I’d like to indulgently start with the two things I learnt about that I treasured the most from my Kokoda trek – a greater understanding of my beautiful Grandfather and what I learnt about myself and my family. They were my greatest learning and my greatest gains from my trek – but there were things that made that possible. This is what I learnt.
I learnt about why my Grandfather never really talked about his time in PNG. It was horrific. From being isolated as a platoon on ridge during the Battle of Isurava, fighting for his life; to being severely wounded trying to carry his platoon leader (Butch Bissett) out of the field; to being lost; to seeing his mates die; to fearing for his life; to thinking he probably wouldn’t get home; to fighting a foe that was battle hardened, unscrupulous and unforgiving.
We learnt about the battles. We learnt about the atrocities. We heard about mates having to bury their mates in interim grave sites. We heard about mates finding their mate’s graves so they could exhume and re-inter those mates at Bomana Cemetery. We learnt so much about what those young men faced. We were lucky to have an experienced guide that could explain the stages of battle, the way things worked out and give another layer of insight. It taught me much about my Grandfather.
I got to learn a lot about myself and my family. I was able to learn that my Mum is an amazingly strong woman – determined and driven by the desire to pay tribute to her father – she pushed through excruciating pain to achieve her dream. To trek with what we thought was a sprained ankle (actually a broken leg) for eight days through mud and hills is beyond tough. I was able to learn that my Aunty Berna was also an incredibly strong woman – who rather than conquering pain (though she had some) – she overcame a genuine fear of being hurt. Berna successfully overcame her mind. Her doubts.
I learnt that my brother, Greg and I have different ways of showing support and love – neither are better or worse than the other – just different. I learnt that Greg can push himself to succeed. I learnt about him as a person, a brother and a man. I learnt about myself. I discovered new boundaries on how hard I could push myself. About the limits of my empathy and compassion. I I re-evaluated some of my life concerns and rebooted my brain. I thought a lot about my Grandfather and my Dad – and what great men and amazing influences the both were on me.
Train your guts out for Kokoda. We put in hours and hours of strength and cardio training. I prepared carrying a 18kg pack. Soft sand. Middle of the day. Rain. Get out there and train. Most importantly, all the training you will do will not replicate Kokoda conditions or really prepare you for it. It is unique and bloody tough. What you need to do is get your body ready to recover quickly. Multi-day training programs are a must – get your body used to walking up big hills with sore legs. You’ll have sore legs on your trek.
I spent our trek wet. It was rainy season and we got a lot of it. I would hang my wet shirt and pants on a stick outside my tent each night and put it on wet in the dark in the morning. It was rained on normally within a few hours anyway. That was when it wasn’t soaked with sweat or wet from a river. Don’t be precious about being wet. I gave up on taking my shoes off to cross creeks early on the first day. IF you somehow keep them dry across the creeks, if it rains, they’ll get wet anyway. Just get on with it. I also gave up drying them. After the first night of putting on my damp, smoke smelling shirt, I figured stuff it. I also wore the same shirt and pants the entire trek, just changing socks and jocks. I had dry clothes for night and sleeping. Everyone is different, but it really worked for me.
Get good gear
Don’t buy cheap shit. Buy the best gear you can afford. Borrow it. Steal it. Spend a lot of money on a really high-quality blow-up pillow and light mattress. I splurged on my pillow and thanked myself every night. Buy a great, light sleeping bag. It is bloody cold high in the mountains. One night I was only sleeping in my silk sleeping bag liner and woke up at 3am shivering and confused. Take heaps of seal-able plastic bags to keep your precious stuff dry. Buy really good socks and get used to the idea they will be wet. Bring really good quality underwear and try to keep it dry. Bring really good foot-care stuff and use it often.
Boots or shoes
There are message boards filled with people asking questions and no real answers. I think I was the only person on my trek to wear shoes rather than boots. I wore Scarpa Vortex shoes (from paddy pallin) because I already owned them and they cost lots of money. They were great. I have terrible ankles and they were perfect for what we were doing. I wore low grieves and trousers, so they were mud free (inside) for my entire trek. Others wore boots and thought they were ok. Wear what you normally wear and make sure they are light.
Buy them. Seriously, don’t be a hero. Get them, they are great, almost everyone had them, they saved me from falling twice and helped me get up hills. I had really fancy Black Diamond Carbon Distance poles from doing Oxfam Trailwalker events, others had cheaper ones. Just remember, you get what you pay for.
Picking a trek company
I learnt that not all tour companies are the same. Yeah, some talk about small groups and minimal impact. Some talk about their speed. Some are much cheaper than others. What I learnt during my trek is that if you are gong to a remote area of the world – don’t try and save money. Our trek had an enormous retinue of porters and support crew – and I really appreciated the layers of support they provided.
Adventure Kokoda and Charlie Lynn are the only people I would recommend. Are there others that do a great job? Probably, but I saw enough to know who I would go again with, or would trust my family and friends with.
On the trail, there is no coordinated booking system for camp-sites – it is first in first served. No room? Keep walking. Adventure Kokoda sends your tent crew steaming ahead to secure a camp spot. Adventure Kokoda cook decent food for you (we watched another group cooking their own meals – there is no way I could’ve done that after getting in after dark and sorting out Mum). Adventure Kokoda has a one-person-per-tent policy – if I’d shared a tent with Gregory, I would’ve killed him in Efogi. You NEED space from each other.This applies to sleeping in huts. No thanks.
Not every company makes sure you get home safe – Adventure Kokoda gave a stranded tour group one of our planes to make sure they got back to Port Moresby safely, while Charlie waited at Kokoda for a replacement plane to take him back. He put his time and convenience behind another tour company (whose guide had left them at Kokoda “Airport” with no way home, waiting for a plane that wasn’t coming). Don’t try and save money trekking Kokoda. If you can’t afford to go with an established company, re-think doing it this year.
Do I need a porter
I learnt that you should hire a porter. Seriously. Just do it.
Yes, you can walk without one, you big strong man you – but get over yourself and support the local economy and give a guy one of the only forms of employment available to him. You’re not proving anything trekking without one. Literally nothing. If you do walk the whole way without one, no-one cares. There’s no extra certificate. And you miss the opportunity to learn about the language and culture from your porter. The insights (and laughs) my porter shared with me really made my trek. Greg’s porter and mine did spend a lot of time helping Mum and Berna – so if you DON’T need one – consider who you are trekking with and if a spare pair of hands would be useful.
How your porters are treated
As for the conditions for porters – please make sure your trek company looks after their guys really well. Use this as the guide on how to pick your company: if you give half a shit about the legacy of Kokoda and the amazing job the Fuzzy-Wuzzy angels did during that campaign, don’t use a company that rips off their descendants to save you a dollar.
Pick a company with strict and reasonable weight limits – some say 22.5kg is the max they’ll let a porter carry – that is huge. Our porters were limited at 18kg (keep in mind, things get heavy after a tropical deluge). My guy carried 16kg, I carried 14kg.
Make sure your company hires spare carriers for the extra gear that needs to be carried and hires spare hands if a carrier goes down with malaria. Make sure they supply sleeping mats and sleep bags (some expect porters to buy their own – from a meagre wage). Make sure they are paid. Make sure they are ethical. Think about why you are trekking and think about if those reasons align with your company.
If you want to trek Kokoda as a bucket-list trek and have no interest in military history – pick anyone. Or better yet, pick a far more picturesque trek elsewhere in the world. I saw a lot of jungle on my trek. And a heap of mud. Cinque Terre sounded lovely in comparison. Otherwise, pick a company that doesn’t just know the wartime history, but understands it. I’ve read a lot since I’ve come back – but never served in the army. The ability to have the stages of battle explained in particular sites really helped my understand what I was looking at and what my grandfather would have been expected to do upon arriving at a site. Shell-scrapes, trenches, defensive outposts and ambushes.
Be present when you trek Kokoda.
I couldn’t get my head in to reading the history books before my trek and didn’t know my Alola’s from Efogi’s – so when you are there, take it in. Once I was home, I was able to connect with the books and understand what they were detailing.
Be interested in your support crew. Ask them about their village, their family, their culture (when appropriate), their language.
Buy things form the villages along the trail – fruit, hot cans of coke, snacks, trinkets.
Talk to your fellow trekkers.
Talk to your guide – ask relevant questions about the battles you are discussing.
Make the most of your time there.