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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One Moment in History

 On this day 72 years ago, on the precipitous northern ramparts of the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea, a 23 year old real estate agent from Melbourne sauntered into Australian history with a spitting Bren gun slung from his hip. He never looked back, never asked for help. He selflessly gave his life so others might live. His name was Bruce Steel Kingsbury and he is an Australian hero.

 Not too many people would have heard of or remember the name of Bruce Kingsbury VC and that is a tragedy. A suburb in Melbourne and a street name here or there are the only fleeting reminders to the general population that he ever walked the earth. But on one day, at one moment when his country and his friends needed him he stood tall and made a difference. And his mates never forgot it.


 I was only a nipper when I first read of Bruce Kingsbury VC. I was a boy who liked toy soldiers and revelled in the heroic image of warfare as it appeared in television movies. Then I read “Blood and Iron, the Battle for Kokoda” and a more sobering reality of armed conflict presented itself to me. Yet I could still see the honour and admire the gallantry of men who took up arms to defend the greater good.

 “Blood and Iron” was a hard book to read. Academically written it was a dry tome that may have seen a less invested person put it aside and give it to charity. But I persevered and the names of men who were born in my country and gave their all to defend it filled my head and a definition of bravery coagulated in my brain, a definition which still today causes me to hold my breath at the very thought of it.

 Bruce Kingsbury was a typical Australian of the time. He had worked in his father’s real estate agency in Melbourne and had done a bit of farm work in the country before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force, being posted to the 2/14 infantry battalion. From all accounts he acquitted himself well during the campaign in Syria where the AIF vanquished French Foreign Legion forces loyal to the Vichy government.

 The 2/14 battalion arrived in New Guinea as part of the 21st Brigade, full of the confidence that only a successful fighting unit can carry, certain that they would push the Japanese Imperial army out of the mountains and show the ragged militiamen of Australia’s home army who had struggled and persevered for months against the juggernaut of the rising sun just how it should be done.

 Of course the reality was far different. After relieving the young conscripts of the 39th battalion, Brigadier Arnold Potts, commander of the 21st Brigade, hamstrung by orders which required him to leave one of his hardened battalions in Port Morseby, outnumbered five to one and forced to stretch his forces thin, found himself and his men in a life and death struggle in the leafy village of Isurava, deep in the jungle, far from their base and battling with a fractured supply line. The men of the brigade found themselves in trouble and in danger of being encircled and annihilated by an enemy who gave no quarter.

 Bruce Kingsbury’s platoon had been decimated and the Australian headquarters were in danger of being outflanked and overrun when he volunteered to join a desperate counter-attack by a disparate group of diggers as the AIF battalions grimly held their ground against increasingly long odds. Taking a Bren gun from a wounded comrade he waded into the attacking enemy as gunfire burst around him and vegetation was chopped away by Japanese bullets bursting among among his comrades. It’s hard to say from this distance just what the much vaunted warriors of the Japanese army thought of a single Australian cutting his way through them, bringing down men left and right, fire and death screeching from his Bren gun as he advanced but history shows that those who weren’t killed scattered and retreated. All but one.

 As Bruce Kingsbury finally stopped shooting and a sweet silence swept over the battlefield he perhaps gained some satisfaction in knowing he had single handedly turned back the Japanese and saved the battalion headquarters enabling it to retreat in good order. We will never know as a single shot rang from the jungle striking Bruce Kingsbury in the chest killing him instantly.

 The bravery of Bruce Kingsbury and his little victory in this small action probably saved his battalion that day. His bravery was but one small piece in the mosaic of the battle of Isurava, a place where a lot of Australian blood was spilt and the best and the bravest this country could produce came to the fore.

 Australians would struggle to avoid defeat on the Kokoda Trail for some weeks yet but Bruce Kingsbury’s actions were rewarded with a Victoria Cross and reading of his valour several decades later made a young man in Canberra want to shadow his footsteps and walk the trail himself, every step a tribute to Kingsbury and his magnificent comrades who gave their all in those dank, dark jungles of New Guinea.

 I completed the trek in 1998.

 Our country has changed a lot since the dark days of 1942 when the enemy stood at the gates. We are no longer the homogeneous society we were during the second world war. Queen and country no longer seems to matter much. No one can agree on anything and fractious forces exist inside our own country wishing us ill. It’s sad.

 But it is worth remembering that this nation produced men like Bruce Kingsbury and his comrades and probably still could if needed. Let us hope it never comes to that again. Lest we forget.

  

Winter is Coming

  It’s May, 1998. I am standing on the crest of a mountain in the high country of Papua New Guinea, a place known to history as Brigade Hill. I am with my brother and sister and behind us lies a cairn commemorating the men of the 21st Australian Infantry Brigade, 2nd AIF who fought gallantly and boldly on this hill in 1942. Behind us is Menari. In front of us, Efogi. We are halfway up the Kokoda Trail. I am nearly 28 years old.

 Fast forward to 2014 and I am contemplating the fact that I turned 44 yesterday and can’t believe that I am actually as old as that! Where does time go?

 44. The number sticks in my throat as I say it. The years have slipped by almost in a blur and the amazing thing is I don’t feel any older than I did that day on Brigade Hill, all those years ago. Which I suppose is a good thing.


 I have the odd ache and pain which I am sure didn’t niggle at me in 1998 as it does today. A sore shoulder from working the same job every day for years. A gammy leg which I hurt playing tennis a few months ago and has never gotten better. But overall I feel more comfortable within myself than I did in the late days of the 20th century. Maybe I am just improving with age?

 Time slips away and we barely notice until, suddenly, silently and subtlety, middle age is upon you and the harsher days have receded in memory.

 When I raced pushbikes in the dim, dark days of the 1980’s and the old timers talked of the two wheeled heroes of the past, the 1960’s seemed a world away, a time alien to me. Now, I look back on my own racing days and the years have stretched to a similar length and it seems like only yesterday.

 I look out my bedroom window and Wanniassa, the suburb I live in stretches out before me and the high school I attended is laid out just as it was when I was a boy. Yes the world has changed but some things have stayed the same. The 16 year old me would still know and recognise his surrounds if he was fast forwarded to 2014. Perhaps there are a few things which are different but not much.

 My uncle passed away earlier this week and I am not able to attend his funeral which is gnawing at me and soaking my bones in a guilty stew. I hadn’t seen much, if anything of him in the last twenty years but in my youth when I stayed with my grandmother in country Victoria he was always around and I knew him well. He is the second of my father’s siblings to pass away and although he is younger than my Dad I guess it is a harbinger of the future and a sign that nothing stands still in life. Friends, family, work, fun, laughter all must wither and pass in the end. It’s important to take a breather now and again and remember those things once important which have faded from our view as we plow the furrowed fields of life and sow our own destiny.

 I hope I haven’t gotten too deep in this post but birthdays cause some reflection on where I have been and where I am going and it reinforces to me a notion I had many years ago which is to live my life with some enjoyment, don’t take it too seriously unless you have to and ignore those who cause you grief whilst trying to be pleasant to all you meet. It doesn’t always work out but I think it is a template to live by.

 Winter is coming. But life is worth living. Enjoy it while you can, it doesn’t last forever.

 (With apologies to George RR Martin for using a quote from “A Game of Thrones”)