Well… I did it! After more than 7 days, a total of 96KM, including 10,000+ metres of pure inclines and declines, I can quite easily say that walking the Kokoda trail was easily the most physically gruelling, mentally challenging and emotionally draining experience I’ve ever had in my life.
It was also one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I’ve ever had. After paralleling my struggle with the infinitely harder task that was put in front of the Australian Diggers and Japanese soldiers over 60 years ago, I couldn’t help but feel absolutely humbled by their sacrifice and valour.
I walked with one of my colleagues and friends, Jeremy Firth. The two of us had been partially sponsored by our firm, The LiTMUS Group, as part of the ‘Boost Award’ initiative, which encourages employees to go out of their comfort zone.
I thought I’d spend this final blog detailing my experience, day-by-day, as follows below:
Day 1: Ower’s Corner to Good Water (2.5 hours walking time)
Day 1 was supposed to commence when I got into Port Moresby on an 8:30am flight, unfortunately my Airlines of PNG flight was delayed by 3 hours, meaning we were only able to have a very short walk which started after 1pm and finished by 4 in the afternoon. The flight delay was the first of the hard lessons I’d learn about the Papua New Guinean culture of time-keeping – it doesn’t exist.
You can walk the Kokoda track one of two ways – either from Ower’s Corner (just outside Port Moresby) to Kokoda or vice versa. We chose to do it (without much logic) from Ower’s to Kokoda, which in hindsight was a great idea, as most of the fighting between the Diggers and the Japanese occurred in the 2nd half of the trek, which provided us with the inspiration we needed to keep going later on in the trek.
The weather conditions were difficult from the start of the trek – I was sweating before I started walking. Coming out of Sydney’s winter made it even harder to deal with the heat and humidity.
We camped that first night at a place called ‘Good Water’, where there was a creek where we able to take a dip in and wash our clothes. Given that we started and finished late, the ‘guest houses’ (basically small huts) were already occupied, so our first night on the track was spent in a tent, surrounded by A LOT of mosquitoes and some very hot weather, even at night.
Day 2: Good Water to Ioribaiwa (6 hours walking time)
We started day 2 at 6am with a 300m climb up Imita Ridge. One thing I learnt very quickly was that there were few very flat spots on the track, you’re mostly walking up or down a slope.
The weather was very similar to day 1 – hot and humid, which made the climbs particularly delightful. However to compensate for the weather conditions, we were stopping frequently – about every hour or so for breaks and took two main breaks for the day – at morning tea and lunch. Hiking after lunch was the worst part of the day, we were tired, it was hot and all the initial motivation that may have existed at the start of the day was completely gone.
One of the fascinating things of day 2 was the number of creeks we crossed – 16 in total! This meant for a good 2 hours I was walking in sandals, as opposed to my hiking boots. The annoying thing about creek crossings is that they’re always at the bottom of a valley, so we were always having to go down then back up to cross a creek, something we came to call ‘wasted verticals’. Unfortunately modern bridge infrastructure had not been embraced till date on the track.
We finished the day at Ioribaiwa, which is famous as it was the place where the Japanese offensive eventually ended and was the closest they got to Port Moresby. After three solid months and having covered a few hundred kilometres, the Japanese were forced to retreat only 40KMs away from their final goal.
Day 3: Ioribaiwa - Augulogo (10 hours walking time)
Day 3 was easily the hardest day of the trek. We spent this day trying to recover the time lost on day 1, and I really felt the burn. We started with a 700m climb up the Maguli Range, for which the locals have a more colloquial name, which is probably not publishable on this blog. To contextualise the 700m climb to myself, I put it in terms I was more familiar with - tall skyscrapers. If we assume the average building has a 3 metre gap between floors, then a 700m climb would roughly be equivalent to 230 floors. And I can assure you my body felt each of those 230 floors.
The fun didn’t stop there on day 3; following lunch, we had a sharp 600m descent into the village of Nauro and then a punishing 2 hours more of walking before reaching our campsite for the day, Augulogo. Again, as we reached this campsite after another group of trekkers, there were no guest houses available, so we had to camp out in the tent. This was probably a good thing because I’d never seen a greater number of insects (particularly of the mosquito variety) in my life.
By the time we got into the campsite I was suffering from cramps in my fingers, stomach and toes. To sit down and have a good bland meal of cold Irish stew with rice followed by a creek bath was a tremendous relief and a major reality check on the things I take for granted everyday in my life back in Australia.
Day 4: Augulogo – Efogi (7 hours walking time)
Today started again with a 5am wakeup call and a 6am start time. We tried to get out early each morning to avoid walking in the heat too much. The weather Gods had been kind to us up till now in that we hadn’t had any rain during the day and mostly overcast conditions. As we were heading further up into the Owen Stanley mountain ranges, the weather got cooler which made walking conditions easier. Starting the day with a climb up ‘the wall’ did not. It’s called a ‘wall’, because that’s pretty much what it is - a 60 degree or so inclined slope which took a solid hour of climbing to scale.
After getting through this hurdle we had a couple of hours downhill to the village of Menari and then up the famous Brigade Hill. This climb, although as high in vertical distance as Maguli (700m) was more gradual, which should have made it slightly easier. At 9am, having walked for 3 hours up a wall, then down a sharp drop, the last thing I was thinking about was whether the incline was more gradual than the day before, but we managed to push up Brigade Hill for 3 hours and had lunch at the top.
Brigade Hill was the location where Australian troops had retreated to following the defeat at the battle of Isurava. Confident in their strategic positioning, the Australians did not expect the Japanese to outflank their position by co-ordinating an attack through the jungle itself, rather than along the track, which is exactly what they did, subsequently soundly defeating the Australians.
As I listened to our local guide, Harold tell us this story, I couldn’t help but contrast how incredibly difficult I’d found the track to this point with the way the Japanese scurried up the steeper and more rugged jungle terrain in pitch dark to defeat the Australians at dawn. Incredible.
We finished day 4 at Efogi 1. This campsite is much loved by trekkers for 2 reasons: firstly, it represents the half way point of the track, and secondly and more importantly there are mattresses to sleep on! Life’s little pleasures like this become priceless items on the track and I distinctly recall waking up during the night thinking I was in my bed at home. I was not, of course, but I’d got half way and that helped ease the pain of four days of relentless marching.
Day 5: Efogi - 1900 (6 hours walking time)
I think I became what the locals called ‘jungle fit’ by day 5. This is basically a point where your body accepts the rigours of the track, your mind adjusts to the fact that asking ‘how much longer we have left’ is completely futile and that the best solution is to embrace the challenge and the burn and accept that your only way to succeed is to put one foot ahead of the next. Unfortunately, I started suffering from some rather annoying nausea this day, which I attributed to the water purifying tables I’d been using. I stopped taking these and started boiling my water, which in turn did stop my nausea but the trade-off was that I was left drinking hot water.
After a quick one hour descent at the start of the day, we started the biggest climb of the trek, an 1100m trek up the hill called 1900, cleverly named so because it’s 1900m above sea level. I knew I was ‘jungle fit’ because even though the climb up 1900 took us longer than both Maguli and Brigade Hill, I felt better at the end of it and not as challenged while doing it.
One of the key pointers I’d been given by veteran trekkers I’d spoken to was about being mentally and emotionally prepared. This was something I’d taken for granted; I mean all we were doing was walking for 8 days right? Wrong! The mental strain I felt was essentially a product of desperation. There’s no way I could compare the mental approach I had in my training sessions, especially the knowledge of when my training session would end – a known, versus when this climb would end, how steep it was and what the terrain was like –a complete unknown. I think it’s only when I was ‘jungle fit’ was I able to manage the mental side of things, and this took an especially long time for me.
Getting into camp at 1900 was a relief, but we had initially planned on walking further that day. Unfortunately we learnt that another trekking company had taken up the campsite we intended to get to at the end of the day so we pitched at 1900. This was easily the coldest part of the trek and with the wind howling at night, I’m quite sure the temperature was in the low teens, if not in single digits – a far cry from day 1 at Ower’s Corner!
Day 6: 1900 - Alola (8 hours walking time)
Day 6 was another incredibly long day – we had a climb up to the highest peak of the trek, Mt Bellamy. At 2200m, the views would have been good, had we not been there just after sunrise and were we not above the clouds. Apparently you are able to see Kokoda village from here, which of course at 7am in thick cloud, we could not.
The rest of the day consisted of downhill descents. Although these were definitely easier than the uphills, they took a severe toll on the knees and my patience. However, the most challenging part of the 2nd half of the track was the mud. It was mostly ankle deep, and at points when I lost my footing, it got shin deep and once or twice into my boots - that was a disgusting feeling to say the least.
Another challenging part of the day was that we had some solid rain during the day, which only made the walking conditions more difficult and continued to test my wearing patience.
One of the highlights of the day was visiting ‘Jap Bunker’ – this housed a selection of old Japanese war relics including ammunition, guns, live grenades and helmets. We saw the carved out locations, still preserved some 70 years later, where the Japanese placed their war guns and bombarded the Australians camped in Mission Ridge and Brigade Hill.
The walk post lunch at Templeton’s crossing was very difficult. After 6 days on the track I was carrying a lot of residual fatigue, and getting into Alola that afternoon was a major relief. I was re-acquainted with another of life’s little pleasures I’ve always taken for granted– a can of coke. Even though it was warm, it was the sweetest taste I’d had in a while.
Day 7: Alola - Kokoda (7 hours walking time)
Day 7 started off with a lot of optimism as following a discussion with our guide the night before, he’d informed us that given the distance we’d covered over the previous three days, we had the opportunity to get to Kokoda a day early if we pushed hard today.
Following a short one hour trek in the morning, we reached Isurava. This is the largest memorial site of the Kokoda Track and is simply breathtaking. It sits atop a cliff overlooking a magnificent valley, which looks all the more spectacular early in the morning as the sun rises over the low clouds.
After 6 days of trekking, I had an immense sense of achievement and pride upon arriving at this milestone, combined with an intense feeling of patriotism, upon observing the memorial site. Reaching Isurava proved to me that my efforts over the past 6 days and training over the past 5 months were completely justified.
Although we’d got some rain for the first half of the day, the terrain was mainly downhill so we were able to move without taking as many breaks as were required while going uphill. We stopped for lunch at the Deniki lookout, from where we able to see Kokoda village in the distance as the rain had cleared.
From here it was a climb down a hill they call the ‘testing mountain’ for trekkers walking the other way and then an 8KM flat walk into Kokoda village.
If the feeling of getting into Isurava in the morning was one of pride and patriotism then the one of getting into Kokoda in the afternoon was nothing short of ‘school-girl’ giddiness. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as we walked through Kokoda Village to the Orohaven Retreat where we’d stay for the next 2 days; even as we crossed 3 rivers which had quite solid currents flowing through them.
What did I learn?
Walking the Kokoda track was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but also one of the most fulfilling achievements I’ve had in my life. Even though I’ve been an Australian citizen for more than 16 years now, I have never felt prouder to be an Australian than when I stood at the Isurava memorial and paid my respects to the great soldiers who had passed here before me.
As a young Sikh, I remember reading the stories of the sacrifices made by the members of a religion in its infancy as it strived to establish itself as the voice of purity in a society plagued with racism and bigotry. As a result of this while growing up, I’ve tried to honour these sacrifices by wearing my Sikhi proudly in a modern society where, although we are not faced with the same level of persecution as our ancestors, the role of our identity remain as relevant in an increasingly culturally congruent world.
While walking Kokoda, I couldn’t help but parallel the sacrifices made by the Diggers to those made by my Sikh forefathers. My completion of the Kokoda track was my very small and humble way of paying homage to the legacies of these greater human beings who gave up their lives to improve those of people like me today.
Would I recommend the trek to anyone else? Definitely! But a word of advice, make sure you do the adequate training and preparation, you do it for the right reasons, and have a little understanding of the history so you can appreciate the trek a little bit more. It is an experience of a lifetime!
View pictures from his trip here.