Advancing Japanese didn’t count on determined young Aussies
NO ONE walks Kokoda for fun. Usually it’s a tribute to a family member lost in jungle warfare during the Second World War or a test of stamina and fitness against the endless and treacherous up and down, the brutal sections of slippery yellow mud, the numerous creek crossings on rickety makeshift bridges, the thick jungle and oppressive heat and humidity.
In May 2011, I joined my best friend to support her partner on his first trip as co-leader with a professional trekking company. I was a good beach walker with little idea of the history of the track.
I flew into Popondetta from an overnight stay in Port Moresby and nine days later I walked out, bone tired, stinking of sweat and mud, wondering why Gallipoli and not Kokoda was the defining moment in Australia’s coming of age.
In dramatic terms Kokoda’s war story has it all.
A superior enemy, well trained and armed, a young and poorly trained first defence facing overwhelming odds and insurmountable challenges, a crack second line, a gentle and courageous local ally, themselves pushed out of their homes by war, untold courage, bravery, mateship and heroism. There are desperate and bitter fights in hopeless terrain, shattered Aussies launching a fighting retreat, the battle nearly lost, the turning of the tide. The Japanese, with no word for retreat in their language, “advancing to the rear” back to the beaches they came from.
There are tales of men pushed to the limit by hunger, heat, malaria, dysentery, even cannibalism.
The warfare was unusual. There were few massive battles, none fought on open plains. Mostly it was small groups in brutal combat.
The Japanese offensive was supposed to take 10 days to reach Port Moresby. They didn’t count on the narrow jungle track, the heat and mud and the courage of Australia’s “choco” soldiers, who were supposed to melt under pressure but held on to conduct a battle dance, defending, retreating and counterattacking, until their AIF back-up could join them.
Walking Kokoda is difficult with a light pack and a friendly arm to catch you. Add in guns and ammo, food and supplies and the task seems incomprehensible. With the probability of enemy soldiers hiding in dense bush, you get an idea of the levels of everyday fear and anxiety.
From the landing of Japanese troops on the northern beaches of Papua New Guinea in July, 1942, to their eventual defeat four months later, about 625 Australians were killed along the Kokoda track, more than 1600 were wounded, and there were more than 4000 casualties due to illness.
Japanese casualties were in the thousands.
My own memories of the trail are many: the extreme but awesome environment, the dense jungle swallowing the carnage, the day’s heat and night’s chill, clear creeks, a bright canopy of stars, the taste of sweet tamarillos after a hard day’s walk, the very basic amenities, a cool stream out of a single tap that feels like luxury after a build-up of mud and sweat.
The scattered war sites stand out, especially the four black granite stones at Isurava, a tribute to courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice, and the eerie silence at Brigade (Butcher’s) Hill. But, in the end, it’s the people who leave their mark.
The reactions of two young men who walked with us – one a larrikin taking a break from his army duties in Afghanistan, one a quiet factory worker. Imagining both in the jungle, taking their place with our troops, fighting and dying amid the horror.
The warmth and generosity of the villagers along the track, sharing their fruit and vegetables, the cheeky grins and playful antics of the kids.
At Naduri Village I met Ovuru Ndiki, one of the fuzzy wuzzy angels who carried wounded soldiers out, earning a reputation for their compassion and care.
They say the last of these angels has died, but their legacy lives on in the porters who shoulder heavy packs and watch over the trekkers’ steps.
I followed the dark brown legs of my “wantok” (one talk or friend), my own fuzzy wuzzy angel Casa, over the 96 kilometres of the trail, walking in his footfalls, holding his hand down the treacherous descents and crossings.
These big-hearted guides, with their sure feet and broad smiles, link the past with the future.
Their forefathers carried our forefathers out and now they guide our footsteps over hallowed ground.
Kokoda is a massive challenge, no doubts, but it’s do-able and offers the whole package.
It’s a test of physical and mental endurance, a taste of humanity and raw emotion, set against a wondrous environmental backdrop.
And as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of those awful four months, now is the time to pull on your boots and take up the challenge.
Endless creek crossings dot the Kokoda Trail with bridges in various states of repair; above right, one of the last fuzzy wuzzy angels, Ovuru Ndiki, with writer Jo Leslie (left) and friend Annette Tones; below right, after 96km of treacherous mud, extreme climbs and descents, endless creek crossings, the nine-day walk is over.