Years ago I read the book Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimmons, as a way to learn more about Australian war history. The story captivated me. In 1941, under the guise to "free" Asia from Europe's grasp, the Japanese began invading country after country in the Asia-Pacific region. British Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines were all captured, and the Australian territories of Papua and New Guinea were next on the list. Taking control of these islands was paramount for the Japanese for several reasons: it made it difficult for the United States to mount a military attack against them; it isolated Australia from its allies; and it gave them a launchpad for possibly invading Australia in the future.
In 1942, Australia sent a militia battalion to protect Papua and New Guinea. These were untrained men with zero war experience. Along the Kokoda Trail they trudged, through hostile jungle terrain, to prevent the Japanese (who had landed on the northern shores) from seizing the capital, Port Moresby. The Australians had fewer soldiers, resources and weapons, far less training and almost no support from high command, but they put up a resistance greater than anyone could have imagined. For weeks they kept up a fighting withdrawal, stalling the enemy until further reinforcements could arrive. The Japanese has not counted on meeting any significant opposition, and over the next three months their supply lines gradually dwindled down to nothing. The tides began to turn, and the Australians were then on the attack against the retreating Japanese. It took many months, numerous acts of bravery and tens of thousands of casualties, but the Australians, without any assistance from the Allies, eventually forced the Japanese off the island completely. The battle in Papua New Guinea was the first time that the Japanese had been defeated on land in World War II. Somehow, the story remains relatively unknown.
This victory would not have been possible without the vital support of the local Papuans, nicknamed the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. Without them, Australia would have been decisively crushed. Their descendants still live along the Kokoda Trail, and act as carriers for thousands of trekkers each year. Then, as now, we owe them a great deal of debt.
As soon as I finished the book I knew that I wanted to undertake the popular pilgrimage across the Kokoda Trail. But life got in the way, and year after year I put it off. Finally, in 2019, I found a window of opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. I signed up with a tour company and set out with a group of strangers to retrace the footsteps of our heroic diggers. Before us, in the wild, remote jungle of Papua New Guinea, lay a 123 km muddy, technical track, with 6,660 metres of elevation. This was going to be an epic adventure.