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Kokoda Trail: Day Five

Efogi - Agulogo

My morning routine is well-reheased now. Struggle to haul myself out of bed after little sleep, put on damp clothes, pack bag, eat cereal and peanut butter-biscuit breakfast, wash bowl and spoon, brush teeth, spray insect repellent, reluctantly remove rain jacket at last second, then struggle to get my legs moving as we commence another day of hiking through the jungle. It somehow feels less complicated than my usual pre-work schedule at home. I love the simplicity of this life. 

 

Leaving the campsite we walked through Efogi, the largest village on the track with about 350 residents and consisting of a school, a health centre and an air strip. For once, blue skies were out and there was no fog in sight. A steep climb rewarded us with views across Efogi and the mountain range beyond, with the sun poking out over the ridge. It wasn’t often we were granted unobstructed views. My camera was in overdrive. 

An hour later we arrived at the Nishimura tree, named after a Japanese soldier who fought during WWII. He was the only surviving member of his platoon and became separated from the rest of the his Army. Without knowing which direction to go to avoid the Australians, he ended up hiding in a tiny hollow at the base of the tree in front of us and waited until he heard Japanese voices before coming out. Prior to his fellow comrades dying, they had made a pact that whoever survived would return to Papua New Guinea and bring back the bones of the fallen. Nishimura kept that promise and ended up living here for 25 years, locating Japanese remains and personal property that he then sent back to the respective families (where possible) for a proper burial.

The taxing ascent deposited us at Brigade Hill, the site of another major battle between the Australians and the Japanese. The summit had been cleared of trees and a series of wooden poles adorned with artificial poppies were lined up in rows, representing the 52 Australians who were initially buried here in 1942 (they have now been re-interred at Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby). Reg relayed the main events that occurred at this site, while we stared out at the panoramic view of cloud-dotted mountains before us. It was a soul-stirring location. 

Coming down was, predictably, a muddy slippery slope. Every day it feels as though the mud is thicker, the potential for falls higher, and the pace slower. How much worse could it get? Stubbornly I still hadn’t removed my poles from my pack, instead using natural objects as much as possible to prevent me from sliding away down the hill. Halfway down we had to pull over to the side and wait for another group to pass on their way up. The track was so narrow and precarious that we wouldn’t have been able manoeuvre around each other further down. I have no idea how the soldiers and Papuans managed to carry people down here on stretchers. 

Efogi.

Leaving Efogi.

The views this morning were epic.

Brigade Hill: the field of poppies and the tasty galip nuts. 

Once we had all safely arrived at the bottom, we crossed a creek and walked up an airstrip to Menari Village. The sun was blazing down on us and for a change there were no towering trees to provide us with shade. Alongside the airstrip was a primary school, but no one seemed to be in attendance. Maybe it was school holidays here too. 

Like many villages, all the grass had been dug up in the centre, leaving a dark brown patch of dirt around which their huts were positioned. Apparently, they don’t like cutting the grass, so this solves that problem. It was on this bare field that Lieutenant-Colonel Honner acknowledged the heroic efforts of the untrained militiamen of the 39th battalion, holding a full parade to congratulate the emaciated men for their actions. They were the first to face the Japanese on the track and their performance was far beyond what anyone could have expected from them. 

In the centre of the village we found a hive of activity, with a long line of women selling goods on mats along the ground, plus a dozen or so kids playing together out in the sun. Both parties were popular with us. I’m pretty sure we bought all the fruit they had, including several bunches of bananas, bowls of mandarins, and the sweetest, best-tasting pawpaw I have ever eaten (and I don’t even like pawpaw). The local bilum bags for on display for us to peruse, all handmade with coloured string. The bright patterns were eye-catching, each one different to the others, but none of us purchased the popular souvenir.

The children were happy to chat to us, especially with their new toys and stickers that were handed out by the group. I asked what their favourite sport was, secretly hoping AFL would get a mention. Nope. In unison, they all shouted, “Soccer!”. Disappointing. 

Today’s lunch was easily the best yet, solely because of the avocado purchased by the lovely group member yesterday. It was perfectly ripe and creamy, and formed a great combination with Vegemite in Mountain Bread . I think I ate the whole avocado, while others shared another two purchased from the market today. It was a thousand times more exciting than the usual offer of rice and beans. 

Scenes from day five.

Menari.

After lunch, the heat of the day reached its climax and coincided with our almost vertical climb out of Menari. Sweat was pouring out of every pore and the only sounds we could hear were our footsteps and heavy breaths. When we finally reached the sunny, viewless peak, everyone collapsed on the ground, hoping that we would somehow be magically transported to our campsite. Reg’s war stories weren’t long enough for some, and several questions were asked to extend the break time as long as possible. But in the backs of our minds were the memories of yesterday, and none of us were keen on another trek through the dark. 

There was a common theme in the war stories of Kokoda: if we just had more of this or that then we could have beaten the Japanese sooner, or held them off for longer. It must have been so frustrating to not have the basic necessities to do the job you’ve been asked (or forced) to do. The Japanese had more soldiers, superior weapons, appropriate gear and better training, while these were denied to the Australians by high command for much of the battle. It also blows me away that many diggers walked the length of the Kokoda Trail several times over the course of the war, the majority inflicted with one disease or another, with no shelter, little food, their clothes falling off their backs and carrying heavy weapons and ammunition. We only have to face it once, with many more creature comforts afforded to us. No one will ever comprehend what they suffered through.

The descent had a surprise in store for us: an occasional mud-free path! Alternating between slippery and stable terrain made this section appear relatively easy compared to the previous few days. It wasn’t all positive though. One trekker ahead of me spotted a snake on the trail. I approached the small, thin reptile carefully, trying to take a photo. In the middle of this process a carrier behind me lunged forward and stabbed the snake through the head with a hiking pole. I shouted at him to stop but it was too late. He flicked the snake into the bush and continued on down. Later I learned that it was a poisonous snake and for safety’s sake he had to dispose of it (many carriers and villagers walk along here barefoot). I wished it hadn’t have happened in front of me though. 

The almost dreamlike hiking conditions continued after we reached the bottom, with stints of walkable dirt along a flat ground. It was so rare to find a level surface that I felt like I was almost running through here. Twenty minutes later we navigated one final bridge then entered our campsite at Agulogo, this time well before nightfall.

The jungle continues.

Its last few seconds of life.

I could stare at these mountains forever.

Each village along the track has clearly defined entrances and exits, usually marked by specific plants and flowers plus a sign board. The sign often displays a religious statement (most locals are devout Seventh-day Adventists) as well as a declaration of what is not allowed in the village. Yesterday, “evil deeds” were forbidden. Today it was “unclean things”, which I'm sure would apply to all of us. It’s always a source of amusement, a small highlight that I look forward to each day.

Yet again we were camping on the bank of a river, ideal for bathing and washing. The village was fairly quiet, with one market stall containing fruit and peanuts, but we were all fruited out after lunch. Strangely the grass was dry here, devoid of the usual condensation that saturates our gear. I guess the lack of rain today (the first dry day we’ve had) was the major reason for that. There was a communal electricity hub providing USB chargers but it required us to stand guard while our appliances were connected. No one bothered. 

Even though I’m certain I stared at mud for 90% of the day, I still don’t want to be anywhere else. It’s already day five but I have no desire to reach the end. All the hassles and distractions of the real world have melted away, and I’m not thinking about any of the worries I have back home. I’m not missing internet, social media, work, TV, traffic, happy hour, the general busyness of life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things I do miss: vegetables, running water, sitting down to pee, my husband. But the gut-busting ascents, the slippery descents, the constantly changing scenery, the no frills lifestyle - this is where I’d rather be (although having my husband here would be a bonus). Fatigue is beginning to accumulate in my legs, which is especially noticeable on the downhills or immediately after a break, but the rest of me is holding up remarkably well. It gives me the confidence that I could tackle something grander, longer, more challenging in the future. 

Reg tells us that there are times when the entire track is one long mud pit, and times when it is bone dry. Creeks can be high or low, and bridges have sometimes washed away. Because of this we can never be sure of how long a section or a day might take - it changes from trek to trek. This may partly explain why the time estimates were so far off yesterday. Right now, the trail conditions are somewhere in between the extremes. I’m happy it’s not any muddier, otherwise I don’t think we would have reached camp until midnight last night. 

Dinner saw a return to the French onion soup, followed by a potato and pea curry. I know all of these meals come out of foil packets, but they are surprisingly tasty. Reg then gave us a briefing on tomorrow’s hike before we all hit the sack. I think most of us are still recovering from yesterday’s slog, as it was lights out by 8 p.m.

Agulogo.

Peanuts for sale.

The amusing village signs. Yesterday, no evil deeds. Today, no unclean things.