Kokoda Trail: Day Seven
Ofi Creek - Goldie River
Our last full day of hiking (*sad face*).
I fell asleep relatively early the previous night, and awoke to hear music coming from the carriers' hut. It was dark but I presumed reveille would come soon if the porters were up and about. I waited and waited before giving in and turning on my phone to check the time. 11.30 p.m. The carriers hadn't even gone to sleep yet. The remainder of the night was a restless one.
After a groggy start I was quickly revitalised by the sharp ascent out of Ofi Creek. Incredibly, this entire section was nearly all dry, but the precipitous incline and the never-ending mangle of tree roots did nothing to increase our pace. At the summit was Ioribaiwa Ridge, which was the furthest point the Japanese ever made it down the Kokoda Trail from the northern shores. A wartime briefing was given and then we were off down the other side.
The descent wasn't as kind to us. The mud had returned, thick and swampy, and it felt like my boots would be sucked off each time I lifted my feet. As usual I slid and stumbled all the way down but I miraculously remained vertical. It was the final day - surely I would have to fall at some point, right?
Part way down the mountain we arrived at Ioribaiwa Village, which was eerily quiet. No kids came rushing out to meet us, no smiling faces to say hello as we passed, and self-serve stalls were set up for us. It was a Saturday, the Sabbath for the Seventh Day Adventists, so I guess the villagers were at church somewhere along the track. What Ioribaiwa did offer us, though, was a far-reaching view towards Port Moresby, with Imita Ridge (our next destination) in the foreground. Looking behind us we could see the mountain we had just descended, with the ridgeline of Ioribaiwa forming a semi-circle around our location. The Japanese had occupied much of this mountain range, while the Australians took up defense on Imita Ridge. The Australians also held Ower's Corner, beyond Imita Ridge, where they had 25 pounder guns in their possession. This weapon boasted a range of 10 km, which allowed the Australians to fire shells over their own soldiers on Imita Ridge and hit the Japanese on Ioribaiwa Ridge. It was almost incomprehensible, standing there gazing at the distance between the two mountains.
Leaving Ofi Creek.
Steep and technical, as per usual.
Entering Ioribaiwa Village.
Where we had come from...
... and where we were heading.
Beyond Ioribaiwa Village the mud continued, all the way down to a creek system. Instead of following the banks of the twisting rivers, the track went straight through the water. Not once, but over 15 times, without the luxury of bridges. There was no taking boots off here. We ploughed through each waterway, some ankle deep, some over knee deep. My boots instantly became swimming pools, creating sloshing sounds with each stride. The water was constantly being churned up by our footsteps, reducing visibility of the creek bed for the next person. Cautiously, we felt our way through the murky liquid with our feet and hoped that we didn't trip over or slide off an unstable rock. In between the rivers was a stunning lush green jungle, with sunlight filtering through the leaves. The scenery was so different to the rest of the trek that I felt like I had been transported to an entirely new country. There was no oozing mud here, no panting up steep inclines, only the sound of bubbling water providing a serene soundtrack. It was mesmerising. Naturally, I couldn't take enough photos. Many of us agreed that this was our favourite section of the hike, and we were glad we were finishing in such a captivating location.
At an enforced break spot, one trekker noted a long, thick vine hanging down beside the trail. Several jokes were made by the group about impersonating Tarzan, and we wondered if it was possible to swing from it. This prompted the trekker to give the vine a yank, testing its ability to possibly hold her weight. A crashing sound ensued, and suddenly the 15 metre high vine came hurtling to the ground. The offending trekker couldn't do anything but put her hands over her head; somehow it missed her entirely. I wasn't at all concerned about my own safety but the vine ended up landing only centimetres from me. As no one was hurt, we all thought it was hilarious. Needless to say, there were no further Tarzan-imitation attempts.
In the middle of these creek crossings was our lunch spot, a tiny village surrounded by all this beauty. It was our final lunch on the trip and, for the last time, I loaded up on rice, beans and Mountain Bread, making extras for a snack later on. When I return home, I don't think Mountain Bread will be on the shopping list. Many trekkers laid out in the sun, trying in vain to dry their shoes. I was aware that there were more rivers to come, so I stayed in my squelchy shoes. Surprisingly, it was the first time my boots had been wet the entire hike. Every trekking company and personal account warns that you will have wet feet for the whole trip, usually due to rain or sweat, and advises you to bring a whole arsenal of foot care supplies - creams, powders, oils, an entire blister kit. I brought one tube of Papaw Ointment and a couple of Band-Aids. Despite wearing new shoes, my feet had held up exceptionally well - no blisters, no raw or peeling skin, no black toe nails. They looked worse after a two hour run than they did after a week stomping through the jungle.
The mesmerising creek system.
Lunch was followed by several more river crossings and once again the charm of this wild, remote region amazed me. I could have spent a week exploring just this area. As often happens when I'm busy taking photos, I fell behind the trekker in front of me. Usually this isn't a problem, but I came to a fork in the path and had no idea which route to take. The flat trail to the left, or the short, sharp hill to the right. If I had thought about it for a few seconds, I would have known that the flat path would be more likely, given that there were further crossings up ahead and they weren't going to be on top of an incline. But I didn't choose that option. I must have been missing the ascents, because I hiked straight up the hill. Which of course meant only one thing: I had to come straight down again. On the descent I could see a narrow step below me, but there was no way I could safely make that distance safely while standing. So I resorted to sitting on the rock I was standing on and gently easing my body down until my boots hit the earth. I brushed off the dirt and quickly looked around to see if I was spotted (I wasn't). I finally made it to the river at the bottom and happened to glance downstream, where I found the rest of the group that had been somewhere behind me. Obviously they had taken the easy left-hand path where there were no gigantic steps and were now wading through the water. Why do I make things hard for myself?
Unfortunately, the enchanting river section came to an end, and before us lay what appeared to be a green, vertical wall that we were expected to scale. Assessing the route from below I was sure that even mountain goats would have a tough time climbing this one. Setting off at a snail's pace, we conquered switchback after switchback and gradually overcame the seemingly insurmountable mountain. Three quarters of the hill was blissfully dry, but the last quarter, which of course was the steepest section, turned into heavy mud. I thought it was odd that it was wet at the top but not the bottom, but apparently it is always this way. Several times I used my hands to pull or push myself up an impossibly high step, my upper body getting a workout for the first time this week. On a positive note, the spectacular jungle surroundings of the river crossings below had followed us up the hill, distracting me from the precipitous trail in front of me.
At the summit lay Imita Ridge, and our carriers, knowing the difficulty of the climb, clapped us in as we arrived. It was handy that there were a few log seats here, as most of the group collapsed in a heap on them. Imita Ridge was the furthest that the Australian's retreated, which they were told they had to "defend at all costs and fight to the death if necessary". Next stop was Port Moresby, Japan's objective. If the Japanese made it to the capital and its strategic airfield, it was all over.
Coming out of the creek system.
What goes up must come down. Down through the mud, along the steep terrain, slipping and sliding but somehow staying upright for the entire descent. Another almost vacant village marked the end of the mountain, and from there it was back to undulating terrain interspersed with river crossings. Without poles or a porter I was forced to take the wet route, but those with assistance could manage to hop along the rocks. Again I was hypnotised by the scenery, with large boulders punctuating the dark green foliage that soared overhead. It was a memorable way to finish our final day.
From the previous village Spade Man informed us that it was 20 minutes to camp, giving us a surge of energy to push through to the end. I think someone needs to buy Spade Man a watch, as it was almost an hour before the bright orange tents came into view. The site was situated above Goldie River and it was one of the more beautiful spots we had spent the night. The wide, blue water gurgled its way around us, and the mist in the distant mountains formed a perfect backdrop. The sky lit up shades of orange and pink at sunset, causing me to rush around every few minutes to take photos. A rainbow also appeared in the sky, right before a fine, misty rain started falling on us.
The camp facilities weren't ideal at Goldie River, as the combined kitchen, dining and drying hut was all enclosed under the one roof with no barriers between them. This made dinnertime a hazy experience and the smoked-filled air continuously stung my eyes. It didn't stop me wolfing down the French onion soup and chickpea curry, which I enjoyed but I was relieved that I would be back in the land of plentiful vegetables soon. As much as I missed my regular diet, I was in disbelief that this was it, the trek was all but over and my normal life was about to recommence. How long would it be before I could be out on the trails again, for multiple days at a time, away from civilisation?
After dinner a ceremony was held to formally thank the carriers for their service and hand over a gratuity for a job well done. Various words of praise were expressed from both sides, although I'm not sure that money and compliments come close to how much we owed these people, now and in the past, for their dedication to us. The night ended with the porters chanting, "Hip hip, hooray" and "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!", leaving us with smiles on our faces as we crawled into our tents for the last time.