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

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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.

 

 

“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.