Lure of the Kokoda Track – Warren Turner

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With such an interest in Australian Military History and in particular Papua New Guinea in the South West Pacific Region and having a close personal tie with PNG, there was always a chance that Warren Turner would again walk the historic Kokoda Track, having done so with his brother, Phil, in 2005.

 

So when his daughter, Lara, and her fiancé, Grant, told him back in 2011 that they were thinking of walking the Track, and asked him if he would like to go, the answer was always going to be yes – despite the training he knew they would have to undertake and the hardships that they would endure.

 

Your trek started on ANZAC Day with a ceremony at the Bomana War Cemetery, where the largest number of Australian service personnel lay in any Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world. We hear the ceremony was very special this year?     

I believe that ANZAC Day is a very special day for most Australians, and most Australian families would either have family members currently serving, or who have served or have gone off to war to defend our country and our people. There are thousands of Australian men and women who have paid the supreme sacrifice for their country in laying down their lives to protect their loved ones at home. Such was the case in 1942, when Australia was under threat. So yes, to return to Bomana in PNG was very special and at times quite emotional.

Having lived in Port Moresby since an early age, Port Moresby itself and Papua New Guinea holds a special place for me, after having spent 20 years there. I had previously attended a number of ANZAC Day Ceremonies at the Bomana War Cemetery with Dad and to attend it again, with my daughter, Lara, and soon to be son-in-law, Grant, was very special. To listen to the address by an invited dignitary and to listen to the mournful sounds of The Last Post and The Reveille and to see the sun’s rays slowly pierce the trees and surrounding hills and expose the beautifully arranged white headstones is a more than moving experience. To look out over thousands of white geometrically aligned headstones and remember the sacrifice that these Australians, Aborigines, Papuan New Guineans and New Zealanders made for their country and their families is a sombre moment and brought tears to many eyes.

Your father gave an address at the very same spot back in 1963. How emotional was that for you?

Extremely moving to return to Bomana after 49 years to stand there and imagine Dad presenting his speech back in 1963. Dad had lived in Moresby from 1937 to when he passed away in 1977, and from the onset was involved with the Port Moresby RSL Ex-Servicemen’s Club on Ela Beach. The Club was an integral part of our family during my growing up years, where I attended with Mum and Dad and at times my two brothers, Peter and Phillip. I was pleased for Dad and extremely proud when he received his Life Membership at a dinner there in 1968. I still have a tape (reel to reel) of Dad’s speech packed away somewhere.

The trek itself takes about 8 days and started at Owers Corner. We hear you got off to a bit of a rocky start?

Well yes … after about 20 minutes descending from Owers Corner down to Uberi, I was distracted by my backpack and moved to reposition a waterbottle and placed my left foot on grass near the edge. But unbeknownst to me, the grass was growing out over the edge and of course – over I went. I dropped a few feet or so and rolled a couple of times, thinking that I had to spread my arms and legs to prevent further rolling and felt that I had achieved a stop, when suddenly I was hit in a bone-shaking tackle that drove me back into the side of the hill. My trustworthy personal porter, Jimmy, was ahead of me and had heard Lara’s scream as I went over.  He reacted immediately and sprinted further down the track (with a 15 kg backpack on) and tackled me to prevent me going further. All was well though and nothing broken, but I’m sure Lara’s heart rate was up.

What are some of the challenges you experienced on the trek?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that you are completely outside and away from your comfort zone; like, there isn’t a comfort zone at all. If you are used to certain levels with your living standards and personal hygiene, then when on the Track, just forget it all, as it virtually doesn’t exist. Bathing, for example, is either in a freezing cold river or stream or under a freezing cold pipe of water splaying over a rocky outcrop. You don’t spend too much time having a wash, I can assure you! On the last night out at Isurava, I was absolutely freezing when scampering back to the hut to dry off. Toilets also are quite basic, mostly comprising a hole in the ground with perhaps three walls covered by a blue tarp!

The physical aspect is tough; it is either up or it is down and this time with it raining for the first 7 days, going down was absolutely treacherous … never experienced anything so slippery, especially on the red clay. I ended up using my walking pole (made from a fallen tree branch off North Brother Mountain in 2005 and making its second Kokoda Track trek) and jamming it into footholds ahead of me and then jamming my foot in behind it for each step as I descended. I did have one heavy fall backwards, and even our usually sure footed porters slipped on occasions, it was that bad. Climbing seemed higher, and therefore harder, this time.

Having trained on North Brother Mountain over 30 times certainly helped my cause and despite the difficulty, it was certainly still achievable, as a number of Port Macquarie residents have experienced in the last 7 years or so.

Any special moments from the trip that you will always remember?

Yes, many moments will live with me for years and as always, the staff from Kokoda Trekking Limited are just so awe inspiring; they are wonderful people and can’t do enough for you. A really special bond develops between trekking parties and the group of personal porters, food porters and guides who are attached to you for the entire trip. You all share the same heartache and difficulties together, although the boys do traverse the country better than the Trekkers do and mostly in bare feet. I know what having Brendan as a porter meant to Lara, especially when she was crook on day 3. Similarly, Jimmy was just a wonderful friend for the entire trip. Apart from the previously mentioned incident, he was always there, as they all were, to climb first and offer a helping hand up and be there in front of you in case you slipped. I haven’t held a man’s hand as much as I did on this trek! We knew that if they wandered off ahead of us or lagged behind a bit, the going was relatively safe, but as soon as it was difficult or treacherous, they were there beside us, always ready to assist. We shared food, drinks and sweets that we took with us, and I will always recall the look on their faces at the start when we handed them our gifts. We had assembled ‘show bags’ of polo and T-shirts, a number of pairs of sports socks, biros, drink coolers, caps etc and gave one to each of the 7 of our party.

From my previous trek in 2005, I vowed that if I ever returned, I would bring a ukulele back for the boys, because they all love them, play them well and sing their songs as we trek and of a night time. So on this occasion, I did that and then thought I had better get one for each of the porters … and then thought that it would be unfair to give 3 out. We ended up buying 7 ukuleles and presenting them to the boys as well. I remember Grant mentioning one night after we had bedded down at Iorabaiwa Village, listening to the boys all singing in the hut next to us, that: “Nothing can get better than this”. That night though, was a night that we wouldn’t forget, as about 10.30 pm, we were woken with this chanting, which went on and on. We found out next morning that one of the senior ladies had passed away, and the whole village, as well as adjoining villagers, were up all night chanting for her.

These lads would now be grandchildren of the famous Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels of WWII, who worked so hard in hugely difficult situations to help the Australians carry food, supplies and ammunition, initially north over the rugged Owen Stanley range, and then have to carry wounded soldiers back to receive medical attention. These Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels worked tirelessly over long periods with little rest, food or shelter and did a wonderful job for us; they should never ever be forgotton for what they did in helping to save Australia, back in those dark days of 1942. This special bond that was borne 70 years ago still exists today with these modern day porters and todays trekkers.

The professionalism and caring attitude of KTL and its owner, Gail Thomas, is second to none in my opinion, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. They put an enormous amount back into the Kokoda community and the Goiari people. I have walked twice now with Gail’s company, and the experience was certainly a life experience for me. Gail has 2 sons: Nathan, who looks after the Australian side of the business; and Shane, who also leads a number of treks. And who could forget her PNG business partner, Russell, a veteran of more than 400 Kokoda Track crossings!

Obviously trekking with my daughter and Grant was a special occasion, as I had previously trekked with my brother, Phil, and his son, Patrick, in 2005, with two great blokes from Hobart, Haydn and Steve and two lovely people from Canberra, Rosemary and Mark. To share such an experience as this was very special and to also visit Dad’s gravesite with my daughter was very significant.

The other highlight was reuniting three friendships that were created during my 2005 trek: initially with Rod Ori from Kovello Village, a trek leader, who led Rosemary’s and Mark’s trek back in ’05; and then when we arrived in Kokoda, I met up with Justus Evari, our ’05 trek leader, who walked in from the outskirts of Kokoda; and finally with Smithy, one of our ’05 food porters, who shared many hours with me on the Track back then. Smithy had walked an incredible 5 hours to Kokoda, just to come and see us. There were many tears of happiness shed that afternoon, especially as we were still on a high from having completed the walk earlier that afternoon. We certainly all shared a few SPs (South Pacific Lager) that night!

Finally, another unique part of the ANZAC Day ceremonies was witnessing a very special Aboriginal service at the gravesite of Private Frank Archibald, when his spirit was returned to its traditional resting place, back in Australia. It was a wonderfully moving ceremony, with John Williamson performing and the Australian Minister for Defence, Steven Smith, also delivering a speech in recognition of the contribution Aboriginal servicemen made to the overall campaigns.

The above recollections together with, once again, just experiencing the historical Kokoda Track – and on the 70th anniversary of this important campaign to save Australia – are just quite simply very special. When you walk through the famous villages and various locations of Imita Ridge (the last ridge where Australian troops initially moved back to), Iorabaiwa (the most Southern point of the Japanese advance), Nauro, Menari (the site of the famous address by Lt. Col Ralph Honour to the remnants of the 39th Battalion), Brigade Hill (also known as Butchers Hill), Efogi, Kagi, Myola, Templeton’s Crossing (named after Capt. Sam Templeton, one of our first casualties), Euro Creek (the scene of savage fighting in our advance), Isurava (site of perhaps the most famous battle on the Kokoda Track and the site of the Isurava Monument and also the site where Private Bruce Kingsbury won the Victoria Cross posthumously, Deniki and Kokoda, you are constantly in awe of what our men had to go through. And to meet two veterans, one aged 93 and one 91, of the famous 39th Battalion on the plane on the way to Moresby was indeed an honour, as they were there from 1942 to 1945 putting their life on the line every day for all those long, dark years.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to do the Kokoda trek?

Probably to ensure that you train in similar conditions for at least 3 months before you trek and to train on a daily basis, to research the Kokoda Track Campaign in the South West Pacific theatre of war, to gain an appreciation and some knowledge of the Track, to ensure that you respect the people, their culture, and their country of PNG and finally, to trek with a reputable firm. I really can’t go past Gail Thomas’ Kokoda Trekking Limited. Gail has a wonderful website of their treks. – Bamahuta Papua.

Thanks Warren. 

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