Walking Out, my final day on the Kokoda Track.
I really couldn’t believe that the final day was upon us. I was hoping to be woken at 3am feeling refreshed and ready to walk but I think I was so nervous about the walk ahead that I barely slept. I was worried that I was walking out too early and should wait for the second group to walk out at 5am to be able to walk at my own pace but then worried that if I walked out late I would be holding everyone up if I couldn’t walk fast. My lack of sleep wasn’t helped by the slight lean in the guest house that I hadn’t noticed. The way I had originally set up my sleeping gear had my head on the lower side and the blood rushed to my head so I had to re-arrange my bed in the middle of the night. It was also extremely hot – I was sleeping in skins and a crop top but was still hot. I had to stay inside my sleeping bag to tray and avoid the mozzies that were feasting on me through my clothes. I wasn’t the only one who had a restless sleep, every time I woke I could hear others in the guest house stirring.
When the wake-up call went out I really didn’t want to get up. I tried to eat breakfast, well I made breakfast and played with it for a while before deciding that eating wasn’t going to happen. A few of the other trekkers had made chocolate rice pudding for breakfast – rice with hot chocolate powder, condensed milk and dark chocolate. As delicious as it looked and sounded I couldn’t even eat it! I resorted to another trusty gastrolyte treat and filled my pockets with chocolate and a banana hoping that I would be able to eat something soon.
Packs and head-torches on we set out in the dark of the night. The first section of the walk involved a number of river crossings. There was no point attempting to cross from rock to rock in the dark, so most of us plunged straight in. One girl had an infection in her toe and needed to be piggy-backed across the water to keep her foot as dry as possible. Watching someone be piggy-backed through a river in the middle of the night was quite entertaining!
The walk through the river and along the river banks was a beautiful walk but it was painfully slow. I had forgotten that I was actually a confident walker on the flat and downhill sections even if the terrain was rocky and slippery. Knowing that I could easily catch up with the lead, I stopped to watch the porters fish. With their bare hands they were catching yabbies and fish for their breakfast, it was amazing to see.
What should have been an hours walk along the river took closer to 2 hours and I was wishing that I had started off with the second group and had a few extra minutes sleep.
By the time we reached the ridge to start our climb, the jungle was starting to wake up but it was still dark. The slog uphill was even slower than the walk on the flat, with more stopping than starting with the speed varying minute by minute. I wasn’t able to get into a groove to just keep plodding and the path was so narrow that there was no way to overtake. I was trapped walking to someone else’s (lack of) rhythm and it made it harder work than it should have been. It did give me a chance to chat to the guy that was bringing up the rear of our group and get to know him a little better.
Before too long, I could hear the next group as they crashed their way through the jungle. It didn’t take them long before they were right behind us on the extra slow trudge up the mountain through the dense forest. They were wanting to walk through but like me were trapped due to the steep narrow path that didn’t allow for overtaking. It did give us extra people to chat with as we climbed.
The stop/start pace was having its toll on me and I was starting to struggle. It was getting harder and harder to lift my feet up and over the rocks and tree roots. The guy walking behind me noticed that all of a sudden I wasn’t as involved in the banter, that my footing wasn’t as sure as it had been and asked how I was feeling. I was almost overcome with emotion and was able to choke out that I was struggling but hanging in there.
Surely there couldn’t be too much further to the top? The sun was rising, we had been walking for hours but apparently there was another 30 or so minutes to go. Sweat was pouring out of me. It didn’t matter how much I drank, gatorade or water, I was still thirsty. With every step the temperature increased and so did the humidity. I slipped into auto-pilot and concentrated on the steps directly ahead, one foot in front of the other, not looking up just concentrating on each step and the encouragement from my colleagues who were walking behind me, urging me on every step of the way.
Finally, after I have no idea how long, we made it to the top of Imita Ridge. I dropped my pack to the ground and leaned against it for a rest. I felt beyond ordinary. My colleagues sat beside my, comforting me as best they could. I could hear the remainder of the second group make it to the top of the ridge and their comments and concerns for me. The paramedic arrived to check me over (again, this was becoming a habit). After taking my blood pressure I could hear him discuss with the tour leaders that I was in need of more fluids, that perhaps I needed an IV. At the mention of this, the majority of the group were urged to continue walking down the Golden Stairs. I don’t know if this was to give me privacy or simply not to freak everyone else out too much, either way I was grateful.
Before I knew it my bag was shared out amongst the other trekkers and they were all off. I was propped against a couple of backpacks and an IV was inserted. It was such a surreal experience – lying on the ground in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, with a most spectacular view and I am being medicated! As the IV is being pumped through, I could hear the tour leader on the phone to her base camp discussing the possibility that I would need to be carried out on a stretcher. This set the porters into a further frenzy, wondering if they would have to carry me out. This was the first time in any of the treks they had been involved in that anyone needed urgent fluids, normally people give up and are medivaced out before they got to this stage.
There was no way that after 7 days of walking through the jungle was I going to be carried out, not if I had anything to do with it. I don’t know if it was the fear of having to be carried out and not finishing the trek or the fluids being squeezed into my body but I was starting to feel better, to get more energised. I even requested that someone find a camera to get photographic evidence of the dramas I was causing!
When about half the saline was in, I was feeling well enough to go, I didn’t want to sit any longer. I had to wait for the final 500mls to go through and for me to drink more gastrolyte before I was allowed to move off again. Finally it was all in, the drip was removed and I was allowed to move and not a moment too soon, I could hear the next trekking group make its way up towards the top of the ridge and I despite me being happy to show and tell everyone what I was doing (in blogland), I really didn’t want to be seen connected to an IV by the other trekking group.
I set off with a porter on either side of me, to stablise me as I walked the steep and slippery descent of the Golden Stairs about half an hour after the others set off. A friend and the tour leader were right behind me with another porter and the remaining guys, the paramedic and another couple of colleagues packed up the medical waste before setting off after us. I felt re-invigorated and ready to go. It didn’t take me long to find my feet again and I felt as if I was practically running down the mountain. Although this section was called the Golden Stairs, there were no stairs, just a steep descent through slippery golden clay that was sticking to us.
Before I knew it, I had walked ahead of those that I left Imita Ridge with and was soon walking with just the porters showing me the safest way to climb down the ridge. I was much more confident and they didn’t even have to stand by to catch me, they just pointed out the best route. By the time we hit the creek at the bottom of the Golden Stairs I had caught up with the some of the other group who had stopped for a snack. I was feeling too full of energy to stop so I powered on. Before I knew it I had passed all but a few of the trekkers, the pace makers at the front of the pack. I had too much energy. Whatever was in that drip had to be more than saline, it was a magic elixir and I couldn’t stop!
By the time I reached Goldie River I felt as if I was flying, I wanted to keep on going. I waded through the river with the porters to make it to the campsite on the other side where we were to wait for the rest of the group so we could do the final climb together. I knew the importance of all walking out together but I also knew that if I stopped I may not start again.
I sat in the shade to wait the 20 or so minutes it took for the remainder of the group to get in to camp. I didn’t have my pack and it felt wrong and it was distressing me. Another guy could see my distress at having come so far and now having to rely on help to get through the final day. He found my pack for me, made sure it was all but empty before helping to strap me in to it.
We all re-grouped ready for the final climb. I was sent toward the front of the group to walk so I could be supported by the rest of the group, just behind the slow walkers. That meant I was going to be forced to walk at someone else’s pace and that didn’t bode well for me. I wanted to linger toward the back, closer to the paramedic, just in case. I compromised and walked in the middle section.
Just for something different, the final push was extremely steep and in full sun as there was no jungle canopy just long kunai grass. The walk was stop start and painful. I had a student in front of me take me by the hand and lead me through some of the steeper sections. I was thankful as I was back on auto-pilot and was feeling as if I had tunnel vision, it was too much energy to do more than lift one foot in front of the other.
It was so hot that I was sweating profusely. The sweat was mixing with the tears that rolled down my face as I was dragged up the final hill. I could hear people urging me on, supporting me and encouraging me (and the there trekkers too). I could also hear my colleagues call out their concern and making sure that I always had someone to drag me up the hill. I also had another student behind me, with his hands behind my pack to steady me as I wobbled with exhaustion.
I thought I could see the end in sight but it was only another false peak. I was running on less than empty and didn’t think I could go on but the other trekkers wouldn’t let go of me and kept dragging me up the hill. Eventually I could see the sign at the top of Ower’s Corner marking the end of the grueling Kokoda Track. I was almost there, I was going to make it.
We stood, all at the top of the peak and walked under the sign together. I was being held up by a friend as I stumbled through. I was overcome with emotion and fatigue. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry, I think I did a little of both, unsure if I was simply overwhelmed or delirious.
I was carried over to the side of the clearing and sat down. A cold drink was rushed over to me. I took a few cool refreshing sips and promptly had the urge to throw up. It wasn’t a great feeling. The paramedic and my colleagues joined me to ‘celebrate’.
A photo session was about to begin at the top of Ower’s Corner so I insisted on taking part – it may be selfish but I wanted to be in the group photos at the finish line and I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else to miss out on being involved in the celebrations. I was lead over to the sign and was propped against a post to help me stand. A friend held me up, just in case. It felt like it was the longest photo session ever but I was glad to be there, at the finish line, in one piece.
Finally the photos were finished (and a review of them show that I look like I am about to throw up in most of them!) and I went back to my spot on the grass to wallow in celebratory misery. I still had the urge to throw up but was fighting it, I didn’t want the day to be made worse for me or anyone else by throwing up. Eventually I was given an injection in the thigh to stop the stomach spasms that were making me want to throw up.
I lay in my little pile of pity and listened to the celebrations taking place around me. I wanted to get up and celebrate with everyone but I couldn’t move. Kids kept wandering over to check on me and to congratulate me on finishing the trek. With each hug or pat on the back I felt more and more alone not being able to jump around and enjoy the festivities. My pity party wasn’t much fun at all and was compounded by the overwhelming niceness of everyone wanting to make sure I was included.
Eventually the nausea subsided and I was moved to the front of the troop carrier with the airconditioner on to try and stablise. I was happy to be out of the way, to give everyone else a chance to celebrate properly, to thank the tour operators and especially to thank the porters.
I felt selfish not being able to thank the porters personally but sat in the truck recuperating.
Eventually the presentations and thank yous were complete and everyone piled into the buses and troop carrier to drive away from the ending to the Kokoda Track. I could barely contain my tears as we drove away. I didn’t want to be finishing, and especially I didn’t want to be finishing in the manner that I had yet at the same time I was overwhelmed by the entire experience. The love and support that my new friends had provided, it was an amazing, exhausting and ultimately fantastic experience.