Sometimes I even surprise myself. Last year after a long dinner involving much food and wine in a comfortable restaurant, I agreed to hike the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. At the time I was responding to the challenge of an Australian friend who clearly knew more than me and got my dander up when he suggested I’d need to bring a chair. Over the next months we began training by hiking the Heysen Trail, a 1200km continuous trail from the southern tip up into the North Flinders Range in South Australia. We had some tough hikes and long days, for sure, but nothing could prepare me for the 10 painfully exhilarating days that Papua New Guinea put before me 3 weeks ago. There had been plenty of attention on the Bloody Track, as it was called, this year. Most famous as the location for a wicked WW2 battle between the Allies (especially the Australians) and the Japanese called the Kokoda Campaign, the notoriously exhausting trail caused 3 deaths of ostensibly healthy trekkers within months of each other, all from physical ailments. There was also a plane crash that took the lives of all on board, including 9 Aussies on their way to begin the hike, into the side of a fog covered mountain. I was a little apprehensive about the whole situation.
Matters were made worse when our group had a death of its own. A Sydney based man in less than great condition died of a massive heart attack on the first day after the first descent. Day 2 was met with 2 trekkers, a mother and son, being helicoptered out of the jungle due to an adverse reaction to the heat and her medication. That the humidity was at times stifling and the terrain was relentlessly steep with slippery tree roots sprawling every which way like the veins in a weightlifter’s forearm didn’t make it any easier. Even one of the assistant guides had to pull out from heat exhaustion and dehydration. As Lonely Planet wrote in 1993: “The track crosses some of the most rugged and isolated terrain in the world, reaches 2,250 metres (7,400 ft) at Mount Bellamy, and combines hot humid days with intensely cold nights, torrential rainfall and endemic tropical diseases such as malaria. The track is passable only on foot; this had extreme repercussions for logistics, the size of forces and the type of warfare that could be conducted”.
Yet watching the porters, PNG natives, climb so easily around the muddy hills, some barefooted, was awe inspiring. My guy, Eddie, was there to save my life many times; you could feel a gentle pulling on your backpack keeping you from copping it on a muddy precipice that went down 100’s of meters. And during the less frightening segments they would disappear into thin air. The record for fastest time across the track, yes, there is a annual race called, appropriately, “the Kokoda Challenge”, is held by a local trekking porter: 16:34:05. He said the reason he broke the record in 2008 was because he trained. It was nuts, this climb up the giant beanstalk, but after the first humongous downpour refreshingly washed away the thick layer of perspiration on my face, and wading waist high across dozens of growing rivers, there was something wonderfully cleansing about the experience.
The track was the site of various battles between the Aussies and Japanese in 1942 as the Japanese pushed for control of the South Pacific, and PNG was the last stop before mainland Australia. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Aussies. They were badly outnumbered and supplied, but they were able to dig into the hills and exhaust the Japanese. Aussie infantrymen to this day are called ‘diggers’. Obviously the conditions were impossible, it rained solidly for 2 months, and the hardship was enormous for the soldiers. Hardship that we were now experiencing firsthand as we walked the endlessly steep ups and downs of the 110km wartime track. There are plenty of dug out gunpits and ordnance left behind, and many of the trekkers in our group had relatives who fought and died on the track to drive the point home. We had a tremendous trek leader, a former Vietnam war hero Major Chad Sherrin MM, that kept things upbeat and the experience informative. He was able to recite poetry from memory from the best voices of the war era that breathed life into the now dead conflict while we quietly tried to dry our wet socks by the fire, to no avail. He captured the essence of the salty, rough hewn characters of the struggle with perfect anecdotes and song. The tour was expertly choreographed, made even more impressive by the unpredictabilty of the events that might happen on any given day. We were in the jungle, baby, devoid of electricity and Western amenities, and anything could go wrong. Fortunately, Chad is a jungle warfare specialist. We were made to feel as if we were walking thru a “living museum”, as they like to say, and on top of all his military knowledge, his flora and fauna acumen was pretty impressive to boot. He also woke us up at 5am one day singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”.
It’s impossible to share the mental and physical challenge hiking the Kokoda Track poses. It is considered one of the top 3 most difficult treks in the world. Fortunately my two Aussie friends and I trained well for the climb. As Australians, the track is a sort of pilgrimage into a young country’s abbreviated military past. It has become a popular destination now with the number of trekkers rising from 75 in 2001 to over 6000 in 2009. They are trying to put higher standards of fitness levels into place, but many tour groups are slack in this department. Our group was one of the most experienced, Adventure Kokoda, and even we had a fatality. It’s not a trek to be taken lightly.
I was the token Yank on the trip, and did my best to finish the bloody thing. We had days when people were projectile vomiting, driven to tears by the pain and difficulty, and were swearing they were over it. After being back now a few weeks in civilization, I’ve received emails from people in our group saying it was the most profound experience in their life, thanking everyone for enduring it together so well. Something that made them dig so deep inside had to be incredibly difficult and that they felt amazingly good about themselves for completing it. I’ve had time to reflect about the 4 recurring motifs of the track that the diggers knew all too well. “Mateship” was key as we helped encourage each other up hills only to see it was just another false peak. “Endurance”, because without it you would have fallen asleep in the jungle, and the ants there are big and have teeth. And there weren’t any bus stops or taxis as far as I could see, you were “in country”, deep and remote. “Courage”, because it was a mother of an experience facing the long-drops, the PNG primitive toilets, each day. In the military case it would be the courage to fight an enemy knowing you were in bad shape, maybe wounded, starving and freezing yet still having the mettle to push on. And, finally, “Sacrifice”, which, well, you can only imagine how terrifying it would be to die in such a strange and unfamiliar place, as a 24 year old soldier, so far from home sacrificing your life to protect your friends, family, and country.
The whole experience probably still hasn’t sunk in completely. It was like a crazy, malaria induced dream. A crazy dream that smelled like it needed a shower and a bar of soap. I do know there needs to be a next adventure, however, and the sooner the better. It’s way too easy to fall back into a soft couch, crack open a nice red, put some Miles Davis on the turntable and take pleasure in the basic fact that there are no leeches on my feet. I have to admit that this was a recurring fantasy of mine by day 8, but now that I’m back in comfort, it’s a bit anticlimactic and incipient boredom needs to be fended off. Mt. Kilimanjaro anyone?