PNG Pipe Dreams.

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Kokoda Track May 1998 between Menari and Efogi.

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.

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Trains, Cricket and a Pair of Forgotten Heroes

 

 

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Graves of George Cross holders Privates Jones and Hardy at Cowra Cemetery.

It’s been a while. Three weeks (almost) since my last post. I really have been letting the side down. I did a single day online course about a month ago through the Australian Writer’s Centre which centered on trying to attract more Blog readers. The Writer’s Centre courses are actually really fantastic and this one was no exception and I learnt a lot. Trouble is I ended up doing the exact opposite to what the course taught me to do. They explained that you need to make regular entries so as readers know that a post will be coming out soon. Of course, almost immediately, my productivity ceased and my output fell to zero. Loser!

Of course it’s not as though the internet is breaking every time I drop a piece online. I oscillate between less than half a dozen to about twenty or so readers with every post. I won’t be challenging JK Rowling in the popularity stakes any time soon. Thus my reason for doing the course.

I did have a bit of a flurry  of activity just after doing the course but it petered out into nothingness soon after that despite my best intentions. And I have no excuse.

I have been on holiday from work for the last two weeks and before I farewelled my workmates I wrote myself a list of things to do while I was away. They were, in no particular order, find new job, write, walk and do an online course. Until I started writing this post I have not achieved any of those goals.

Linda and I did get away for a few days however. I have long wanted to visit the site of the World War 2 Prisoner of War camp at Cowra and we drove over there last week. We visited the Japanese Gardens which are close to the site and very beautiful and from there we drove onto the old site itself which is just over the small hill on which the garden complex is situated.

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Japanese Gardens at Cowra.

There is an interpretive walk at the site and it is a quiet and peaceful place situated in a shallow valley with bleating sheep and ploughed fields giving no hint of the blood that was spilled here on August 4 1944.

For those who don’t know this was the site of the biggest mass break out of prisoners of war in the Second World War. 1200 Japanese prisoners scaled the barbed wire for no other reason than being ashamed of being incarcerated and clubbed and stabbed to death four Australian soldiers in the process. Almost 300 Japanese died as a result of the escape and most of the rest were captured in the following days after realising being stuck in the middle of the Australian countryside with no real purpose or leadership was pretty pointless. Privates Hardy and Jones were awarded posthumous George Crosses for standing their ground at a Vickers machine gun post when other men would have run and not been blamed for it. Private Hardy disabled the machine gun before the pair were overrun and killed, denying it’s use to the escapees. Cool, calm gallantry under the greatest possible pressure. A couple of hard earned George Crosses to be sure!

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Site of the George Cross action at Cowra.

I suppose the story of Privates Hardy and Jones struck a chord with me as they were 44 and 45 years of age respectively, just a fraction younger than I am today. Considered too old for active service they were cast off to 22 Garrison Battalion to sit out the war guarding the vanquished. Garrison troops were often unfairly castigated as weak soldiers but many of them were veterans of the Great War, men who had been wounded in action and couldn’t return to active service and men like Hardy and Jones who wanted to serve but found themselves in that awkward age group which missed both world wars. I would suggest they got more than they bargained for at Cowra but if nothing else they died as gallantly as a pair of Australian soldiers could have. It was a tragic and pointless episode in every respect. Lest we forget.

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Graves of Japanese servicemen in Cowra.

The other place of note we visited during our meandering trip through the countryside west of Canberra was the Roundhouse Museum at Junee. The town is a big rail hub and the museum is a great spot staffed by volunteers who are former railway workers and thus very knowledgeable. The real attraction though is the trains! Several retired engines and carriages of varying ages are on display and of course you can hop aboard and get a small idea of what it might be like to drive a train.

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Linda with one of the displayed engines.

There was also an old mail carriage from the days when mail was sorted on a train which came across from Sydney and mail officers sorted on board as the train chugged through the night. This service ceased three years before I started with Australia Post so it wasn’t quite ancient history for me and also provided another layer of interest in the museum. I highly recommend a visit.

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Inside the old mail carriage.

We also visited Cootamundra and the birthplace of cricket’s greatest player Don Bradman. I knew of course that Bradman had been born in Coota but in all the years I was regularly visiting the town racing pushbikes I never knew exactly where the house was. Ironically it is situated just around the corner from the old start line of the  Haycarter’s classic, a race I participated in several times. I would have ridden past it warming up!

An old spinster had owned the house for many years thus it was in almost the same condition as it had been when the great man was born and when she died in the 1990’s the local council moved in and created a nice little attraction for passing tourists and cricket lovers.

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Bradman’s birthplace in Cootamundra.

So, all in all it’s hardly been a riveting two weeks of leave but it sure beats the hell out of being bored senseless at work and I did enjoy my few days away. I’m off to West Wyalong tomorrow for an overnighter before getting back to the grind of doing not much at all for another three weeks.

I will try once more to be a regular blog writer but I can’t promise anything. My life simply isn’t exciting enough to be constantly writing about it. But you never know when and where inspiration will strike. Stay tuned for more.

 

Memories of Fitz’s Hill/A Day in the Orroral Valley

Easter Sunday, 2017. The best thing about Easter Sunday is I don’t have to work Easter Monday. Winning!! It was a quiet day but we had a nice family lunch with lots of chocolate floating around the house. Bits and pieces of wrapper are lying everywhere and we will no doubt be picking up discarded foil fragments for weeks to come.

The most notable part of my weekend to date was a drive Linda and I took out to the site of the old Orroral Creek tracking station deep in the south of the ACT on Good Friday. In fact they call this part of the ACT the Bimberi Wilderness even though it’s only 50 kilometres from Canberra and even less from the southern suburbs. I spent plenty of time riding in these parts many years ago although it was a rare day that I ventured out beyond the fearsome Fitz’s Hill, known around town as the territory’s hardest hill climb, beyond which lies the turn off to Orroral Valley.

For any cycling aficionados who may wander by this site, read this post and not know this climb it is a significant ascent on what is now known as the Boboyan Road south of the village of Tharwa in the Australian Capital Territory. According to stats on the Cycle2Max website the climb is 2.6 kilometres long with an average gradient of 10.4%. More than enough for most of the weekend warriors around here to handle. In fact I can only remember physically riding over the top of it twice although I may have been up there (on the bike) on a couple of other occasions. I usually turned around at the bottom when I trained around those parts years ago. I usually went out past Tharwa and the area beyond called Naas on weekdays before I went to work. Couldn’t see the point of flogging myself to death in the morning when I had to stand up at work for most of the evening. I trained out the other way through the Tidbinbilla Valley or north of the city towards Gunning on most weekends. I remember riding up Fitz’s and turning around halfway a couple of times. But I am a conqueror of this particular beast.

I have been out of the loop in regards to cycling and am somewhat estranged from the local fraternity nowadays but I can’t imagine that Fitz’s has lost anything of it’s formidable reputation. The annual Fitz’s Challenge is a “fun” ride that goes over this feared sentinel every September and they seem to get hundreds of people to participate, many who have never turned a pedal in anger. I can think of better ways to spent the early hours of a Sunday morning than busting a gut on Fitz’s Hill!

The major problem with Fitz’s is not in riding up it. Any serious cyclist with the right amount of training in his legs should be able to get over it without significant difficulty. Getting down it  was more frightening! There is a climb/descent on the Orroral Valley side which isn’t too bad but the descent  back into the Naas Valley was quite a ride. For me at least. The hill falls away from the crest at quite a steep angle and drops straight down to the valley floor. Nowhere is there an opportunity to wash off speed with a switchback or an easing of the gradient of the descent. I can remember glancing at my old Cat-eye cyclo-computer as it nudged past 100 kilometres an hour and getting a good look at a guard rail as the road gently dog-legged to the right about a third of a way down. Of course by this time I had plenty of experience of handling a racing bike at speed and managed to get down okay on the couple of occasions it was required. However the hill has claimed lives on it’s steep descent and I would recommend taking care if you haven’t spent a significant amount of time riding.

For the record the Cycle2max website lists the best time for the climb at 9 minutes and 35 seconds by local Dave Moten in 2005. It may have been broken by now and the old Canberra Tour use to traverse the hill so I imagine Dave’s time is not the definitive record. A top effort nonetheless!

 

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Orroral Valley looking towards the old tracking station site behind the trees in the middle ground.

 

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Looking north from the remains of the old administration building.

So, on Good Friday I found myself ascending Fitz’s Hill for the first time in many years. This time I was in the much more comfortable position of driving a car over the top and Linda and I soon found ourselves taking the right hand turn which would take us to the site of the old Orroral Valley Tracking Station site.

I had thought about riding down this road on the rare occasions I had been out this far but not knowing the lay of land and if there were any significant physical challenges involved had put me off. I wanted to survive the ride home!

As it turned out there was nothing to intimidating on the road out to the valley. A few steepish little ascents took us past a camping site which was quite well populated. Some people really enjoy camping but I must say I can think of thousands of better ways to spend my Easter long weekend than sleeping in a tent in the Bimberi Wilderness. From the campsite there was a long, shallow descent before the road cleared the forest and the expanse of the Orroral Valley opened up in front of us.

The old tracking station of which nothing now remains except it’s foundations was built in the 1960’s by NASA. It must have been cold, lonely and isolated in those days but it played a fulsome role in the American space program tracking satellites and firing lasers at mirrors which had been left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station which is in the next valley played a much more important role in the moon landings as did the Tidbinbilla dish which did in fact broadcast the first pictures of Apollo 11 on the moon to the world. (Despite what they say in the movies!)

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At the old tracking station site.

It’s a beautiful place, quite green for this time of year considering the summer we have just endured. There were plenty of people at the site. There are picnic tables and public shelters set up and I was surprised that many had taken an opportunity to venture that far south on Good Friday. But it was a beautiful day for a drive.

As I said, there is nothing much left of the old space station, just concrete slabs adorned with a few weathered signs explaining just what was positioned in that particular spot and what it was designed to do. The only permanent inhabitants now are the kangaroos which cluster in bunches on the perimeter of the site.

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Site of “the dish”.

 

As Linda and I patrolled the old site and bushwalkers appeared from a track running from the north and quickly disappeared again as the track continued south I did think it was a shame that no significant effort has been made to upgrade the site and give it the recognition to which it is due.

We spend a lot of money, in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia, investing our citizens and tourists with the knowledge of the indigenous people who occupied this land before European settlement. Of course it’s only right that this happens and the ACT is very good at it. But I do wonder why sites such as Orroral Valley Tracking Station and it’s sister site at Honeysuckle creek are left to go to ruin at the hands of time and from the ravages of the weather. This is human history. The history of mankind and the people who worked at this site helped to make it happen. Surely some sort of complex with interactive displays would be money well spent. I think we owe it to those who spent so many years in this isolated outpost tracking satellites and furthering the knowledge and achievements of humanity. I know the complex at Tidbinbilla covers a lot of this ground but surely more could be done at other sites in the ACT. Replacing many of the indecipherable signs would be a good start.

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Linda striding through the remains of the old tracking station.

Orroral Valley Tracking Station closed in 1981. It’s dish was sent to Tasmania where it is still in use although not by NASA. it’s a very pleasant drive out to the site and I would recommend it although wildlife is present in abundance and several Wallabies risked their lives in a mad dash in front of our car as we left. It was also noted in signage that snakes can be a problem as they are anywhere in the Australian bush. So be careful.

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One of the local inhabitants.

Orroral Valley is 50km from Canberra. Head south through Tuggeranong following the signs to Tharwa. Cross the trestle bridge over the Murrumbidgee River at Tharwa Village and continue on Naas Road past the visitor centre and Mount Tenant. The road becomes Boboyan Road and soon descends into the Naas Valley with Apollo Road to Honeysuckle Creek branching off to the right beforehand. Drive over Fitz’s Hill and the turnoff to Orroral Valley is at the bottom of the hill on the other side. It is only a short drive to the tracking station site from there.

Hope you have had a great Easter.