Today started with our first taste of PNG time. We were all dressed, packed, fed and waiting in the foyer of the hotel prior to the appointed hour of 7.30 ready to be bused to the airport to catch our flight to Kokoda. Well the appointed hour came and went and there we sat, patiently waiting for our bus. The final groups departure time of 8.30am also came and went and we were still waiting. We decided that we might as well jump into a hotel courtesy bus to get to the airport and commence waiting there.
We were at the airport before our plane was, then when it finally did return it had to re-fuel. In the meantime we had to weigh ourselves and our bags to ensure that the plane didn’t go over its cargo limits. I freaked out when I stood on the scales with my pack and the digital readout showed 99.6kg. My starting weight, sans pack, is a whopping 77kg. I have been training with a pack for 16-18kg so even with my math skills I was soon aware that I was carrying much more than I had anticipated, with almost 23kg in my pack. I started to panic, what was in my pack that I could ditch before we even began? Can’t get rid of the water, I need that. I only had 3 sets of clothes, I was wearing one set, had a spare set and some compression gear to sleep in; nothing there I could get rid of there. Satellite phone, video camera and camera? So technically I didn’t NEED these items but I wanted to document where I was and what I was doing so they all had to stay. All that was left was food, medicines and toiletries. Naturally the medicines had to stay. My toiletry bag was tiny with little more than sunscreen, mozzie repellent, deodorant and body wash (because I care about my fellow trekkers!) and a toothbrush and toothpaste in it so nothing to cull there. Food? I was carrying a lot of extra food but I knew that there was a lot in our ration packs that I couldn’t eat (damn wheat intolerance). I had cans of beans, porridge, lollies and soup mix shoved in my pack to make sure that I had plenty of food to eat as I trekked. I could get rid of some of the food but I would slowly eat my way through it and be appreciative of food that didn’t make me feel unwell. It looked like I would be stuck with a ginormous pack for the trek!
Before our plane arrived, we were met at the airport by the final group waiting for their flight. They would have a long wait; they were travelling on the same plane as us once it returned. It looks like there would be a late day of walking ahead of both groups.
Finally our plane arrived and we were ready to fly. The group nervously wandered out onto the tarmac ready to board, stopping of course for a group photo. Some of the group were so nervous about flying on the tiny little twin otter plane that they imagined it was the last photo they would have taken of themselves.
I am happy to say the flight went smoothly, in fact the pilots should be complimented on their skills, the touchdown was smoother than the arrival in Port Moresby yesterday! Drama only began after the plane landed when the pilot turned around to say “Don’t open the door!” Only one person misheard what the pilot said, unfortunately that happened to be the person sitting by the door. Next thing we knew the door was open and the whole plane was shuddering with the shockwaves of the door slamming, unguided to the ground. Luckily there was no-one standing under the door when it crashed open. Fortunately we had someone new in the running for ‘Tool of the Trip!’ Off the plane safe and sound and it was time to get ready to walk, first stop Kokoda and the museum.
I am afraid that I must admit that the short walk from the airfield to the museum knocked me about a bit, uphill all the way in full sun. The walk wasn’t hard but it was a shock, I knew then that I was really a long long way from home.
We stopped at the museum to learn more about why we were there – the history of the 39th Battalion and how valiantly they fought in order to keep Australia the wonderful place that it is. Before walking into the museum we walked by trees that were scarred by bullets, once inside we were confronted with stories, poems and photos of the harsh realities of war. Back out in the glaring sunlight we could see the ground that the Australians fought so hard to save.
Once we had finished exploring the Kokoda Museum it was time for the trek to begin for real. The first section of the trek was along a tractor track.
The walk was flat and easy but with the hot sun overhead sun we soon became tired. One of the trekkers was reacting badly to malaria medication and was feeling unwell. For a period of time our walk was punctuated by the sound of someone trying desperately hard not to throw up. With all the stopping, we soon lost track of the main group but walked along together, slowly trying to pick up our pace to find more of our group.
Before long we met another trekker from our group who was the first to require foot taping over blisters and shortly thereafter, another trekker who by their own admissions had started out too hard and was feeling the consequences. I sat with them for a short while, nibbling on a chocolate bar before walking again. For the first time in the day, it was now mid-afternoon, I was all alone in the jungle. It was perfectly safe for me to be walking alone, the track was clearly marked and I had trekkers from my group both ahead and behind me. I walked until I found a fork in the track and was forced to stop and wait for others to catch up – there were no signposts marking the direction I needed to travel. I sat in the shade chatting to a beautiful young lady who herself had walked the track more than 10 times with her family!
Eventually a porter from our group walked by and I was able to continue walking with him. I was able to enjoy the walk and look at the amazing plant life that surrounded me and ask questions about everything I saw. The porter was fantastic, he pointed out different edible plants as we walked by as well as different animal life we might hear or encounter as we walked. He also talked about his memories of my colleagues and friends who had walked the track with the same trekking company in previous years. It was great to talk to a stranger about friends in common and share stories of what had happened in their lives in recent years.
It was still swelteringly hot so when we got to the next river crossing I filled up my camelbak and had to wait for the rest of the group to catch up so I could treat my water (despite the rivers all looking crisp, clear and beautiful, all water had to be treated before we could drink it). Once we were all together, we commenced the climb up a mountainside to our lunch campsite, to catch up with the rest of our group.
We arrived at the lunch site shortly after the first group set off for our overnight campsite, they had been there for hours having flown in to Kokoda hours before we had arrived. The remainder of the second group were still in camp finishing up their lunch. We didn’t linger long at camp knowing we still had many more hours of walking before we got to our campsite at Isurava. Before leaving camp however we dragged our torches out as we wouldn’t make it to camp before dark, we also grabbed out pack covers or ponchos out, it looked like a storm was heading our way. (Note to self – next time take a real pack cover!)
The walk continued uphill. It wasn’t a difficult walk but after so many hours trudging along I was starting feel fatigued. There was nowhere to stop so I kept on trudging, chatting away to those I was walking with to pass the hours.
Shortly before nightfall it began to rain. It was a steady, gentle rain that was almost refreshing after the heat of walking through the day. Unfortunately when it was dark enough that I needed my head torch the rain picked up and became a torrential downpour. We weren’t too far from camp, merely a few more hours walk, but those few hours were all uphill! We re-grouped at the bottom of the hill, sitting in the rain and snacking on whatever we could get our hands on to get some energy before beginning the walk uphill. The final group, the group we left behind at the airport in Port Moresby had been walking hard all afternoon and had just caught up with us and were looking to get into camp as soon as they could.
The next few hours walking are all a blur. All I remember thinking is “it is like walking up a waterfall”. At times the water rushing downhill along the path was so forceful it was hitting me in the shins, well above my boots and gaiters. I soon discovered that the water rushed down the section of path with the least resistance and that was the path I followed uphill. Not only did the water find the easiest path, but it was easier to see where I was going with my torch light reflecting off the water almost showing me the way.
What felt like days later but was probably less than a few hours later, I made it into camp. I was cold and wet but otherwise in good spirits. I had a space saved in the ‘guest house’ where I could spread out my mat and sleeping bag ready for the night.
In hindsight, my timing was pretty good. By the time I was changed into warm dry clothes and my wet clothes hung out to ‘dry’, there was a call to say the water was boiling and the rice was cooked – dinner was ready!
Dinner, straight from a ration pack was a bag of barbeque beef casserole on rice. It wasn’t as bad as I expected and the serve was much larger than I needed or wanted. I even had some chocolate left to snack on for dessert before crawling into my sleeping bag to warm up some more. I tried to sort out my pack and get my breakfast rations organised but before long sleep was calling.
My first full day on the track and there were times in the latter hours of the walk that I was wondering what the hell I had signed up for. I was hoping that the walking would get easier and I would develop some track fitness. It was suggested that we would feel better once we got to day 3, suggesting to me that day 2 would be another long and hard day of walking.