Kokoda unmatched

Ad­vanc­ing Ja­panese didn’t count on de­ter­mined young Aussies

Central and North Burnett Times - - TRAVEL - BY Jo Les­lie PHOTOS: CON­TRIB­UTED

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.

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