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.

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.

 

To the Green Fields Beyond

I have been trying to put together an itinerary for when Linda and I jump off  our Trafalgar Tour in Paris on September 28 and the rest of our trip which lasts until mid October. It’s a bit scary because wandering around a place where English is not only not spoken but frowned upon if used, or so legend goes, is a bit daunting. I’m sure we will be fine. As Linda says, it will be an adventure if nothing else. And I am sure that will be the case.

 After  spending four days taking in the sights and sounds of the “City of Light”,  we will make our way to the green fields of northern France, namely Amiens, where the flower of Australian youth bivouacked, fought and died in their droves during the Great War.

 I have booked  Bed and Breakfast accommodation at a little village called Courcelles au bois , 27km from Amiens and the trick, after finding the right train to Amiens and picking up a hire car in the city, will be navigating the ancient streets and back lanes and finding our little hamlet. One of the main reasons I chose this particular spot is that the proprietors speak good English and I figure that could come in handy if I get into a tight spot and don’t know where I am. A phone call to our hosts would surely see me out of trouble.


 I am also looking into buying a Global Positioning System and trying to enquire online if a hand held contraption bought in Australia can work in Europe and it seems some can and others need to have maps downloaded although there seems to be a “hire” system on some whereby you can hire a map of France for example, for a month and it works out cheaper than downloading information which may cost more than the whole unit to begin with! Ah, the joys of preparing for travel.

 I was initially not going to bother with a swoop through the northern climes of France but my Great Uncle died of wounds in a Casualty Clearing Station at Grevillers and it was suggested to me that I call in and see his grave as no one from the family has visited it in all these years. I would hate to think young John Robinson is lying cold in his grave near the old western front, lonely and unloved and I think a visit is in order, just to let him know that he has never been forgotten. I know he was much loved and lamented and I can only imagine the grief and sorrow experienced by his parents and brothers and sisters and extended family on hearing of his tragic death, however gallant it may have been. Dying for your country may be a noble theory but it is much more profound for those left behind who have to deal with the anguish involved. It must have been especially hard as he was so far away. Families in those days had very little means of decamping to Europe. I will do it for them.

 A friend of ours, when told we were perusing the line of the old Western Front, asked if we could find out more about the place where her own Great Uncle is buried. I duly looked up Bonnay War Cemetery where he is interred and it is not very far from where our other appointment is. The whole line of road from Amiens to Bapaume is dotted with military cemeteries, many holding hundreds and thousands of Diggers. A timeless and prosaic reminder of the sacrifice of a small country in the defence of France. We shall visit there too.

 The village of Courcelles au bois is close to the city of Albert but also in the vicinity of Theivpal where very heavy fighting took place during the Great War and just a little further on, situated on a t-intersection on the road between Amiens and Albert, is Pozieres.

 8000 Australians died on the ridge at Pozieres, taking and holding the town, in six weeks of fighting, a larger number than had died at Gallipoli in nine months. A kilometre or so further on at Moquet Farm the fields were sown with Australian blood and it is said that more Australians died there than at any other place on earth. The old windmill at Moquet Farm which contained a German command post is today Australian territory, bought and paid for by the Australian government and the lives of our best and bravest who gave their all on those bloody battlefields nearly one hundred years ago.

 I have been to Gallipoli and walked the Kokoda Trail but I get the feeling that standing at the Moquet Farm windmill may be the most poignant experience of all, a place where our young men strived to reach those “Green Fields Beyond”, but found only death and slaughter at the hands of the modern military machine. It will be an honour to pay my respects to them.

 And so my planning continues and as the departure date draws near the more nervous I will be no doubt. I hope to blog my way through Europe and to keep you all up to date with what I am up to. I am sure you will all wait with baited breath for my dispatches from the Front. Until then, have a nice day.