Papua New Guinea
Trekking the Kokoda Track
Without knowing much about it, you always thought hiking the Kokoda Track wasn’t for you. In fact, you were convinced it was for people very unlike you. As a Greens-voting, peppermint-teasipping, inner-city leftie, the thought of spending 10 days in the bush with a bunch of flag-flying blokes chanting Aussie, Aussie, Aussie never seemed appealing. You’ve seen enough intolerance and ignorance dressed up as mateship and true-blue-ness to know that it can spoil a good time. You’ve long felt that patriotism in Australia has been highjacked by the wrong team. And you were sure it would be that very team that turned up to play on the Kokoda Track.
But then a couple of things changed your thoughts on wanting to do the hike. Most notably, a friend said you’d struggle to complete the track without “serious” training.
“You’ve got to be a tough bastard to do the Kokoda,” he told you.
As a seasoned trekker, and a competitive bugger to boot, this was akin to flapping a big red flag in front of an angry bull. It also led you to do more research about The Track.
You don’t like wars, or the glorification of war. You’ve been to Gallipoli. Honouring the diggers there can be an ugly, drunken affair. But you learn that the World War II campaign in PNG, with the Aussies fighting off what they thought was an imminent Japanese invasion, is an inconvenient truth. The battle for the Kokoda Track was a war they had to have. And you reckon the young fellas who suffered and died there in the belief they were protecting their country – their mums and dads, brothers and sisters – are deserving of everyone’s thanks.
So you decide to take on the Kokoda Track. Firstly, for a physical challenge. But also to honour the soldiers somehow and to see if those on your team (The Peppermint Tea Brigade) are welcome in the game.
With little training, you arrive in Port Moresby. You’re booked on a tour with Back Track Adventures, a Brisbane-based outfit whose website has the least number of photos of camouflage-clad men whooping it up in the jungle. In fact, it has none. A reasonable selling point, you conclude.
At the airport you meet with 12 other trekkers on the same tour. There are uni students, Aussie Rules players, health workers, farmers, bar girls and corporate chiefs in the mix.
Heading out to Owers Corner, the starting point of the trek, you ask one of your fellow trekkers if he’s nervous.
“I’m absolutely shitting myself, mate,” he replies.
At Owers, the group is greeted by the porters, a bunch of 30-odd local men from a village along The Track. They form a guard of honour and begin to sing together. As you walk through and become surrounded by their multi-layered harmonies, you feel a flow of emotion. “Selo, selo,” they chant, “Welcome, welcome.” You have never heard singing like this. Their voices, so naturally and effortlessly beautiful, don’t seem to come from the men themselves. Somehow the music emanates from the earth and the trees instead. It belongs to something ancient and unexplained. In that moment, you forget the hard slog ahead and that you too are absolutely shitting yourself.
You then line up and meet the ‘boys’, as they’re called. Robbie, Richard, Charlie, Binsy and, of course, Henry.
When you meet Henry you know you’re in good hands. At 40, he’s one of the elders of the group. He’s shy and polite and says very little. But you see caring and kindness in his eyes. You decide in that second that you’ll be kind to him too, keeping most of your gear in your bag and giving him just a few kilos to lug. The affair begins.
“Porters are you ready?” yells Charlie, the lead porter.
“Trekkers are you ready?”
And then the countdown commences to the first steps on the Kokoda Track: almost 100 kilometres of treacherous, sheer jungle trail from Owers to the village of Kokoda.
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… Yippee, yippee, trekky, trekky, rock and roll!” shouts Charlie, while doing a little jig.
You are off.
The first minute is murder: a steep downhill pinch that has you almost collapsing at the knees. Henry, always beside or behind you, reaches out to take your hand for the slippery sections. You politely decline. Four minutes later, all pretence of masculinity and self-sufficiency falls in a muddy pile. You take his hand for the first of hundreds of times.
“Like the care of a nurse and the love of a mother,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner about the kindness of the Papua. New Guineans on The Track during the war.
The story of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ is an enduring Australian legend. Given the name because of their ‘fuzzy’ hair, these men and women were dragged from their villages and into a brutal war. Employed by the Aussies to carry sick and wounded soldiers, along with ammo and supplies, they went so far above and beyond to save the diggers that you feel they deserve every piece of praise they get.
That evening, after the walking is over, dinner is done and Henry has filled your water bottles from the creek, you clamber into your tent and recall the day just gone. If asked, you’d describe the trekking conditions as similar to putting a step machine in a sauna, cranking it up to the highest setting and going at it for nine hours. For total authenticity, add mud, rain, bugs and a fair chance of gastro and malaria.
Despite this, after one of the hardest days of your life, you decide you are very glad to be here.
As you begin to fall asleep, the porters start to sing again. Their music drifts across the tops of the tents and into the warm night.
As day two unfolds, you get to know your fellow trekkers better. Everyone is here for his or her own reasons – from following in the footsteps of relatives who fought on The Track, to completing one of the big ones on the ‘bucket’ list, to simply getting in shape and having a different kind of holiday.
You’re glad the Aussie, Aussie, Aussie chant is yet to ring out across the Papua New Guinean countryside. But you’re also glad there are a variety of opinions and attitudes and world views being expressed along the way – openly and with good humour. These are salt-of-the earth Australians and you’re happy to be among them.
At the end of the day you feel exhausted, but proud that you are managing OK.
Pride is a thing you think about a lot on The Track. Has Australian pride been impaled on the sharp end of extreme nationalism? You remember Cronulla well. You wonder if it’s possible to be patriotic without being blinkered and boorish.
You’re still not sure, but the story and symbolism of the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion, remembered as one of the bravest and most important units in Australia’s military history, gives you hope that it somehow is.
Thrown together in a rush, the 39th was a motley bunch of mostly teenagers armed with weapons from World War I. Derisively dubbed the ‘chocos’ (chocolate soldiers, because they’d supposedly melt in battle), they were originally lined up for a passive role in PNG. But a series of events occurred that led those in charge to order the 39th to carry their weapons and the hopes of their homeland into the rampant jungle – to take on the infinitely superior Japanese forces advancing on Port Moresby and to save their nation. On the face of it, it was a big ask.
But the boys didn’t melt. They hardened. The part they played in keeping back the Japanese was phenomenal. Those who returned – many didn’t – have been dubbed ‘ragged bloody heroes’. For you, the courage and strength of the 39th is beyond belief.
On The Track, each day has its ups and downs in a literal and emotional sense. The walking is very hard going. It’s steep and slippery and you sweat like a glass blower’s arse in the cruel humidity. There are moments – sometimes hours or whole days – where you slip into a negative headspace and wonder why it is you’re here.
But the camaraderie amongst the group is a big help in getting you through these down times. There’s a sense that everyone is in it together.
The natural and cultural side of the experience is also a big motivator. Whenever you take time to look around, you realise you’re in one of the great forests of the world. The endless jungle is like a giant set of green lungs. And you relish the interactions with the locals along the way, the men with their bush knives and betel-nut smiles, the curious kids in the villages.
On day four you stop to rest and drink and swim at the most idyllic waterhole. Two rivers meet here, forming a perfect hollow like a giant bath to swim in. Bare-bottomed youngsters come to watch you flop about in the cool stream: a shabby bunch of whities with fancy cameras and high-tech outdoor gear and energy bars. You find it difficult to drag wet socks back on and leave a spot like this. Even harder to imagine there was once a horrible war right where you stand.
You reckon many people come to hike the Kokoda Track to honour fallen Australians, but leave bowing down to PNG – its people and its spectacular places.
As each day passes, and the tragedy of the war comes to life with greater clarity, you become more aware of this contrast between nature at its brilliant best and humans at their violent worst.
This distinction is most obvious on Brigade Hill when Gareth, the guide, holds a service for the fallen diggers. Under the Australian and PNG flags, on top of a beautiful clearing in the wilderness, with the warm midday sun filtering through the thriving jungle, he plays a recording of the ‘Last Post’ on a little speaker. For you, the lone bugle sound has never had so much emotion in it. The porters then sing their national anthem. You note that many trekkers have tears in their eyes.
Each day melds into the next once the routine is set in. You rise early, eat, walk, eat, walk, swim, eat, sleep. Then you get up and do it all again. Despite it being the most challenging thing most of you have ever done – and will ever do – it is still a lot of fun. The moments of joy make it worth it: a smile and a wave from a cute kid, a bird call in the jungle, a game of touch footy with the boys, a colourful sunset, Henry leaving a bunch of flowers tied to your pack. These will be your lasting memories.
At the end of it all, you feel relieved more than elated or excited. You also feel like you could sleep for a week.
As you leave The Track and make your way out of the jungle and back home, you think again about patriotism being highjacked by the wrong team.
Hiking the Kokoda Track has made you think it might be worth trying to win back a few points and even the score. It won’t be easy. But nothing worth achieving ever is. In New Guinea pidgin there’s an expression that means to go on a journey. The phrase is ‘throwim way leg’. It refers to the important action of lifting a leg to take the first step of what can be a very long walk.
Air Niugini, the national airline of Papua New Guinea, operates a domestic and international network in Asia, Oceania, and Australia.
Back Track Adventures is an adventure holiday specialist operating small-group holidays worldwide, including the Kokoda Track.