Natasha Schurink Holiday adventure to the Kokoda Trek – Papua New Guinea.
Hi Natasha. You are just back from an amazing overseas experience; where did you go and for how long?
I’ve just returned from 10 days in Papua New Guinea, eight days of which were spent trekking the famous Kokoda Track, 100+ kilometres from Kokoda Station to Owers Corner.
What were the reasons behind this trip; was it something you have always wanted to do?
Strangely enough, this trip was actually the result of a response to a friend’s Facebook post. About 18 months ago, my friend Naomi commented that she would love to do Kokoda one day, and I jumped in there offering to go with her! I had a keen interest in War History, so the more I researched the history of the Track, the War and the journey itself, the more excited I was to do it. I needed a goal, and we planned to do the ANZAC Day departure this year because of the significance of the 100 year commemorations, and also it coincided with my 40th birthday (a great reason to go and hide in the jungle to avoid celebrating that milestone!)
Can you take us through your itinerary?
We flew from Brisbane into Port Moresby on Friday 24th April and were escorted to the Holiday Inn Express Hotel. This was our meeting point for the rest of our Gecko’s Adventures tour group and our guides etc. and also the beginning of getting used to things happening in “New Guinea” time. Anyone who has ever travelled to any of the South Pacific Islands will understand that “it happens when it happens”. Our briefing was for a 4am start on the 25th April, so we all had a nice early night at the hotel and enjoyed the luxury/comfort of beds, our last link with the outside world, news and technology, plus our last hot shower for over a week.
On Saturday 25th April (ANZAC Day) we were picked up from the hotel at 4:30am and taken to the Bomana War Cemetery for the Dawn Service. There is something special about how a dawn service envelops you every year and being at Bomana, the largest war cemetery in the Pacific, it was certainly a momentous occasion. Humbling. The service was a great tribute to our ANZACs and PNG Servicemen and as the sun rose over the cemetery, it revealed an immaculately kept site of remembrance and a home for honouring our fallen. Due to time constraints of getting to the airport for our flight into Kokoda Station, we left the cemetery immediately at the end of the service.
We boarded our small twin engine aircraft around 10am for our 25 minute flight into Kokoda Station. The cloud was low that day, so views were obstructed, but once we had sight of the air strip, the excitement (and nerves) got very real! We landed and were greeted by dozens of local children. We made our way through to a clearing, where we met with our porters, guides, lead man and track historian – all of whom were to be our family, entertainment, pillars of strength, cooks and sanity for the next eight days. After a brief repack of equipment and lunch (pasta, Pringles, tuna and Spam!) we started our first part of the trek, approx. 9 km from Kokoda Station to Deniki. Just as we set off, it began to rain, but spirits were high and we charged on with a great pace and our group of trekkers (there were seven of us) were the greatest group of people we ever could have hoped for. On route to Deniki, we passed almost 400 trekkers on their last day. They had attended the Dawn Service at the Battlefields on the Track earlier that day and were heading home. It was exciting to see most of them, who were elated to be finishing, yet the state of others being almost carried out was a massive wake up call to the conditions we were potentially going to face in the week ahead.
Arriving at Deniki, soaked to the skin, exhausted from the last 3.9 km climb up to camp – we came face to face with the incredible Kurt Fearnley (OAM Three time Paralympic Gold Medallist, who also crawled the full Kokoda Track in 2009). Kurt was one of the biggest inspirations for me to do the track. He is a phenomenal human being and so passionate about everything he sets his mind to. Seeing him there, at that point in our journey – I was elated.
That night we had our first taste of jungle accommodation. Every night we shared a basic open hut with the five men in our group. The view in the morning was stunning; to wake up looking back down the valley to the Kokoda Station airstrip many kilometres away, the fog settled low and the brilliant colour of the sun coming up over the mountains Brushing my teeth over the railing with this view in my eyes, it has changed the outlook of a daily routine forever. We soon adapted to cold showers, jungle toilets, mud, village animals and the locals. Huge days trekking meant early nights after dinner and a few games of cards. Once settled in for the night, we always had a great many laughs about the day’s events, our camp toilets or the funny little quirks and sayings of our lead man and wonderful porters.
Over coming days we trekked anywhere between 10 – 17 km a day. One day we were given the option to add an extra 5 km and trek out to Myola, which I did, as I wanted to include every possible experience offered. The lake bed of Myola is an old volcanic crater which is now a beautiful flat plain of grassland with little creeks flowing through. It made for a stunning additional excursion and a vast difference in the landscape and terrain. The days of tree roots, mud, waterfalls and dense foliage that we were becoming used to, was not missed for a few hours, and we rapidly bounced along leafy strewn, mossy tracks and arrived at sun drenched grassy Myola. Myola was the airstrip the Australians used to drop in supplies during the Kokoda Battle; this area (completely missed by the Japanese) played a significant role in the ultimate chain for the Australian troops.
Over the course of the week, our guides would brief us every evening after dinner about the distance, history and terrain of the following day. They described the difference in the days as either hard or long – we are yet to see any difference! Every morning we were on track by 6:30am and would generally reach camp by 2 – 2:30pm. Our group was certainly well prepared for the trip, and we always set a great pace together; the camaraderie was brilliant, and we always congratulated each other on a great walk or climb each day.
The villages where we camped were all very welcoming; the kids would often keep their distance until one of us came out with some gifts for them. I gave out Frisbees at a few places, which were really well received; the children had surprisingly great co-ordination – at times even giving the guys in our group a run for their money with their Frisbee skills!
We had such varying experiences, from grassy tracks, clay cliffs, flash floods on hillsides, scaling sheer rock faces up the side of a waterfall, tree roots that felt like they were becoming more entangled every minute of the day, swamps, ankle deep clay-muck, crossing over rivers on thin piled up branches, multiple crossings through rivers in the pitch black before dawn with nothing more than a head lamp for light, bone soaking afternoon rains and intense burning sun. There is no amount of training in Australian conditions that could prepare you for this terrain. Having strong legs and being of sound mind before attempting this journey is going to be your greatest asset.
Descending down mountains was eventually the downfall for a couple of trekkers in our group, who were hit with Patellofemoral pain syndrome in their knees. Days became painful for these two, but as a group and with the unwavering support of our porters, we all soldiered on together and made it to Owers Corner. The overwhelming emotion that came with ascending that last 45 minutes up to Owers Corner from Goldie River was like a flood of relief, achievement and release of emotions. We were greeted with cheers from onlookers, other trekking groups who had finished earlier and local children. Tears and beers were flowing freely.
After our final pictures of remembrance were taken, we jumped on the bus and headed back out to Port Moresby. Our guide took us back to Bomana War Cemetery, so we could take more time to see the memorials since we had rushed out the morning of the dawn service. Coming back to Bomana after experiencing the track was very moving. To see firsthand the terrain these men had encountered, we thought it was hard and yet we were not heavily armed, cold, hungry, scared and being shot at. To see ruins of the war lying, rotting in the jungle, is disturbing – knowing that what these men did and seeing that it has made a difference and ensured these villages have reverted back to quiet solitude along the length of the track and seeing it inhabited by peace-loving, hospitable locals. These are the people who became known during the War as the “fuzzy wuzzy angels”, because of their selflessness in helping wounded Australian soldiers. To this day, these locals are still angels.
Our last night back at the hotel we had dinner with our crew, where we were all presented with certificates for completing the track and also beautiful personalised wooden carvings from each of our porters. A long, hot shower and a luxurious sleep in a heavenly bed was a great reward at the end of a big week. The following morning we transferred to the airport for the flight back to Brisbane and leaving behind the track and our amazing crew, but the memories will be with us always.
What were some of the highlights for you?
There are so many highlights. If I had to name a few, they would be: 1) Myola and making the extra effort to take the extended trek in there. 2) Our fellow trekkers; we were such an ideal match to come together in terms of humour, fitness levels and encouragement. Such a bond of comradeship that can only be gained by a group of people who have worked together under such trying conditions to attain a common goal. 3) My porter, a constant helping hand; he caught me from slipping down hills on numerous occasions. 4) Our collection of porters/guides etc. – every night after dinner they serenaded us with the most remarkable A Cappella singing, including the theme song of the track, It’s not an Easy Road. 5) Lastly but most certainly not least was the feeling of utter pride and accomplishment at completing this trek; it is a life-changing experience – certainly not for the faint hearted – but hands down the most rewarding, soul refreshing journey of my life so far.
How did this experience make you feel once you were there?
There is something that Kokoda leaves in your heart that can never be forgotten, and I am certain I will be referring back to it for decades to come as a grounding point for the things that are most important in life. We claim to live in a better “first” world country, but I am constantly questioning who really has the better life. The simplicity of life on the track was uncomplicated and modest. Not only does this experience make you appreciate all you have and how little you really need to be happy, but it also leaves you indebted to our forefathers for the sacrifices they made in such gruesome conditions which, inevitably, has enabled us to exist with the freedom we now have.
Some holidays are once in a lifetime, would you say this was one of them?
Yes, for most it is. For me, I think it might be too, unless my kids want to do it with me when they are older, but only if my husband wants to come along for the adventure this time. When I finished, I vowed I would never do it again – it’s been a few weeks now since we returned, and maybe now I could be persuaded to do it again in a few years.
For those who would like to do this or a similar trip, what are your top three must dos or best tips?
I would recommend this trip to anyone who has their heart set on it, understands or has an interest in the history of the region and is committed to training for it. You must take every extra opportunity offered to you along the way i.e. Myola, Japanese Memorial site, swimming/bathing in rivers/creeks/waterfalls, playing with the local children in the village. Most importantly, go with a company that is putting profits back into the villages along the track, as it is their resources we are using. It’s important to make sure the local community benefits from trekkers. Going with Geckos Adventures was a natural choice for me, because they are helping to fund additional school buildings in Menari and Efogi villages along the track. These children are our future, so they deserve the helping hand.
It has been hilarious, horrendous, stunning, gruelling and life-changing, to say the least – if you have a true appreciation and desire to experience a small portion of what these soldiers went through in the scene of violent close contact jungle warfare, then make the journey. We will always be grateful and appreciate what they did to ensure our freedom, but we will never fully understand what they went through. What we can work towards is that we and our successors prove worthy of their sacrifice.
Lest We Forget.
This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.