A couple of years ago, I voiced a desire; I wanted to walk the Kokoda trail. Like many of the boys who signed up to join the army during WWII, I thought it would be an adventure. I also thought it would be a chance for me to walk in my grandfather’s shoes; Captain P.S. Curry of the 2/33rd. I wanted to walk along the track that had held a turning point of Australian history. It was the first time Australians had fought for their own homeland, protecting their own soil, rather than fighting in someone else’s war and I wanted to feel that history.
In preparation, I started walking, then hiking up mountains. And while my legs recovered, I read up on the history and the battle sites. For a full year, I lived and breathed my preparations for Kokoda both physical and historical. I tried to comprehend the adversity our young men had gone through while protecting our future; the sleepless nights, lack of food, poor equipment and general lack of support from administration. How can you explain the campaign to someone ignorant? For ignorant was what I was. Despite all my preparations and reading, I still did not understand the terrain and conditions our men fought in. I did not understand just how exposed the men were or what it meant to be lost in the jungle. The other response I had to my research was that I realised just how insignificant my problems were. Yes, on my treks I had suffered through many blisters and occasional sore shoulders as I adjusted to my boots and heavy pack. However, I knew I would have support the whole way and nobody would try to kill me (expect perhaps the mosquitoes who think of me as a tasty delicacy).
Finally, I made it to Port Morsby to spend a night being fed and kept comfortable in a lodge before starting the trek to Kokoda. We were asked to tell the group why we had come to this place, what made us decide to trek? But how do you tell a group of strangers of the pain in your heart, left by the passing of a great man? How do you tell them that you need to understand his history, to completely understand him? I merely explained that my grandfather fought along the track and I wanted to see the battle sites.
At Ower’s Corner the next day, as I stepped through the archway now in place at the start of the trail, I felt excited to be finally commencing on the journey I had obsessed about. It was the first time I felt excited more than afraid. Straight away, we trekkers began sliding down mud, falling over and marvelling at the ability of the Papua New Guinean carriers to glide across the rugged terrain. And I suddenly realised, the blisters and sore shoulders I had suffered through during my preparation would be nothing compared to what the next week would throw at me.
I was covered with sweat with fifteen minutes and had mud everywhere by the end of our short day. The concentration required to stay upright began to drain my energy. I fell due to exhaustion and lack of concentration more often than I care to admit. But we had a warm dinner and a private tent each to withdraw to that night to recover.
Each day was a little harder than the last. And as each day passed I grew less concerned with ridding my clothes of mud, and more with getting them dry. No fire, shelter or clothes line could take the moisture from my clothes and so every morning as I dressed, I pulled the cold, damp fabric over my body and gave thanks that I had brought a fresh pair of socks for each day (a luxury I allowed myself).
Each person had a moment (or a day) in which we thought we could not go on. However, the moment we started down the trail, the group of relative strangers became concerned with each other’s well-being. Help came in many forms; we swapped medical supplies, made fun of each other, and compared notes on how to make lunch more tasty. We chatted about our lives just enough to forget the latest pain we felt in our bodies. Generally, something within the group started to shift.
Finally, we were told our fourth day would involve about twelve hours of trekking, during which we would climb four hills. The second of these hills was Brigade Hill. During our morning briefing, our guide gave an accurate description of that hill; he said, ‘You’ll know you’re alive on Brigade Hill’. My question to him while climbing it was, ‘Yes, but for how much longer?’
My pack was half the standard weight carried by the men during the Second World War, I was adequately fed, I had a tent each night, I didn’t have to carry a gun and no one was trying to kill me. And yet, the terrain and climate pushed me far beyond any physical, mental and emotional limits I had ever known I had. Some of the strongest in our group collapsed on that hill, shaking their heads at the degree of physical strength required just to walk up it’s side.
The last hill of that day was to be climbed in the dark. A mate and I were separated from our guides and climbed it together with a couple of weak torches. We pulled each other up, pointed out roots and kept each other going. There was a drop off to our right. I know it was there. The darkness though, hid the depth of the drop, for which I will always be grateful. It was slow going as we tried to pick out the path. I could see lights behind us, way down at the bottom of the hill and knew we were not completely alone. But without my mate and small torch, I would not have moved a step that night.
The next morning, as the trekkers passed around tape and each person strapped their aching feet, we were told each day from then on would be easier than the last. That knowledge was a driving force for each person; we had made it through the worst, we had to keep going. But no such drive was available to our soldiers. Their bodies and lives were all that stood in the way of the Japanese invasion. Where did that strength come from, when the track, that bloody track, had already taken so much?
The answer was from each other. We walked to where Isurava was originally located, with one of our number carrying the Australian flag, and were shown the memorial. The four granite pillars read; ‘courage’, ‘endurance’, ‘mateship’ and ‘sacrifice’. I knew I had but a fraction of the courage of those men, my endurance was tested, but only for a week and I had sacrificed nothing but money and spare time to be there. But mateship, that was something I could understand.
After the trek was complete, and the short flight back to Port Morsby, we were each asked to tell the group if we got what we had hoped for from the trek. What I wanted out of the trek was a little understanding and closure. What I now understand is the feeling you get when you put strangers from different backgrounds through something tough. Mateship. It was what drove Pa after the war and yet, was the part of him I couldn’t completely comprehend. But the people I trekked with are now my friends; I respect each one and feel I can rely on each one. How can you explain this to someone who hasn’t felt it for themselves?
May we never have to do what you have done. May we never forget what was taken from us on that track. But, may we also never forget what it gave us. Australians stood on their own soil and fought for our people, our country and our right to live. It was done under the worst circumstances possible against a force greater in number, experience and weaponry. And yet, we could not be beaten. Our identity was forged in Kokoda. And I am proud to have followed in the footsteps of our soldiers. I truly was walking in the footsteps of Australia’s giants.
Published in Mud and Blood, Volume 57, No. 4 September-October 2013.