The day started with a strange wailing, hooting call drifting down off the mountain. It was still dark. Twice. Each call elicited a murmur of comment from the porters before they dropped into silence. I waited for more and wondered who or what was out so early or so late. I dropped off again and woke to someone’s alarm chiming at 0500. We are off early to Brigade Hill.
Well, here we are on Brigade Hill. It is all I wanted it to be – hallowed Australian ground. Here men died in a war we too often forget was fought so close to home. How sad this place is so remote that more Australians couldn’t pay homage directly. There is some honour in being able to stand here look over such a small piece of real estate and feeling the anger and the commitment and the sacrifice of the blood long vanished into this ground. We remember them with a minutes silence then the porters form up and sing the National Anthem of PNG. I am glad they did – it’s good to be reminded that this war was about their freedom too. This is a high point of the emotional trek and the reason we are here after all. We have seen entrenchments, foxholes, defensive positions, gun platforms. But here we can trace the course of a battle. Brigade Hill makes it all very tangible. When I stop and think about it I realise this is the first Australian battle ground I have walked over. I have been on US Civil War sites, European and Asian battle sites. This is the first Australian one.
The climb up here was horrendous but I am getting a degree of match fitness – I think. You get into a rhythm and just push out each step, refusing to look up in case the ever spiralling upwards track sucks any hope out of you. Plod, plod, plod, clunk, clunk, clunk. Up and up and up. I don’t see Bob the porter on the track except for the sudden near vertical spots when an outstretched hand comes into view and I am lifted up three or four root bound steps as if by magic. Then I put my head down again and focus on the next two steps and try and keep a pace that does not have my breath too ragged or the pulse pounding in the back of my head.
The porters are impressive and we are in awe of their gentle generosity but especially their fitness and strength. They carry the packs of those who paid for such while others carry the supplies – food, cooking pots and all the other odds and sods we need for the trek. Just when the track is at its steepest one or two will run past to get into a position to help. Always a team of porters has walked well ahead and have lunch ready. Mind you some on one day stopped to have a bath and arrived late to the frustration of those who were missing their gear. But it’s hard to begrudge them a refresher when it is so hot and humid and they are working so hard.
Well, I have hauled my sorry butt up to Naduri village. Ten hours is a solid days walk but the final stage today was a lunging mental effort. The morning was a steep climb out but I felt good. This afternoon was more of a struggle and I think I need to put that down to not having enough lunch. I felt as wasted as the other morning when I tried walking without breakfast. Fuel is the key.
It was a treat to see Mission Ridge. There is nothing quite like seeing the ground over which the men fought. 2/27 sat on Mission Ridge but the Japanese outflanked them in a night move through the jungle and up slopes that are near vertical. I have a new found respect for that the Japs achieved. We explored some of the Japanese foxholes where their forces had inserted themselves sin between Australian units and forced Brigadier Potts to withdraw. Then we pushed on to villages Efogi 1 and Efogi 2 (paused briefly at each) and then pushed on up to here. It is 8.3 km as the crow flies to Menari where we stopped last night but it took us ten hours to get here. What amazing country.
The day got off to an inauspicious start when I visited a long drop in the dark and put a foot through an unseen hole in the floor. For a horrible moment I thought I was in for an unsavoury dumping in the years of collective trekkers turds. Frantic reflexes meant a jarred shoulder and some spectacular grazes and bruises; Betadine as soon as possible and a dose of antibiotics just in case.
We passed numerous other parties today. We had been led to expect there would be a lot more on the track. But so far the total number of groups has been surprisingly few. But around Efogi we passed trekkers struggling up to that village. It was our turn to struggle shortly thereafter as lifted ourselves to Naduri. Despite the number of trekkers today we have been blessed with a sense that the track is exclusively ours. A storm has rumbled around the ranges, threatening rain but it has melted away into an orange sunset across grey green ridges. There is another small group with us tonight.
One of the porters has a boil and it is aggravating his forearm, growing larger and larger. We need some way to safely (read hygienically) lance it. In the meantime the modern equivalent of a poultice is being daily applied. We are all hoping that he able to hang in there until we can get him to a clinic in Kokoda. There simply is nothing out here like that sort of resource to heal him. His condition forces us to consider the locals. How do they manage things like childbirth and other rudimentary healthcare? I know the answer to that . But if a village on the next ridge looks so close you could reach out and touch it and it still takes two hours to walk between them (as we have just done) immediate and responsive healthcare just cannot happen.
The night drops quickly on our site and the village children hoot and holler and play with squealing abandon. It’s a refreshing background noise which once again only reminds is of why we are here. It is a bit cooler this far up the mountain. We are at about 4000 feet I think and the evening breeze is a bit cool after the heat of the day.
We learned today that the sound of rushing streams is not necessarily a good portent. We walk around spurs and hear the rush of water which turns into a crystal clear stream framed by boulders and ferns. It’s all very picturesque but the moment you hit that clear stream you know you have a mongrel climb out of the gully ahead of you.
We passed through different country this afternoon. Dry and spare with open patches of kunai grass and burnt forest. It made for a hotter and more exposed walk and likely exacerbated the strain of the final stage. The wind is up as I sign off for the day. We are camped in a village hut but the thatch is being blown off to the roof so we have shifted our beds just in case it rains tonight. It will be interesting to see if the night has any surprises for us.
All photos: Chris Gersch
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