We are in something of a slow daze and tents are being set up in Kokoda at a rate that is the slowest I have seen for the whole trip. We swim through a humid wall and move slowly after coming out of the cool air of the mountains. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I woke after a solid nights sleep in the long house at Isurava. The fog had vanished but left its mark as the sleeping bag was quite damp. The roosters at Isurava were far enough away for us to not be disturbed by them but their ubiquitous corckle was there as I surfaced. The porters had found a ukulele and played it last night but they also started the morning with it. It made for a cheery start.
The morning was overcast for our walk to Denali which was helpful as much of the walk was through open choko fields and the sun finally burned through we could really feel it. We started the walk on a slightly somber note, the porters pointing out the crash site of the Otter which crashed almost twelve months agoo with a Kokoda trekking group. We could understand why it took a week for the bodies to be recovered.
The track is a walk through a garden but it is slippery and we all caution each other to take care. It would be a shame to break something at this late stage. A plaque memorializing a dead trekker underscores the nature of the beast we have engaged. Vigilance to the end. A group passes us going the other way. We encourage them with positive perspectives about what they are about to experience but keep quiet about some of the hard yards ahead of them.
Each step we take is a descent into a sauna and we quickly erupt into rivers of perspiration though it is no hard work – although that is now a very relative assessment. We make it to Denali where suddenly the Kokoda Valley and the airstrip is clearly laid out in front of us and all the hints and glimpses of this objective are finally made good. We sit and watch the valley and wonder that this was partly what it was all about. We watch for twenty minutes or so then pick up our packs. Lee calls “one minute” again and off we go to his “let’s rock and roll”, a signature cry we now all know very well.
Butterflies distract us and I try and capture them on film and that slows me up. Chris hangs around with his camera too. The porters probably think we are crazy. But Chris and I agree there is no rush and we amble along in the heat and humidity and allow our eye to be caught by iridescent blues and greens and yellows dancing around us, including luminescent green beetles. One of these led us on a merry dance and try as we might we could not get quite close enough to catch his glory on film. It will have to stay in the mind’s eye.
We stop at a stream which, like all the streams we have crossed, is clear and gravel bedded. A young mother is sitting in the shade with her little pickaninny. She chops up some pineapple which is a real treat and sells us bananas(Sweet refreshment) and offers cans of Coke and lemonade which we buy from her. These are lying in pans of water by the side of the track in an attempt to keep them cool. There were a lot of villages like this where the entrepreneurs sold us cool(ish) drinks. The higher the altitude the higher the price but none ever begrudged them that.
Porter Alan’s brief in the morning always included “there will be a little bit of up and a little bit of down” so when we are told the same thing this morning we are a little bit dubious. But as it turns out it is mainly down.
Three and a half kilometres out we stop and catch our final drink on the track and place Dennis at the head of the group. At 69 he has bashed away at the back of the group all week so we asked him to lead us into Kokoda. He put his ears back, flared his nostrils and took off at a gallop. I thought on a few occasions that we were maintaining a good route march pace. He made me laugh.
We crack into Kokoda and land at the tree that marks the end of the track. We shake hands and congratulate each other. Pete drinks his ginger beer. Then we wander around and look at each other in disbelief and begin to slow down. We drift through the museum then back to our camp site, set up and prepare for lunch.
The afternoon is whiled away in the creek and buying beer. It’s a pleasant way to wind up. After dinner we shared our thoughts and feelings about the Kokoda experience. Some confess to starting with one motivation and discovering another. We all feel that the physical challenge , while still valid, was largely a secondary motivation. This proved a commemoration to the memory of family members, to the glory and honour of the soldiers who sacrificed themselves so we can live as we do, and the personal satisfaction of concluding the trek.
Then Alan (trekker) starts up and regales us with stories of colonial PNG. He is an excellent raconteur and his stories entrance us. He was born up here and ran around Wau until he was 12 then returned for three years from 1969. It was a period of gold mining, house boys and harsh discipline. We all sit enthralled, listening to stories of his grandfather’s gold lease up the northern coast.
What is my own reward? Seeing the track where I know the 39th and the 53rd came and fought along with the 2/14 and others was a real reward. But secondly it was a real joy to be walking with the other lads, especially the younger ones and to see them shape up to what the track presented them.
One of the challenges of this trek might have been the food. If you start at Owers Corner a fussy eater, that is cured by day’s end. We were fed Weetbix in the morning and the porters occasionally baked damper as well. Lunch was patrol biscuits and a variety of spreads, bully beef, cheese, baked beans, tinned spaghetti , noodles and such. There was rice and a meat flavouring – some sort of stew. Morning tea and afternoon tea stops were a surprise. Tim Tams (a bit battered or melted into a mess but a treat nonetheless). Shortbread or other biscuits. Tea, milo, coffee. It is basic fare but by day four or five I watch all the ingredients piled into bowls at once or onto the patrol biscuits in a heap. We all agree this is about filling the fuel tank, not presentation so it matters not that strawberry jam gets mixed up with noodles or stew. We also carry our own protein additives and drink additives to address mineral and trace element loss. We all take our salt tablets which make a marked difference as does the Glucoden which in the hardest sections proved to be helpful “goober beans”. Monitoring your food intake and actively managing it is critical to doing this trek well. That includes watching hydration(urine colour, headaches, stools). The latter is not about regularity so much as ensuring you are not losing too much water.
I purchased some thongs in Kokoda at the local store. But they are tougher on my feet than the gravel I am trying to avoid. I will keep wearing them as some sort of prevention against hookworm but I am thinking it’s probably a good idea to get some medication on my return in case I have unwittingly picked up that parasite. It was a common affliction in 1942.
A generator has kicked in but despite the longer evening the lights it is powering affords us most of the team are in bed by 8pm. We are due to walk down to the airport by 8am tomorrow morning.
Sad sign of the place and times – the store is managed through a grill. And we have been told to lock everything away in case wandering locals want to pick up a new pair of boots.
Photos: Chris Gersch
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