The difficult part of writing about trekking in Kokoda lies in knowing where to start. To write about the track, its history and people is tricky, as each topic is tightly knitted to the other, so it is hard to know when one theme starts and the other begins. A chronological account is tempting, as it allows for detailed descriptions of each day’s adventures. However, the Kokoda experience is greater than the sum of its parts, and such a linear re-telling fails to capture the tang of the whole. After some thought, I’ve decided that perhaps the best way to tell you about it, is to describe the way Kokoda feels, and the way it lingers and replays in my memory as a series of vignettes, each so crisp and clear that I can still see, smell and hear everything.
Picture, then, a jungle. A deep, towering jungle, with majestic trees spreading their wings so high above as to block out the sun and leave the bottom dim and mysterious. A thick carpet of shrubbery hugging the steep mountain slopes, each bush fighting with ferns and tangled vines for attention from the merest drop of light. Imagine soft, furry moss dripping off fallen tree trunks and rocks like molten wax, exposed, gnarled tree roots serving as both steps and stepping hazards along the narrow, winding trail, and layers and layers of mud – glistening black in some places, dark brown in others, sickly ochre and a greasy, slippery red in others still.
Imagine emerging into bright patches of shoulder high kunai grass, fields of sweet potato and small clearings which offer sweeping views of imposing, cloud covered mountains. At night, look up into the sky to see the silver candy floss of Milky Way, and by day witness green of every colour, studded here and there with buttons of red and yellow flowers, patches of purple shrubs, multi-coloured beetles and fluttering ultramarine butterflies. Let your eyes settle on small, quaint villages with stilted grass huts and manicured gardens, which from the distance look peaceful and idyllic, but from up close scream of poverty, hardship and human resilience.
I took a great number of photos on the trip, but they simply do not compare fairly with reality – nor do they capture the non-visual aspect of the Kokoda trek. There is no way that a camera shot can convey the nearly constant awareness of one’s body: the burning quads and hamstrings, gasps for air, the brutal jarring of knee joints on never-ending descents and the cloying, sticky sweat, thick with sunscreen and bug repellent, pooling on the skin and rolling down to fall saltily on the tongue. Nor can a photograph truly re-tell the heavenly relief of a stream swirling around hot feet, or the joy of a wetted hat wrung over your head which sends a stream of icy rivulets down your back.
If I close my eyes, I’m reminded of other sensations, less physical but none the less tangible: the heavy weight of sympathy and remembrance for those who fought and died here, a sudden rush of adrenaline at the edge of a cliff, the moments of weightlessness when you miss a step, and the deep sense of admiration and gratitude for the sure-footed porters who catch you over and over again.
Let’s not forget the tastes: the sweet-salty tingle of Hydrolyte, standard hiking fare of powdered milk, oatmeal and dehydrated beef, and packet chicken noodle soup which, in the words of a fellow trekker, “is the worst shit in the world but tastes so bloody good”. Yet, also, the totally unexpected tastes, the delightful surprises of pizza, pasties, pancakes and – most astonishingly of all – freshly made, pink iced doughnuts. Oh, and the smells! The stench of campsite toilets, filled with swarming bees, creeping bugs and poor-aim mishaps. Wood smoke and jungle decay. Damp socks and body odour, instant coffee on a freezing high altitude morning, and sweet smelling posies laid on a memorial at dawn.
But if you think for a moment that all these memories play in my mind as if from a silent movie reel, you would be very much mistaken. For, like all great adventures, Kokoda comes with its own, spectacular sound track. It is a resounding background orchestra of chirping insects and strange birdsong, Pidgin accents and the hollow ring of machete striking wood. A serenade of falling rocks and loose, slipping earth, rushing waterfalls and pounding raindrops, of laughter and loud banter, the tumble of private thoughts that accompany each squelching step, and the silent echoes of all those others who walked along the same track.
And then, there is the music.
It is the sweet Kokoda cherry on top of what would already have been a tremendously rich experience. Music from village children, distant Sabbath church hymns, a clump of porters sitting atop a steep ridge or around a crackling fire. It is this music which is the trek’s parting gift: mellow island voices, wrapped with soft guitar chords, all raised in perfect harmony which can be heard loud and clear long after the plane home has left the tarmac.
Lon pela road, mi wokabout
Lon Kokoda trail – mi laik go lon
Pt Moresby, wer wan pela botol
Swit pela SP i weitim mi
Ol mangi raun nabaut
Kolim nem bilon boss
Putim nem bilon mi
Mi lai wokabout
Taim mi go karim pack,
Suvet i kilim mi, blue maunten
I antap tumas, tintin i sot
Mi no wari, mi kukim iet