We did it: Isurava and the end of the line

The wrap-up of the trek. Learning more about Grandad’s time in Isurava and getting home.

Read the Introduction here

Read Part one here

Read Part two here

A Rock, but much more

I’ll never forget the feeling of wandering in to Isurava. The moment the huts and memorial came into view. It was such a relief. Our trek from Alola to Isurava had only taken two hours, but this was our eighth day of trekking. Mum collapsed on the ground, buggered. We were able to lay up for four hours waiting for the rest of the trekking group to roll in. We did our washing. Had lunch. Lay in the sun. We had prime camping real estate too for our tents.

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Arrival at Isurava. Mum was a little tired.

Moments after the rest of our group arrived, torrential rain started. Our clothes were clean(ish) and dry. We just nipped undercover and watched the tired walkers scramble about trying to get into their tents. It was nice to be on the right side of things for a change.

Isurava is the most impressive and imposing memorial along the Kokoda Trail. It is one of the few examples of things that the Australian government has done right. After seeing significant battlefields marked with memorials individual RSL’s or battalion groups had fund-raised for and installed; after seeing the lack of infrastructure along the trail; after seeing disused clinics built in completely forgotten villages far from where they were needed, it was nice to see a memorial that in some way was appropriate.

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That didn’t stop the land-owner of the memorial “closing” it for access to trekkers unless we coughed up extra money to walk in there. Greg and I were perplexed. We’d trekked hard to get here and now couldn’t get in. Once Charlie and his head security man, Big Joe rolled in – there were some stern words, some stern postures and the ropes came down.

There had been an issue with payment for the owner of the land in the past, and ‘surprise, surprise’ at some point in the past, the wrong family got paid by the Australian government for access to the site and had moved on – with the cash. Now this guy was left mowing the lawns in preparation for Australian dignitaries who would be choppered in for ANZAC day, but not getting paid right. More prime Australian bureaucracy at work.

On our way from Alola that morning, Mum needed a rest on a log. “In behind the log was a sign saying “Cons Rock” and asking for five Kina per trekker to enter. Roger’s porter, Sebs told us it was the surgeon’s rock during the campaign and was the setting for the field medic during the Battle of Isurava. I stood at the top, keen to make it to camp – but compelled to look at what the medics dealt with during the war.”

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Still smiling. Just.

“I made my way down a short but steep track and saw a large flat rock covered in beautiful red flowers in a clearing. My eyes welled with tears and it took my breath away as I thought of the brave work the medics would have done – faced with hopeless cases and broken young men.”

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“Con’s rock”

“As I walked closer I noticed a plaque on another rock – this was the place Butch Bisset was carried to after he was wounded. This was the place Stan Bisset held his brother as he died in his arms. This was the place Grandad and his mates were trying to get Butch back to camp when the Japanese attacked them, where Grandad was wounded, and lead to him being left for dead. This was part of our story.”

I grabbed the others and we spent some time by the rock. There were more tears. This was close to Grandad. We knew – somewhere between this rock and somewhere at Isurava – he was wounded. Kombi, the trek medic came down the hill with a bunch of red flowers to place on the rock with us. It was a special moment on our way to a special place.

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Mum meeting the curator of the rock.

Dawn at Isurava

“We held an incredibly moving dawn service today at Isurava memorial. Charlie explained the Battle of Isurava to us, and pointed out the important aspects of the battle ground. One such aspect was the hill that Butch Bisset was wounded upon.”

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With all this information, when we returned to Australia – the books that had meant next to nothing – meant so much. Records of the Battle of Isurava meant working out Grandad’s time there, was now possible. As part of the 2/14th’s B Company, his platoon (commanded by Butch Bisset) had relieved 11 platoon on the ridge. They withstood heavy attack and “close-quarter fighting” (Peter Brune, A Bastard of a Place, pg. 147). The 10th inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese soldiers.

“When you fly by helicopter over this Isurava high ground you are struck by its isolation” (Peter Brune, A Bastard of a Place, pg. 148). Standing at Isurava, looking at this ridge (and later that morning walking part of it), it really was isolated. Grandad and his mates had serious “work” to do up there. It was no wonder he never spoke of it. Again, written by Brune about this ridge and the 10th: “this type of close fighting the individual soldier, as the enemy gains ground under attack, fights an exceedingly personal war…….. the high ground and its cane field had to be held – lose it and lose Isurava”.

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Eventually the battle required the 10th to withdraw. In an effort to carry out their platoon leader Bisset, Grandad and his mates had come under fire again, while attempting to descend uneven ground and as darkness was encroaching. A grenade caught Grandad. He was severely wounded and lost an eye to the shrapnel. He lay unconscious and amidst the fighting – presumed dead. The others pushed on, getting Bisset back to safe ground where he would die with his brother.

Grandad eventually came to as the Japanese soldiers took the ground, bayoneting and kicking the dead as they went. The Japanese went on to take Isurava, and it took Grandad five days to make his way around their lines and back in to Myola. Missing an eye. Scared. Alone. Presumed dead.

His mother was notified that he was missing, presumed killed in action. He was listed in a memorial book as KIA. Some of his mates from the 2/14th, being a Victorian battalion, didn’t hear from him after the war. When he walked into a reunion in Victoria some fifty years later, his mates who believed he was dead in a world before Facebook were shocked he’d survived.

Amazingly he made it. He survived. He avoided horrific tropical infection. He trekked out from Myola to Ower’s Corner, bandaged, but mobile – there were too many wounded for him to be stretchered. He was offered, but refused, knowing others couldn’t walk. He made it home to Australia. He got married. He had fifteen children. He only applied for his war medals in 1991. He rarely spoke of the army, the war or Kokoda. My only memory of him mentioning the trail (he did call it a “track” out of respect for the PNG and the battle honour, I’ve called it the trail) was on seeing the Sydney Swans trek it in a television documentary, he had quipped: “It looks like a highway compared to when I was there.”

All of this made much more sense as the Battle of Isurava was explained. I had no idea where he had been actually wounded before the trek. Berna and Mum knew more – I just knew it was “Kokoda”. Everything made sense. We hadn’t just learned more about Grandad’s time here – we had been able to see it. We stood after the last post and a moments silence, before our porters and support crew sung for us. “Their voices were absolutely beautiful. They sung a number of songs and finished with the wonderful PNG national anthem. We gave ours a decent crack, but lacked the ability the PNG boys displayed.”

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“We then took some time to soak up the monument. It’s a travesty this is the only real monument on the trail.” We then took several hundred photos before heading for Hoi. We passed ADF security hiking in for ANZAC day, who were keen to hear about our trek; and other Adventure Kokoda trekkers, fresh on their second day looking shiny and new compared to us. We had reception for the first time in eight days – I didn’t message Jas and she hadn’t messaged me – I was glad because my head was firmly here on the trek and I didn’t want the emotion of home just yet.

Greg had a proper stack that morning hurting his elbow and his knee. It slowed us down a bit and reminded both of us, that while Mum and Berna seemed like they could fall at any moment – they weren’t alone – and it hurt.

At Hoi we were welcomed by a traditional dance performance in torrential rain. “I’ve never not cared about the rain so much in my life.” In fact my idea of rain, mud, sleeping comfort and hills have been changed forever.

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“We are to be woken at 3.30 tomorrow – will walk to the airfield, then breakfast, presentations and goodbyes to our porters. This will be sad.”

My porter, the 28 year old Vene from Sogeri is a real character. His sense of humour has really helped me get through some very tough long days. He was a legend that bloke. He lived with his sister and her kids. He would trek back to Ower’s Corner from Kokoda in two days, pocketing his airfare allowance. It took us ten. He does it in double-plugger thongs.

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These men were worth their weight in gold – Henson, Toni, Warina and Vene.

“This trip has been really emotional, and at times draining. I really missed Jas, Jack and Henrik and can’t wait to tell them about what I’ve seen and done. It will be a long journey home – starting from a 3.30am wake up call – but I’m ready to go home. I’m tired of mud – thick, gooey, sticky mud. I’m tired of insects and spiders. I’m tired of helping others. I’m tired of walking. I’m tired of wet clothes and wet shoes and socks. I’m tired of sleeping in a tent. I’m tired of being away from my family.”

As much as I wanted home, I was grateful and thankful of what I’d been able to see and learn – about Kokoda, my family and myself. “The word adventure is used too often. So is brave and courageous. I’ll use all three and they should be used – my courageous mother took on an amazing, brave adventure in Kokoda and I was lucky enough to go on the ride.”

The end of the line

end kokoda

We made it to Kokoda and the incredibly underwhelming “museum” there. An Australian government sign told us the newly upgraded one would be opened in early 2016. It was April. There was no new building.

The trek was a downhill roll through the fog and mist. Mum did her best to power along but came in second last, just ahead of the incredible Bev and Roger. The group made a guard of honour for the last two groups, and clapped and cheered them in. The resilience and perseverance from Mum and Bev, in particular, had struck everyone. Yes they were slow but God – they had kept going.

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It was emotional getting to Kokoda – and in many ways, I was completely raw and exhausted. There were only so many more tears I could shed, but I managed quite a few. Our fellow trekkers were awesome. Their support and love to us all helped get us through.

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I couldn’t believe she had done it.

We had a “hearty breakfast”, farewelled our porters and headed for the airport for what would be a long wait. A thick fog ruled out landings for a few hours. I was keen to get back to Port Moresby and call Jas. I could call from Kokoda but I wanted the trek “done” before I checked in.

We eventually made it out in small caravan planes. One of our groups got stuck for several hours in Kokoda – another tour group from another company had been stranded by their leader without a plane. Charlie sorted them out with one of ours, which meant a long wait for some of our group. I was already three bourbons and a shower deep at Sogeri lodge when they rocked up, tired and over it all. Expect the unexpected.

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Kokoda Airport Business Lounge.

When we landed – I called Jas. As she answered I couldn’t speak. After a few minutes I got enough sentences through to let her know that somehow Mum had done it on a “sprained ankle”, and we were safe. I had a lot to tell but couldn’t do it at the time.

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The next day we attended another Dawn Service at Bomana Cemetery before having a “hearty breakfast” and getting out of the lodge. Being back in Australia after such an epic adventure was bizarre. “You want to scream that you’ve just done this amazing thing – this huge achievement – but given the lack of recognition and understanding of the Kokoda campaign, you wonder what is the point.” Our Australian taxi driver from Brisbane airport didn’t know where Kokoda was, or what it was a part of. I was determined to pass on the “Spirit of Kokoda” once I got back to the real world – and that has manifested in speaking regularly to the Year 10’s at my local high school about Kokoda and the Battle of Isurava. We talk about my Grandad, who grew up in their town; about Stan and Butch Bisset; the 2/14th and the 39th and the rest; about Bruce Kingsbury, VC; about war; about sacrifice; about losing your mates; and about remembering. It’s an honour. One I am grateful for.

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At the start.

“I hope one day I can go back to the trail. Back to Myola. Back to Isurava. Not soon, but one day. Perhaps with Jack and Henrik so they can learn about their heritage – learn about the amazing war-time efforts of their Great-Grandad Jack. Allow them to learn about the great peace-time efforts of their amazing Gran. Allow them to continue the story of Kokoda – to build on our family’s story. Build on our history.”

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Band of Benson Brothers. Granny’s four boys saw active service in WW2, including Kokoda, Borneo and Tobruk. All came home.

 

Note 1: There will be one more post about the things I have learnt and some tips for surviving a trek. Thank you for reading.

Note 2: As explained in the introduction, it turned out my mum, Anne, had not sprained her ankle on the second day of our trek – she had actually broken her leg. The x-rays performed two weeks (!) after she returned home showed a fracture to her tibia and fibula. Nine weeks in a moon boot had it fixed. The shoulder took a little longer.

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Mum’s leg back in Brisbane.

 

 

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