The surf fades and I sleep the sleep of a teenager. Helped by the fact that I think we have found the best patch of grass so far. We are all still having those lucid dreams. When I surface it is to the sound of the creek, and light has already steeped into the valley. I peek out and see the porters have gotten the fire going. Pete tells me it is 0545. We have a slower walk today but it is loaded with history. And it promises to be another hot one. The sun has yet to find its way down here and everything is covered in dew and the air around this frigid creek is quite cool. It will take a while to get these muscles unlocked. My knees are feeling it this morning after our steep descent yesterday and a planned nimble jump across boulders turns into a lumbering crawl.
We cross Eora Creek (again) and walk steadily for thirty minutes before we stop, drop packs and take a short, steep ascent to the Japanese positions above Eora Creek. Here is the firing platform for the 70mm mountain gun. A stack of ammunition, still sitting here from 1942, reminds us again of the reality of the conflict. We explore foxholes and trenches. As far as we can climb there are foxholes to be found. We peer over the edge and look down at where Australians climbed and fought and we are gobsmacked – it is a near vertical green wall. Wounds reported from these encounters were unusual – bullets entered shoulders/top of chest and exited through legs and lower parts of the abdomen, such was the extreme angle from which the defenders were shooting.
We press on then to Alola village where we take a welcome break. The day is hot and we are microwaved to a crisp the moment we step out from under the canopy. Prancing children goggle at us in a break in the track – Alola must be close. I dae to hope. It is, but it is still a busting 200’ climb in the sun to get there. By the time I have dropped my pack and bought a tepid can of coke and found a seat those three year olds are up the track and sitting in the hut with me. Big eyes staring out of little round faces. She smiles and the détente is cracked. We are now firm friends. She and her friends play “tag” with a difference. One counts to twenty and the rest run and hide. At the end of the twenty the “hidden” attempt to reach a billum bag she is guarding and say “back to base” without being tagged. They hide around the huts and in the surrounding jungle. For the period twenty is being counted it is as if there never were any children here. Then suddenly there are a dozen laughing three and four year old kids leaping out of the bush running and lunging for the bag.
Perhaps the most poignant moment and memorial on a track of poignant moments. We step off the track a few metres to the tree where Stan Bisset held his brother Butch and sung to him as Butch slowly bled to death after being shot multiple times. We find a small 39th Battalion button nearby which someone has left next to a little cross made of twigs, and we are silent yet again in the face of sacrifice, courage and brotherly love we can barely comprehend. I stumble back up the track to where the pack is stashed, choked up and feeling very emotional. I am glad I have the track to myself and I am re-composed once I have regained the rest of the team.
If there is a personal point of pilgrimage on this trip it is Kingsbury’s rock, where Bruce Kingsbury was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper. I want to see and walk the ground where this has happened. Bruce was the first VC winner on Australian territory and he won it here. We are moved by the place and the occasion. This place, Isurava, is a cauldron in which was re-forged the notion that Australians fight less for ideals or commanders but for each other. We stand in the blazing sun and hear the lads read poems that choke us up, we sing the national anthem, hear the Ode, listen to the porters sing a couple of songs and so moved we break up from this little service in silence. Tears and choked throats and an appreciation of the solemn significance of the battle that was fought here.
We are chased off the battlefield by a grumbling storm that reared up over the towering ridges and gleamed white while it grumbled black. It grumbled us all the way into Isurava village where we stopped for the day and set up camp. As we left the Isurava memorial we crossed Front Stream where flowers were freshly scattered over the rocks. The porters sombrely tell us that one of their porters (PNG National) had slipped on his was down to the creek. Cracked his head on a rock and died. We can never be cavalier about this track. Two thoughts cross my mind as we leave this temporary memorial to the porter – these boys, as nimble , agile and super strong as we think they are, are not as super human as we make them out to be. And then I wonder if the porters death had been reported in the Australian press. I bet not, even though he was likely supporting Australian trekkers. If it was an Australian trekker there would have been a hullaballoo in the press.
A grey bug with colour coordinated feet watches us pass. A silver blue beetle stands still as we plod by, as does a golden eyed cicada that has fallen out of his tree and wobbles off the track to get out of our way. Soft pink flower buds have fallen from a tree and lie in stark contrast to the black compost mud we have returned to. Sun breaks through and illuminates banks of variegated red and deep purple undergrowth. The occasional banana plant surprises us, hinting at civilisation. Sections of the track are blocked by towering hardwoods that have crashed down the 70 degree slopes, one knocking into another, creating a domino effect, tearing great gaps in the mountain side. Where logs are blocking the track we can see where there have been attempts to burn through the timber. It will take a few fires to get through these monsters. Other logs have steps chopped into them while others have smaller logs running up each side to help us clamber over.
There are some sections of the track where it is not a good idea to look right. There is nothing there but air. The walking pole stabbed into vacant space and caused me to wobble. Fortunately I was not placing too much weight on it.
We have explored Isurava village and a bunch of toddlers have some into our camp and are giggling their heads off. It’s a pleasant sound as they laughingly chase each other. One butt naked two year old swipes a two foot machete at the grass until its mother walks up from the gardens and grabs its hand. She marches him up to the village but the machete remains ‘at trail’ through the dirt.
The evening closes in and a mist lifts up the valley like a faint veil above us. We can see the cumulus tinted orange behind it. The thunder has dropped away and with it any concerns about rain. We are all hoping the next two days will be as glorious as the last few –we are anxious that we be able to see where we have walked as we fly back.
The Six o’clock crickets start up. Not like any cricket you have ever heard. But a long drawn out high pitched screech as if a child is slowly letting air out of the stretched neck of a balloon. A bank of mist stalks up the tree line towards us with a quiet swirling menace. Its tendrils reach out with grasping intent, moving quicker than a man can walk. They reach through the undergrowth towards us and I begin to wonder if staying in the longhouse without a tent is such a good idea – we could still end up getting wet after all.
As indeed we have. The fireside chat was interrupted by the mist rushing in on us and wrapping us up in in its warm dampness. Then a few pattering drops of rain accompanied by a stiff breeze soon turned into a hammering shower of rain. Clothes off the fire rack and everyone scampered for their tents. Let’s see how the thatch holds up for those of us in the long house. Al and John have set their tents up in the long house but we have decided to “rough it”.
A tiny hornet, black and yellow (of course) stabbed me this evening with its hot iron. The wood smoke from the fire had flushed a bunch of them out of the log we were sitting on and their prancing walk and twitching wings betrayed their agitated state. Dropping my leg over their nest was not a welcome move – by either of us in the end.
Once again the track today was an interesting zone of fruit. Large blue oval pieces. Some the size of a ping pong ball and dark blue. Yellow-orange fruit the size of a grape. Larger hard rind fruit that looked like passion fruit (but were not), yellow and green. Hard coated chestnuts, or what looked like chestnuts, broken open by pigs perhaps. The ubiquitous luminescent blue marbles we have seen all along the track, which nothing eats, not even the ants. Indeed, nothing seems to eat these “bush fruit” to which are all ascribed poisonous qualities by the porters.
An inch long moth hits my headlamp with a thud. He has startling white wings, three black dot markings up his fuselage and a yellow head. He careens off the light a few times then ricochets into my cup of tea. He’s drying out and walking back to the light. His black eyed, bronze winged colleague has just landed and stayed put at the edge of the log table. Yet another type of white moth has just crashed in and landed upside down. When he straightens up he reveals a gorgeous speckled grey back and markings. And startlingly iridescent red eyes. But his behaviour suggests he has dropped some acid – he skids around in a demented state, then half falls in a crack between the logs and stays there. The yellow headed guy has dried out and aimed himself at the cup of tea. He is on a hiding to nothing if he keeps that up. I don’t want to step into the rain to make another cup – I am happy to keep drinking the one he has taken one swim in but not if he drowns in there. Maybe I should just drink it and be done with it.
The rain dies away but the fog remains. I wonder how damp it will make the sleeping bag. Maybe I will slot it into a spare garbage bag I have. The jungle has come to life under the rain. Frogs pulse crick, crick, crick crick. Pause, repeat. Something out there sounds like a sparrow, chirping in a most friendly way every three or four seconds. A most amazing white moth has just come in and landed on the candle. Glowing red eyes, white wings, light tan stripes, with a strange tail piece hinting at a couple of large eyes. He poses long enough for me to get a rough sketch. As does another, grey body, black dots. An owl starts up with a boo-boo-boo. The jungle never lets up and the noise is absolutely continuous.
Photos: Chris Gersch
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