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Kokoda Trail: Day Two

Hoi - Isurava Battlefield

I had a terrible sleep last night, but I have no idea why. I wasn’t hot or cold, I wasn’t uncomfortable, I wasn’t stressed or nervous, but my mind would only let me drift off for two hours at most. A thunderstorm woke me from the little shuteye I did manage, the sound heightened by the fast-flowing river only metres away. So it wasn't a great start to the day.

Reveille: 4.30 a.m. It sounds bad, but I was awake anyway so it didn’t matter. I dressed and packed by torchlight before heading over to the dining hut for breakfast. A decent spread was laid before us, including cereals, dry biscuits with various spreads, canned fruit, plus hot baked beans and spaghetti in tomato sauce. The cooks even pulled out soy milk for me. I’m not used to eating early, but I did a great job of stuffing down about three breakfasts worth of food to hopefully see me through until lunchtime. 

Just after 6 a.m. someone apparently flicked a switch and it went from pitch black to light in an instant. The torches disappeared, the bags were mounted and we were on our way for our first full day of trekking. Thankfully it had stopped raining, but the ground had happily soaked up all the water to provide a slick, muddy track for us. At least it wasn’t too hot today, with the sun hidden behind the clouds. Clouds don’t reduce humidity though. 

Our first job was to cross the river we slept beside, carefully stepping along the uneven stones. A porter appeared out of nowhere and held on to the back of my pack, seeing me across safely. Not having a personal carrier had me doubt my abilities to navigate obstacles like this, so I was immensely grateful that one had jumped to my assistance. 

For most of the morning we pushed ourselves uphill, with only the occasional short, steep drop to break up the climb. Everyone else in the group was using poles, but the ascents weren’t where I needed mine. It was the downhills that would test me. 

Part way up the mountain we stopped in the village of Deniki, a significant location in the Kokoda campaign. Before us lay a sweeping view over the surrounding countryside, with fog below us and several peaks pushing through above. Reg informed us of the key events that occurred here, pointing out landmarks where possible. I tried to imagine how the battle unfolded and understand the challenges faced by the Australians. As there is no evidence, or even an indication, that any sort of fighting occurred here, I found this to be a difficult task.

Misty mornings.

A break from the ascent.

The carriers make it look easy.

Pushing through the mud.

Deniki.

From Deniki we continued on uphill, through mud and bright green foliage - I think the rain must have added an extra layer of vibrancy to our surroundings. The flashbacks to other Pacific islands I have visited continued, but the continual mud was a new one for me. I slipped several times but managed to catch myself before going down, and each time I thanked my physio for all the balance work he had pushed me through in the previous few weeks. It was clearly coming in handy now. A light drizzle fell for half an hour before lunch, which didn't help matters. Despite the unsteady surface, I didn’t find it as challenging as tackling the endless Hong Kong stairs in the blazing sun. 

Every now and then Spade Man would stop us for a break, allowing us to fill up on sugar or top up our water bottles. Once I stopped moving it didn’t take long for the sweat on my back to turn cold, causing goosebumps to appear on my arms. As far as I was concerned, the shorter the break, the better.

Reg later described this morning’s trek as “savage”. I don’t think any of us found it overly difficult. Definitely a challenge, but not insurmountable. Did that mean it was only going to get easier from here? Or was he trying to give us a confidence boost?

Isurava Village was our designated lunch spot, and as soon as we piled in the local women and children came rushing out to greet us, offering their wares. Bananas and soft drinks were by far the popular choices, and I was grateful for the fruit after having eaten nothing since breakfast. I handed out a few multi-tipped crayons to the kids, but then immediately wondered if they had any paper to draw on. I didn't think that one through too well. They seemed pretty happy with the gifts regardless. 

It was here we discovered that that our group size had reduced to 13. One hiker had been struggling to keep up with the pack, and made the tough decision to turn around and go back to the start with another tour group heading the other way. Her daughter made the equally difficult choice to continue her Kokoda adventure alone. It was a shame for both of them.

Scenes from day two.

They start work young here.

Time for cricket.

Market.

"Bos kuk" preparing our lunch.

Isurava Village.

Like breakfast, I loaded up at lunchtime as though I wasn’t going to see food again for a month. I was given a large packet of plain brown rice as my vegan option, which I scoffed down with a tin of chickpeas, then I got stuck into the Mountain Bread with roughly half a jar of peanut butter. It wasn’t exciting but it hit the spot perfectly. In fact I think it hit many spots, as I felt slightly sick from the sheer volume of food I had just consumed. Commencing the hike again, with the waist band of my backpack pulled tight around belly, was not the most pleasant feeling in the world. 

The afternoon presented fewer big climbs, which would have been almost leisurely if it wasn’t for the gooey mud. Again I felt myself sliding as soon as I lost concentration, but still I didn’t pull the poles out. Others questioned why I didn’t - I said I would when we hit the downhills. But honestly, I wanted to keep my hands free so I could take photos. As per usual, I was going photo-crazy, stopping every couple of minutes to take another shot. Poles would get in the way of that. Photos were obviously more important than my own safety.

 

After crossing Front Creek by walking along two parallel logs (thankfully not as difficult as it first appeared), we arrived at Isurava Battlefield in the early afternoon. We all located our tents, dropped our gear, and made our way down to the Isurava Memorial. I had heard of this site numerous times in my background reading, but it was nothing like I had imagined. Four granite pillars were lined up on the edge of a manicured plateau, looking out over a cloud-dotted mountain view. It appeared far more professional than the Kokoda Memorial and Museum, and the setting was more impressive too. Reg filled us in on the major battle that occurred here, although I became a little lost with all the positions of the various companies. I couldn’t envisage a war happening here, or imagine the danger the soldiers faced. The modern Memorial and neat gardens probably didn’t help matters. Also, I have shelter, warmth, food, no diseases and no one shooting at me. I can’t even pretend to know what the soldiers went through.

 

Nearby was Kingsbury Rock, where Bruce Kingsbury was killed after his fearless actions prevented the Japanese from overrunning the Australian position. His bravery earned him a Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the armed forces. A detailed plaque and Reg's account of the endeavour allowed me to conceptualise, for the first time, how the event would have unfolded. I shook my head at the senseless loss of life. 

Traversing Front Creek.

Another water crossing.

Isurava Battlefield.

Isurava Memorial.

Most of the group were fairly tired by the end of the day and were relieved to have finally made camp, but not me. I wanted to continue on, see more villages, more jungle, more lookouts. I wanted to hike all day until the sun set, until my legs were ready to collapse. After several days of doing relatively little physical activity, I was ecstatic to be out in the mountains, in nature, putting in the hard work. Every now and then I would get flashbacks to hikes I had completed in other countries, or scenery from different trail races, happy memories I hadn’t thought about for some time. My backpack was perfect, my boots and clothes were dry, I had no blisters, I was part of a wonderful group and I still hadn’t fallen over. I wonder how long this positivity will last, especially as the fatigue accumulates over the week. 

The sun appeared just long enough in the afternoon for me to brave a cold water shower. Arms are fine, legs I can do, but it’s putting the head under that has you swearing under your breath. I gritted my teeth and managed to wash my hair in record time. I won’t be doing that when the temperature drops further. The rest of the afternoon I spent gazing out over the Memorial, watching clouds roll in to obscure the surrounding mountains then slowly recede again. It was quiet, almost eerie, and strangely peaceful for the site of so much bloodshed. It was a scene I could have stared at all day.

Until the rain came. The first heavy drops had me scuttling back to my tent, grabbing my jacket and heading to the dining hut. More goods were for sale here, including the local passion fruit that I had heard so much about. It was about the size of a regular passion fruit but with soft skin that I could peel with my hands. Inside the flesh was white instead of orange and the taste was very mild - I almost wouldn’t have recognised it as a passion fruit if I wasn’t crunching down on all the seeds. It wasn’t bad, but I think I prefer the Australian version. 

Dinner tonight was spring vegetable soup (two helpings), followed by rice, a chickpea and onion stew for me, plus freshly picked choko leaves cooked in coconut milk (another two helpings). The stew and choko were incredible - I was overjoyed at seeing a green vegetable for the first time in two days. They could have cooked a massive pot of it and I would have devoured it all. 

After dinner we all sat around the sheltered fire, out of the rain, trying unsuccessfully to dry the clothes we had washed. One group member lost of pair of underwear to the flames, placing them a little too close to the flying embers. We all moved our belongings a step back after that. Reg described further wartime tales in detail, which I found the most interesting so far. Many of the stories I had read about before, but it was great to have the reminder (I was finding it difficult to recall which event happened where). 

I was in bed by 8.30 p.m., but I still wasn’t tired. I should have been exhausted after such little sleep last night and several hours of hiking, but my eyes were wide open. Again it was a warm night, so I laid on top of my sleeping bag and let a million random thoughts pass through my mind while I waited for sleep to arrive. 

Passion fruit.

The view from Isurava Battlefield.