Tomorrow will mark 19 years since I departed Australia for the steamy climes of Papua New Guinea to hike the infamous Kokoda Track with my brother and sister (pictured). The Track (or Trail as it is also commonly known) is a narrow footpath (or more correctly a dirt track cut through the jungle) traversing the Owen Stanley range which, depending on where you terminate the hike is about 100 kilometres in length and I have been led to believe is the only way from Port Moresby across the range to the north coast (although I may be mistaken in that belief). If walking from Ower’s Corner at the southern end you will most likely finish your walk at Kokoda Village on the north-side of the range from where you will be able to catch an airplane back to Port Moresby. It is green, steamy, moist, muddy, precipitous mountainside and precarious jungle most of the way and owes it’s fame as one of the world’s great hikes to the vicious, desperate clash of arms which took place along it’s length from August to November 1942.
The Japanese Army, advancing from bases on the north coast of Papua clashed with Australian Militia and Army in a series of battles, ambush’s and skirmishes across the width of the range. The Australian’s, supply line stretched to breaking point and significantly outnumbered fell back across the mountains, screening Port Moresby and delaying the Japanese advance to the point of exhaustion. Reverses elsewhere saw the Japanese eventually abandon their quest to capture the capital and they were harassed and harried by fresh Australian troops as they retreated headlong into the mountains, desperately trying to regain the relative safety of their northern strongholds. These beachheads were eventually reduced in late 1942 and early 1943 and the defending garrisons annihilated and the Japanese Empire lost it’s toehold in Papua.
All that remains today is the Track, it’s detritus and ghosts and the people who live along it trying to eke out a very basic existence which most of us could never imagine experiencing in this day and age. And, of course, there are the Trekkers.
The Kokoda Track has for evermore attracted hikers from all over the world although of course as one can imagine, most of these hardy souls come from Australia, following in the footsteps of countrymen they never knew and testing their stamina and endurance for reasons known only to themselves. I even met a Japanese veteran in Efogi Village on my crossing.
I suppose there is a risk and Papua New Guinea has it’s dangers but you judge those risks and take your chance if you dare. Hiking companies who run guided tours on the Kokoda Track are very well organised and can get you across the mountains safely and in good order.
In 1998 there were about 500 people walking the Track every year. That has risen to 2000 a year almost 20 years later. It’s good business for the locals who, in a region which was suffering an unemployment rate of 80% in 1998, are employed as guides and porters by many travel companies. Having such large numbers on the range has certainly caused some cultural discomfort over the years and everything on the Track is owned by someone and they expect something from the tourists who are continually appearing in their villages, using their facilities and being protected from nee’r do wells who habitually stalk unwary and unprepared hikers on it’s length. Local land owners have from time to time “closed” the Track, demanding compensation for permitting trekkers to use it but these protests have never seemed to last long. The benefits of having well off Australians throwing a bit of cash around the population more than likely sees any cultural offence quickly forgotten or at least ignored.
I hadn’t realised it was the 19th anniversary of my trip to Papua New Guinea until I started writing this post. I recently stumbled upon an article about another campaign fought by Australian soldiers in New Guinea a year after the Kokoda campaign, this one in the Finisterre Range which culminated in a very hard fight for a 6 kilometre long, razorback feature named by Australian forces “Shaggy Ridge”. Ironically, many men who fought on the Kokoda Track were present at the capture of Shaggy Ridge and it is an epic of Australian arms although largely forgotten today.
As I “googled” the campaign many photos of the Ridge during the campaign and notably from more modern days were returned. It appears you can do a 6 day hike from Lae to Nadzab which climbs Shaggy Ridge and I must say it piqued my interest. I always swore I would never go back to Papua New Guinea but a hike to Shaggy Ridge, bearing in mind my much advanced age when compared to my previous visit, could be an enjoyable trip.
Would I like to do it? Yes. Am I likely to do it? Probably not. The hike itself would not be a problem, I’m sure I could fit enough to handle it. I just don’t like flying and it would take two flights, one from Moresby to Lae and another back again to do the trip. Flying in Australia is nerve wracking enough for me but flying in a country noted for it’s aircraft accident rate hardly inspires me to drag out my old backpack and start training. Also. I doubt I could drag out any old traveling companions to accompany me and I’m not likely to venture to PNG without a mate or two to hold my hand.
Ah, pipe dreams. We all have them and perhaps it keeps us breathing. If nothing else the images of Shaggy Ridge have reminded me of another part of my life when I ventured to PNG to walk in the footsteps of better men than me who gave their all. Nice memories to have and a nice life I have enjoyed.
Until next time.