The Kokoda Trail – chasing history in the jungle
The Kokoda is 96 km of narrow and muddy trail snaking
through dense jungle over the Owen Stanley mountain range on Papua New Guinea.
Depending on where you are from it either has almost mythical propensities or
you have never heard of it. The trail’s claim to fame came in World War II when
Australian diggers fought off a Japanese invasion along it, first retreating
back towards Port Moresby and later on chasing the Japanese off the Island. For
Australians it has achieved almost the same status as Gallipoli, ANZAC’s
glorious, but bloody engagement, in World War I. Though Kokoda is closer to
Australia than Gallipoli, it gets a lot fewer visitors for obvious reasons. The
distance from Port Moresby to Kokoda is only some 60 km in a straight line but
the winding trail stretches some 96 km. It is not more than what a fit person
could probably cover in 2 days if it was not for the fact that the narrow,
muddy and slippery path also ascends and descends some 6,000 meters over those
96 km – almost twice the height from basecamp to the summit of Everest!
The historic events, which led to the fame of the Kokoda trail, are well documented especially in Australian military literature. There are plenty of historical books on the fighting and the hardship faced by the diggers that were part of the campaign. The large war cemetery in Port Moresby also bears witness to the ultimate price paid by hundreds of young Australians.
I first heard about the Kokoda Trail when I had the opportunity to spend a few years in Australia. However, it was not until several years later that I finally had a chance to trek it. It also happened to be my first visit to Papua New Guinea. Most of what I knew about the place was from the news, which didn’t really paint a particularly inviting or positive picture of the place. The impression one gets from the media is one can expect to be murdered pretty much straight off the plane.
While I didn’t get murdered, the trip definitely did start out on the wrong foot. I arrived in Port Moresby airport in the morning, jetlagged after a night flight from Singapore. It took me a bit of time to find my contact from the trekking company because the guy hadn’t bothered with a sign but was just wearing a t-shirt with a company logo on under an open jacket. When I introduced myself, he told me that he wasn’t waiting for someone called Thomas but rather someone called James. After a bit of back and forth I suggested that perhaps he could check his list. He went through his list and realized that he actually was waiting for me. So far so good. When I informed him that I was booked to walk from Kokoda to Port Moresby, he laughed a bit and said he didn’t know anything about that. He had organized that we were going the other way. He made it pretty clear that my option was to walk from Port Moresby to Kokoda, or not walk at all. It later turned out one of the others in my group was also scheduled to walk from Kokoda, but at least he had gotten a heads up about the change of plans before he arrived in Papua New Guinea. Thankfully, the guy from the trekking company wasn’t part of the trekking crew, only part of the company’s absolutely useless back-office staff. In retrospect, I am actually thankful that I went with a completely incompetent trekking company as they failed to get a large number of trekkers together. As a consequence, we ended up being a very small group, which made the experience a lot more intense and enjoyable. Despite all my misgivings with the clueless back-office staff, the ground crew were good and they delivered. I also had an exceptionally good guide who was fantastic in pointing out various things of interest as we walked along the trail.
In the evening before the trek, we were all introduced to each other. We were nine in all. Six Aussies, an American, a Kiwi and myself. It turned out we were actually two groups. One was doing the trail in 5 days, and my group, the slower one, had 7 days to finish it. In my group we were five people. The small group size, given that the infrastructure at the camps is basic and limited, made it more convenient for everyone. My group consisted of a couple and two other guys, in addition to myself, all around the same age – slightly grey and mature. We seemed to be a good match.
Concerning the trail itself. There is only one route so there are two ways you can do it. Either from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda or the other way. For purists, it is from Kokoda to Owers’ Corner that is the right way to hike the trail, following the initial retreat of the Australian troops as they were being pushed back by the advancing Japanese army. What I didn’t realize at that time was that doing the trail the other way meant that there was less traffic on the trail going your way. It meant you were alone and not being overtaken or overtaking groups on the narrow trail. The few other groups we encountered were all walking the other way and through pure luck we had the camping sites to ourselves every night.
Though the Kokoda trail is marketed as a major tourist attraction, it is not exactly overrun. Over the years the trail has experienced changing popularity. Back in 2001 some 76 trekkers walked the trail, according to the Kokoda Trail Authority. It gradually got more popular, reaching a peak of just below 6,000 in 2008. Since then it has been stable at around 3,200 – pre-Covid-19 of course. It is actually a rather small number when you compare to other tourist destinations. Some 8,000 Australians show up every year for dawn service on 25 April in Gallipoli. The beauty of the few visitors is that it feels untouched and that you are truly walking in wilderness. Of course, the untouched feeling also means that infrastructure is very basic. You bathe in the river and the toilets, where they exists, are not for those who are sensitive.
Finally, after all the preparations and meet and greet we were ready to head off! We started out in the morning taking a mini bus out to Owers’ Corner, with a stop at the war cemetery on the way. Once at Owers’ Corner we got all the gear together and started hiking. The first bit was downhill so that was an easy start. It had rained recently and the trail was muddy and slippery. That was pretty much how it was for the entire trek. The main difference was really whether it was raining or had just stopped.
The hike down was fine. It was good to get a feel for the pace and realizing it was not a problem to keep up. We hiked for about an hour before we got to our first river crossing. It was a real river crossing! No bridge, no stones to step on. It was boots and socks off and into it. The river was probably some 30 – 40 meters wide at the point of crossing but only about waist deep. The current wasn’t too strong and it was an introduction to what lay ahead the next seven days. I could tell the guides were checking us out, trying to see how much attention they would need to pay to each of us over the next week to ensure we all made it out alive.
When we stopped for lunch after a few hours I sat and chatted with the two other guys in my group, John and Max. We had hit it off the night before at the meet and greet. The mood was good as we dug into our rations. We were all happy to be on the trail and enjoyed the hike. We waited for the couple to catch up with us. They had been at the back when we started but by the time, we had finished eating they should have had caught up. Still there was no sign of them. After a while, the head guide came over and informed us that they had given up and returned home. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to say the least. To already throw in the towel after only a few hours, seemed weird to be frank, but since you had to walk back the same way you came if you gave up, I guess it made sense to make the decision early on if you were going to do it anyway.
Still, to sign up for a seven day hike in the rainforest
and then give up after a few hours walking downhill sounds to me like you
haven’t bothered to look into what you signed up for! We dismissed the whole
thing and continued on the trail.
On the first afternoon, I arrived at the camp a bit before my two fellow hikers. The setting was absolutely stunning and very dramatic. The camp site was in a small opening, surrounded by tall trees and dense jungle. A river ran along one side of the campground. I had an hour or so before dark, so I quickly got started. The support staff were already getting dinner organized. We stayed in rather large but basic huts, made of wood and with thatched roofs. Despite being in the huts we still used our tents. It helped keeping the mosquitos and various creepy crawlers out. The huts were raised a bit above the ground which also helped keeping snakes out. I got out of my wet and sweaty clothes and took a bath in the river. The water was cold but it felt so good to cool down and get all the dirt off. I washed my shorts and t-shirt while in the river. After the bath I got my tent organized. Brendan, my guide, had already set it up for me so it was just getting the sleeping back rolled out and my stuff put in order. I hung up my wet clothes to dry and went over to the eating area where a small campfire was burning. My two fellow hikers had arrived and joined me while the rice cooked and our dinner (goulash) heated up. The head guide gave us a briefing on what lay ahead and we got our ration packs for the following day.
My friend from the back office had been in charge of organizing the food rations. He had approached that job with the same dedicated indifference which can only be achieved after years of ‘not giving a f**k!’ It was absolutely atrocious. I am no novice to army rations and canned food, but canned goulash for dinner four times on a seven-day trip? I wrote the organizer once I got back but he never bothered to respond. I take it that my friend wasn’t the only one in the company who had performance related issues. It seemed to be a requirement for getting a job there! All I can hope for is that they improve for the next lot who goes with them. Anyway, it didn’t take us long for the three of us to start swapping stuff from the ration. Candy bars, tea and instant coffee.
With the couple out, it left three of us in the group, along with the guides and porters. Being in such a small group wasn’t actually bad at all. We soon developed a routine that suited us all. Every morning we got up early, around six am or so. Had a quick breakfast and then packed up, hitting the trail at seven and hiked for a few hours. Then stopped for a cup of tea and a snack, followed by another few hours of hiking and then lunch before the final hike of the day, often arriving the next camp around four pm or so. Once at the camp, it was all about getting organized and having a bath in the river, or occasionally there would be a shower installed on the campsite. We walked at difference paces but no one saw it as a race. My guide was keen to get out on the trail quickly so we would normally lead the way. Walking alone, just with the guide, you really got to appreciate the beauty of the trail and the feeling of solitude. After a couple of hours John would normally catch up with us. He was a hardcore marathon runner and had a quicker pace. He even left his guide huffing and puffing behind him. When he caught up with me, we would continue together at a pace that allowed his guide to keep up, though he still looked like he was suffering. Our third companion, Max, would come later, preferring to take his time. Our routine made the whole experience enjoyable and when on the second last day we finished our hike already at lunch time, I almost felt cheated, because we stopped so early.
One afternoon on the trail stands for me as a typical Kokoda experience. John and I were slowly making our way over the second ridge of that day when the guides called a break. It was pouring down, and I was completely drenched. I had been ever since we started that morning. I dropped down on a log with John next to me. We had both long given up on using the ponchos. They were hot and uncomfortable to wear and made you sweat like crazy. Instead, I had opted just to wear a light shirt which dried easily. Of course, it meant you got soaked whenever it rained but after a day or two it stopped bothering me. Basically, you were wet the whole time anyway except for when you were in your sleeping bag and that’s really what mattered! Someone wrote, trying to describe the experience, that the feeling in the forest is like a steam bath. It is not too far off, though sometimes it was more like being in the shower! John and I sat in the pouring rain, munching on our candy bars and enjoyed our break ignoring the pouring rain. Because of the humidity things get wet and once wet, they stay wet. Every morning I had to put on wet shorts. I brought enough socks with me to have clean dry ones for each day. It was such a luxury! If you ever contemplate doing this trek, allow me to share some advice. No matter what you may think of latex shorts, they are fantastic as underwear on the hike. I used a pair under my trekking shorts and I managed seven days of hiking in damp humid conditions without any rashes or problems. Trust me, it’s worth it!
It’s hard to describe the Kokoda trail. It was either uphill or downhill, often quite steep and always narrow and muddy. When it had just rained the trail often turned into a stream which made the whole thing an even muddier mess than it already was. Occasionally, the trail actually was a stream that you walked in. River crossings were by far the most exciting part of the trail. It was either done by balancing on logs, jumping from rock to rock, or just getting the boots off and wading through, trying to find a path that would not get you in too deep. Occasionally, it got up to the waist, though that was the exception. Other times, most times, it was balancing precariously on narrow log bridges, sometimes spanning 20 meters or more, with a raging river below.
It was also when crossing rivers that you saw the guides really spring into action. Depending a bit on how they rated your skills, they would either let you cross on your own while keeping an eye on you, or in the case of one of my fellow hikers you would be fully covered, with a guide in front, walking backwards and another right behind with a solid grip in the jacket or backpack. Brendan tried to assure me that they had never lost a trekker on any of the river crossings. I wasn’t brave enough to ask him just where they had lost trekkers. At each of the log bridges there was a thin rope running along it, giving you something to hold on to, though I think it was more for mental support than anything else. I doubt it would really make a difference if one took a tumble. As soon as the last person had crossed, the rope was packed up and brought with us, ready for the next crossing. Crossing rivers was pretty much the only time we didn’t walk up or down hill. Most days we would be covering two or even three ridges. It seemed as if we were mainly walking uphill.
Of course, as with everything else, there are competitions about who can cover the trail the fastest. It was quite disheartening to learn, after a long day slogging up and down ridges that the record time for covering the entire trail was 16 hours! As it turned out, it was my guide, Brendan Buka who is the proud holder of the record. He was a hard man to impress. Of course, I put the difference in pace between me and him down to him being a lot younger than me, it had to be that…
The jungle is quite dense in most places and it felt like we were walking in a green tunnel. You rarely see the sun, partly because it rains a lot but also because of the dense tree cover. The dense jungle also makes it was hard to see far ahead and get a feel for how close you actually were to the top of the ridge. Because we often walked along ridges, we could see the sky through the trees ahead, getting the rush that you have made it to the top, only to find that the ridge we were walking on turned and continued upwards. It did put us under pressure at times especially towards the end of the day.
The Kokoda Trail is not a place one wants to have an accident. Brendan cheerfully shared story after story of how, when things went wrong, they really went wrong. A broken leg or a twisted ankle could put an abrupt end to the hike, but not an end to the adventure! The thick tree cover along most of the trail makes it impossible for a helicopter to land. As a result, sometimes an injured person had to be carried for a day or two to a suitable location. If the weather didn’t cooperate sometimes it could take longer. That the Kokoda Trail wasn’t just any old walk in the park was further underscored by a number of memorial plagues, put up by the families of Australian trekkers who had died on the trail. Even all these years later, the Kokoda still causes misery. It’s not just the trekkers who die. A few years back a porter also died, sparking debate about the amount of weight these guys carry. It all goes to show that it’s definitely not a walk in the park. We met a couple of groups going the other way where some of the stragglers looked like they really didn’t belong on the trail. Judging from the look on their faces, they didn’t want to be there either, but I guess they had gotten roped in when all their other mates signed up. One slightly older gentleman, well pass his prime and with more than a few kilos extra passed us on the way down one of the steeper slopes. It was raining, as usual, and trail was slippery as hell. He was struggling to keep his balance. He had two or three porters around him, each with solid grips in his poncho and backpack trying to make sure he got down safely. When he saw me, he asked “How long to the next camp. Don’t sugarcoat it!” I didn’t! It was midafternoon already and I had been hiking for at least three hours uphill since the stop at a camp for lunch but looking at his pace I thought it would take him even longer though he was going downhill. “Three, four hours, I would guess,” I said.
He gave me a stare like he would have preferred the sugarcoated version. “Bloody hell!” was all he grumbled and continued staggering down the hill with the porters in tow. The problem with Kokoda is that there is no emergency exit you can use if you change your mind. Either you walk back to where you started or you continue through.
Before starting out on the trail, I was concerned as to whether I could keep up and whether my knees would hold up. Two rounds of knee surgery had left their marks. I had trained beforehand of course, mainly long walks with a backpack with 10 kgs in it, but where I lived at the time there were no hills so it was just hiking on flat ground, which did little to prepare me for the steep hills. It worked out alright though. I was comfortable with the pace, and I enjoyed arriving at camp with a bit of time to relax and wash before dinner. In retrospect, I could probably have managed the pace of the faster group, but I appreciated having an hour or two to wash and get my gear sorted for the next day. I also updated my travel journal every evening, though often there would be little different to report from day to day. Just a lot of hiking uphill in the rain followed by staggering down in the rain.
For me it was the downhill slopes that presented the greatest challenges. Going uphill, and there was a lot of uphill, was exhausting but downhill, on a steep, muddy and slippery slope, that was where careful was the key word. I was careful, but no matter what you do, chances are that at one point or another you will slip. The question is just whether it only causes a bruised ego from the suppressed laughter of the guide and getting all covered in mud or something more serious. I had a couple of slips, landing squarely on my butt which ensured the impact was well cushioned. I had one more serious fall, but the only thing that broke was my trekking pole. It was more than half way through the trek and I managed just fine just with one. As it turned out, all three of us had falls, but thankfully, nothing serious happened to any of us.
The scenery, when you get a chance to peak through all the green is stunning. Ridges around you and no sign of any civilization. Just dense forest and in the evening some of the most dramatic scenery I have ever seen. At Brigade Hill I watched the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. It started with a double rainbow, and as the sun went down over the hills the sky turned a warm orange. The whole experience of hiking Kokoda was a combination of scenic sunsets, stunning views with dense green tunnels and ghostly forest, dramatic river crossings and a feeling of walking where very few people have ever walked before. And mud, lots of mud and rain!
While there was plenty of birds around, seeing any
was another matter. Supposedly, the Owen Stanley Ranges, through which
the Kokoda Trail passes, is one of the most biologically important areas in the
Asia Pacific with over 4,000 plant species and many endemic bird and animal
species. We heard the Birds of
Paradise several times and I caught a fleeting glimpse of one but that was
pretty much it. I didn’t see any mammals though apparently there were plenty
of pigs around. I didn’t see any snakes either but quite a few spiders and of a
size I had not previously encountered!
As mentioned, the Kokoda Trail’s claim to fame comes from being an old battlefield and there are still plenty of reminders lying around. We came across the occasional cartridge here and there and a few trenches. A lot of the remnants of the war have been collected by locals and put into private museums or displays where you get fleeced if you want to take a photo or even just look at it. However, not all has been collected. There is still plenty lying around in depots along the trail. I arrived with Brendan at one of these depots a bit off the trail. Discarded ammunition was lying around; piles of hand grenades, eroding on the forest floor, next to rows upon rows of mortar grenades along with a few artillery shells. All the advice you get is never to pick this stuff up, or even touch it, which seems like pretty solid advice if you ask me. Anyway, we stood surrounded by all these piles of explosives when Brendan gives me a broad smile and picks up the biggest shell he could find. The thing looked like it weighed several kilos.
“Here! Wanna hold it?” he asked and tried to hand me the artillery shell.
Recalling his latest horror story about how they had to carry someone with a broken leg for two days to get to a spot where the helicopter could land, I declined, though looking at the size of that thing I doubt there would be any need for an emergency services if it should suddenly go off.
“I am good, thanks!” I assured him
“Really? Are you sure?” Brendan asked in disbelief. “It’s a 70 mm!” Brendan bounced it up and down in his hands before he put it back down in the pile with the rest, not quite gentle enough for my taste!
Over the days on the trail, I came across a number of plagues and other memorials commemorating battles and feats of bravery. Some were easy to miss, just a small plague on a large rock on the side of a camping ground. Others were larger and more elaborate. The most famous, and by far the largest is the memorial at Isurava. When we arrived, it was one of those rare occasions where it wasn’t raining.
It can only be described as both beautiful and solemn, a suitable memorial to all those acts of bravery and sacrifice. It is set in beautiful location up on the side of a ridge. There is a stunning view out towards Kokoda. Some of the groups who trek the trail have a special emphasis on the battle sites, bringing historians with them amongst their guides. Our head guide didn’t share much info in that regard. We occasionally got a bit of a lecture in the evening about what we would see the next day, but little context. I didn’t mind too much. If the historical events had been important for me, I would probably have opted for a tour with an Australian guide. As it was, I read up on the history both before and after and felt I had a reasonable understanding of what happened where. The Isurava memorial also signified that we were getting close to our goal. We could even see it. We started hiking, and had hardly hit the trail before we encountered a group coming up from Kokoda. They on their first or second day. It was so clear, their clothes all crisp and clean. A couple were even hiking in white sneakers. I couldn’t tell you what we looked like, but crisp and clean probably wouldn’t be the first words used to describe us. We had our last night on the trail and I had my last can of goulash.
There have been repeated issues with the local landowners on the trail who feel they are not getting their fair share of the income generated. While trekkers pay for their permits the money goes to the Papua New Guinea government in Port Moresby and very little of that trickles back to the landowners on whose land the trekking actually take place. Given the level of corruption in the country it’s probably true that they are getting stiffed. We had all heard about the issues and the repeated closure of the trail by the locals before we set out but we were not aware of any current issues. Our guides didn’t really tell us that the problem still hadn’t been resolved. We only learned when we were made to wait without explanation just before a village close to Kokoda.
As we entered the village, the porters and guides were all gesturing and
discussing. It turned out that the village had earlier been the center for
blocking trekkers from continuing on the trail. The blockage had moved a few km
closer to Kokoda. The guides tried to make light of it, but they couldn’t hide the
fact that they were concerned. Having so far been blissfully unaware, I
couldn’t help starting to get worried too. I wasn’t really keen on returning
back the way I came, having just walked for six days. The new blockage was an easy
half an hour’s hike further down the trail from the old place. It was a
symbolic wall, which went across the trail. It was some 8 – 10 meters long, a
few meters high, and constructed out of bamboo poles and palm leaves. In the
middle was a gate, which was blocked with a couple of palm leaves. The
protestors were used to people coming the other way so all the handwritten
signs and banners were facing towards Kokoda. As it turned out, our head guide
had things under control and it only took a few minutes before we were allowed
to pass. Though we could easily have walked past, the guides told us we
wouldn’t have gotten far! The protestors who were there were friendly enough
and tried to explain their grievances and reasons for the blockade. The main
issue was that the share of the trekking fees which had been promised to the
landowners and locals never came. Instead, it got stolen off by corrupt
officials in Port Moresby. It’s hard not to sympathize with their protest. There is no denying that corruption is rampant
in Papua New Guinea. The country is poor and corruption only makes things
worse. It ranks 137 in the world in terms of corruption and finds itself in the
company of countries such as Angola, Guinea and Myanmar, which is not a good
place to be. When the country was hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation
meeting in 2018, 43 Maseratis and three Bentleys were imported for the event,
only for these cars to go ‘missing’ afterwards. In total some 300 cars used to
ferry around delegates for the conference disappeared after the event was over!
One of the consequences of all this public theft is that rural areas are
struggling, severely underdeveloped and poverty is rampant and highly visible
across the country, including in Port Moresby. It is therefore not much of a
surprise that Papua New Guinea has a pretty bad reputation with regards to
crime, and not unjustly so. Of course, Port Moresby is notorious but outside
the city there are also issues. In other parts of the country, criminals use roadblocks outside towns to stop
and loot vehicles and then attack the occupants. Even on the Kokoda Trail, there have been a number of incidents, though
the last reported ones lie several years back. All that being said, I never
felt unsafe. The guides and porters all looked well after us.
After dealing with the blockage, we arrived in Kokoda less than an hour later and passed through the arches which signified the end of the hike. At Owens’ Corner we had started our hike by passing through identical arches. It was a great feeling! We had done it and more importantly it had been a fantastic experience! After the obligatory photos were taken, we said goodbye to most of the guides. We didn’t stay in Kokoda for the night. Our head guide mumbled something about the local camp not being that safe, so instead we moved out to a small village where one of the guides was a local chief. We got an overwhelming traditional welcome by a couple of local warriors, dressed up with feathers and spears and were treated to a Mumu - a traditional meal cooked with heated red-hot rocks. We feasted on yams, chicken and potato. It was great! A good solid meal and a welcome break from the bloody canned goulash! Our camp was next to a small river, which came in handy when we later tried to clean our gear. Especially the boots got a work over. My two companions were going back to Australia and New Zealand and the state of their boots would be enough to give any environmental controls officer at the airport a stroke! It took some serious work before I even started getting any of the original color shining through. Early next morning it was packing up and into the back of car for a long drive to the nearest airport, Girua, some 90 km away.
I had brought along some Kina, the local currency, with me on the trail. It turned out there was no need. There was nothing to buy on the trail. No shops, no vendors. There were a few handcraft stalls at Efogi village, the halfway point on the trail. They sold some weaved baskets and similar kind of stuff. Closer to Kokoda in one village someone had put up a small bucket with a few lukewarm beers and soda. Aside from that it was only the cost of entering into the private museums or taking photos of someone’s collection of military hardware. I didn’t use the opportunity. In the end, I only spent a few Kina on a cup of tea at the airport waiting for our flight back to Port Moresby.
Flying back to Port Moresby we pretty much went right over the trail. It was impossible to see anything. I didn’t even spot any of the villages. It was just a massive green carpet with lots and lots ridges, and I had climbed them all! Once back in Port Moresby my two fellow travelers had a flight to catch. I had another night in Port Moresby before my flight back so I had time to do a bit of sightseeing and souvenir shopping before I headed to a restaurant and had the biggest steak I could find on the menu, along with a couple of pints! Great end to a great trip!