Having lost the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 the Japanese attempted to capture New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, by landing on the north coast at Gona and then marching over the Owen Stanley Ranges along a steep, narrow and muddy mail route through the jungle: the Kokoda Track.
However, the Australian army, fearing what would happen should Port Moresby fall to the Japanese, wandered up the track from the south to discuss this with them. Despite being heavily outnumbered the Australians were able to slow the Japanese advance for long enough to force them to reconsider the wisdom of dragging men and heavy artillery through the New Guinea mud. They ended up fleeing the island altogether, with the Australians in hot pursuit.
These days it is possible to follow in the footsteps of these soldiers and walk the Kokoda Track from its origin at the village of the same name to its finish, some 96 km away at Ower’s Corner. This trip took my son and I (along with four more Australians and a host of indigenous carriers who lead the way, cooked for us and carried our tents) eight days to complete and was certainly the most physically challenging thing I have ever done.
Being New Guinea the weather was tropical: warm and humid, but we were fortunate that rain fell only at night. The vegetation was incredibly lush and looked like it would have been at home in the Cretaceous Period. I would have been only mildly surprised if a velociraptor had bounded past.
We were woken each morning at 5.30 and started trekking around 7.00. Distances covered ranged from 7 to 18 km per day, depending on the ruggedness of the terrain and the enthusiasm of the trekkers. We were all tucked up tightly in our sleeping bags, exhausted but content by 8.00 each night.
The track itself consisted of incredibly steep hill climbs and descents over mud soaked ground covered in tangles of tree roots and rocks. I actually preferred the ascents as they were extremely taxing from a cardiovascular perspective, but not nearly as treacherous as the descents. The large amounts of mud made the slopes extremely slippery with one misstep potentially catapulting the victim off the edge of the track or, as one of our party discovered, causing them to roll an ankle. The indigenous carriers were truly astonishing the way they cavorted up and down the slopes, 15+ kg packs on their backs, work boots or running shoes on their feet (except for one fellow who covered the entire 96 km barefoot!).
Streams were forded via some rather rudimentary and highly dubious bridges.
The low hanging cloud formed a truly eerie backdrop to some of our walks through the villages en route.
Day 2 found us at the Isurava war memorial, a site almost as iconic to Australians as Gallipoli. The four pillars are carved with the words “Courage”, “Endurance”, “Mateship”, “Sacrifice” and were a moving testament to the men who fought and died here, set against an astonishingly beautiful mountain backdrop.
Amazingly the jungle is still full of unexploded mortars and hand grenades, this cache being unearthed in February by a group of locals looking for brush turkey eggs.
It was a magnificent and emotional experience. After all nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without effort. Still, tough as it was for us, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like to live for weeks in this environment suffering malnutrition, disease and the constant threat of being shot at or having a mortar land in your lunch. Much as I detest war the courage of the men involved is truly inspirational.
There are a bewildering number of companies offering to help you drag your carcase over the Kokoda Track. We selected Adventure Kokoda (http://www.kokodatreks.com/). While their off track organisation left a bit to be desired they looked after us extremely well on the track, although my son did complain of being perpetually hungry. However, it is quite difficult to fill the bottomless stomach of an active 19 year old at the best of times and even I managed to drop 2.5 kg.
Dr. F. Bunny