“What the hell were we thinking?” – the first few days of my Kokoda Trek

In 2016 I walked the Kokoda Trail with my mother, my brother and my aunt. Now you’ve read that introduction – this post deals with our first few days, our flight to Port Moresby, the introduction to the rivers and the rain, and how one butterfly gave us the hope and faith to keep climbing.

NOTE: Any direct quotes from my diary will be in “quoted italics”. The rest are my thoughts and reflections from now, looking back.

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Our trip to Port Moresby wasn’t too difficult, but wasn’t all that straight-forward either. I left Jas with our two boys and set off on a journey of a life-time. “Leaving Jasmine, Jack and Henrik was really hard this morning. I didn’t shed any tears, but I was crying inside. I partly didn’t want to be too upset for Jack and distress him – and partly as I know this is the first steps of the journey – it will be much harder once we are are in Papua and out of touch”.

It was certainly a journey before the journey. A 5-hour car trip to Perth, with a brief break for a breath – and the chance to listen to Mum and myself interviewed on ABC radio; a flight to Brisbane; an overnight stay in perhaps the smallest three-bedded hotel room in the Southern Hemisphere; an aborted take-off due to issues with the brakes (better to find that out prior to being in the air); the eventual flight after a long delay; and an hour long drive up the hill to Sogeri Lodge. Looking back this week in my diary, I laughed when I noted:

“Mum’s ability to turn simple travel in to a pressure cooker situation is incredible”.

Mum is a lot of things. A chilled-out travel companion is not one of them.

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On our way to Sogeri Lodge

Our afternoon at Sogeri Lodge was full of nervous energy. We had a big group doing this trek. Mum wasn’t the oldest (by a few months), but Mum and Berna were the only people whose father had served on the track. We were trekking with Adventure Kokoda. Charlie Lynn was our guide and he seemed quite a character on early introductions.

Everyone had different reasons for being there. Some shared them. Some chose to keep the reasons private. Some people were bullish about what lay ahead. Some (like me) were full of nervous trepidation.

Greg and I returned to our room and set about packing our bags for the trek.

Who knew packing (and re-packing) could be so hard, hot, stressful, confusing and time-consuming.

We were to leave the non-essentials here at the lodge, pack a bag of things to carry ourselves, and pack a dry bag our porter would carry for us. We’d both debated carrying all our own gear. We’d both decided not to. I’d trained with an 18kg pack in the final weeks, but decided to be cautious with this unknown beast. In the end the pack I was carrying came to 12kg (with water anyway). It weighed more wet. My porter carried 10kg of my kit, plus his gear. Finally, at the end of the night, sweaty and strung out, “I realised my toothbrush is SOLIDLY packed in my gear. It’s not coming out”.

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Where did I leave my jocks?

A start on the trail

The next day was an early start and then hours of pensive waiting. I wanted to get cracking, but we were held by Adventure Kokoda at the lodge for what felt like an age. This in hindsight was smart. We did a tour of the farm and were exposed to the sun and the heat before heading back to the fans (we weren’t just thrown into the jungle and physical danger as our bodies adapted).

We took the obligatory photos at the start of the trail and met out porters. My porter was Vene. He was enormous. And quiet. Friendly enough, but not much to say in those early interactions. My initial thoughts were he wasn’t going to be much of a conversationalist, but this changed over the trek and I grew to love his sense of humour.

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Mum and Greg – Greg doing his best Jim Heslop impersonation

We cracked into the first stages of the walk and navigated the slippery downward slopes that took us into the jungle. The hundred strong trekking group were quickly swallowed up by the green, and our little group was soon plodding along at our own pace.

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Our group, moments before being sucked in to the jungle

We were trekking in the rainy season, so the trails were muddy and the rivers were flowing. The Goldie River was our first real adventure. We kept our shoes and boots on – they were wet already (others chose to swap into sandals) and crossed the river clutching a rope line in one hand – our porters hand in the other. I felt like a child, but the river wasn’t to be messed with.

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The Goldie River

We rolled into camp not far behind the main group, threw our gear in our tents and headed down for a wash-wash in the river. I passed out in my tent straight after and missed the first course of dinner before being woken up by Greg. The next day was a 4.30 cooee call and a big day planned – heading across the Imita Ridge to Ofi Creek.

Trouble strikes

We started the day full of pep and bluster. Mum was trekking really well – and I was feeling confident the fitness she’d worked so bloody hard for in the months leading up to this – would have her in good stead. The conditions were slippery, the rain at times torrential. Nothing could have prepared me for the physical demands but my fitness was keeping me going. Just after morning tea heading down a steep slop – disaster struck.

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Imita Ridge – just before things got tough

This is the full page from my diary that night:

2154 16 April 2016

That was tough.

Pretty buggered. 14-hour walking day.

Mum has rolled her ankle quite badly and I’m unsure how/if she can continue.

Difficult situation.

Since Mum rolled it, she did manage to walk for another 8 or so hours.

It will all depend on how it goes overnight.

I wish I could write more, but very tired,emotional and a 4.30 wake up call tomorrow.

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Just climb

The next day, I got out of my tent, did my foot care, put my wet shirt and pants back on (I gave up trying to dry my wet clothes over the fire – even if they did dry, they were wet within the hour from rain or sweat), put my wet shoes on and ate a “hearty breakfast” in the dark. We strapped Mum’s ankle as rigidly as we could and pumped some over-the-counter pain killers into her before setting off. It was a tough day.

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Setting off

We were to climb the “mighty Maguli Range,” as Charlie kept calling it. It was mighty. It was mighty big. Straight out of our camp at Ofi Creek, we were in what seemed like a vertical hill. Mum’s leg wasn’t great but her determination was massive. She ground away at the climb, being passed by every other trekker until we were at the rear of the field. Greg went ahead, keen to trek at pace. I walked behind Mum, keeping her company – keeping an eye on her. I wasn’t convinced she could pull this off any more and didn’t want to leave her alone, in case she worked that out herself.

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Not letting her out of my sight

We crested the summit, then headed downhill to Nauro. The downward pressure wasn’t making Mum’s trek any easier and the trail was slippery and difficult to navigate. We kept walking. For hours upon hours. We chatted when we could.

We crossed streams and rivers – a bamboo log crossing collapsed under Mum as she crossed it. Of course. More pain. We then reached the Brown River. Our guides had been pushing us to get to the river as quickly as we could, as the rain had been pouring down for an hour. As we came around the bend and saw the river streaming along, my quiet, almost silent companion in Vene looked at the river and just said, “Ah, shit!”.

The log bridge across the Brown River had partially washed away, and we were to wade out into the river, using the rope our guys were stringing up to avoid being washed away (like the eponymous Lieutenant Brown who drowned in this river in 1906). We were then to clamber onto what was left of the bridge and shuffle across to the other side. This was not the plan – and as it turned out – not what the rest of the group had faced.

Infrastructure on the trail is rudimentary. Despite our nation’s history and connection to this trail and its wartime history – our government seems to have no interest in supporting appropriate trail infrastructure. From washed-out bridges to long-drop toilets with no doors and beehives under the seat – our government seems keen on sponsoring consultants from Canberra and Port Moresby, and not so keen on ensuring the ongoing curation of our wartime history [rant over – for now].

We made it through the water and over the bridge – and on to some fabled flat land. 4 kilometres of it. I was excited. We were going to get a good head of steam up along this and get into camp before dark this time.

Then I saw it. 4 kilometres of root-infested swamp. Calf-deep sucking sludge, and slippery (AF) tree roots. We trudged along to camp and awaited dinner of bully-beef. I lay in bed and diligently wrote out my diary. I couldn’t be bothered but it seemed important to do – for myself and for my boys back home. I signed off that night with this:

I’ve walked each step with Mum today – as a tribute to Dad and Grandad. If I can help her through – to pay my dues to those two special men – then I’ll be happy. I loved them both and hope they’ll give me the strength to help Mum along.

A tough day

The next day was the walk to Efogi. Over Brigade Hill. And the Ladavi Saddle. It was “a really tough day – big slog and a lot of grunt work”.

We started the day walking from 5am with hard climbs in the dark. It was a 4-hour slog to make it to Menari for breakfast. Mum pushed herself and we were going to make it in only 45 minutes behind the main group. Considering the work we’d just done and our previous few days walking – this was great going. We were in great spirits. We were killing it.

Until, Mum stepped on a small slippery rock 20 metres from breakfast in Menari, crossing a steam no more than a metre wide. She crashed into the ground with a thud, and hit her head and shoulder. She bruised immediately and I wasn’t certain she didn’t have mild concussion. Mum assured me she didn’t. Mum would’ve assured me she wasn’t missing a leg at this point, so I took that with a grain of salt. A few dry crackers with peanut butter and honey and she started to perk up. Mum was rattled and sore – and no longer able to carry her own pack or water – but still going.

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Leaving Menari – just going up that hill over there

Charlie decided that it would be better for our group to split from the group and head straight up the face of Brigade Hill. He was taking the rest of the group a longer way through a valley and thought this would be a shorter and faster route. “He reassured us it wasn’t easier”.

He was right. It was hell.

It was like climbing a mud ladder. For hours. We had to drag ourselves and each other up seemingly impossible high steps, upwards from the river. We were covered in mud. It was hot. My legs and arms were burning. I had no concept how Mum was doing it – but we felt like there was a guardian helping us along the way.

After my Grandfather died, my Mum was particularly upset on the day before noticing a single black and white butterfly that flew around the corner. It hovered nearby for a while before fluttering off. Mum joked that it was Grandad – letting her know everything was ok.

Over the next few months on our hardest training walks together, we would often see a single black and white butterfly fluttering out of nowhere, keeping us company (one day for nearly an hour) before fluttering off.

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Tough going

This day as we dragged ourselves up the mud of Brigade Hill – a single black and white butterfly fluttered just ahead of us – climbing with us. It would hover nearby as we would stop every 10 minutes or so for a breath and to let our heart-rates drop, before fluttering ahead again once we started walking. It had appeared at the base of the climb, and stayed with us until the worst of the climbing was done. It kept us together mentally. We laughed at it and talked to it. As much as this was hurting – Grandad was with us.

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Not easy

We reached the top of Brigade Hill with the rest of the mob. Some suffering from unwelcome bursts of gastric disturbance, struggled in quite far behind us. It was nice not to be the back markers. There was a few comments that we must have been sent an easier way. I assured people it wasn’t – but got the feeling some felt we must have taken Mum up some sort of elevator. There wasn’t. “I’m not sure what she drew on to get her up that hill, but she made it”.

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Just getting to the top of Bridage Hill. Finally.

We had a service at the top of the hill after Charlie explained the failed defence of the area. It had been a disaster and many lives had been lost. It was sombre up there. There were so many moments along the trek that the thought of young men dying next to their mates overwhelmed me.

We finally headed off for Efogi – “a complex walk that had us walking along a sheer drop. I was a bit nerve-wracked, but we did ok”.

Despite our best efforts we failed to beat the sun to the camp. Our porters were a bit upset. They were doing serious overtime with Mum while their mates were resting up. I was wondering If Charlie would pull the pin on Mum’s efforts and fly her back for not being fast enough. I knew Mum was desperate to get to Myola and that not doing that would crush her – but this was not going to be our call. I needed us all to stay positive though and Mum had put in 14-hours of hard graft today to get us to camp – I wanted to celebrate that.

As we sat down in camp, I was pulling Mum’s boots and gear off as she slumped on a stool. She reminded me of a heavyweight boxer that was being really beaten up. I felt like a trainer or cut man. I mopped her brow, treated her wounds, and reassured her that she had this in her as she sipped the warm Coke I’d handed her. Mum was perking up. It had been a big day, but she’d done it. Surely tomorrow was going to be easier? At that moment, Greg and Berna asked Mum if she wanted to be taken by helicopter to Myola – to rest and try and walk the rest of the way if she could. There was a chopper coming the next day and it would be an extra $3,000 to fly her there. I was furious.

The conversation sucked the wind out of Mum instantly. What buoyancy there was, was gone. I wanted to scream and shout and carry on – we should have been celebrating a job well done.

What was said was completely reasonable. The idea was fine. The timing of the delivery wasn’t.

I sulked for the rest of the night before asking Charlie how he though Mum was going and how he thought things were going to pan out. He reassured me the hardest days were done (as he would) and that “he thinks Mum taking this trek on adds to the story of Kokoda.”

I took that as enough of a sign that Mum wasn’t going to be forced off the trek, and told Greg his timing was shit-house and he should have kept his opinion for a better time. Quite possibly back in Australia. I tried my hardest not to cry or yell and kept it all to a dark simmering rage. Greg didn’t agree with me. I told him what I thought of that too.

I went off to bed, filling my little one-person tent with steam and trying to work out how the hell we were going to make it through tomorrow.

3 thoughts on ““What the hell were we thinking?” – the first few days of my Kokoda Trek

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