“Imagine an area of approximately one hundred miles long. Crumple and fold this into a series of ridges, each rising higher and higher until 7000 feet is reached, then declining in ridges to 3000 feet. Cover this thickly with jungle, short trees and tall trees, tangled with great, entwining savage vines. Through an oppression of this density, cut a little native track, two or three feet wide, up the ridges, over the spurs, round gorges and down across swiftly-flowing, mountain streams. Where the track clambers up the mountain sides, cut steps – big steps, little steps, steep steps – or clear the soil from the tree roots.
“Every few miles, bring the track through a small patch of sunlit kunai grass, or an old deserted native garden, and every seven or ten miles, build a group of dilapidated grass huts – as staging shelters – generally set in a foul, offensive clearing. Every now and then, leave beside the track dumps of discarded, putrefying food, occasional dead bodies and human foulings.
“In the morning, flicker the sunlight through the tall trees, flutter green and blue and purple and white butterflies lazily through the air, and hide birds of deep-throated song, or harsh cockatoos, in the foliage. About midday, and through the night, pour water over the forest, so that the steps become broken, and a continual yellow stream flows downwards, and the few level areas become pools and puddles of putrid black mud. In the high ridges above Myola, drip this water day and night over the track through a foetid forest grotesque with moss and glowing phosphorescent fungi. Such is the track which a prominent politician publicly described as ‘being almost impassable for motor vehicles’.”
–Major-General Frank Kingsley Norris
“One day, towards evening, we came to the ravine. It was in the remotest heart of the great mass of the mountains … and deeper and larger than any other ravine we had passed. The dark path through the enormous cypresses … seemed to lead down to a bottomless pit. A rumbling sound like drumbeats came, it seemed, from somewhere deep underground.
“We rounded a rock, and saw a furious white serpent of water falling from a height of about a hundred feet and making roaring noises among the cavernous rocks below. The branches overhead were so closely interwoven that not a ray of sunshine came through. There was neither day nor night in that ravine; it was always pale twilight, and everything looked as wet as though it were deep underwater.
“And in that eternal twilight lay numberless bodies of men scattered here and there …. rotting human bodies lying in all possible postures, some on their faces, some on their backs, some on their sides, some in a squatting position.”
–War correspondent Seizo Okada describing Eora Creek (from ‘Lost Troops’ trans. Keiko Tamura)
Many threads of my life meet on the Kokoda Trail — it’s hard to untangle them all and decide what the trail really means to me. The people of PNG, the land of my birth and childhood, the history of WWII and my link to the Australian soldiers’ experience through my years in the Australian Army, my love of bushwalking and bryophytes, my studies in ecology, and, last but not least, the connection to Japan, Australia’s WWII enemy.
My best friend in primary school in Madang, Daisuke, was Japanese, and at the end of highschool I spent a couple of months in Japan, flying back into the extreme culture shock of army recruit training. Next year, on my walk through Japan, I hope to meet some of the Japanese veterans of the New Guinea campaign. I’m not really sure why. The Kokoda Trail is not really something I’m passionate about — I’m not a war buff. But I guess the track is in many ways a natural extension of where I’ve come from, and hence of who I am.
The trail today is much the same as the rather lurid descriptions in the quotes above, minus the bodies. The path itself is still a muddy scar through jungle, at times only inches wide, and often more mossy rock and tree root than ochre clay. In places it widens into a river of mud five metres wide, bits of wood cut from the forest and thrown into the mud as slippery, rotting stepping stones; at other points the track joins and becomes a mountain stream, which means a waterfall. Creek crossings are frequent, either by rock-hopping, wading, or untrustworthy log bridges strapped together with vines. Not surprisingly, you spend more time looking at your feet than the lush rainforest…
And the slopes! Some of the steepest, and definitely the most sustained, ascents and descents I’ve ever hiked. Every day consisted of rapid drops and rises in altitude, down into ravines, across creeks, and straight back up the mountain-side again. The Japanese forces, at least initially, were far superior in terms of numbers, training, and jungle fighting ability, and often engaged in flanking manoeuvres off the side of the track, winning battles and inflicting heavy casualties on the Australians because they thought their flanks were safe. As one Australian soldier of the time, Pte Bert Ward of the 2/27th Battalion, commented: “you’d have to be a fully-qualified mountain goat to do physically what they did.”
Over 10 days, from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda, our platoon-sized group of 30 got more insight into what he meant than all the books we’d read before the trip. Only 12 of us were paying walkers, the rest local guides and carriers. The walkers were mostly middle-aged Western Australian ex-military types, attracted like me by tour operator Frank Taylor‘s organisation and historical focus. I generally prefer not to do tours, figuring I see more on my own. But, in this case, the tour was well and truly worth it. I even got on with the other walkers…