Kokoda Trail: Day One
Port Moresby - Kokoda - Hoi
There’s nothing like a 5.15 am wake up call on the first day of your holiday, especially when it’s only 3.15 am Hong Kong time. But this wasn’t any typical holiday.
I had come off an overnight flight the day before and had achieved very little sleep in the interim. I dragged myself out of bed, relished the last hot shower I would see for the next eight days, and shoved down a quick cereal and toast breakfast (it was far too early for breakfast, but who knew when my next meal would be). Then I packed. And repacked. And repacked. I didn’t think I had that much stuff, but when your backpack has a bazillion pockets that you feel obligated to use, you end up rearranging everything half a dozen times. And then you have no clue where you put anything.
Once the final configuration was established, it was time for the group to load the bus and be driven through breathtaking mountainous countryside to the airport in Port Moresby. But not the main airport - this was a tiny patch of concrete fronted by an equally tiny two-room building masquerading as an airport. There was no duty free here, or even a cafe. It was the type of airport where after the bags have been weighed, all the passengers are required to step on the scales, one at a time, to ensure we didn’t creep over the weight limit. Computers weren’t required; all numbers and details were handwritten. It didn’t fill me with much confidence.
Due to fog at Kokoda we were stuck at this so-called airport for close to eternity, but our time did eventually arrive. We all marched out straight across the tarmac to our “plane”, a 19 seat Twin Otter that smelled like a fuel tank. It was by far the smallest aircraft I had ever flown in. I braved myself for a bumpy ride as we travelled down the runway, but I was shocked to find it was a smooth, gentle takeoff. Before I knew it we were up above the clouds, the noise from the engine preventing conversation but that didn’t matter: the scenery below was capturing our full attention. There were endless green hills covered with dense forests, interspersed with the occasional village marked by a handful of huts. This was what we would be traversing over the next week. I couldn’t wait to get started.
The landing wasn’t quite as smooth as the takeoff, as the hard grassy airstrip caused the plane to bump along violently until we came to a halt. Looking out the window it appeared as though the whole village had come out to see us arrive, but they were there to greet friends and family who were arriving at some unknown time today, or to say farewell to others. Beyond the crowd I noticed that Kokoda Airport was even less of an airport than the one we had left just half hour earlier. The only structure was a steel frame sitting on a concrete block, with the roof providing some degree of shade, and a waist-high wire fence lined the runway. Baggage was lined up along the fence, and a man with a clipboard was manually organising the arrivals and departures (no technology necessary). I guess if it works, don’t mess with it.
Another eternity ensued as we waited for our gear and porters to arrive on a later flight. All up we were a large group: 14 trekkers, 1 trek leader, 10 personal carriers and 25 group carriers, totaling 50 people. Once we had all gathered together, trekkers were introduced to their personal carriers (where applicable), bags were hoisted onto our backs and it was time to officially begin hiking.
Looking out over the Owen Stanley Range.
The smallest plane I have ever flown in.
Just some of the mountains we are about the climb.
Welcome reception at Kokoda.
The Twin Otter on the Kokoda runway.
Stage one: an undemanding two kilometres up to the Kokoda Memorial. The landscape around us was green and flat but the looming mountains weren’t far away, their peaks shrouded in mist. Villagers had lined the path to sell us fruit, sausages, cake and popcorn, which was tempting as it had been about six hours since breakfast. We all declined.
The Memorial was far smaller than I expected. One part consisted of four stone cairns on an otherwise bare field, decorated with various monuments and plaques. From here we could see Kokoda village down the hill, and the steep, overgrown escarpment that the Japanese attempted their attack along. The second part was the War Museum, housed in a single-room wooden building. It contained various pieces of artillery and equipment recovered from the war, black and white photos of the soldiers, and a brief description of the key battles. Trek leader Reg gave us our first in depth history lesson here, explaining the significance of various items on display and the importance of the battle for Kokoda. It was immediately clear that Reg, a captain in the Army Reserve for many years and on his 61st Kokoda crossing, clearly knew what he was talking about.
Lunch, a basic salad sandwich and a piece of fruit, was rapidly devoured outside the Museum. I was starving, and the small serving size did nothing to satiate me. As I was carrying my own pack without the assistance of a personal carrier, keeping weight to a minimum was a priority. I had to make strict decisions about what to carry, and endless supplies of snacks didn’t make the list. I began to worry about how much food I would receive on this trip and if I would have enough energy to sustain me.
On the outer perimeter of Kokoda we hit the official start of the track, with the iconic arches providing a perfect photo opportunity. Several hundred photos later (not all taken by me), we were finally trekking along the Kokoda Trail.
The view over Kokoda Village.
The official start of the Kokoda Trail.
Today was listed as the easy day, with a flat, non-technical walk along soft dirt. Tall grass, shrubs and towering trees lined the wide path, while leaves larger than my head littered the ground. The vegetation was reminiscent of other Pacific islands I had visited, and even parts of Thailand and Malaysia. It was nothing like Australia, or Hong Kong, and I was captivated by it all. The sun was beating down, causing sweat to pour off us. I rolled up my pants but it didn’t achieve much. I think I’ll be wearing shorts tomorrow.
We quickly came to know Spade Man, the Papuan leader at the front of the pack who carried a spade. Although not required today, the spade will be used to carve out mini steps on the steep, slippery terrain. The golden rule is to stay behind Spade Man at all times. You can go as slow as you like, but no one is to go faster than Spade Man. When we come to a rest period, where the group reassembles and Reg often tells us a story, Spade Man sticks his spade in the ground as a marker that signifies “Do not cross”. Today I wished our breaks were placed a bit further apart, but I have a feeling I might not be saying that tomorrow. Spade Man is also our timekeeper, letting us know how long the next section will take. We have quickly become familiar with his catchcry “Saddle up! Let’s rock and roll!”, telling us it is time to get going. We all love Spade Man.
Several creek crossings tested my balance early, having to use rocks and, once, a long tree trunk to traverse the water below. Those with personal carriers had assistance for this. Three guys and I, with no personal carriers, were left to manage independently. No one has fallen yet.
Along the way we passed through various villages, none containing more than a dozen one- or two-room wooden huts. Each one had a thatched roof and was built on stilts, keeping the air inside as cool as possible. Often a small table was set up beside the trail, selling items such as fruits, coconuts and hand-rolled cigarettes. Betel nuts were in high supply, and often served with mustard seeds for an extra hit. The bright red gums and teeth of the locals and dried crimson spit stains on the ground attested to its popularity.
Village children came out to see us as we passed, naturally shy in our presence but happy to pose for photos and give high fives. It was refreshing to see kids playing together outdoors, with zero phones in sight. Dogs were also in abundance; they appeared relatively thin but otherwise healthy and thankfully not aggressive.
We passed a large trekking group coming the other way, about to reach the finish of their journey. They all appeared to be in high spirits, which lifted our confidence a little. One of the porters was carrying a guitar in his hand, as well as a large pack on his back. I wondered if the guitar was his or a hiker was making him carry it the whole way. It might have been nice to have music around the camp fire at night.
Scenes from day one.
Passing through villages.
Offerings at the market stalls.
A couple of hours after we commenced, we arrived in Hoi. This campsite was no different to the other villages we passed along the way, except that it was situated right on a roaring creek. It was a pretty sight, with sunlight flickering through the trees and colourful flowers lining the water. After dumping our bags in our chosen tents, we all jumped in the chilly river to cool down and wash our clothes. I wasn’t sure how often we would have the opportunity (or desire) to clean our sweaty clothes, so I was determined to take the chance while I had it. A few villagers were doing the same, although I'm sure their garments didn't smell anywhere near as bad as ours.
Once refreshed, I established my campsite routine: set up my mattress and sleeping bag, hang out my wet clothes, collect and sterilise drinking water, familiarise myself with the long drop, and try to recall where I had hidden everything in my bag. Once sorted I joined the group in the dining hut, where a few treats had been set up for us to purchase. The choice was bananas, soft drink and Twisties - I knew which one I was buying. The group cook told me that the bunch of 16 large bananas was going to cost me 10 kina, roughly A$4. Bargain. I purchased them on the spot, handed them out to the group and the cook, then stuffed down the remainder, trying to quell the rumbling in my stomach.
Although it had only been a short day, there were plenty of positives to be found already. Significantly, I hadn’t fallen over yet, something I’m predicting I will do about a billion times before I finish. My rented backpack was fitting perfectly, much better than the one I use at home. It barely felt like I had 13 kg on my back. My boots, only purchased three weeks earlier and worn a total of four times before today, were surprisingly comfortable and not causing any hot spots. The group I am trekking with, all strangers to me, are awesome. They have been incredibly friendly and welcoming, and I don't feel like an outsider at all. But what I’m loving most is being outdoors, in nature, away from the distractions of the real world. The last two days of travel had me cooped up indoors, and I predict I would have logged a total of one hour on my feet each day. Basically, I sat down and didn't budge. I need to move, need to be outside - if I don't I start to go crazy. Now I was finally doing it, in a stunning and relatively untouched part of the world. It felt fantastic.
So far, I am finding it tough to imagine a war taking place in this jungle. I came here to see where the campaign took place, to put a picture to the story, but what I saw today feels far removed from scenes of fighting and death. Maybe when I see more battle sites, hear more stories, I’ll start to comprehend the enormity of what occurred here.
Dinner couldn’t come soon enough. All of our meals are prepared by two local cooks (two of the 25 group carriers), heated up in large metal pots over an open fire in the “kitchen” hut. No modern technology here. Once it was ready I dug in: two serves of a dilute French onion soup, followed by two serves of pasta with a large packet of a fantastic vegan chickpea curry, prepared especially for me. The hunger pangs were definitely put to rest after that. Afterwards, Reg gave us a briefing for the next day, which I think will be when the real adventure begins. Then it was off to bed in the hot tent, listening to the water thundering by outside.
Bathing in the creek.
Gotta get used to these.