Last week I went and spoke to some Year 10 students about Kokoda and my trek in April of 2016. It has inspired me to revisit my trek on the Kokoda Trail with Charlie Lynn and the Adventure Kokoda team, and over the next few weeks, I’m going to delve in to my diary and revisit a bloody long walk. . This trek was the hardest thing I’ve ever put myself through physically: from the 4am wake-up calls to the mud. It was a trek that broke me down, then broke me some more. What made it even more special and even more challenging – was completing it with my mother – who finished the trek on what turned out to be a broken leg.
NOTE: The next chapter to this story can be found here
I’m not a super athlete by any means but I’ve done some challenging things in the past. I already had a couple of 100 km Oxfam Trailwalker treks under my belt (and all of the associated hours of training), plus some long trail running events – and been owned by them). Looking back (and since), Kokoda was by far the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever taken on. We trained hard for this thing – but nothing prepares you for it.
It wasn’t just the climbing and descending – the metres climbed comparable to an Everest summit attempt. What made it tough was the mud and the uncertainty of your foot placements. It was the relentless nature of the heat – only dissipating when the heaven opened up and you were drowned in heavy tropical downpours. It was the lack of respite that your wafer-thin blow-up mattress gave you inside your damp, cramped little tent. It was the isolation from the outside world – not speaking to my wife and children for 10 days when I really needed to debrief and vent with someone not going through this thing themselves.
Whenever I look back on this trek, there is a flood of emotions. There were times I was ready to go home. Not that going home was an option – there are no roads. You trek in and fly out of Kokoda. The only way of pulling the pin and escaping is a $10,000 helicopter ride. There were times that I was sick of walking behind my Mum. I stuck with her, but as her pain rose, her pace slowed – which meant hours of extra time on feet as we would crawl our way down dangerous mud cliffs to make it to camp hours after our fellow trekkers had washed up and one some occasions, eaten.
There were times I was sick of my fellow trekkers. Everyone had a story and a reason for being there – even if it was just a whim; nevertheless when my back and legs were aching and I knew I had another seven hours of trekking ahead of me, I didn’t want to chat. There were times as the nurse on the trek that I didn’t want to help with any more blisters or rashes or minor injuries. I was already treating Mum’s swollen and deformed leg. I didn’t really want extra work. I took it on though, knowing that everyone just wanted to get through this thing, and a nurse’s nature is often to help.
Physically, this place was exhausting, but when we layered in the other elements – it was beyond draining. We were trekking as a group of four – my Mum; my aunty, Berna; my brother, Gregory; and myself. My Grandfather, Jack had fought and been wounded here during the Battle of Isurava. My knowledge of his time in Kokoda was sketchy at best. I still to-this-day get his battalion (the 2/14th), mixed up with another battalion that served alongside them (the 2/16th). In my defence, the 2/16th were primarily West Australian, while the 2/14th were primarily Victorian. Before setting off, I didn’t really know much else about his time in Kokoda – in fact all I knew was he was severely wounded somewhere and walked back to Myola, before getting out to Port Moresby. I was to learn and experience a whole lot more.
As each day of our trek progressed, the reality that Grandad, his brother Peter, and all their mates had faced during the war, started to become clearer and clearer. The heat. The thick jungle. The isolation. The threat of ambush. The bloodshed. As each day went by we learnt more and more about the battles, the skirmishes, the war-time atrocities that the Australian’s encountered, the selflessness, the loss, the death, and the agony.
Each day our trek become more and more sombre – more reflective. Hearing about the rotting dead on the banks of the beautiful river we sat next to resting – in the areas the Australian’s were pinned down – was harrowing. The bloodshed at Butcher’s Corner (Brigade Hill). The blind courage of young men facing death at Isurava. The ingenuity and sacrifice of the 39th Battalion. The fallibility of commander officers. Every break was pre-faced with an explanation of the battle of that site. It seemed each of our steps on this trek wasn’t just in a soldier’s footstep – but in a soldier’s blood.
If we were distanced from this information – as many in our group were – it would have been simply upsetting and serious subject matter. However, knowing Grandad as the man he became, and picturing him seeing and hearing these things, gave the information a strong gravity. How he and his mates went on to live the lives they did once they got home is a miracle.
The hours of trekking each day and reflective nature of the walk left me exposed to a raft of emotions and feelings that I wasn’t planning on confronting during my time in Papua New Guinea. From pride and astonishment in my mother’s ability to push through the pain barrier, came pride that she had pushed through the emotional pain barrier of losing my Dad – to do such an amazing job of raising me. From there, came anger – and angry silent tears at the back of the trekking group that my Dad had gone and died on us when I still needed him so much – and anger my son’s wouldn’t meet him. From there, came sadness at that situation: sadness for them and sadness I was away from them. More tears. There was sadness my Grandad was gone. Sadness and regret for things I’ve done and not done in the past. Angry at myself for my shortcomings back in the real world – for the crap that I worried about that seemed really insignificant as I sweated my arse up yet another fucking big mud hill. Anger at the stupid things I’d argued with my wife about over the years – or things I’d said that I shouldn’t have. Anger at regrets. Anger at focusing on regrets. Regret for being angry at my Dad. Regret that I hadn’t done even more to spend time with him. Tears. Tears from pain. Tears from watching Mum in pain. Tears for being the one stupid enough to walk behind her each day – just in her footsteps – helping her along the way. Anger at the suggestion she should stop trekking. Anger at the thought she would continue. More tears. Tears as I’d chat to the other trekkers about how tough Mum was and how determined she was to get to Myola, and to Isurava, and then to Kokoda, and then home. Pain and exhaustion as I lay alone in my tiny damp tent. Tears from the loneliness as I wrote in my stupid diary each night. The feeling of dread having Charlie’s “COO-EE” shatter the darkness and force me out of the warmth of my sleeping bag and into my dripping wet clothes, wet shoes and wet backpack in the cool dark, inhale a “hearty breakfast,” and start another 10 or 12 or 14 hours of more bloody trekking. Fear over what this day would bring. What physical torment would we face? How big a climb and descent today? How many river crossings? What emotional torment would the day throw up?
What thoughts would I be forced to process as I trekked along at the back of our little party, keeping an eye on Mum and wishing us closer and closer to our destination?
The biggest advantage of being such a big ball of emotions in this environment, being at the back and either covered in sweat or torrential rain, was that no-one could see your tears. Provided you kept it to silent sobbing. That’s not a joke.
It was more than a trek. It was more than some bucket list pilgrimage. It was more than a remembrance of Grandad and his fallen mates. It changed my brain. It challenged my being. Over the next few weeks I’ll dip back in to my diary and finally share some parts of my trek over a few posts in the lead-up to ANZAC day: to share the things I learnt about Grandad, my mum, and myself.
NOTE: The next chapter to this story can be found here