Kokoda Trail: Day Three
Isurava Battlefield - Templeton's Crossing No. 2
Despite the heavy rain falling outside, I managed to fall asleep fairly quickly last night. I then woke up about midnight, to find there was no more rain but also no more sleep. Why am I not tired?
It was a relatively late start for us today, with reveille at 5.30 a.m. We all quickly dressed and made our way down to the Memorial for a dawn service. Our carriers all assembled and sang the PNG national anthem for us. It was beautiful, their harmonic voices gently floating through the crisp morning air. Next, a few people from our group read out the Ode of Remembrance, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels poem, a short prayer, and the lyrics to Danny Boy. The entire service was quite moving, and I felt the emotions well up inside for the first time since arriving in this country. It put a lot of things into perspective.
Once we had packed and eaten it was time to go, crossing Back River (with a porter’s assistance) before heading uphill along a muddy trail. Sunrise was hidden behind clouds during the service, and fog stayed with us all morning. Viewpoints were disappointing blankets of grey. Light rain fell on and off, causing me to shiver whenever we stopped. The bleak weather matched the sombre start to the day.
We passed a group of guys going the other way, who were completing the entire trek in five days. Today was their last day. I think that’s the sort of challenge I would be keen to sign up for.
Our first major stop was at “Surgeon’s Rock”, a flat rock slightly off the track and hidden behind the foliage. It wasn’t even large enough for a man to lie his whole body across it, but here was where the diggers turned up for medical assistance, including an emergency amputation. Most soldiers were patched up and sent back to the front, or received morphine and waited to die.
I trekked the first half hour of today with my top of backwards. No one said anything, but I noticed when taking my pack off at Alola. A quick readjustment at the rest stop had me dressed correctly for the rest of the day.
No shortage of water here.
An almost flat section.
Carriers are always there to assist.
The local laundry.
The next two river crossings, Alola Creek and Eora Creek, were kind enough to give us a rope to hold on to. This made it a million times less scary to cross. I don’t for a second trust my balance skills on wet rocks or tree logs, and I can see myself faceplanting the water at some stage. I hope future rivers are just as thoughtful.
Several villages we passed through were selling fruit, causing us all to load up on bananas. There was going to be nothing wrong with our potassium levels this week.
Lunch was served at Eora Creek, on the banks of the water. Two minute noodles with canned beans, plus Mountain Bread with banana and peanut butter. Glad we picked up those bananas, as the banana-peanut butter combination is an absolute winner. I think I’ve inspired a few others in the group to take it up too.
Twice today we stopped off the track to visit collections of WWII ammunition recovered over the years. Mortar bombs, grenades and magazines were sitting unceremoniously in piles on the ground, solely for tourists to take photos of. We also walked by a couple of Japanese bunkers (i.e. holes in the ground) and the location of one of their mountain guns that aimed over the valley to Eora Creek, 3-4 km away. It was hard to comprehend how these guns were transported along the trail, even when they were broken down into smaller parts. Later, we stood on the plateau above Eora Creek, where the Allies were dug in and receiving the gifts of those guns. It gave us a fresh perspective for how difficult it was for the Australians to break through Japanese lines.
The children we meet along the track continue to be shy, but will gladly wave back if you make the gesture first. We have noticed that they aren’t in school. Some carriers mentioned that they didn’t start formal education until they were older, maybe 10 or 12, when they could walk the long distances required to reach the local school. Education is free, but access remains a problem for most.
Dogs also seem to greet us wherever we go, all looking healthy and friendly. Some of us are eager to pat and play with them, but the risk of picking up an unwanted malady has us maintaining our distance.
The rope made the crossings far easier.
So many waterfalls.
I don't know which are cuter: the kids or the dogs.
Today was the first day we had sorted ourselves into some semblance of an order while trekking. The speedsters are up the front with Spade Man, followed by those in slightly less of a rush, and the "intellectuals" made up the rear with Reg. I’ve found my position somewhere around the middle, where there is a bit of a gap between two hikers. This allows me to take photos without holding up the people behind me, then walk fast to catch up to the person in front. Clearly photos are still a top priority for me.
I’ve realised that my several million photos are limited to four scenes: the track with the tall trees in the background; close ups of mud and/or tree roots; villages and villagers; and rivers. There’s not a whole lot more to see, but for some reason this is enough to keep my finger on the shutter most of the day. I'm relieved I bought a spare battery. And two power banks. I think I’ll need them.
When we arrive at a rest stop, several people in the group comment on the long uphill we have just climbed. Often I haven’t even noticed. I know there are many steep ascents, and the elevation profile clearly shows us putting in some decent vertical gain, but it doesn’t compare to my training hikes in Hong Kong. Maybe it’s the distraction of the unfamiliar setting, or perhaps I’m concentrating hard on keeping upright in the mud. My mind also wanders a lot, and sometimes I can’t recall what I’ve passed in the previous section. Whatever it is, so far the hike hasn’t been as physically demanding as I was fearing. It’s tough, just not the stuff of nightmares.
One of these mental wanderings is making a list of my next big adventure, which at the moment is anything from a one week to a six month long hike. I’ve never gone more than a couple of days on a camping trip, but so far Kokoda has inspired me to pursue more expeditions that I might have considered outside of my ability or comfort zone. Thinking back through various podcasts, blogs and social media sites I managed to generate a whole bucket list in my mind, dedicated solely to long-distance hiking. If only I could stay semi-young and fit forever so I can complete them all.
I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen so much mud in my life. All day we were dragging ourselves through thick, oozy, slippery mud that didn’t want to end. Do tour companies somehow dump plane-loads of the gunk on the track to give us more of an authentic experience? I thought there might be less mud as it is the dry season but that is clearly not the case. With every step I was searching for submerged rocks and logs to stand on, to prevent my entire leg from being devoured by the goop. It was slow work that was surprisingly energy-sapping. My boots and legs were caked in the stuff by the end of the day. Somehow, despite all the mud, I still haven’t fallen over. I'm sure my time will come.
The river crossings were becoming more perilous.
Obstacles on the path.
Mud. So much mud.
We arrived at our campsite, Templeton’s Crossing No. 2, right before dark. Again we were sleeping beside a roaring river, in a picturesque location. The water was freezing cold, and all I could bare was a speedy scrub of my legs to remove the mud and a quick wash of my clothes. I then jumped in my thermals, in preparation for a cold night ahead.
Templeton’s campsite was setup like the others, with a patch of grass for our tents, a dining hut, a kitchen hut, and a large sleeping hut for all the carriers to roll their mats out side by side. This campsite has the added bonus of a drying hut for us, with an open fire in the centre and ropes draped across it. My clothes have never been dry in the morning, but maybe my luck will change tonight.
Everyone in the group has a watch with them, some using GPS, some measuring heart rate, some counting steps. I have nothing. I don’t even know what time it is unless I look at the time stamp on my camera. At the end of the day I was told we left Isurava Battlefield at 7.30 a.m. and arrived at Templeton’s at 5.30 p.m. I couldn’t believe we were walking for that long - the time flew by.
Dinner saw a return to night one's menu: French onion soup, rice and lukewarm chickpea curry, plus more coconut milk choko. I could have eaten a gigantic pot of the choko.
On my way back to my tent I detoured via the drying hut to see how my wet clothes were doing. A couple of the carriers had been rotating the clothes so that everything had some sort of chance of drying. Mine were still in the damp phase, but it was better than nothing. I knew they would retain the moisture overnight whether they stayed outside or in my tent, so I carried them back with me and tried not to think about the torturous process of putting on cold, wet clothes in the morning.
Getting ready for bed I noticed that my shoulders and calves were becoming tight, which oddly gave me some sense of satisfaction, like I had been putting in a hard effort worthy of aches and pains. I can’t imagine that they will get any better over the next few days, especially with all the long downhill sections coming up. Miraculously I still don’t have any blisters. Currently this trip has exceeded my expectations, but I wonder if this soreness will escalate and affect my optimistic outlook.
Coming into camp.
The drying hut.