I woke up several times in the night, riled up with excitement to start the journey. Justin Bieber woke me up at 5:30am, Beauty and a Beat was the alarm I had set – a moment later, the telephone beside the bed began to ring. *Phew* It was a courtesy wake up call and an invitation to join the team for breakfast in the hall.
I got out of bed and had my 6 o’clock appointment. I stood under the soothing massage of the rainfall shower head, the last time I would have a mechanised shower for the next eight days.
My clothes were all technical garments: a breathable, quick-dry shirt with air-ventilation wings beneath the arms and below the neck; compression leggings to the ankle; lightweight, zip-away hiking pants; gaitors to the knee; compression liner socks with toes; over the top of that a pair of heavy-duty hiking socks; leather boots above the ankle; and finally, a wide-brimmed hat. Each piece served a purpose, whether to protect against the sun (hat), regulate heat loss (shirt), protect against biting insects (shirt); protect against cutting and abrasions (gaitors); regulate circulation (compression socks and leggings); or provide joint support (boots).
For breakfast, the hotel offered a continental buffet. I grabbed a croissant and some fruit, a glass of juice and a glass of water – that would be enough to get my engine going.
They gave us some time to relax and enjoy the breakfast, but then we had to finalise our packs. I left my carry-on suitcase with the hotel and took with me only the essentials- I had to consider the porter who would be carrying my backpack, we were advised that a bag under 10kgs would be ideal.
After what was a significant wait, we were picked up by bus and taken to the light-craft airport. There, a light-craft would fly us and our backpacks to Kokoda. Light-craft airplanes necessitate balance and weight distribution is paramount. Each of us were weighed on a stand-on scale, then our backpack. It was the first time since the airport that I had weighed my bag, which at the time was 15.9kg. Somehow I had managed to repack everything well enough to get it down to just 9.6kg.
The original plan was to take three separate airplanes, enough so to accommodate the entire group and their backpacks. However, one of the airplanes was out of operation – two of the three groups could go ahead, the final group needed to wait for the airplane to return. And so the wait was on.
I climbed aboard and found the airplane to be rather empty, only enough seats for six passengers, but so much space around. You could see the wings and the propellers from any seat. We taxied on the tarmac but were behind a queue of airplanes taking off. The waiting was agonising, it was another 45 minutes inside the non-air-conditioned airplane before we took off.
The flight was amazing. The tuk-tuk-tuk of the engine and the soaring heights were exhilarating. We flew over what was apparently most of the track through which we would be trekking, at times it was hidden amongst the dense jungle. But there were rivers that had mud tracks on either side of the banks, those were the tell-tale signs of walking trails.
Mostly in brown clearing, where grass probably did not grow, there were small villages with lines of white smoke rising from the rooftops. Even the rivers were brown. This made me think about our drinking water supply and where we would bottle it – of course, I had purification tablets, but they don’t filter the water and make it clear!
As we reached higher and higher into the clouds, my eyes began to wonder out in the expanse of sky. Below us on the clouds, the airplane cast a shadow and circling around it was a rainbow. A circular rainbow on top of a cloud, with the shadow of our airplane right in its centre. Amazing!
The landing was a thrill. We flew over a clearing of forest, which from our vantage, looked like an elongated football field. We arced around and lined up the plane as we descended. There was a slight nervousness in the plane, everyone was unsure of how a grass landing would feel. As the wheels kissed the ground we felt the first bump of the landing. The wheels lowered again and this time gained traction, the brakes were on, we were stopping fast. Before we knew it we had taxied over to an area where a group of men stood – our porters and guides!
It was barely 9 o’clock in the morning, but the sun was radiating its brilliance down on us. We hopped off the plane and took our backpacks over to the shelter. The porters were fumbling around our backpacks, perhaps joking amongst them who would carry the biggest and heaviest!
The wait was on – two more groups were to complete the party and there was at least an hour to twiddle our thumbs. I had to get out of the sun and found a small track at the edge of the runway that lead to a palm tree plantation. There, we sought cool refuge in the shade and chased beautiful butterflies the size of our open palms.
I walked out into the open field, the sun shining, burning. The final group had just arced around and were coming down to land. Thrilling from inside the airplane, it was even more so as a spectator on the ground. We could see the plane bounce slightly as the wheels hit ground at speed. All of us stood where the porters had stood as we came in to land, from this vantage point it seemed the airplane would not brake in time! The propellers would chop us into tiny pieces, we would never even start our journey!
The pilot stopped the plane, not 50m from us, and as the propellers were disengaged we all came up to greet the last portion of our group. We were all together now.
We stood behind our backpacks, which the porters had lined up neatly for us. This was the meet and greet with our companions. One by one we were called up to the front, and one by one our porters came up to greet us.
A short, timid, young man came up with a grin across his face – his name was Auda (pronounced, Ow-rah). We were similar in height, but he was much thinner. He wore a polo with the tour’s logo embroidered on the chest, with a pair of shorts and thongs. Thongs!? Here I was in full hiking gear and there he was all casual as if just about to duck up to the shops to buy the morning paper.
He asked me to make some room in the backpack for some of his own belongings, which didn’t really take up much space. I transferred the ration of granola bars that the group leader handed out earlier. When Auda put the backpack on, I was worried that it might be too heavy – even though it was definitely under the recommended weight. He was very polite and gave me a nod to let me know it was fine.
As we set off, I encouraged him a lot and tried to get to know him better. English was not his strong point, but we managed to tell each other a bit of a story.
“It’s my third time, here with Gecko’s.”
I thought, wow he must be awfully strong to start so young. Eventually, I got it out of him that he was 17 years old.
We had been walking for 10 minutes and had not yet entered the jungle, still on open plain. The Kokoda War Memorial is at the head of the trail and a chance for us to read about the history of the track. Some 10,000 soldiers came to the shores of Papua New Guinea and advanced the army lines through the Kokoda Track. Malaria, cholera and starvation were the main killers – in fact, for every infirmed soldier, one would fall from malaria. It was decided then that I would be on Malarone Duty, ensuring that everybody remembered to take their anti-malarial medication every morning.
We passed a rainwater tank and Auda asked if I needed a refill. At that point, I had still enough water from what I had bottled at the hotel. It didn’t occur to me to ask Auda if he needed to fill up.
There was a clearing that veered off the path we took, which opened up into a picnic area. The sun was unrelenting in its blistering heat and we sought the protection of shade under a shelter made with hand-thatched roofing.
In anticipation of lunch, I equipped myself with cutlery: a camping spoon that doubled as a fork if you flipped it around, and a hard plastic knife that I had swiped from the Niu Gini Air lunch service.
It finally occurred to me to ask Auda about his water. He was off with the other porters preparing our food, but I walked up and asked him. He showed me his receptacle – a reused Sprite bottle with barely any water inside. I offered to share half of my water with him, as I had enough bottle space to rotate purification regularly. It was a small gesture to show my appreciation and my willingness to bond with him.
We fetched some more water together, although he was adamant to go and fetch it himself. Just the two of us, I asked him about his family.
“I have brother, Nicky. I have sister, Ele. When I born, my father die in fire.”
He was clearly working to support his family – his two siblings and his mother. I felt sorry for him, but I was inspired by him, too.
When we got back to the others, lunch was being served. In my mind, we would be eating local dishes – like root vegetables and so forth. From the big pot, 2-minute noodles were ladled into our bowls. For those of us that were still hungry, we were offered a ladle of warmed-up baked beans.
Kindly, the porters boiled up some water and offered us all hot drinks. With the leftover hot water they washed up the plates and cutlery.
We resumed the trail, and this time I was at the head of the pack- confident and ready to achieve. I was able to speak with the tour leader and get the low down on the rest of the day.
“We are going to camp, two and a half hours away. It is flat all the way.”
The jungle was becoming denser and felt as if it was closing in on us. At least the canopy would afford us some shade and protection from the sun. We passed a camp attached to a tiny village. The women of the village came out with fresh fruit and some sugary treats that we could buy. I wanted to buy a coconut, but she had just sold the last one.
A narrow creek flowed by here and we took some time to relax. Some of us went down to the water and dipped our feet. Another group was camping here for the night, and were already bathing- it gave me some motivation to press on a little more to the next camp, our camp.
As we pressed on, the flat path slowly and slowly inclined. We were hiking up a mountain and by the time we realised, the path became a vertical wall. The path zigged and zagged up the mountainside, difficulty with each step.
Auda was beside or behind me the entire time, providing me with support. This gave me the mental edge I needed to pursue this mountain climb – some of the toughest ascents I had seen.
As we cleared the top of the mountain, we were gracefully rewarded with spectacular, sweeping vistas over the Kokoda Valley and beyond. The density of the jungle below us was a breathtaking sight, the path was completely lost from view.
Our camp site was not far from here, just another 20m, thank god! Here we would sleep overnight, inside a open guesthouse set on ricketty stilts. It was open on all sides with a door at the front. The grass thatched-roof seemed thick enough to keep water out and the floor was made of split bamboo. Each step inside the room felt as though the floor would give way and send us plummeting to the ground below.
Everyone found their spot, I was in between the girls, Sarah and Alanna. I unrolled the air mattress and let it inflate itself with the squeeze of the air nozzle. The sweat was just dripping down everywhere, but there wasn’t a river or small waterfall nearby. A dry shower it was, wet wipes and a whole lot of airing out on the grass.
Under the pouring rain, Sarah and I did some yoga stretches. It felt great to release tension and relax muscles. The rain providing a gentle pattering on the corrugated tin roof, a sort of therapeutic aural sensation.
Dinner was a mission as we all got our headlamps and set them around the table to give everyone light. This was both a great idea and the worst idea. Bugs were attracted to the light, as they normally are, but here in the deep jungle they came in hoards. Deet was a barrier between us and them, but to have so many uninvited guests for dinner was a mind-melting.
Our porters made some popcorn as a bit of a snack and then served us with generous portions of mashed potato with corned beef mixed through. It was good, it was tasty, it was satisfying.
I brushed my teeth and went to my spot in the guesthouse. I hadn’t reapplied any deet and thought I best sleep with the mosquito jacket. That was the biggest mistake.
Though the jacket was perforated like a mesh, it was also efficient as retaining heat- I sweated like crazy in the night.
I woke up in the middle of the night, someone on the other side of the room was kicking my feet. I was probably snoring.