19/12/2004 at 2:34 am #94227
SATURDAY, 26 JUNE 2004 – PORT MORSEBY
Departed Roseville at 6.30am – Lou driving James and I to the airport. The late departure of our flight to Cairns had James and I running to catch our connecting flight to Port Moresby, with only a minute to spare.
Arrived Port Moresby at approximately 1.50pm. Torrential monsoon rain falling, rivers swollen and low cloud. We met most of our group and tour guide this afternoon at the Gateway Hotel. The group is comprised of seventeen trackers, Eric our guide, food and personal porters. There are quite a few young walkers including a father with his family of four sons and one daughter. James will enjoy their company and has already joined them in a tennis ball branding game in the hotel swimming pool.
At Port Moresby airport we bumped into the Shore Kokoda expedition and James was able to say hello to former school mates and teachers. I also spoke briefly to Michael Hawker (former Wallaby, Grand Slam Tour) who was confident Australia would beat England in tonight's rugby test.
Fortunately we are able to watch the game in our hotel. Australia wins quite convincingly 51/15, and are once again the holders of the Cook Cup.
Tomorrow we will rise at 4.00am and fly from Port Moresby to Kokoda at day break.
It is 9.30pm and we are turning in, excited by the thought of starting our 104km walk. James is in high spirits. We have both been struck by the warm and friendly nature of the local people.
John & James McRae seen here at the Gateway Hotel after completing their successful trek:
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SUNDAY, 27 JUNE 2004 – HOI VILLAGE
At 5.00am we are transferred by mini bus to the airport. It is still raining heavily and our flight is delayed.
Looking around the airport one is struck by the number of travellers carrying axes and machetes. Although all intending plane passengers are subject to security scans, their main purpose is apparently to detect firearms, rather than axes and knives.
Our tour organiser, Gail Thomas, is asked to go home and use her base radio to establish the weather conditions at Kokoda. A positive response has us boarding the aircraft, a small twin prop with a seating capacity of around 18 people, at 7.00am.
The tarmac at Port Moresby is several centimetres deep in water and the sight of many workers in bare feet is a striking contrast to Australian airports.
We discover the plane is leaking water and a few of us get wet. Soon after take off, we disappear into the clouds and fly over the ranges relying on the instrument rating skills of the pilots. I have my doubts as to whether there will be a break in the clouds, but these fears are proven to be unfounded – well almost.
Despite circling for 15 minutes above the treetops, we are unable to land at Kokoda and detour to Asimba, a remote village with a small grass airstrip. It is a slightly rough landing and we 'fish tail' through the grass, which is nearly half a metre high and covers the wheels of the plane.
The children at Asimba Village:
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Villagers – men, women and children pour out of the bush and a very large and inquisitive welcoming party assembles. They all bear the signature cheery smiles of the local people.
By Australian standards they are dressed in rags and the children's skin carries sores and other signs of health problems. I notice that most of the girls have faint tattoos on their faces. They are all happy and friendly and quickly group together in a most obliging way for us to take photos.
Airlines of PNG's aircraft parked waiting for the weather toclear to fly into Kokoda:
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We start up a game of frisby, which the children timidly participate in. However as their confidence grows, many more become involved and it is refreshing to see them enjoying this simple game.
The game is played in their school yard, which is fenced by wooden sticks staked in the ground in an overlapping diagonal pattern.
The people of Asimba are essentially subsistence farmers who live off the land. They also produce palm oil and from the air large palm plantations can be seen. Not native to PNG, the palm is apparently very bad for the soil, sucking out most of the nutrients and degrading it substantially within five years.
Inquisitive villagers and children appear from the bushes:
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After 45 minutes, the pilot decides we should try and land at Kokoda. The fog has lifted and we succeed. Porters are assigned and we are soon walking into Kokoda village, where we receive a traditional welcome from Papuans dancing and singing to the rhythmic beat of their drums. They form two lines and escort us into the village.
The men are dressed in flamboyant headpieces made from bird?s feathers (Cassowary, Bird of Paradise, chicken etc.) and are adorned with seashell and pig tusk necklaces. Bark cloth skirts are also worn. The women who are bare breasted, wear orange grass skirts and seashell necklaces. Their dancing, drumming and dress is a very powerful combination and it is a stunning welcome aided by the element of surprise – we were unaware of the performance until we walked around a bend in the road.
Oro Province Traditional dancers at Kokoda Station:
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In Kokoda, we are shown the war memorial museum where James and I sign the visitor's book. There are several monuments with plaques commemorating the fallen – Japanese and Australian.
From Kokoda we head off along the famous track.
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We cross several small streams and after passing through Kovello arrive at Hoi. It is around 3.00pm and it has been an easy walk of only 2 hours. Our porters help us to erect the tents and boil the billy. Lunch is a modest affair of cheese, tuna and biscuits – about two each. I am left with no doubt that I will loose weight on the trip!
Lunch is complimented by fresh coconuts. A piece of husk is left on the shell as a handle to assist with drinking and the porters skilfully knock the top off with their machetes. The coconut milk is cool and refreshing, a real delicacy.
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Enjoying a cup of tea under the thatch roofed kitchen with open sides, we are surprised to see an athletic Papuan walk into our camp with a black, 12-gauge, pump action shot gun smeared with mud, slung casually over his shoulder.
Our tour guide, Eric, explains he is a policeman doing a patrol due to an apparent problem a few weeks back when a tourist was threatened in Hoi. It is hard to imagine any problems like this occurring as the people all seem so warm and friendly.
However it does reinforce the message you read in some tourist guides that occasionally there is rascal activity on the track ? and you have to be a little bit ?jungle wise?.
James has just returned from playing a game of volleyball at the local village. It is 6.00pm and the light is fading. I expect we will eat dinner soon.
Dinner consists of rice, noodles, bananas cooked in coconut milk and sweet potatoes. We turn in at 8.30pm.
Hoi Village Campsite:
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MONDAY, 28 JUNE 2004 – ISURAVA
At 5.00am, Eric does the rounds of the campsite, blowing his whistle at each tent. During the night it has rained heavily. Our tent stayed dry, although we were glad of the trench that had been dug around it by the porters.
We have a light breakfast of pancakes. Daybreak is at 6.00am and already there are local village people from Hoi walking along the track to Kokoda approximately 2 hour's north. Each week day the children walk from Hoi to Kokoda to attend school.
Children from Hoi Village:
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We set off along the track just before 7.00am and are soon climbing the Owen Stanley Range. The first section is uphill and strenuous.
Our porters carry machetes (bush knives) like we carry mobile phones. They use them for digging holes, cutting firewood and walking sticks. I even saw a two year old child playing with one in Hoi.
On the steep parts of the track, they will use the point to flick out some dirt and create a toehold in the greasy, slippery surface. All the porters walk in bare feet, as do all the local people. The track meanders through the bush ? a lush rainforest with many difference species of trees and plants.
A creek crossing, one of many along the kokoda Trail:
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After a second steep climb, we arrive in New Isurava and stop for lunch, a hearty affair of local village food including bananas, taro, yam, sweet potatoes and corn. Dry biscuits, canned corned beef, vegemite and peanut butter are also on the menu.
During the morning, we met a group walking from Port Moresby to Kokoda. They were being escorted by security guards carrying M16 machine guns. One of their party was a prominent PNG businessman and apparently these precautions are necessary.
Myself and James at Isurava where we overnighted:
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As heavy rain falls, we set off again to walk a further hour to the site of the famous battle at Isurava. The track is extremely muddy and slippery and I am glad of the walking stick cut for me by porter Robin.
Arriving at Isurava the cloud lifts revealing a panoramic view of the mountains and valley. In respectful silence, everyone visits the WW II memorial for Australian soldiers and PNG citizens.
Isurava Battlesite Monument area with its beautiful panoramic views:
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The memorial is a magnificent structure with four pillars of black granite from South Australia. Each granite pillar has a word inscribed on it, Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice.
A description of the memorial from an information board reads:
The four sentinel stones represent the resolute commitment and sacrifice of those Australians who stood firm to slow and finally halt the advance of the Japanese forces across Papua New Guinea in 1942.
The inscription on the plaque reads:
In remembrance of those Australians and Papua New Guineans who fought and those who died on the Kokoda Track 1942. The memorial is situated on a clear grassed knoll on the edge of the mountain. From an architectural perspective, it has been constructed in such a way that the symmetry and axes of its design are enhanced by the natural beauty of the location.
The backdrop of mountains, the deep and distant view into the valley beneath it, and the distinctive V-outline of the mountain ridges that run down into the valley, against which the memorial is centred, combine to form a very striking image.
The memorial stands in proud and silent memory of the PNG people and Australian soldiers involved in the Kokoda campaign and is humbled by the beauty of its surroundings.
Photograph: Granite pillars inscribed with the words: Courage, Endurance, Mateship and Sacrifice.
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On 14 August 2002, the Prime Minister's of Australia and PNG officially dedicated the memorial. I feel privileged to see it and have found the experience quite a moving one.
There is also a tribute to Private Bruce Kingsbury, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and one can see the rock where he paused from the battle and was killed by a sniper.
Private Bruce Kingsbury was a soldier in the 2/14 Battalion and when the Japanese pushed his unit back, he suddenly took the initiative. His bravery citation states:
"he rushed forward firing the Bren gun from his hip through terrific machine gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy. Continuing to sweep enemy positions with his fire and inflicting an extremely high number of casualties on them, Private Kingsbury was seen to fall to the ground shot dead by a bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood"
James found some old war relics including a Japanese soldier's helmet, live hand grenade and bren gun magazine. All are very rusted and corroded.
Tonight we are staying in the Isurava Memorial Trekkers Hut, which has bunks. Luxury!
My book on the Kokoda Track says 'Isurava can be very moody in the evening, with cloud drifting in and out of the village and nearby hills, adding to the historical significance of this old battle ground'.
At the present time of 5.00pm, it is raining and the mist has rolled in. Isurava is displaying her moodiness.
My son James McRae seen here wearing a Japanese Soldier's Helmut outside the Isurava Village Guesthouse. Micheala another trekker can be seen in the background looking on:
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TUESDAY, 29 JUNE 2004 – EORA CREEK
Heavy rain continues to fall. It is often torrential. The boys (as Eric refers to his team) are singing their traditional songs around the campfire.
I am writing this note by torch light in my tent at the campsite at Eora Creek at 8.00pm. James has turned in and I won't be too far behind him.
As is the routine that has been established we will rise again at 5.00am and will be walking the track by 7.00am. An early start usually carries the bonus of being a dry start. You can count on rain any time after noon and throughout the night.
Breakfast today was a light meal of pancakes, peas, and a small amount of tinned corn beef.
As I was first to the fire where breakfast was being cooked, Eric served me personally. Carefully he placed two pancakes on my plate, two spoons of peas on the side and a dollop of corned beef on top of the pancakes. It was done with great elegance and my meal had the presentation that is usually seen on a plate in a fine restaurant.
The boys always served their meals in this manner. After we had eaten they would line their plates up and evenly divide the food. All servings would be neatly and purposefully placed on the plate and they would then sit and eat together.
Kai Kai Taim (pidgin for time to eat food):
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