Death and sweat: this is no walk in the park

It is Kokoda season – the key months, after winter sports finals, when scores of Australians make the pilgrimage to Papau New Guinea and the Kokoda Track.

Despite politicians of all different sizes and ages having walked the track – I quickly discovered it is not easy or without danger.

Some have died on the walk, many others are injured or suffer from dehydration and heat exhaustion over the nearly 100-kilometre mountainous climb.

There are slips, trips and even cases of trench foot with sodden boots.

My first wake-up call came soon after arriving at the Holiday Inn Port Moresby on the eve of the trek. A guide arrived back at the hotel with broken ribs – forced to walk a chunk of the track in some pain after a bad fall at a creek crossing.

"You should be right," others who had completed the journey tell us at the hotel. Little comfort as you go through your pack again trying to work out what you can dump to lighten the load.

Despite the extreme nature of the physical challenge, Australians are flocking to walk the Kokoda Track in their thousands. A plane crash a few years ago saw numbers plummet but they are on the way up again.

Some, including former prime minister Paul Keating, describe it as Australia's most important military campaign, a series of battles that may have saved Australia from Japanese invasion.

For some, the 96-kilometre track is a historical pilgrimage like the beaches of Gallipoli. They had read moving accounts from authors such as Peter Brune in Those Ragged Bloody Heroes, or Peter FitzSimons's Kokoda.

Advertisement

For others, it is a challenge to raise money for charity. I felt deep admiration for the group of 30 women we passed in belting rain, dressed in pink and struggling on the steep muddy slopes, determined to finish and raise money for breast cancer.

And then for some it is the pure physical challenge, the fitness junkies, those who like to push themselves.

For me, it was a combination of the history and the physical challenge. What finally motivated me to do it, after years of talking about it, was a surprise ticket from family and friends for my 40th birthday.

Our group of about a dozen was a combination of all of the above, men, women, even a teenager with his dad, all different backgrounds, an accurate reflection of the eclectic mix of walkers on the track.

You don't have to be super fit, just determined!

After shaking off nerves from the trekking stories of those back at the hotel, we flew out early for Popondetta on the north coast of Papua New Guinea.

It was then a four-hour bumpy truck ride to the Kokoda plateau and the famous Kokoda airstrip.

We started in the north and headed south, retracing in chronological order the key battles. Others begin closer to Port Moresby and head north. It matters little, same mountain to climb.

From the Kokoda airstrip the track meanders through plantations before tackling the first climb up the range.

"How easy is this," you think to yourself.

And then you hit the first climb.

Nervous banter is replaced by puffing and spluttering, slips and trips. You realise what quadriceps are for and that 96 kilometres is a really long way.

I found the extreme humidity suffocating, especially given one of our Sunday morning training walks was in freezing temperatures up Mount Donna Buang on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Our first break is at the picturesque village of Deniki, which consisted of several huts solely used by trekkers with a small grass area and expansive views of the valley and airstrip below.

As you kick back, boots off, cup of tea in hand and gaze out towards the distant airstrip, there is a feeling of living an important part of Australian history.

It is an amazing spot. The thunderstorms rolling in maximise the impact of the indelible scene.

"I am really walking the famous Kokoda Track"

From Deniki it is arduous hills most of the way, with steep declines to creeks followed by sharp climbs up the other side.

The slope comes to meet you on Kokoda and your hands – grabbing roots and rocks to pull yourself up – become as important as your feet in navigating the steep track.

While the mountains are not enormous, the highest point of Mount Bellamy is only 2200 metres, but its rises and falls make the 96 kilometres seem much longer. Add the sauna-like humidity and the belting rain that turns the track into slippery-slide and there is enough to keep you challenged.

Our next stop, Eora Creek, was the scene of heavy fighting on the Japanese retreat, and is also a spectacular camping site in the Owen Stanley Range, with the gushing creek surrounded by verdant jungle on all sides.

The swim in the creek at the end of a long day's walk is one of the most relaxing I can remember.

A hearty hot meal served up by the porters who are excellent bush cooks is soon followed by bed.

You sleep well on Kokoda, a deep exhausted sleep, only broken by the 5am wake up call to begin walking again at 6am.

The days can be long

Do the track in 10 days and you can generally walk about six hours a day. Do it in six and you walk 10.

We did it in six.

There are plenty of stops along the way and the constant call of "water up", meaning you take a long suck from the two-litre water sack strapped to your pack.

There were days where it felt like all I did was walk, drink and duck off behind a tree for a toilet break.

Those who do the majority of work on most treks are the local Papuan porters who accompany you.

While trekkers carry clothes, sleeping bags and medical supplies, the porters carry tents, food, pots and pans.

While trekkers carry 15 kilograms, porters carry in excess of 20 kilograms, some a lot more.

Not only do they carry more, often in bare feet, they also do a lot more work.

The porters cook all meals and set up and dismantle tents and even scurry ahead of trekkers to set up bridge crossings at the dozens of creeks, dry out tents and cook hot meals before the trekkers arrive.

The porters are also full of good advice.

During one stop I ventured off towards the nearest tree for a quick toilet break. One shy guide said something in muffled pidgeon and I just smiled and waved. "yes, thank you".

What I quickly discovered was that he said, "don't go there, stinging nettles".

I returned in pain and to sounds of laughter.

The ingenuity of the porters is amazing, building bridges quickly at creek crossings and then dismantling them and speeding on to the next creek.

At the swollen Goldie River, they chopped down a 20-metre tree to make a bridge, only to see it wash away in the strong current.

One porter then swam the fast-flowing river and tied a rope to the other bank – we all swam across clinging to the rope with the help of a porter.

The track is no stroll through a national park

Death is everywhere on the Kokoda Track. The big battle sites, the hidden jungle tombs and even the discreet crosses on the jungle's edge for the several travellers who have perished along the way.

The porters are always there to watch your safety. If you look off balance a hand suddenly appears to help. And the guides remind you to keep drinking plenty of fluids, eat enough and tend to jungle wounds. As one of our guides noted, "all you have to do is walk".

Walking is still tough.

The rain, creeks and mud soak boots to the point chunks of skin peel off water logged toes like onion skin.

Blisters are a given. And if you are too proud to wear lycra bike shorts as some members of our party chose to do (yes, I was one of them) you can expect a nice blend of chafe and sweat rash.

Mosquitoes and potent malaria strains are also a constant threat.

Then there are the hills.

One day's walk includes the "eight false peaks" – enough said.

From the north coast the track takes you across the Owen Stanley Range to the back door of Port Moresby at Owen's Corner. The Japanese soldiers could see the lights of Port Moresby, their objective, when ordered to retreat.

Aside from the physical challenge of Kokoda, there is the mental challenge.

Every hill you walk, every corner you turn, there are signs of battle. Abandoned fox holes, stories of those who died. It is hard to imagine the strain on the soldiers not sure what was over the next hill or in the jungle beside them. It is hard enough walking the track without the fear of imminent death.

There are tears from the stories of those who fought and died, including for Butch Bissett who died in his brother Stan's arms at the famous battle of Isurava. Stan sat with his brother for several hours as the battle raged around them and told him stories of their childhood to comfort Butch in his last hours. As you pass the quiet rock where Butch died it is hard to keep it together.

Then there is the story of Corporal John Metson, who was shot through the foot and the crawled for weeks through the harsh jungle rather than allow his mates to be burdened carrying him. He was later executed by the Japanese.

As you near the end of the track and a week of solid hiking, dozens of creek crossings and litres of sweat – it all seems worth it.

You forge a strong bond with the other walkers, the guides and porters. There is also a connection with others you meet back home who have walked the track.

Walking through the arch at the end is a moment you will never forget.

Unlike many iconic destinations around the world, Kokoda is yet to be touched by commercialism. There are no souvenirs outside the experience.

At Kokoda you will learn a little about Australia's military history and much more about yourself. What your mind and body will endure.

Other holidays and overseas trips will fade, Kokoda you will never forget.

What you need to know

Walks from 6-10 nights. The quicker the trek, the longer the days. More days are not necessarily easier because they mean more time in the jungle.

- Carry your pack or pay a porter to carry it for you. You will still need to carry a few litres of water so don't think there is no weight on your back. If it is the difference between doing the trek or not, pay the porter.

- I went with a combined No Roads and Earth Sea Sky trip. Fantastic tour leaders, porters and excellent cooked food. Pack and water sack supplied.

- Cost is between $4000 to $6000 including flights. You won't need a lot of spending money, maybe a couple of hundred dollars.

- 12 weeks training recommended and provided by trekking companies.

- You don't have to be a marathon runner to do it. All ages and sizes walk the track. Determination is what gets you to the other end.

- Travel injections: there are not many you don't need for PNG and malaria tablets are a must.

- Apart from a few changes in direction, the condition of the track is much like what the Australian soldiers experienced in 1942, apart from the fact no one is shooting at you.

- The best months to walk Kokoda are April to November, when the rivers are passable – even by October the rain can make the Goldie River crossing close to Port Moresby a swim, rather than a walk.

- Good walking boots and clean socks for each day are a must. I went heavy duty, base-camp-type boots. Lighter, hybrid-style hiking boots would have been better.

Comments