Kokoda Track
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A tough multi-day hike in rugged and isolated terrain. On Day 1, I suffer heat exhaustion. Can I walk in the footsteps of our brave infantry who fought the Japanese in WWII or have I bitten off more than I can chew?

July 2008

Papua New Guinea (PNG)

8 days (96 kms)

‘The Kokoda track region appears much as it did in 1942 when the Australian soldiers fought there. Along the track, trenches and rusted weapons can still be seen. There are almost none of the facilities a tourist might expect to find: no electricity, no shops, and each madly rushing stream is crossed by a simple log bridge. Following in the steps of the Australian soldiers remains a physically challenging task, to be attempted by only the fittest of bushwalkers amongst us.’

from the Australian Government, Department of Veterans’ Affairs ANZAC Portal

Who walked with me?

In 2008 I did it with my best friend, Elizabeth Melchior, and a group of strapping young men from St Paul’s College, University of Sydney. We were fortunate to have the ‘Bill James’, author of Field Guide to the Kokoda Track, A Historical Guide to the Lost Battlefields (2019) fourth edition, and his eldest son, Richard, lead us. Richard and his brother Andrew continue to lead Kokoda treks, together with other great trekking adventures, through their new company, On Track Expeditions.  Their itinerary for the trail is virtually unchanged from when we did it in 2008. Please visit On Track Expeditions website for full details or you can search for other tour operators who also offer fully guided and supported treks.

Getting There

From Sydney you fly via Brisbane for a connecting flight to Port Moresby. It took us an entire day. We had a lengthy wait in Brisbane. It was anyone’s guess when the plane would arrive from Port Moresby. A listed departure time means nothing in PNG time. They will come in their own good time.

Waiting at Port Moresby Airport for flight to Kokoda

After an overnight stay in Port Moresby, a bus shuttled us to the local airport for an internal flight to Kokoda where we began our hike. Another lengthy delay awaited us. I can recall being directed to the VIP Waiting Room – a hot box with barely any amenities. We slumped across the lounges from the 50s, getting stickier and more disheartened with each passing hour. Meanwhile, the locals chewed happily on betel nuts outside, grinning from ear to ear with their stained red lips and mouths. Eventually, we boarded a small plane bound for the highlands. 

Kokoda Airport Arrivals Lounge

Logistics

This was my first serious multi-day hike in rugged and isolated terrain where I had to pay particular attention to my diabetes. I worked with my endocrinologist, GP, and dietician to map out a strategy for every contingency I might face on the trail.

Carrying these diabetic supplies added considerable weight to my pack load. It was going to be hard enough walking in mountainous, muddy terrain in warm and humid conditions.

Training at Willowee Rd Steps at H D Robb Reserve Castle Cove

Despite training 3-4 days a week for a good 12 months, I knew I did not have the fitness to make this first serious hike even more challenging. I sensibly paid an extra $500 to hire a porter to carry my supplies. I still carried a hefty 10kg daypack, but this was achievable with my current skill level. 11 years later I carried a 20kg pack weight with all of my provisions on my back walking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) but for this trek I was a newbie. I made the right decision to accept help when it was available.

My porter ‘s name was Doxi, a name I associate with malaria medication – doxycycline, which we needed for this journey. He spoke Pidgin English and English, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and learning about his life. We formed a powerful bond, like the famous PNG natives, the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’, who carried wounded Australian soldiers to safety during World War II.

On the first day tackling our very first climb, I suffered heat exhaustion and became unwell. Doxi could see my distress and urged me to remove my daypack. Carrying the rest of my gear on his back, he slung my daypack on his chest and led me to a stream where I could douse myself in water and cool my core temperature.

Later that evening he set up my tent and checked I was alright. I survived the ordeal. It disappointed me my body had faltered in the heat, but I will never forget this stranger’s care for me.

Later that evening he set up my tent and checked I was alright. I survived the ordeal. It disappointed me my body had faltered in the heat, but I will never forget this stranger’s care for me.

The Papua New Guineans porters take pride in this much-prized job. They are easy-going and casual, and very observant. When my heart started beating rapidly as we climbed a steep hill Doxi tapped me gently on the shoulder saying ‘Stop! We wait a few minutes.’ I complied and resumed walking, feeling immeasurably better for this brief break he instinctively knew I needed. We held hands to descend slippery mud slopes and cross treacherous river crossings.  The kindness of a stranger and learning about Doxi’s culture and customs was an unexpected bonus of this challenging hike.

Porters assisting me negotiate a river crossing on loosely tied saplings
Emerging from the mist with Doxi following in my footsteps

The tour company supplied us with dehydrated meals and snacks from Australia. We carried four days’ worth from the start. Each evening the porters collected our same variety single-serve meal portions and cooked them in one large pot, serving them on a banana leaf together with fluffy boiled rice. They carried large pots on the back of their packs to prepare the meals this way.

We bartered with each other for the best chocolate bars and the best flavoured soups and then guiltily gave our excess to the porters, grateful for any handouts. Once we consumed this food, they flew the rest of our supplies to Efogi, one of the few towns on the track with an airstrip. A welcome box of the cheapest cask wine and beers also arrived. After a brief dunking in a cool mountain stream, I have not tasted a more refreshing and memorable beverage since.  

What are the track conditions like?

Abysmal. It is one greasy mud slick which has 14 gruelling ascents followed by 14 equally treacherous descents. And no respite at the top. With a spine and track so narrow and sides so sheer, it’s easy to believe a slip could be fatal.

In sections we climbed 2,000 metres on cliff faces so steep our face was level with the climber’s boots ahead of us. Ascending, we clung to tree roots. When it was time to descend, we concentrated hard to avoid slipping on and tripping over these tree roots. I learnt to never look up, continue moving at a plodding pace and count to ease the torment of this ridiculously hard trek.

It rains a lot. Heavy tropical downpours can sometimes end a day’s hike. If you are lucky, you get to wait it out in stilted native huts that rock every time you move. Or you just wear a massive tarp poncho that covers you and your pack and continue walking in the rain, if you can stand the heat. I found the vinyl, low-tech, non-breathable poncho made me hotter. As the rain is not cold in this humid climate, I often preferred to walk unprotected and be grateful for the refreshing cool down.

Few can tell if your wetness is because of rain or sweat. It is no fashion parade. Clothes and boots never dry.

Sweat, water or just drying off is anyone’s guess here

On ridge lines the scenery is spectacular, with miles of pristine, overgrown rainforest. Fortunately, you walk mainly beneath the forest canopy, offering welcome protection from the searing sun. Often, no campsite exists but within 15 minutes, with the help of a few machetes, our porters have created a suitable level campsite stripped bare of dense undergrowth.

It goes without saying that you live pretty rough. A toilet is usually a hole in the ground you squat over, holding a vertical stick for balance, or sometimes there is a basic outhouse with a real toilet seat. I personally prefer a hole, just not when my legs cramp, and standing up proves a real challenge.

But we did have some lovely camping locations. I loved our set up beside Efogi Airstrip.

Highlights

This trail has huge World War II historical significance for Australia. Our inexperienced 39th Battalion valiantly defended their position despite being outnumbered six to one for most of the campaign. Their commanding officers brilliantly executed the Australian withdrawal from Kokoda towards Port Moresby, the direction we walked the trail. With inadequate food and ammunition, inappropriate khaki-coloured uniforms, and an insufficient number of support troops, they held off the Japanese advance for a full two months.

Today you can still see Ammunition Dumps near Myola Lake, where they hid ammunition from the Japanese as they were forced to retreat. Also the crash site of a US B-25 Mitchell bomber with a well-preserved Good Year tyre still partly inflated after 65 years. Even a soldier’s boot. The history of this period, so clearly visible, is fascinating and deeply moving.

Smiling because I am fascinated with the history, not the carnage of war
Bill James explaining the history of the ammunition dumpsites

I am privileged to have walked in their footsteps. We find a fitting memorial to their efforts on the trail at Isurava. This is the place where Bruce Kingsbury used his Bren gun, with no regard for his own life, to prevent the Japanese from breaking through Australia’s defense line. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Isurava Memorial Site

Four large dark grey headstones each engraved with one of these words – Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice – sit in a semi-circle at this moving clifftop memorial site.

As the mist rose at dawn, my friend and I were fortunate to witness a moving dedication ceremony with our walking companions singing the beautiful hymn Jerusalem and the porters melodically singing O Arise, All You Sons, the Papua New Guinean national anthem.

I was privileged to meet one of the last-surviving ”Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”, the name given by Australian soldiers to Papua New Guinean war carriers who, during World War II, were recruited to bring supplies up to the front and carry injured Australian troops down the Kokoda trail during the Kokoda Campaign.

We visited Bomana Cemetery in Port Moresby at the conclusion of our hike where the remains of 4320 soldiers, sailors, and airmen lie. It is a striking, yet tragic site set over 15 acres of continuously watered green grass surrounded by brightly coloured crotons and magnificent large shade trees.

Culturally, I enjoyed getting to learn the Papua New Guinean’s way of life through our porters’ stories and those of the local villagers we visited along the way. Although Australian news periodically reports incidents of violent tribal rivalry we found the natives gentle, loving, good-humoured, and religious, many being Seventh Day Adventists.  

National Remembrance Day 23 July 2008 – a day to mow the school lawn with a mower and kids brandishing machetes
A favourite memory – Liz, a nurse, tends to a porter’s dog bite injury sustained in Port Moresby

The Kokoda Track was a fundraising walk for Multiple Sclerosis Research Australia for continued research into finding a cure. Elizabeth and I raised over $33,000. Undertaking a walk that mimics the difficulties of living with MS daily was the perfect undertaking to garner donor support. The fundraising part proved as fun as the walk. It was a privilege to be able to undertake this trek to support others who are struggling in their lives.

So proud of our achievement

What did I learn?

I chose an adventure considerably out of my comfort zone. I had no hiking experience or had ever set foot in a tent.

Success is possible if you prepare and plan appropriately. For fitness, I trained two years in advance. For diabetes, I acknowledged its existence, and I took adequate supplies for every contingency.

I recognised my limitations and hired a porter to carry much of my load. And I listened to the experts who guided me on this journey. Although it was incredibly hard, I still rate the Kokoda Track as one of my most rewarding and enjoyable holidays.  

Doxi brings Katrina safely home to Owers Corner, end of the Kokoda Track July 2008
The final gruelling steps

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