I don't have trouble writing but this event is difficult to put into words; This physically-demanding, emotionally-charged and mentally tough trek changed me and it's difficult to convey that in written words. I struggle to put into words the excitement, mental and emotional fatigue, despair and jubilation...It was a trek through dense jungle and high mountains...But also within my own mind, heart and soul.
I apologise for not being articulate enough to tell the story - But I'll try. I also need to apologise for the photos as the climate played havoc with my camera which ended up not working at all a week later...But you should get an idea I hope.
The Kokoda Trail, Papua New Guinea - Some perspective
In World War Two the Japanese were running rampant in the Pacific but were resource-poor; They decided to take Australia, a resource-rich country. There were more than 300 bombing missions on Australian soil, to which we said fuck you mate! They prowled allied shipping lanes also - They even attacked Sydney and Newcastle ports with submarines sinking several vessels. Fuck you we said, we're not budging. A new plan was needed.
Taking Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was the plan.
It was from there whey would stage a full air, sea and ground assault on Australia, which by the way, would have probably worked. We were ill-prepared.
They were to land on the northern side of PNG work their way along a jungle track called the Kokoda Trail (or track sometimes) to take Port Moresby and then onward to my Australia!. The Japanese landed many thousands of crack jungle troops, experienced and well-equipped, and southward they went through the almost impassable jungle.
Australia's regular troops, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), as they were known back then, were fighting in other theatres and those left were young, old WWII veterans and the medically unfit; The Militia. (We call them Army Reserve now)
They called them chocolate soldiers or just chocos, because it was thought they would melt in the heat of battle...But northward those misfit bastards went, from Owers Corner and across the Owen Stanley Mountains; They marched to meet over ten times their number and halt their advance, ill-equipped and trained - Fucking legends!
This is me at Owers Corner just before the trek began. See those steps behind me...That's the Trail, it goes straight down, then up, and down and up and so on.
Between July and November 1942 thousands of men struggled to fight in dense and mountainous jungle terrain, suffered through terrible conditions, dysentery, malaria, sucking wounds, lack of food and fresh water, very little medical treatment and all with little training. The Japanese were well trained of course, but suffered the same conditions.
It was brutal, bloody and many men perished in the most terrible of conditions, some alone and in pain, some performing heroic deeds for their mates and some due to the mistakes of others. That's just war.
The Australian's met the Japanese forward elements at Kokoda on 26 June 1942...A patrol made contact and their Captain, Sam Templeton - 39th Battalion 'B' coy commander, opened up so his men could fall back to report the contact and position...The boys wanted to stay in support with their SMLE's and Bren's but he waved them off, report ya bloody bastards, I've got it! Sam was never seen again.
That's what these blokes were about; Their mates and the job. It's the Australian way. Tough bastards, irreverent but dependable.
From there the battle joined and for months the Australian's conducted a fighting retreat until almost within sight of Port Morseby. The last stand was at Imita Ridge, just shy of the Owers Corner road-head just beyond the momument I am standing in front of above. It was then that the tide turned and the Japanese were chased, mostly killed, back up the Trail and finally routed completely after more months of fighting.
This is a very small idea of the campaign. I suggest you read the Peter FitzSimmons book, Kokoda, if you're interested in more. Essential reading if you're Australian. (In my opinion - But then I'm a patriot)
Why was I there
This is a simple answer...Because I'm Australian, and I'm me.
wanted needed to pay my respects to the those men who never returned, some whose bodies were never reclaimed. I went to feel a little of what they felt, to struggle as they did. I went to challenge myself and to find something within myself I had lost and to possibly find atonement for things I had done.
It was a personal journey.
I also raised money for Cystic Fibrosis before I departed, $7,500 which I thought was a good effort. When I came back I also spoke at many RSL's (Returned Soldiers League facilities). It was a journey that kept giving.
The Australian War Cemetery at Bomona; We visited the day we set out. It is here most of the Australian's who paid the ultimate sacrifice lay. Some were never recovered though and they lay where they fell in a ditch, sunken into deep mud, or in the dense jungle.
The Trail is 96 kilometres long, or there abouts as it changes, from Owers Corner to Kokoda and the trek can be done south to north and vice versa. I chose to go north to Kokoda as that's what that first element of militia would have done, the 39th Battalion AIF...I'm not a retreat sort of guy so it made sense to advance.
The trail is incredibly difficult. like, way hard! Dense jungle, very hot and humid in the day, bitingly cold at night, and there's very few flat parts...It's up or down. There's deep sucking mud, mid-thigh on me, creek and river crossings, single-log bridges, poisonous plants, snakes and...Well, it's just very difficult terrain; For most of it one can't place one's foot down flat and straight. One may travel five to six metres in distance but only gain a metre of altitude. And going down...It was brutal.
For the first two nights I suffered intense leg cramps, made worse by the mosquitos and humidity and heat but as we got higher the mozzies disappeared although the cramps got worse at night. Keep in mind I was fit. After day two I was ok though, I got my mountain legs...And no one was jumping out of the jungle to thrust a bayonet into my chest.
We would wake very early, around 0430-0500, eat and break camp and be on the Trail by 0600. We had lunch, a stop of fifteen to twenty minutes, and then would stop around 1600 and make camp. In between was climbing, descending, sweating, falling and emotional and mental turmoil...But I wasn't being shot at.
I am very familiar with the history of the campaign, the battles and units involved. Along the way I'd take detours, (with one of the guides or I'd probably never find my way out), that would add two to three hours of trekking to my day, but I wanted to see the places the Australian's fought, their weapon pits, artillery emplacements and camps and to feel what it would have been like for them. For this reason I'd start out earlier than the rest and arrive later. It deepened my experience...It made we work harder.
I was carrying my own kit, of course, and would help around camp. I had my MacPac 2-man tent but never used it. I slept out. It wasn't that bad...I never slept much anyway despite my fatigue and at least no one was hurling hand grenades at me.
Personal care was essential...Medical care. A scratch out here could mean death if untreated. A guy on a pervious trek had a hand amputated at the forearm as he never treated a scratch from a plant. People have died out here...Trekkers I mean. The boy has skills though and I took care of myself, and those around me.
We bathed in the rivers, took water too, but only from where the guide said it was safe to do so. Bad stuff in water folks...It can end very badly. Of course water purification was essential and I had tablets to cook my water for two hours prior to drinking it - Making sure one had his water-situation sorted was critical. And also I hade anti-malaria tabs too naturally...I was lucky to avoid it.
Every step of the Trail has war history attached to it. Like that big rock I'm standing next to above - top row, centre. Cans of bully beef were left there, all with the cans pierced...They went bad of course but the Japanese, starving by now as their supply-chain was ineffective, ate them. They got sick, then were easily hunted down and machine gunned. It was that type of fight. The Japanese gave it back though.
They would raid, take a prisoner then torture him within earshot of his mates at night...They'd either attempt a rescue and be killed or be tormented emotionally and mentally by it until the end when the prisoner finally died...Sometimes it took all night. It was a bugger of a way to lose a mate but it was that kind of fight. No quarter asked or given. Australia was on the line.
It was all very emotional for me and of course the physical challenge brought mental stress. It was day three, mountain legs below me, strong and able...When I stopped in the middle of a small creek. I had descended a steep mountain over the last four hours and looked up to the next ascent only steps away. I couldn't move. I felt emotionally...Done.
Dan, a mate I'd met only four days earlier at the Airways Hotel in Port Morseby where all the trekkers gathered the night prior to jump off, trudged past about two minutes later finding me still stationery. He kept walking saying nothing but two steps up the steep mountain trail he stopped, turned and said, looks like it's your turn to beat yourself. He then turned and kept going.
A minute later I took a step.
You see, falling in a heap and staying there was not an option so...I told myself to take a step, then another and another. This ethos is a strong part of my character, always was and always will be...Take that step G-dog, you can't stay there. But I was almost defeated by myself.
This is what those blokes did too, back in 1942. They couldn't let their mates down, wouldn't, and so they stepped on, slid, climbed, fought and died so their mate could do the same right beside them.
Dan and I spoke about this later and, fourteen years later we still recall that day...That time I almost failed. Yes, we stayed friends and chat a lot.
I hold unexploded Japanese and Australian hand grenades above. And you can see Japanese mountain gun shells at bottom and top right. These were found on a side-trek of three (bloody hard) hours to a mountain gun emplacement where the Japanese were shelling the Australian's below. The position was finally overrun after a battle that took a couple of days...There were no prisoners.
Along the Trail there are no amenities...It's dense and largely uninhabited jungle. The only way out is to go forward or back and going back isn't an option. Helicopter evacuation is possible but if a trekker breaks a leg at the bottom of a long climb they have to get to the top as helicopters can't get into the jungle and there's no clearings. It's a $5,000 evacuation with no insurance to cover it...So, getting hurt is bad.
We trekked, set up camp, washed, made food, sang songs around the fire, kept our own counsel or talked about the war, each other and our reasons for being there. Of course I left out my atonement reason. I would lay awake at night and contemplate things...Myself, life...It was a good place to think.
The Australian War Memorial at Isurava, the site of a brutal battle. These immense granite blocks were all helicoptered in and this site is kept in immaculate condition by PNG locals. It was a very emotional moment.
People think this trek is done in a group but in truth I'd hardly see anyone all day. It was quite solitary. They were there, ahead or behind by a few hundred metres, or ten even, but we didn't hear or see each other much when trekking as the jungle is so dense and it's very steep. There were eleven trekkers but on the Trail, just me mostly.
We had local guides (all residents of Kokoda) of course but mine realised quickly I was good to go and so left me alone. He'd only catch up or drop back to me when the Trail became indistinct which happened on and off. Sometimes it would follow a stream and we'd slosh along it and then at some indistinct location just exit...Someone who did not know it would walk past and be hopelessly lost. Getting lost out here means probable death...Without skills I mean.
Our last night on the Trail was Isurava. We woke at 0400h on the eleventh day of November (Remembrance Day) and assembled at the monument you see above and paid our respects. We sang the Australian National Anthem and the guides joined in then sang their own...And we trekked.
It was a hard day, down, down and it was hot! We made it though and in the late afternoon trudged into Kokoda, a small village with no power, no plumbed water or toilet facilities...It's full of happy welcoming people though...And they Love Australians! (Who doesn't!)
This was taken about thirty minutes after arriving. I'd changed but not bathed but they wanted to do their traditional welcome so it's all good. You can also see our luxurious accommodation. It looked delightful to me at the time. You can see Peter and Dan (standing) getting set up.
That evening we were feasted...It wasn't lavish y'all, they don't have much you know, but it was a feast for me. On the Trail I'd lost my appetite and had not eaten much at all. I couldn't eat the dehydrated crap and so had some boiled rice, spinach stuff found in the jungle which they boiled up and on one occasion we hunted down a boar so that was a good day!
I traded my chocolate and candy for trail-mix and along the way bought a banana or two when we passed through a tiny village. That was rare though. Mostly I went hungry as I just couldn't eat. It's happened before though...Stress you know.
I ended up losing eight kilograms all up...A lot in only six days on the trail itself. The arrival feast was welcome though and I ate a little.
We were flying out the next day so I gave everything away that first night. Toilet paper, knife, compass, expensive socks I'd not worn, my med-kit, left over food, shirts...The lot. Flying home in the morning...It sounded good.
I awoke on exfiltration day, stretched then rose and...Couldn't see a thing.
Had I gone blind? No...Low cloud. Erm...Exfil delayed. Indefinitely.
The thing is that the mountains around Kokoda are so steep aircraft can't land normally...They start at one end and spiral downward in concentric circles losing altitude all the while but keeping air-speed up of course. Once low down between the mountains they make their approach. There was no way the de Havilland Twin Otter was going to land in the soupy conditions.
Hmm...I'd given everything away. No food...No toilet paper...Just the clothes on my back...But never fear...The G-dog had made firm friends on the Trail and those bro's had my back. Dan and Peter's too.
I paid for a litre of fuel for the genset so we could fire up Winnie's keyboard and Chrissly played the five-string - Yeah, one was missing. We ate with their families who offered gifts I treasure to this day.
We spent the next three days in and around Kokoda meeting families, cracking coconuts, eating with locals, singing Eagles songs in the boys shed with my bro's. I needed this y'all. It was...I don't know...I could have stayed there forever. I was still processing the Trail and who the hell I was now but...This was life!
Here I was just G-dog...Not an executive, a professional, a sportsman, a partner, brother, son...Just a person. It was cool. These people made me, Dan and Peter one of their own. Took us in. We talked, ate, again not too much as I still wasn't eating well, and I even got some of my toilet paper back. These people, who have almost nothing, gave everything. Back in the world people didn't do this. It humbled me.
The Kokoda hospital, such that it is. This is where my med-kit ended up.
Three days later the weather cleared and it was time to go. There were tears...Bro hugs, children-hugs, motherly hugs and more gifts. Most of the village turned out and escorted us to the field where the Twin Otter would land. It was a slow walk, but for me I felt it was important. I walked...Differently. I was different. I left something behind, had found room for something else inside me...I didn't know what it was right then...But it stirred.
The plane landed and disgorged a few locals and we loaded up for the hop back to Port Moresby and the luxurious Airways Hotel.
The goodbye's done and with us strapped in we left...It was a strange feeling when we went wheels-up. How could I feel so attached to a place and its people in so short a time? How could I change so dramatically on a trek...I've done others, had other momentous experiences, but...Here I felt vastly changed.
We landed in Port Morseby and after an interview by a pretty girl-reporter from an Australian news service who stuck a microphone in my face, we spent the night, before flying out the next day to Australia and home.
Dan, Peter and I ate dinner together that night...I ate too much. Trust me. We spoke about our experiences, friendship, personal change and other things. Fourteen years later we still speak of it despite living thousands of kilometres away from each other. We're mates and have stayed in contact.
Courage | Endurance | Mateship | Sacrifice
That's what the words say on those granite blocks - In honour of the men who marched up this trail in 1942 to protect those they'd left behind in Australia. Those words speak to me...They allow me to connect myself to those men who paid the ultimate price for their feelings of honour and duty. They put aside thoughts of themselves and thought only of others, their mate beside them in the weapons pit and families back home.
I came home and found a few issues. I couldn't sleep through the night, couldn't abide crowds or noise; Shopping malls and consumerism didn't make any sense to me...And I wasn't shot at on the Trail. Those men who were came back to worse...And yet, I was changed also.
I felt more generous and it was then my work with returned veterans with PTSD began.
On the Trail I took little note pads and pencils, Australian flags, balloons and clip-on koala's to give away to the kids in the two and three hut villages we trekked through...They loved it...But Kokoda needed more and I
gave give it.
Every year for the last fourteen I've sent a big wooden crate to Kokoda; Full of books, flip flops, medical supplies, colouring pencils and books, note pads, guitar strings, (for Chrissly), Lego and building blocks...All sorts of other things; Basically whatever I can find that will suit. I put in a few letters and get some back sometimes. It's my way of thanking them for helping me find the change within that needed to happen.
I am nothing more than a flawed and fallible human man - But the trials I experienced here on the Kokoda Trail, and other places, have taught me more about myself than any school or university could.
Kindness, humility, generosity, persistence, endurance, self-reliance and respect, manners, chivalry, gentlemanliness, candour, work-ethic...The list goes on...
I can't erase my past anymore than I can know my future but I can look back and learn from my experiences as I did with the Kokoda Trail.
As time passed I got back to my life at home, but I was a different version of me; A better one. I attribute that to my experiences on the Trail, and others of course. I can't change my past and neither would I want to because my past has made me who I am now...And I'm ok. Just ok.
Design and create your ideal life, don't live it by default - Tomorrow isn't promised.
Note: This trip cost me $8,500AUD in 2007 including flights from home, the nights in the hotel at Port Morseby (Airways, which is lovely), the trek itself and relevant equipment (a lot of it) although I had much of that already. It was a two week round trip from home with six days on the Trail itself.
This is not a holiday Trek, it is one of the worlds ten toughest treks:
This trek is rich in history and is a World War II site where Japanese and Australian fighters battled it out on the front lines. Besides the ghosts you might spot along the way, this is one tough trek that takes anywhere from four to ten days to complete. Hostile and remote are the two words most often used to describe this trail and if something goes wrong out here; it could be a very long time before someone finds you.
The trail leads you into the heart of the Owen Stanley Range of Mountains where deep dark gorges block out sunlight, lush green vegetation grows and narrow crests offer passage. Hot humid days coupled with frigid nights make this trek suitable for only the fittest of hikers. Health threats including malaria and other tropical diseases are very real here. Foreign insects, wildlife and poisonous plants also make up the landscape. Despite the numerous dangers, rushing streams with single log crossings and spectacular views of the valleys and rivers make this one unforgettable experience.
I wanted also to drop this movie preview...It might set the tone for you. You may even want to see the movie.
I'm sorry if my words fell short of the mark. 3811 words - A lifetime of change.