of the strip and we welcome the refreshing chance to wash and swim and to clean clothes. Today is a reprieve from the damp and we have a chance to start over completely with dry boots and clothes but especially socks. The latter may now be on the nose but they are at least dry. We get prepared for another ten hour day tomorrow.
The swamp we passed through today had some serious track works on it – raised sections to keep us out of the mud and drainage ditches dug everywhere. Someone keeps an eye on this stretch. The ground through there was littered with strange fruit. The porters shake their heads and touch none of them. Bright blue marbles are scattered there and there. They are so lustrous and blue they must be toxic. Not even the birds or ants touch them. Similar sized round fruit of differing dull colours are also scattered around. We step through a minefield of figs the size of tennis balls, too many to count. Again the porters shake their heads. A split and twisted pod, blood red rind and yellow ochre pith has landed in our path, its seeds spent. Have the birds eaten them? Yes. Okay for humans? No. Other hand grenade looking fruit which look like some sort immature breadfruit are everywhere. No one knows what they are. The ground is covered with small ferns, creepers and vines encase fallen logs, rivulets drain into and away from the track which eventually and abruptly ends its garden of Eden at the edge of the Brown River. The track here would be treacherous for anyone moving along it for it breaks out on to the bank without warning, making you suddenly exposed to anyone on the far bank. Always one is conscious of these issues and challenges for the men in 1942 though regrettably we are so set on the next objective we can miss key features. In the swamp, at the rear of the group we found a Japanese foxhole on the side of the track where it crossed a stream. Pausing to look at the track and to consider arcs of fire we pace off into the bush and find two more foxholes. A whole defensive position starts to unravel under the foliage at our feet but the group has pushed on and we are forced to scamper off the site and catch up.
But that is the nature of this beast. This is a team effort as well as an individual pilgrimage. Yesterday the lads pushed on and I dragged along at the back when I was out of fuel. That was perfectly fine. After all we are maintaining our own pace. But today they kept pace with me and it made for a more pleasant walk.
Menari is a Seventh day Adventist community. At 7.30 tonight about 40 folk, men, women and children came down and sang songs to us. A cappella of course. How do I begin to explain what a gorgeous and uplifting experience that was? We saw their heart as they sang beautiful songs in multiple harmonies. There was a joy that exuded from all of them and we found ourselves ministered to mightily in a wholly unexpected way. As they rounded up their last song Joycee, a curly headed eighteen month pickaninny ran up and tugged the hem of my shorts looking for a hug. Which she promptly got of course. Here we are on a pilgrimage into Australia’s history and heart and the most precious memory is likely to be our connection with these people, a connection made at their initiative not ours. The curly headed, round eyed, smiley faced toddler finally made her way back to her mother and the villagers wound their way back to the village in the same way they had arrived – as a procession of lights and chatter and laughter. What light there is in this place.
Our stop at Menari is not complete without reference to meeting an old character in the village wearing medals and purporting to be a former Fuzzy Wuzzy angel. He sits on his porch and regally waves at us trooping through the village square on our way to the camp site. Once settled we wander back up the track to have a chat with him. He is bedecked with all sorts of badges and medals, the most prominent of which is for a Melbourne traffic warden. Of one thing we can be sure in this place, it has never seen a vehicle. He wears World War 2 medals but are they his or those of a relative? We go with the moment, assume the best and shake his hand and have chat. His face is genuine crinkly charm and with one of the interpreters in our own group and with the help of some of the villagers we swap stories. He is especially delighted to discover Alex is ex-Australian Army. He is also very happy to swap five kina for a photo taken with him. He shakes hands and slaps backs and is a cheery co-poser. No one begrudges him his loot – he is a character shaped by our common history and without being jingoistic he may well be one of our living heroes. At the very worst he represents them and let’s face it, you don’t fly to a remote country then walk for four days into its jungle to ignore a chap like this.
The team are now pretty much in bed and it has just gone 8.30. We are to be on the track tomorrow by 0630. Ten hours again we are told. Mainly uphill. Sounds ominous to be truthful. The villagers have started singing in the distance, a faint lullaby drifting down out of the jungle. The porters murmur around their fire and the candle threatens to gutter out – which may not be a bad thing given the insects it is attracting. Some have incinerated in the flame, their carcasses toasted across the timber planks or are now embedded in the wax. Their compatriots crawl up and down my bare legs. I have no idea what they are and I am not about to look. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. In that vein I am not sure I want to know there is a ten hour grind in front of us!
Lower 3 photos this page – Chris Gersch