Trekking Kokoda; the real experience

A general consensus of the Kokoda track is it’s one of the hardest things people have done.

I could tell you it was challenging and an amazing experience but really, that doesn’t do it justice. So while this may be a long story and of no interest to some; I hope that I can capture and convey in words what the Kokoda Trek is truly like

Our decision to do the Kokoda track was made on a spur of the moment. Something that had always been on my bucket list but I never thought I’d get to do. We made the decision and booked our trek just over a year out with our good friends Shaun and Nadine.

The war was something quite distant and removed from us, so our motivation for the trek was more as a challenge for ourselves – although this feeling of distance to the war disappeared and was replaced by something quite deep as we trekked on; this I will try to explain throughout

When booking the trip all four of us were in agreement, we wanted to carry our own packs and we wanted to be strong, fit and capable enough to enjoy the trek and really take it in.

Even though we were all quite strong due to our weights training and had a good fitness level; I periodised our Kokoda training over a 6 month period. To begin with our weights training focused on developing the strength and endurance to carry the packs. This meant more than just leg work. Lower back, shoulders, core, hip flexors and so on. We each had different areas that needed to be improved. And so that was the initial focus. Our cardio classes were reduced and replaced with “time on feet training” And all our hikes – no matter if they were long ones or shorter ones, were done at a fast pace to ensure we became “comfortable being uncomfortable” this approach served us well on the track.

You can walk the Kokoda track from either direction; our trek was from North to South, starting in Kokoda and ending at Owers Corner.

It was at Kokoda that we met our team of PNG locals, most from villages that we would walk through on the track. Our first day was an easy short walk with a few small creek crossings. It was nice to be able to take in the beauty of the jungle around us. Although at this point, to us it still didn’t feel real. I think we were still overwhelmed with the fact we were actually in this amazing place.

Our first night was spent in Hoi. A relatively small village with a beautiful stream running beside it. We wandered, explored and sat in the stream just enjoying the place.

To be honest, I don’t remember a huge amount about his day. I do remember still feeling anxious because we hadn’t yet started the climbs and I guess I wanted to see if the training had been adequate.

Our second day we hiked for approximately 7 hours total. The beauty of the landscape is still amazing us. Thick greens cover the jungle floor and trees reach up through the canopy with their tall trunks – some so tall that if you are standing to close you can’t tilt your head back enough to see the top. Climbing to the top of our first hill and looking out over the top of the clouds as the sun rose was an experience I will never forget.

The simplistic yet beautiful lifestyle of the villagers is enjoyable to watch. As with all cultures, they experience their struggles in every day life but they smile, help one another and welcome us trekkers with open arms; sharing their village and their land with us.

I said in the beginning that my emotional connection with the war changed during this trek; day 2 was the day this started.

We visited Isurva Memorial Site. There are four pillars erected here; each engraved with a singular word.

Courage – Endurance – Mateship – Sacrifice

Isurava Memorial Site

And after hearing some of the stories that occurred at this site, these 4 pillars are truly an accurate representation of the Aussie spirt. Here I left a poppy made by an 11yr old girl on behalf of her grandfather and those who fought.

You may have seen the movies, listened to the podcasts, read the books or maybe even heard stories of the war passed down through generations. But until you stand at some of these sties you truly can’t comprehend the reality of the conditions they endured to defend our country.

Have you head the story of Surgeons Rock also known as Cons rock?

A flat topped rock, large enough to lay a fully grown man on top and overlooking a valley full of beautiful green. A view that is in stark contrast to what happened at this site. This is where urgent medical treatment was sometimes given to those in need. Perhaps one of the most confronting stories is that of a young soldier who had his leg amputated on Surgeons rock in primitive conditions and with limited medical supplies. Standing at this site and looking at the makeshift operating table it is not hard to imagine the blood that would have spilled on this rock. For me this was very confronting and this was the first spot I cried on the track. I cried for that soldier – no-one knows what happened to him – I cried for the medic who had to endure and live with the extreme decisions and actions he had to take and I cried with what I can honestly call grief. These tears surprised me, but what surprised me more was the depth of the emotion I felt at that moment

At this point in our trek we had experienced some challenging climbs, but all four of us were still trekking well – no pains, fatigue or discomfort and recovery from the challenging climbs was really fast. I’m still feeling a little anxious because i’m waiting for the “hard” – the point we start to struggle.

Day 3 brought some of these big climbs we’d been anticipating. 2 x 2hour climbs up and at this point it became evident our training had equipped us well to not only carry our packs on the track but to experience, take in and enjoy the track. Whilst we were all grateful to be able to achieve this, it did not diminish in anyway the extreme and harsh conditions the soldiers experienced. Many with minimal training, limited food and caught in the middle of a brutal face to face war with Japanese soldiers.

It is also on this day that just how valuable the Fuzzy Wuzzies were to the Australian Soldiers became evident.

Even though the four of us do not have porters, there are still members of the crew assigned to each of us to set up our tents and assist us where needed. Most of the time this is done by reaching a strong firm had down from a high step and helping you scale the large steps – on the big climbs, this assistance is appreciated.

It’s important to remember that the war was not of their making, they were innocents caught in the middle. At that point in time, the tribes from different villages were enemies of one another – but to protect their families and their land they had no choice but to come together and act as one in support of the Australian Soldiers.

After the last long 2 hour ascent of the day we are rewarded with a lunch cooked on the track, by Casa the crew chef. We sat on aged fallen trees under the canopy of the trees that have stood the test of time and grown strong and tall as they reach up towards the sun and enjoyed our noodles, spring rolls and cups of tea and coffee; as if we were having a picnic in a story book like setting instead of sitting on a track that once was the grounds for war

Part of the experience of Kokoda is the more technical ups and downs of the track. It is not just a steep walk like many think. Navigating your foot placement amongst rocks, mud and tree roots is a skill all of it’s own. Combined with bridged river crossings constructed at times with nothing more than 2 logs held together with wire resting on uprights. Being confident, stable and sure of your footing is important – thankfully, our training had included longer hikes with more technical climbs.

The track itself is scattered with both Japanese and Australian fox holes; dug by hand be either side. Rectangular for the Australians and circular for the Japanese. They were places each would hide and wait to ambush the other. You can almost see the men – 2 or 3 to a hole – crouched in the mud amongst the trees, rain pouring into the hole and all they could do was wait; wait for the enemy to approach so they could defend.

Having fitness and strength to navigate this track allows us to absorb all that it is. The landscape changes rapidly — every 300-400mtrs is a different scene

At points it’s as if you’re walking through an enchanted forest, using the roots of moss covered trees as stair cases and then we walk over the top of a ridge and we are walking through a darker swampier land.

We are taken to two separate ammunition sites, one is a Japanese site and the other an Australian. When they were retreating some times ammunition would weigh them down, so to avoid the enemy taking it they would bury it. Some of the discovered ammunition still have pins in the grenades.

At times the silence of the track is deafening. The wildlife goes quite and all that can be heard is the sound of our footsteps with the occasional sound of water gushing over rocks breaking through from a distance.

We are lucky enough to visit Myoloa Lake – a site of supply drops for the Australians. The trek to this site is a 2 hour round trek, but worth it. We sit on a crest and take in the site. A relatively flat vast site with no trees, that seems out of place in the middle of a jungle. Perhaps in another century it truly was a lake. In your mind you can almost hear the planes coming over the hills to drop supplies, often weighing around 2tonne. And our boys would crouch in hiding and wait until they thought it was safe to run and collect whatever they could – always with the fear of being shot at by the Japanese from the tree lines.

Myoloa Lake

As we trek towards Naduri, our camp for the night a light fog or perhaps its cloud beings to settle around us and again the jungle goes silent – until the sound of machine guns break through the silence; 5 quick shots repeated 3 times……..

We are told they are Lyre birds who still imitate the sound of the guns from the war. Regardless of what it is or why it makes these noises, it created an eerie atmosphere, almost like the soldiers of the past will emerge from the trees at any moment and resume their role in the war. To think the soldiers and the PNG locals, lived with that noise as a constant for 6 months…. words could never describe the way it must have been.

The PNG villages are Seven Day Adventists, which means Saturday is their Sabbath and they rest. We respect their faith and the Saturday is spent in Naduri. It is our first chance to shower and to wash our clothes.

We spend the morning in church with the villagers and are each presented with a necklace of flowers that welcomes us to their village. A number of songs are sung, and it’s a beautiful experience to sit back and let the sound of their amazing voices fill your ears. They are such quietly spoken people, but when they sing it’s like the gates of their soul are opened and their voices project loudly from them in beautiful harmony.

In Naduri we were honored to meet their Chief Joel, who is the son on Ovuru Idiki; one of the longest living Fuzzy Wuzzies. He passed in 2013 and is buried in his own permanent hut which is filled with flowers and condolences from across Australia. A photo of him with a larger than life smile shows the cheeky nature they talk of. Joel fondly refers to him as the “old man” and tells us his father was fond of the female trekkers and never passed up an opportunity to pose for a photo with them. Simply standing in his “tomb” is humbling; a man who was so respected across countries simply for being a great human being and caring about others – what an honor it would have been to have met him

Whilst we are talking with Joel he talks of the relationship between our countries and explains that the PNG people are forever indebted to Australians because without the Australian Soldiers they would have lost their land, and that the Australians are forever indebted to the PNG people; it if weren’t for them we likely would not have succeeded at Kokoda and the Japanese would have been in a position to take Australia – both cultures forever entwined; but many will never know this.

Day 6 and the weather is changing, the closer we get to Port Moresby the warmer it becomes. We begin the day climbing the side of a waterfall and then along a sheer ridge on the side of a mountain, that requires careful navigation while the hot sun beats down on us. We are all grateful for the rest when we reach the top and the trees again provide protection against the sun.

Late morning we arrive at Brigade Hill, also known as butcher hill for good reason. It is hard to imagine the battle that went on here. The sheer steepness of the area alone is almost unfathomable. But at the top are sticks hammered into the ground, each with a poppy adorning the top to represent the battle at this site and the lives that were lost. The soldiers who were buried here have been moved and now lay at rest in Bomona War Memorial Cemetery

Here we hold a ceremony in honour of those who fought, those who died and the Fuzzy Wuzzies who stood by their sides. We laid the flower necklaces we were given at church and bouquets of native flowers and leaves the PNG boys made each of us. The Ode was read by one of our trekkers and I read the Fuzzy Wuzzy tribute which brought myself and others to tears as it highlighted just how much they did to protect our soldiers. The PNG boys sang their anthem and we sang ours; and as we sang our anthem I was filled with a sense of pride to be an Australian

The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels Dedication; As stretcher bearers the natives were excellent. They can get stretchers over seemingly impossible barriers and not only get them over but give the patient a comparatively comfortable ride as well. The care which they show to the patient is magnificent. Every need which they can fulfil is fulfilled. If night find the stretcher still on the Track they will find a level spot beside the track and build a shelter over the patient; they will make him as comfortable as possible, get him water and feed him if any food is available. They sleep four each side of the stretcher and if the patient moves or requires any attention during the night is it instantly given. The labour of carrying was extremely arduous but was never shirked and the natives practically never left the patient until they had brought him to his destination

This is me reading the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels Dedication in tears

We leave Brigade hill and navigate the steep ups and downs towards Manuri. Mother nature again amazes us by crisscrossing tree roots and creating stairs to help navigate the path; she is a miracle in herself.

Not all of Kokoda is filled with ups and downs, there are swampy flat areas with high humidity – hours walking through this mud was probably the least favourite of the trek. In the wetter times these swamps can be knee deeps in places and we are told it’s not uncommon to see snakes.

Eventually our swamp hike rewards us with Ofi Creek – a swimming area that is fed by 3 other creeks. We all eagerly remove our boots and soak in the icy cold fresh water before dinner.

Our final big day and we are crisscrossing crystal clear rivers; all of us enjoying the coolness of the water and the dense jungle around us and just the sheer beauty of this area. Giant rocks boulders covered with moss lay in the middle of the rivers, like giant marbles abandoned in the middle of play years before. A number of smaller water falls feed into the rivers as we cross them.

And then our final steep 2 hour climb to Imita Ridge – again using mother natures stair case, we steadily climb the ridge breaking half way up. By this point we have trekked just over 100kms carrying almost 20kg on our backs and we are starting to feel the steepness of this climb. Once we reach the top a coke and a packet of twisties brought from the locals is exactly what is needed. We then descend for 2 hours along a slippery clay like mud foundation mixed with roots to aid us on our way down.

Goldie river greets us at the bottom of this descent, our final camp site. Again we take advantage of the cold fresh water and soak on the rocks on the rivers edge

The final night we are treated to a Sing Sing by the boys. Their voices are again incredibly harmonious; beautiful deep and resonate.

Our final morning begins by crossing Goldie River – waist high water with a strong current that the boys help us across. And then one final 45 minute climb to the arches of Owers corner.

As we walk through the arches to the PNG boys singing we turn and take in the enormity of the landscape we just navigated; the mountains and paths that almost 80 years ago was the site of horrendous battles and the deaths of many, that now holds the memories and emotions of all those who trek it.

We are so small in comparison

As we say goodbye to the PNG crew we sadly realize, they will likely not remember us, but we will forever remember them. As i’m sure those who fought and survived Kokoda remember the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels of their time

So what was it like to do the Kokoda Track? Yes, it was physically challenging at points but also emotionally awakening . It created a connection with our history that I otherwise would not have had, and it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. No words will ever do justice to this land, the people or it’s history and i’m sure that each person takes a little something different from it.

I would recommend anyone to do the track, but do not underestimate it. Show the track and it’s history the respect it deserves and ensure you are well training.

If you wish to do the Kokoda Track and enjoy the experience and walk away with more than the generic “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done” then train. Fitness is one thing but on the track Physical strength is your best friend. I would recommend booking a year out and training for a year if you’re new to training.

A big thank you to everyone in our crew and to Back Track Adventures for a truly memorable experience. To view more photos from Kokoda 2019 Trek, simply click here

Every morning a Back Track Kokoda hike begins with this chant

Trekkers Oath from Brigade Hill; When we return to our homes in Australia, we will take with us the memory of this ceremony held on this remote battlefield on the Kokoda Track. From today and for evermore let us commit to respect, and emulate in our own lives, the qualities displayed by our soldiers who fought and died here. We will display COURAGE under all adversity; with ENDURANCE we will persist and do our best in all endeavours; we will SACRIFICE personal pleasures for the betterment of those less fortunate than ourselves and in the spirit of MATESHIP we will treat others as we expect to be treated