Sunday, May 20, 2012

My Journey to Kokoda [Part 1]

Notes from my journey

In the footsteps of heroes is what we were told the experience would be when trekking with Kokoda Spirit , along with a great team providing the history and the relevant information at distinct points along the track. I was so honoured to be part of this in April of 2012 and being able to attend the Anzac Day ceremony at Isurava was one of the big highlights. This year was the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Kokoda and it was an extraordinary experience and one I will never forget.

In this blog I have shared some of the experiences with you knowing it's really not going to give you a real feeling of what it was like, just a glimpse. I think it’s an experience you have to be there to really understand the emotion, the physical and the mental challenge that you go through from moment to moment.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank some very special people who kept me safe and made this experience so rich and rewarding, Bill Kelly our Trek Guide who kept us all motivated with his genuine care and consideration, thank you also for volunteering to be my toilet buddy (especially at Bombers Camp), Francis my Porter who looked after me day and night keeping me safe and always laughing at with me not at me, John our Trek leader always so serious, strong and a true leader and Sia our Trek Master who has an incredible presence about him and his soul is truly kind, thank you for carrying my day pack when I just couldn’t anymore. All these wonderful people were from Kokoda Spirit. Thank you to all the guys I trekked with you truly were gentleman and especially Phil who encouraged me all the way, it was a pleasure to meet you all.

I had been in Training for about 6 Months now and every week apart from 2weeks rest I had been working out 3 times a week and walking up Mt Majura. I had been walking with 10kg in my pack for the last month and had even walked Black Mt Tower, and I felt ready and that my fitness was pretty good. I rested two days before leaving for port Moresby and was excited to be able to have a break from work and experience something that I had been drawn to emotionally for many years.
I arrive at Port Moresby airport about 4pm on the 17th April to find Helen from Kokoda Spirit waiting to take me to the Gateway Hotel. We all meet up at 7pm to go over the plan and what has to happen in the morning. We also meet all trekkers and Bill Kelly the Trek guide from Kokoda Spirit. The reality of being the only girl in the group starts to sink in and I feel a little uncertain about what to expect. After the induction and safety brief I’m off to get a good night’s sleep ready for tomorrow.

Day 1 - Owers Corner to Uberi


Up bright and early making sure my pack is ready and I have a good breakfast as I wonder what we will eat for the next 8 days. I have done lots of preparation and think I have everything covered that I could possibly need. I was the first to hit reception at 7.30am ready to go. I was excited and nervous at the same time. Last night was like Christmas eve when you are a kid, you toss and turn and can’t sleep till 3am. We get into the bus with all our gear ready to head to Owers’ Corner. 
First we are given a tour of Port Moresby and it is a real eye opener to see the poverty and how many people just sit in the streets and you can tell by the bars on all the shops how it is also seems to be rid with crime. We head toward the Warf and then out to Bomana war cemetery where all the history stories began. When we arrived the feeling was one of amazement that so many were buried here and the other was of peacefulness as they had been laid to rest and Bomana is so beautifully kept.
We then headed off the McDonalds Corner and it was lovely to stop and see some local children and hear the history of what happened in the area 70 years ago. We drove for a bit longer and the further we got away from Port Moresby the nicer the landscape.
We arrived at Owers’ Corner and laid all our packs out on the ground and then we had lunch before were allocated our porters. My Porters name was Francis, and he was tall enough but so thin and I looked at my pack and thought “how on earth is he going to carry my pack”? Oh no I have got too much stuff in my pack, then Francis said he needed to repack to fit his stuff in. What an idiot I was, where on earth did I think he was going to put his things.
Here we are ready to get started on this amazing journey. We knew today would be pretty easy as it was only about 3 hours to camp, how hard could it be?
Well holly shit it was hot, and so humid you had sweat running down your face, my glasses fogged up in 2 minutes and the first sign of a hill and my heart was beating out of my chest, I started to wonder what the hell I was thinking walking up Mt Majura. Who on earth called that a mountain?
We walked into our first camp at Uberi and crossed a small river to set up tents, and get washed up before dark. Just as we were almost set up we had a huge downpour of rain that lasted an hour or so, another trekking group unfortunately were still walking in this.
The rain was heavy enough that the river soon became uncross able and the porters quickly went out to our tents and dug trenches around them so we could sleep in our tents. Some of the men’s tents were leaking already so they were put in one of the huts. Bill reminds me about how hard the first day is for everyone, this gives me hope!

Day 2 – Uberi to Ioribaiwa

I slept well and we woke about 4.45 and headlamps on its time to pack up and get ready to move out after breakfast. Our Porters setup and pack our tents and thank goodness because he does a much better job than I could. At this point I now realise being a girls is not so good in the jungle and going to the toilet is nothing short of a strategic challenge. It’s about 6am and we are all ready to go. John our trek Leader gives us a big gee up and we all feel pumped and ready to go. We head out and its up, up and more up to Imita Ridge and we stop at a lovely creek for lunch and a swim. After lunch My porter and I were told to head off first, I knew I was a little slower on the hills and I had two porters with me so I felt safe. With the many river crossings it was boots off and wet shoes on, so a lot of stopping and starting which was good.

We got to Ioribaiwa and set up tents and got cleaned up, I was able to have a bit of a shower and that always made me feel a bit better, my spirits were good but I was really fatigued, I sat for a while and wrote in my  journal and watched the porters and the boys I was trekking with play footy (how on earth they had the energy) and after dinner I went to my tent to prepare for the morning. Our porters get our water for the next day so we are getting the good water and you need to make sure its purified, I was carrying about 4 litres on me a day. I then made a very big mistake and took salt tablets not realising they need to go in my water (yep a dumb moment) within minutes I am projectile vomiting. Note to self……Salt tablets go into the water bottles.
Today we cross the same river 14 times, it’s hard to imagine but there is so much water and beauty around us and that makes it so worth all the blood sweat and tears.

Day 3 – Ioribaiwa to Nauro

Waking up early seems to be so easy as you are excited about the day and the stories we hear from Bill about the Australian Soldiers is amazing. Each evening we go over the map and the stories about what took place where we stay and surrounding areas. I do miss hearing some of the stories in the evening as I go to be after dinner completely exhausted
Today is going to be our biggest day as we will trek for 10.5 hours before we make it into camp. It’s really hard to enjoy the view as you can’t take your eyes off where you are walking or you will fall. There is not a lot of opportunity to take photos because I am using both poles all the time so you try to capture each moment in your mind as best you can. As you walk you think about the Soldiers and wonder how they did it, they had guns and packs and very little food. They were sick and you can only imagine how exhausted they were fighting the Japanese day after day night after night.
The last stretch of today was through swamp and it was tough as you walk with so much mud on your boots your feet are so heavy. We walk for what seems like hours and when we finally get to Nauro it starts to rain. I went down to the creek which was breathtaking and sat in the water and couldn’t move, I ached so much it was incredible, yet I was still in good spirits and looked forward to the next day.

Day 4 - Nauro to Brigade Hill

Francis and I trek out early before the others so I can stay in front as we are told we have a big hill in front of us. As we started out it is still a little dark and because of the humidity I am unable to wear my glasses so it makes things that little bit more of a challenge. We are walking on mostly flat ground in what feels and looks like a rain forest. 30 minutes or so we start to climb and climb and climb and it’s not long before the rest of the group catch up. Half way up (seemed liked hours) I am a broken woman, I hurt I am emotion and crying, It was so hard. Mentally I am struggling and physically I am literally one step at a time and my muscles are burning. I felt a little panicked as my water bladder seemed to be blocked and I had run out of water in my bottles, I really had to re focus and Bill calmed me and said he would fix it at the top, “we are almost there” do you have any idea how sweet those words sounded.
When we reached the top of The Wall it was truly an amazing view but I was shattered and hurting (as you can see by the photo). It was a relief to hear Phil say that he was struggling just as much. I remember Phil telling me at one point “It’s about the journey not the destination” that was a great reminder to enjoy the journey and embrace the challenges one step at a time.
Walking through the Village of Menari was very peaceful as it was Saturday which is the day they go to church. As we walked into the village its beauty was stunning, and we came across the children singing. Yes again I cried with such joy and also felt like I was in another world. They grew vegetables and there were flowers everywhere, it was so tidy and calm. They had an airstrip and also a school that we were able to go into as we walked to sit and have morning tea. Because it was raining we were not able to get any water as the water is dirty and not good for drinking.
Later on in the day we walked up many more mountains (I am sure they call them hills) and we passed many trekkers coming the other way. I recall seeing one of the porters walking in front of an elderly man in his 70’s and the porter was walking with a large pack playing the guitar and singing to the trekkers. I remember my spirits lifting as they all said “well done, not far to go” even feeling as sore as I did I was still smiling and feeling so privileged to be here. As we were walking once again Sia our Trek Master had been nearby I feel he was just keeping an eye on me and he looked at me and in his soft but direct voice he told me to give him my day pack, this time I did, I was running out of steam and I then also ran out of water. I was stressed and tired and to run out of water was another challenge. Sai had some reserved of water from one of the other trekkers and he gave me some, this then allowed me to keep going. I was never giving up, not for one moment.
We walked into Brigade Hill and it was such a relief to be able to stop and take your boots and pack off. I also just wanted a shower (pvc pipe with water running out, it was beautiful) and because it was about 1415m high the water was like ice especially when your core was so hot.
After we freshened up and got our tents set up we had a ceremony at the top where we could show our respects to the lost soldiers on Brigade Hill. This was very emotional and we also had the porters sing the National Anthem and we sang ours to them, some poems were read by Tim and also names of the men whose lives were lost were read by Sam and Declan.   
We ended the evening with an hearty dinner and then sat around the camp fire reflecting on the time and for me it was about being proud of what we had achieved so far. I’m not really sure how everyone was feeling but we all seemed to be in great spirits and enjoying the time together.

I will post days 5-8 shortly so keep an eye out the best is yet to come. Thank you to those that want to read about the journey.

Donna Moulds