Friday, February 29, 2008

All about the Kokoda Track & The Northern Beaches, PNG

A copy of a letter Michael and I sent back home:
Date written: Sunday. 24th. December. 2006 – Monday. 25th. December. 2006
Date written about: Monday. 4th. December. 2006 – Monday. 25th. December. 2006
Written at Missionary of the Sacre Coure (MSC)Provincial 2 mile, Port Moresby, PNG

We are in Port Moresby!
We arrived on the 4th of December in 35degree heat, but we acclimatised fairly well, and I now have a fairly good tan, on my arms at least.
We were very relaxed when we first arrived. The PNG people have been so happy and welcoming all over – lots of smiles, lots of waves and lots of staring at the ‘white people’. You can feel the respect they have for you when you say you are going to do/ have walked the Kokoda Track.
The Brothers and Priests here at Sacred Heart have been wonderful – very enthusiastic and supportive and helpful. Here in Port Moresby we have seen the War Cemetery – very well kept and moving. We will go again to look more specifically at the Graves of our relatives.

Streets of Port Moresby – highest crime rate in the world!
Before we left to go on the Track we drove around the streets to see Kokoda Track Authority, went food shopping, bank etc. Utes are the main vehicle – you never see less than five on one. Most sit in the open area in the back, even on the rim. Passenger numbers can get up to 14! There are always lots of people on the streets – just sitting/ standing around. This is due to the 85% unemployment rate. Some are at their little markets on the side of the road, or in the middle median strip. The most popular sale is bettlenut, mustard stick and lime. Brother John who doesn’t (he detests) smoke or alcohol has about 30 per day. Others, though, have 100 a day they say! Teeth are often red from it, and the grounds are covered in red spit from everyone. Despite this, many people walk around bare foot, and we have often seen people walking with only one thong. We don’t know if they lost the other one, or they found that one.
Rubbish is everywhere, if you’re lucky in piles along the street, despite ,many signs that say ‘Keep PNG Clean. Don’t litter.’
Security is huge – banks have double doors, security men carry batons, security wonders around shopping store car parks and petrol is paid before someone else fills it up for you.

The first day of the Kokoda Track we got to the southern side of the Golden Stairs – an easy, short Day I. We swam in the Golden River along the way – gorgeously refreshing! We got used to bathing at the end of the day – in streams, or gravity running taps. Clothes were often washed whilst on us because of the lack of doors. None the less, my T-shirts are discoloured and I will implore your help to hopefully (I doubt it!) get them a cleaner shade of white.
I had fun climbing the Golden Stairs and when we reached Imita ridge I was very proud of us.

The Trekkers & Food
We would always read about where we were going/ were/ had been. The others who walked with us were very interested in the Bill James book.
In the end, ten of us walked the Track together – Michael, Bridget, Br. John, Br. Ben, Ivan (the Guide), Flora (his 18 yr old wife), Max (our porter), Jack (our porter), Emmanuel and Johnson (friends who wanted to come along).We would not always walk together – different speeds, but would have lunch and of course sleep together. Max would steam on a head and have the water boiled by the time we got to our destination, ready for our noodle lunch or dehydrated dinner. Breakfast we could have wheatbix (I could never have another one in my whole life!) and army ration cordial (with all the electrolytes). It would make us feel gooey in the stomach, but better once we started walking. Malaria and vitamin tablets became habit. We didn’t rush ourselves in the mornings – did things methodically and surely. Usually got up 5/6 am and left at 6:30/ 7:30am.
Snacks along the way were a trail mix we made (of nuts, dried fruit, chocolate balls) and PNG biscuits (as hard as stone) and water. We would fill up from running water of creeks or rivers.

We slept at Ofi Creek Day II. To get there we had to cross a number of shallow creeks – stepping on stones and being supported by those who were walking bare foot anyway and didn’t mind getting their feet wet. Emmanuel cut some sticks for us – very beneficial (once we got used to them) for going down steep parts. They have become our most prized possessions of the trip.

Day III lunch at New Nauro Village. I played with some of the children there - gave them balloons and small animal figurines Michael had bought. They loved them! Everyone in PNG wears an assortment of clothes put together. It is normal to wear things inside out to get more days out of them. The children don’t wipe their noses and have many scabs/ sores on their skin. Village women brought up a plate of bananas and coke cans. We bought and shared the bananas (yummy after having had none in Australia for ages) (but no Coke for us trekkers!) We detoured to War time Nauro and the war air strip. We saw a crashed allied helicopter.
We didn’t make it to our intended destination at Brown River due to rain, so camped at another spot along the way. Fun! Deepening the trenches, lighting lots of little fires and collecting the rain water from the roof tarp.

Some steep climbing Day IV. We had lunch and slept at Menari. They have a school there and I wouldn’t mind going back there and spending some time there after Year 12. We were given a paw-paw – I didn’t mind it. Spoke with the owners of the Guest House for a very long time and had a lesson in Pidgin with Br. Ben. We were the source of great amusement.

Day V we spent a lot of time at Brigade Hill- finding significant points (HQ, Company pits, the Japanese route up Brigade Hill. How they did it we still can’t fathom – it is no exaggeration that that side of the mountain is almost vertical. We could walk off the Track because Michael had brought his GPs and Bill Jaime’s book gave the grid references for such features. We even found some things Bill James hadn’t mentioned. This day was our very hugemongous day. Down to Efogi 1 for lunch and hopefully some energy resupply. Despite the large town, not many people were there at the time. We saw one woman carry three big loads of firewood in a ‘bilom’ on her head. Everyone in PNG has a bilom. The can put the strap around their head, their neck or over their shoulder. Some are small to carry bettlnut, some are large to carry small children! All are colourful. It was not far to Efogi II, but across a river and a short steep climb that comes hand-in-hand with river crossings. I would have liked to stay there – very lovely people and I got to hold my first PNG baby. Here is the only monument along the Track dedicated to the Japanese. But we continued on forever – down for ever and then back up forever. Even the porters said it was hard. Finally we got to Kagi village.

The next day, Day VI we slept in and I was feeling exhausted and ill. We went to see a Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel – 102 years old, one of two left living. We had a very good talk with him and his son. Michael and I walked off the Track to do a four-hour detour to Moyola – saw many mines, grenades and an ally plane crash. Arrived at 1900 crossing and I didn’t want to move. But briefly washed in the freezing stream and ate what little dinner I could (not much!). Br. John was my own Fuzzy Angel for the day- always close by. He got me a delicious tea which went down well. I slept as soon as I could.

In the morning, with Day VII all ahead, I tried to remain positive (I was walking the Kokoda track! Be excited!) We got to Mt. Bellamy – the highest point of the Track and had a celebratory sip of Coke. Down to Templeton’s Crossing 1 where we had lunch. We stayed at Templeton’s Crossing II for the night. A cemetery and small museum there.

Day VIII to Eora Creek village for lunch – yet another creek crossing over a ‘bridge’ of logs sometimes tied together, sometimes not, and possibly some sort of flimsy hand rail. At Alola village I helped out Flora with some of the cooking of ‘chao-chao’ – a green vegetable. Michael, with the seven other boys played volleyball for almost two hours with the village people on their uneven dirt surface.

The next morning, Day IX I felt sick and feverish and a headache and in the end took panadol for the second time in my life. It helped. It was only a short hour to the Isurava battle site. The memorial was very sophisticated. We had a thorough look around – including at the place Pte Bruce Kingsbury won his Victoria Cross. Another hour to Isurava village – very lively with everyone outside – either playing handball (with 5 bases!) or volleyball or watching. A young girl, perhaps four years old was washing a big pate.

Day X to Hoi village. We did a big load of washing in the creek. And Michael had three not-so-good bananas that we believe were the sources of his sickness.

And to Kokoda on the last day. Michael was feeling ill, but once we started walking he was very efficient. Flat for a change. Ensured Aussie flag and boxing kangaroo were secured on our packs and sung all of the Australian songs we knew – from true Blue, Waltzing Matilda, I was only 19, Khe Sanh, Working Class Man.

And we got there. We did it.
We can now say we have trekked the Kokoda Track.
Some of the books we had read had said that arriving at Kokoda was a bit of a let down. But I was sure I would be excited and doing cartwheels. But it was more of a ‘We’ve finished? This is the end?’ It is a very subduing feeling and a sense of fulfillness, perhaps.

As soon as we got to Ivan’s friend’s house (houses are made of bamboo sticks and leaves) Michael lay down. The wife gave us a delicious meal. The young 5 year old daughter Franklin was gorgeous – so talkative. I went down to the street to buy toilet paper and bread from the corner store. It is run by Asians like most stores in PNG, with metal bars separating the customers from the goods and servers.

Sunday we went to the Catholic mass which alternated between four languages! Most PNGns know English, Pidgin, Mother’s tongue, father’s tongue as a minimum. Saw the hospital, War museum and memorial. Walked around the streets.

Achievements of Walking the Track:
Despite no tour groups walking the Track at this time of the year due to the Wet Season the weather didn’t trouble us. We took longer than most to do the Track and this was a benefit. We were able to spend more time at villages which meant we could spend more time with the village people and be in contact with more of the cultures along the Track. We certainly fulfilled all the reasons we wanted to do the Track for – the physical, mental and spiritual challenges, the war history and the cultural experience.

We caught the PMV at 4am Sunday to Popondetta. A very bumpy and cramped ride. People were even sitting on the tarp roof.

We went to Flora’s home village. “Oro oro oro kiwa!” the all shout, which means “Welcome! Welcome!” Went to Rabaul Shipping Office to confirm times and they said ‘Only 2pm Mondays.’ ‘Does that mean there is one today?’ ‘Yes.’ We made the decision that we would rather spend a week in Milne Bay where Great Uncle Peter and Granddad [mum's side] served. So we rushed to Oro Bay to get that – no ferry at all that day. That was one of strike three to get out of Popondetta.

We stayed at Popondetta’s Catholic Church in their classroom. We appreciated the proper toilets and taps and proper roof.

We spent the next three days touring the Northern beaches where most Australians died. 1, 400 died at the beaches compared to 500 along the Track. We could spend one day each at Gona, Sanananda and Buna. They were very full days (leaving at 9 am and arriving back at 9pm) and we saw so much more than we had dared hope to expect.

Gona’s sand was black. We walked along it and through the swampy areas where the Australians advanced from before heading back to the village. They have their own market there where they just sit and sell food to each other. We didn’t see anyone buying or selling. We also drove to Haddy’s village which is further West along the beach – the entire village decided to come with us on our tour – and generously gave us a massive watermelon!

At Sanananda we saw many vehicle wrecks which had been dumped by the Japanese when they realised they weren’t much use in the swampiness of the beaches and narrow path of the Track.

At Buna we saw some Japanese bunkers and an ally bomb shell just to the left. There was a war time radio and a Japanese machine gun there also. We walked a long way along the beach, and a bit further inland following the Australian troop advance. We saw the place where three nuns had been executed. We swam in the warm water.

Friday morning we helped out with preparing the church for Christmas – scrubbing the floor, pews, windows, decorating the nativity scene. After lunch we walked around the streets and shops.

Saturday the ferry debacle. When we arrived again at Oro bay two and a half hours early, we had in fact arrived half an hour late. Ten other Native Papua New Guineans had been given the wrong times also. But they weren’t as frustrated as we were. When we got back to the church they all laughed and exclaimed “Papua New Guinea!” It’s their excuse for everything.

In the end we got back to Port Moresby by plane. We didn’t get to Milne Bay, but that is just an excuse to come back again, hopefully with mum and dad next time. I would like to walk the Track again (it’s easy to forget how hard it is after it’s completed). We were very relaxed when we got to Port Moresby.

Michael got sick after dinner so we didn’t go to the parish vigil mass, but did Christmas morning. The church is decorated in palms and tinsel. We went to a parishner’s for lunch, and to a Sister’s place, but Michael was sick again so back early to MSC to rest.

Our mottos for this expedition have been:
Keep positive
It’s all part of the adventure [this helped at Popondetta]
It doesn’t matter when we get there, as long as we get there [for the Track]

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