Rob’s Kokoda trek
I am not by nature a man who willingly puts himself into discomfort. I prefer to holiday in ease knowing that the bed will be soft and physical demands will be little more than lowering into and out of soft seats. In a moment of madness that seems to happen without any provocation in my case, I found myself saying to my adult son, James, that wouldn’t a trek be fun. James is far more energetic and adventurous than I and he warmed to idea immediately and as if reading my mind suggested that the Kokoda trail was the deal. I say reading my mind as that was exactly what it seemed to be. That germ of an idea grew with discussion, acquired life and finally drew the attention of my wife, Ruth who is a born organiser. Why not – bonding time and all that was Ruth’s reaction. That almost random thought was now fully-fleshed. It appealed to me for a few reasons. The first and immediate was it seemed to me that this would give me a “real” goal, like the ones that I always seem to read about that successful men seem to set themselves. The second reason was the result of later more developed thinking – something that happens after the first reason just doesn’t seem sufficient anymore. It happens that I run an engineering consultancy which has been growing due to the continuous onslaught of clients. Over the past two years, I have taken on three much younger engineers – one of these by the way is James. Now young men need to assert themselves – a relic from school boy days with the “dare” embedded in their brains. It seemed to me that this was the dare – the office challenge – the “thing” to work towards. They were keen and so the idea had now become the boss’s order or so the boys seemed to want to tell me!
Ruth drove it relentlessly and internet research established the candidate provider. We selected the “power trek” organised by Niugini Holidays which in retrospect I believe was the right thing to have done. The organisers were indigenous to PNG as was the guide and porters. All the money stayed in PNG. The full impact of this became only apparent during the trek when we saw other groups led by Australians and organised by Australians in Australia. The PNG economy is not strong and every little bit helps. I am now pleased that we chose that provider. The organising flowed flawlessly, despite some moments of uncertainty. One moment in particular occurred at the checking-in time after we landed in Port Moresby. The office staffed by indigenous folk seemed to have the uttermost difficulty in understanding our requested arrangement for the supplementing of food half way through the trek. The details of which are unimportant but suffice it to say that the train of the discussion with the staff led us to wonder in what state and indeed if we would receive our supplementary rations at all. The rations were delivered on day three of the walk perfectly to plan!
The “power trek” was rated as level 1 on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the easiest. After a lot of thought, we decided on this for two reasons. The first was that it was only 7 days and the second was that the dare had to be challenging. I reasoned that anything less than level 1 would be deemed wussy! All the books said we should to prepare in earnest. This trek is physically demanding. Our research blossomed beyond brochures expanding to the anecdotal with all sorts of yard sticks emerging to give a measure of when you are ready. One was to be able to ascend 10 flights of stairs and still be able to talk coherently. Another was to set the gym treadmill to maximum slope, speed at 6km/hr and to sustain that for 20 minutes at the end of which you will be able to ask for more; with emphasis on asking. I never found a 10 story building and never quite achieved the treadmill torture – but I got close – 5.2km/hr but was left panting like a locomotive at full stretch and could I ask for more? I just wanted to marry to the floor to still my screaming heart.
We did the trek the right way round so everyone was telling us. A flight took us to Popondetta, a town north of Kokoda and then by 4-wheel drive ute to the “end” of the track which was Kokoda village. The ute was an engaging affair. Four bald tyres separated us from the road. Most of the guys sat in relative comfort on a wooden plank stretching between the sides of the ute. Quentin missed out and ended up joining the porters and guide swinging off the sides of the ute. The art of leaning into the corners was something he proudly boasted of. It was even fun if not for the bum numbing. Three hours and one flat tyre later, we bounced into Kokoda village. It was at the village we started to appreciate the warmness and friendliness of the Papua New Guineans.
The level of enthusiasm that we set off with appealed to me. This is all good I thought. The first hour or so was level walking and then it began – the severe ascent that was to be the feature for the next 6 days. The panting and exertion was horrific. My first thought was the uttermost respect for the diggers and fuzzy-wuzzies who carried a lot more weight on their backs than we did. The second thought was what demented military surveyor would go out of his way to pick this passage! The entire day was spent ascending but we made it and I must confess to substantial pride and relief that I had it in me. All the training and preparation was appropriate and I now knew I could make it!
Each day was basically a repeat of the previous day. If the track didn’t ascend in a hideous energy sapping manner, it was descending in a seriously dangerous fashion. In places the track disappeared to a mere boot width with a downward cliff on one side and an upward ravine on the other. Tree roots worn smooth by the passage of numerous shoes, rocks that were just as treacherous and the ever presence of mud all added to the ingredient of fear. We all had turns of slipping; some more spectacularly than others. I still hold a vivid recollection of Quentin doing something very close to a cartwheel – legs flying in the air before him, clinging at nothing and landing in a sprawling heap on his back. The fact that Quentin is over 30 years younger than me fuelled my fear and I descended even more gingerly. I had at least one major fall, but no damage. James claimed no falls!
One of the other more interesting activities was negotiating the numerous water crossings. These ranged from rock hopping through to trapeze style strolling on a single log. Big Rob (another Rob – not me), did us proud with a spectacular spill into the water.
Nights were spent in tents or a guest house. The guest houses were basic but clean. With no
mattress to speak of the nights consisted of 40 minutes of fitful sleep until the pressure point pain drove its way into your brain and then you focused for another 15 minutes trying to find another position that was not already bruised. James was the only one who claimed a decent sleep. He found a way of lying on his stomach which I had also tried but discovered that it then resulted in a neck cramp which was worse than the bruises that were steadily mounting! I rotated through all four positions every 40 minutes.
The food was the only major deterrent. It formed the major topic of otherwise deep and meaningless conversations. It was freeze dried food and one memorable dish made eating paper seem more appetising. That dish was enough to put everyone off the rations and happily occurred towards the middle of our time away. Big Rob requires enormous meals to survive and he was getting
desperate. Fortunately the porters made rice each night and having decided that the dried food was now off the list, Big Rob found clever ways of making the rice more decent and even developed a creditable rice pudding.
One of the issues I had was to decide what to do with my cochlear implant. Since I was sweating so much, I decided only to use it at the camp each afternoon and night. This was a bit of a bother. Hearing of events along the path was difficult and at times impossible. At one stage I warned the lead porter, Simon that I would only be able to hear him if he looked at me allowing me to lip-read or whatever it is I do. I explained that I had a cochlear implant. At the camp that night, he come up to me and had a good look at the device. He was completely undisturbed by the thought that maybe I might be offended with his probing and staring – which I wasn’t, but it does highlight the differences between the cultures. Europeans would not get up so close and personal.
So what did it do for me? Right up to the day we flew out of Brisbane to Port Moresby and then on to Kokoda village and even right up to that evening after the first day’s walk, I held private fears whether I would make it. The stories I had read, the conversations with others fuelled that concern. I now know I can and did do it. Looking back it seems easy now. The memories of sweating to extreme, panting so hard that breathing was an effort, hearing your heart racing in your ears and the constant fear of slipping and falling down ravines is still there but they are just that – memories. There were no spiritual awakenings or life turning points, just recollections. Having said that – I needed to do that trek! I needed to complete – complete a hard thing. I needed to go beyond just talking about an idea and actually doing it. The boys had their thoughts, but I think one of the most memorable events for me was when one of the boys put his arm around my shoulder at the end of the trail and said a heartfelt thanks. That was special and just seemed to make it all worthwhile!
Submitted by Rob Frith