It’s impossible to believe that it was exactly six years ago that I was midway through one of the most difficult and isolated hikes in the world. A time that would forever change my perspective on life and all that was near and dear to me. A time of epiphanies and wonder… There are so many vivid and incredible memories of the trip, especially because my best mate Craig and I did it together. This week I’ve thinking about our trip and wanted to share just a few of my memories.
There’s no question that hiking Kokoda was the most difficult thing I’ll likely ever do physically and to some degree mentally in my entire life. The hike itself was 96 km of some of the most difficult terrain in the world, making our way through date palm groves, 2.5 meter elephant grass and that was just just getting out of the first village! The real hiking came when we began climbing from sea level to 7,000 feet with 50lb+ packs over the next eight days on a slippery and muddy track about a meter wide through virtually impenetrable jungle foliage.
Given that we the hike starts in the village of Kokoda, which is only 600 miles from the equator it was hot, not just your ordinary summer hot but suffocatingly hot almost like you were in a sauna or a hot yoga class but for eight solid days under pack over huge inclines. Monumental climbs as I think back…
The second thing I noticed was how quickly you found yourself sweating, and I mean dripping wet. This was to become the norm for the next eight days. Everything was constantly wet, you, your clothes, your gear, your boots which all took on a very pungent and musty smell soon after we started, yeah it was super smelly.
Now the good thing, if you can call it that was that everyone, and I mean everyone was in exactly the same boat. The reality is that it didn’t take long to not notice the smells of either yourself, you wringable clothes or those around you as you all smelled exactly the same.
You also got accustomed to climbing, at times holding onto roots of trees, or vines to help pull you up the incredibly steep track and accordingly which felt never ending. Generally we stopped every hour or so for a five to ten minute break, we’d flop down on the jungle floor or clearing still panting from the lung busting climb, gulp down some water and perhaps a snack if we had something handy.
It felt amazing to shed the weight of your pack even if just for a few minutes, almost as if you were weightless. If you were lucky enough to be closer to the front of the group then you might get an extra couple of minutes so I tried to make a point of trying to keep up front wherever possible. 🙂
Most mornings we had tea and dry crackers for breakfast, followed by a lunch of dry sausage, cheese (first few days) and more dry crackers with a mug of tea. Most evening meals our porters would prepare rice with an assortment of jungle vegetables and one night added wild boar to our standard fare. Our porters had speared it earlier in that afternoon during a foray into the jungle during one of our breaks and cooked over an open fire for us that night.
The hike itself was along a narrow and muddy track that weaves its way from Kokoda high up into the mountains passing through villages, with most nights camping on the edge of a village to the arches at Owers Corner.
These villages are so remote that there are no roads, electricity or contact with the outside world except for those intrepid souls that make the hike and pass through their villages. Fortunately for us as we passed through a village or stopped for the night the porters would help procure fresh pineapples from the village garden. I can still see one of our porters walk with a local villager into the gardens brandishing a large and razor sharp machete so as to hack off a large, fresh pineapple. A great deal for 5 Kina ($2.00 Canadian).
The taste was nothing like what you’d buy in a supermarket as it was dripping with the sweetest nectar that you could ever imagine, especially after hiking all day…it was a godsend! We’d split one between three or four of us the juice covering our hands and face as we’d hungrily gulp down the tasty chunks then go wash off in a nearby stream.
Although watching the local nonchalantly hack a fresh pineapple from the garden also reinforced to me that the inhabitants of these villages that we were passing thought were literally only a generation removed from being headhunters. These fierce tribesmen still have a most dangerous look about them, you definitely wouldn’t want to cross them. Few of the men were dressed in anything but a loincloth, many with their large machetes evident in their waistbands or spears by their sides so a tad intimidating if you know what I mean.
Today the tribes along our track are friendly and welcoming, but Papua New Guinea as a country has the highest number of languages spoken in the world in place with a whopping 840 different languages…now I’m not talking dialects, I’m talking actual different languages! No wonder they were often so many tribal wars – no one was able to understand what the other tribe was saying. You could see how that might lead to violence and bloodshed!
As an example we passed through the villages of Efogi… You see there is Efogi on the hill (mountain) and Efogi in the valley. From the hilltop village of Efogi you can see Efogi in the valley quite clearly less than a kilometer deep in the valley below, but the most fascinating part is that they actually speak a totally different language and rarely mix, there remains a climate of wariness between the two villages that somehow has never been broached.
Our porters were mostly from the village of Kagi which is about 1/3 of the way along the track. These men and women were incredible for a number of reasons, not only were they warm and friendly, but saved a few of us from major mishaps – that is slipping off the narrow mountain track with a friendly hold of the back of your pack as you started to slip. They walked the track in bare feet with packs closer to 70 or more lbs, they helped us navigate and ford rivers sometimes over a downed log and other times through the fast rushing water.
They were incredible hunters as well, as I have vivid memories of one afternoon when then demonstrated their uncanny skills. One of the boys spotted a lizard high up on a tree near the canopy of the jungle, to which it became a competition on who could knock it from the tree with their slingshots that they all carried in the waistbands. It only took a couple of shots and one of them took the lizard clean off the tree trunk…just incredible!
Such rich and defining memories to begin my journey of change, to say it was life changing is an understatement!