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Kokoda Trail: Day Six

Agulogo - Ofi Creek

Today’s hike wasn’t going to be a long one, so were afforded a late reveille of 5 a.m. I was in the middle of a long, deep sleep, the first on the trek, when an alarm woke me with a jolt. Not the alarm on my phone, or anyone else’s phone, but the alarm of a whole choir of roosters outside. I guess the roosters thought that 3 a.m. was a great time to make a start on the day.

By 7 a.m. we were off, continuing to enjoy the flat terrain that had led us to Agulogo last night. The easy part ended 20 minutes later when we hit the wide, gushing Brown River. This river had no bridge, no logs, no rocks to jump across. There was only one way to the other side, and that was straight through the middle. The boots came off, the sandals went on and, with the much needed assistance by the carriers, we all steadily waded through the thigh-high water. It required some effort to push against the strong current, and our pace wasn’t much different to when we climbed through thick mud. When I safely reached the other side, I learned that the water level was lower than normal. I have no idea why, but I think we were incredibly fortunate it wasn't much higher. 

Back in our boots we resumed along the effortless flat surface. Gradually the ground became wetter and muddier, and it wasn’t long before we hit swampland. The boggy track stopped at a bridge made of several narrow logs tied together, which hovered slightly above the waterlogged soil. I presumed it would be a typical 5-10 metre bridge like many others we had crossed. Nope. This one ended up connecting with another bridge, and then another - there were dozens of them, forming a sort of boardwalk across the swamp below. A rope on one side acted as a handrail, making for an effortless traverse. Looking at the squelchy mess below, I was extremely glad all those logs were there. The logs eventually finished, as did the swamp, and inevitably we started heading uphill again. I am so used to the ascents now that I don’t even think about them, I just lower my head and put one foot in front of the other.

 

Only two hours after leaving camp, we arrived in the village of Nauro, our lunch spot for today. It was weird eating lunch at 9 a.m., three hours after eating breakfast, but as we couldn’t guarantee that there would be fresh water further along the track, we didn't have much choice. A whole pack of kids came out to greet us, and we happily handed out the last of our gifts to their smiling faces. Hand-operated plastic propellers were the clear winner, with the children asking us to set them off so that they could chase them. It wasn’t long they mastered the skill themselves. 

As I wasn’t overly hungry, I ate a relatively small serve of two minute noodles with canned beans, plus Mountain Bread with banana and peanut butter. I also packed a few wraps to take with me, knowing I would probably be ravenous come early afternoon. 

This morning's wake up call.

The ground became more and more boggy.

Crossing Brown River.

The boardwalk begins.

Playing with the kids.

Looking out from Nauro.

Sun and blue skies were with us again today, making us sweaty on the climbs but offering us far-reaching views as a reward. The sight leaving Nauro was particularly outstanding, looking straight down over the village and out to the mountains beyond. I wonder how many lookouts like this we missed when they weather was overcast and misty?

The next hour consisted of climbing what is known as the “false peaks”. Apparently, every time you think you’ve made the top, you find there’s another hill behind it. Although the mud wasn’t so bad today, alternating with sections of dry dirt, I still spent the majority of time gazing at my feet, doing my best not to trip over an obstacle. Because of this I didn’t even notice the crests, and was confused when we arrived at the actual summit of the Maguli Range. I was prepared to be disappointed and see more ascent in front of me, but instead I was pleasantly surprised. 

On the climb we passed numerous villagers coming the other way, many carrying small children and loaded bags. Curiously, one was sporting a slingshot around his head. Some were also followed by energetic dogs. They said they had walked from Port Moresby, presumably to pick up supplies. The fact they were doing these multi-day treks with toddlers and babies was astounding, but I guess they don't know any different.

 

The peak of the Maguli Range contained a bare patch of grass, which made a decent sunbathing spot for several trekkers while we took a well-earned break. I’ve found that I prefer to stay standing during our breaks, with my legs taking longer to get going again if I sit or lie down. Somewhat out of place on the summit was a wooden table, on which stood an array of soft drinks but no local in sight. The drinks were noticeably more expensive up here.

Leaving Nauro.

The view over Nauro.

Back to the mud.

Obstacle course.

Collapsing on the summit.

Four hours was the prediction for the descent. I debated whether to drag the poles out, but the surface hadn’t been too bad this morning so I thought I’d risk it. Areas of mud were once more followed by areas of dry dirt, and the gradient felt as though it went up as much as it did down. Luckily for us there hadn’t been any rain today, easing conditions slightly. Steep sections tested us yet again, and where they were particularly slippery we slowed to our “barely moving” pace. But the part where I struggled the most was, oddly, the flat. A long, level section full of gooey mud had me skidding all over the place, and I wished I had the poles out. I’m fairly certain I resembled a first time ice skater, contorting my body into strange positions and throwing my limbs around wildly for balance. The mental effort alone was draining me of all energy, never mind the physical challenge. The flats were clearly not for me. Give me a hill any day. 

The personal carriers, not only carrying heavy loads but also doing their best to keep their trekkers upright, occasionally slip over themselves. When this happens the other carriers nearby all laugh hysterically, like it’s the funniest thing they have seen all day. They then shout back down the line to let everyone know who took a tumble. Their good-natured reaction has us all giggling along with them. 

The one stop we made on the way down was to view a Japanese trench, a thin, narrow channel running along the edge of a ridge. These apparently differed to Australian trenches, which were enclosed and separated from each other, so the soldiers weren’t able to move along them below the surface. I couldn’t remember the pros and cons of this.

Often when I am walking along, I will hear footsteps approaching me quickly from behind. If anyone is travelling this fast I know it has to be a porter. I move to the side to let them pass and off they skip down the mountain, with 20 kg strapped to their back like it's nothing. Even if I had grown up on the trails and walked the track a hundred times, I still don’t think I would be as fast or as confident as they are. It is an amazing sight to watch.

 

Gradually, the mud eased off but the steepness maintained its acute angle. Nearing the bottom I found myself creeping along a dizzying ridge line, with the slopes dropping away sharply on either side. The ridge then turned into large stone steps that were just as slippery as the mud. Slowly, one step at a time, I made my way down to Ofi Creek at the bottom, where I discovered that, yet again, there was no bridge. Boots off, sandals on, camera in a waterproof bag, and through the river for the second time today. The current wasn’t as strong on this occasion, but the invisible ankle-twisting rocks kept the heart rate high.

A lookout on the way down.

Scenes from day six.

Crossing Ofi Creek.

Back on dry ground, I ascended the equally precarious rocks up the bank to our campsite. In record time I had changed, grabbed my towel and was heading back down to the river we had just crossed. Thankfully, it had been fairly warm today and with little hesitation I jumped right into the cold water. I immediately became caught up in the current and started floating downstream, causing me to scramble my way back towards the bank. Bracing myself against the rocks, I managed to wash my hair for the first time in four days, before rinsing the mud and sweat out of my filthy clothes.  

We arrived at camp early today, about 3.15 p.m., giving us plenty of time to organise ourselves and relax before dinner. I spent the time writing these notes while staring out at the mountains and greenery surrounding us, in disbelief that this trip was almost over. I had barely thought about my real life at all, and I wasn’t ready to go back to a world where I was juggling twenty things at once and never having the time or space to just stop. This was the simple life, one I wish I could stay in forever, but ultimately an unsustainable one. I thought about future long-distance hikes I was keen to attempt but if I embarked on a solo mission, would I get lonely? Would I enjoy it as much if I couldn’t share the adventure with someone else? Or what if I joined another tour but didn’t connect with anyone in the group - how much would that affect my overall experience? Or would I not care because I was doing what I love? Could I do this in colder climates (don't get me started on how much I hate being cold)? How long would I last before I missed my usual creature comforts and would want to pack up and go home? All these thoughts were circling through my mind as I reflected on this pilgrimage so far.

After my soup and bean stew dinner, we listened to stories about how the Australians laid a successful ambush at Ofi Creek. They waited for as many Japanese as possible to enter the river, then opened fire on the enemy when they had no means of escape. It seems bizarre that we were meant to cheer for our side performing these cruel, murderous acts, but I guess war zones are exceptional circumstances where the usual moral standards are thrown out the window. It all came down to your life versus their life. You did what you had to do.

 

I can’t imagine many more inhospitable terrains to fight a war on. The remoteness, the lack of resources, the steep and muddy terrain, the brutal weather, any number of diseases with no treatment, the barrage of insects, the difficulty or absence of communication - the Australians had never fought in anything like this before. It was a miracle that any of them survived, let alone won the battle. This story deserves far more recognition than it gets. 

Looking down at Ofi Creek from the campsite.

Camp.