As dawn broke, we were woken by the sound of the tour leader’s voice.
It was time for my morning appointment, my seated ritual. I ran off to the outhouse, just a pit with some logs laid over the top. The trick is to squat and hover over the hole in the ground. I was terrified of falling in so I had to aim very well. I was glad to have been the first in there!
While everyone freshened up, I packed my backpack and went over for breakfast. Auda appeared from nowhere to take my backpack. I poured hot water over weetbix and as I spooned the last bit into my mouth, I realised that there was milk powder and sugar on the table…
The porters all stood up, arranged with tallest men at the back and the shortest at the front. A harmony of voices, the men began to sing to us:
“No. No-oh-oh, it’s not an easy ro-oh-oh-oad. No! No-oh-oh, it’s not an easy road. Well, Jesus walks beside me and brightens the journey. And lightens every he-eavy load.”
There we were, deep in the jungle, it was the most beautiful chorus I had ever heard and a poignant place for it be sung.
Just outside the camp, there was a stream flowing down a channel in rock. A length of PVC piping was jammed into the rock and diverted water from the rock face into a little more than a trickle by which we could fill up our water bottles. Auda and I filled everything we had and I dropped in some purification tablets.
The others kept walking, so there was some distance between us now. But there is only one path you can go by and in the long run, you can’t change the path you’re on.
The path curved around the mountain- to our right, the trees covered the steep incline, on our left, leafy vegetation covered the ground as far as the eye could see. It looked like the leaves that the porters were eating the night before, so I asked Auda.
“This leaf, you eat it?”
“Yes, is choko plant.”
The choko is the fruit of the chayote plant, in the same family of cucumbers and gourds. Its flesh is watery with a texture resembling that of a squash. I had never in my life cared for chokos, until then. I suggested that I would eat some of the leaves with the porters next time they were cooking it.
The leaves of the chayote plant have diuretic, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory properties. While it is consumed as food, it also behaves as a medicine.
On the track, I was constantly looking at the ground, anticipating my path around the overgrown tree roots that curl up to trip you. The narrow pathway is always clear, just dirt, rocks or roots. I was startled to see a baby snake on the path, it had been crushed by someone walking ahead. How could they have not seen it?
Up and down, up and down- that was the theme of the day. We climbed up difficult inclines and shuffled down difficult declines. Auda held on to my bag as I descended the track- there were a few times I was overconfident in my stepping and nearly slipped, only to be held back by his weight pulling me.
I realised we were a strong team- all of us marching ahead with strength and determination. Auda and I made a strong duo, too. We eventually found our rhythm and settled in the middle of the marching group, the powerhouse- not too fast to be at the head, not too far behind to be at the tail.
The path brought us through a small town called Isurava and just as before, the villagers offered us their fruits and snacks. Peckish, I took a packet of chips. Although the farms didn’t appear to be yielding anything ready for harvest, the villagers appeared healthy. Little could be said for the animals living here, the dogs were boney and weren’t very active.
An hour later, we arrived at the Isurava Memorial. There, we stopped for lunch and it was the perfect place for it, too. The Australian Government had constructed a monument in memorial of the lives lost during the battles that were fought here.
These were four pillars of strength that lined the outer circle of the memorial. It reminded us that we would need to embody these four elements if we were to pursue the Kokoda Track through to the end.
Courage, because we cannot live a life with fear holding us back.
Endurance, to persevere with ambitious determination.
Mateship, to support and to hold one another.
Sacrifice, to give more than all you have to recognise your purpose.
A small path came away from the monument, a sign read:
Near this site 29 August 1942, Private Bruce Kingsbury 2/14th Batallion, performed an act of valour for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross – the Commonwealth’s highest decoration for bravery – at the cost of his life.”
He was responsible for defending against the advances of the Japanese army and pushed them back down to the river. I could only begin to imagine his fear- of death, of capture, of uncertainty. A real estate agent before the war, he had toured in other wars prior Kokoda. He was only 24 years old.
There was a sombre veil hanging over us all at lunch. We quietly ate noodles again, into which we sliced up pieces of spam. Renée was complaining of illness, which gave me cause to worry due to her sensitivity to gluten. She drank water to help alleviate any discomfort.
I was sweating profusely, the humidity and the burning sun was a fiery combination. While I was conscious of my hydration levels, I thought I should also counter loss of minerals through perspiration. It was easy to add a sachet of hydrating formula to the water, but nothing could improve its taste.
On the final leg of the day, the tour guide stopped us for a history lesson. On this part of the track, the canopy was well-developed and provided ample shade- I could say that it felt slightly cooler in the cover. In the middle of the path was a large boulder with a flat top, positioned as such that it was necessary to take a wide berth around it. There, the boys sat while we listened to the story.
Having had already walked quite some distance into the jungle, we were well aware of the difficulties in moving troops through the area. Little did we know, but machinery also came through the jungle path. However, at the most difficult of sections, it was nearly impossible to transport medical equipment such as beds and surgery. Improvisation was key to survival. The rock upon which the boys were sitting was used as a surgery table for injured soldiers. Possibly upwards of a hundred soldiers were operated on. Andrew was the first to hop off the table, the others quickly followed suit out of respect.
The path disappeared under intertwined tree roots that snaked in and out of each other like a carpet of wooden pythons. The porters knew exactly where they were going, of course, but had it been up to me, we would have all been lost wanderers.
Over the final ridge the path opened up to a valley, over which we could see another mountain range in the distance. It was steep here, steep enough at times to require the support of two porters- one ahead and one behind. To add to the rational fear of slipping and landing on your neck, the left side of the path shot down into the valley, a sheer drop into the endless jungle.
The village literally rose out of the path before us, the Alola Village and as soon as we knew it was our camp for the night, we grabbed our towels and raced over to the cascading trickle. It wasn’t much, but what was little more than a trickle was enough to call it a shower. Fresh, crisp and clean- three words I would have said if the iciness hadn’t taken my breath away.
I was well aware there would be creepy crawlies in the jungle and having just bathed in wild water, we left vulnerable to a host of waterborne critters. Nothing could have prepared us for what entered our ears, as Sarah screamed for dear-life, the high-pitched shriek resonating down into the valley. A thirsty, black leech found its way on to Sarah’s back and after we all realised this, all the girls began to join in the screeching chorus.
I did not dare to pick it off, lest it reattached its sucker onto me! Alanna was the one to save the day, squeezing the bloody thing which by now has swelled in size and tossed it down into the valley.
That was an ordeal that worked up an appetite and we were all very hungry after a difficult day of hiking. Some of the villagers were out and about doing chores. Their children came out to see us all and giggled quietly to themselves. Sarah found the opportune moment to hand out the clip-on koalas that she had brought with her – they are the kind where the koala appears to be using its arms and legs to hold on. The kids absolutely loved their souvenirs from Australia and it reminded us just how much joy simple things can bring.
We went up on to the grassy hill and laid out to watch the setting sun. One of the kids came up to us and offered a bunch of bananas- even when they barely have anything their natural sense of giving compels them to show generosity and thanks.
One of the older men came up to the hill where we were. It was the first time I had spoken to him properly, heavy exercise isn’t really all that compatible with chit chat on the go. He gave us a glimpse into his life and his career in Marine Science. He’d collected data on ocean temperatures in various locations around the world, always on the lookout for ships that would be conveniently going where the scientists needed, those he called Ships of Opportunity.
Our quarters tonight were enclosed with wooden walls and a thatched roof. But due to the humidity, there was barely any air circulation through the rooms without the windows being held fully open- a wooden stick propped up against the shutter.
The dinner we were served was a generous serving of conchiglie (pasta in the shape of shells). The sauce, was braised-steak and onions from a tin that everyone had to pass around to share. Not bad for being in the middle of the jungle, I thought. Indeed, the meal was satisfying so I helped myself to a second serving.
As the plates and cutlery were cleared, our porters huddled together under the thatched roof as the sky started to open up, letting rain gently drop with a soothing pitter-patter. The sun had finally set and the dark blue sky cast a slight glow over us.
Together, in the darkness, harmonies sounded.
Four songs in total were sung, three of them in English and one in their local dialect. The gospel style was uplifting and the men harmonised their voices beautifully. It gave me a nice feeling to take with me to slumber.
I wanted to go to the outhouse before bed, but I walked halfway there and was scared by the enveloping darkness, not helped by the sudden screams coming from my room. As I ran back, I realised that a large beetle about half the size of my closed fist, had flown in through the window. Alanna was trying frantically to shoo it back outside, but the poor bug was confused. It flew towards me and before I could react it landed on my neck. That was the end of it all, I screamed my lungs out, likely sending the entire village into panic. Six men charged to the room to see what had happened, just as the beetle flew out the window, never to be seen again. There went our fear, but also our proof.