10 On the Kokoda Trail
Time and rain will obliterate
this little native pad –
but for evermore will live the memory
of weary men that have gone,
gone far beyond the Kokoda Trail.
- Major General F. Kingsley Norris
The Northwest Monsoon now kicked in and the dry, dusty Port Moresby I entered a month earlier was swimming under the deluge of the rainy season. When the sun came out, the city steamed like a pressure cooker. Laundry I hung out to dry, clipped on the lifelines in the humid morning air, was brought in wet after a day hanging limp in the sun. I slept naked with a plaited fan in my hand, fanning myself to sleep, waking up drenched in sweat an hour later, then fanning myself to sleep again. It remained breathlessly hot, even as the rains came down. Sometimes, it seemed to rain for a week straight, day and night, with few breaks. On those days, the city streets turned to ankle-deep rivers and the electric power failed almost daily.
With the rains came strong gales of wind out of the northwest, gales that later became cyclones raging across the Coral Sea. Like it or not, this island would be my home for another seven months. Then, when the southeast trades returned, I could cross the Indian Ocean to Africa without fear of headwinds or getting clobbered by a cyclone.
I was halfway around the world, without money, in a strange land. But I did have some prospects – I had my boat, my freedom, two hands fit for work and, despite some discomforts, I was where I wanted to be. Most of the other trans-Pacific cruising yachts had sailed to Australia or New Zealand to wait out the cyclone season. Australia was a safer bet for someone seeking comfort and employment. But I had not sailed halfway around the world to sit in a comfortable country much like the one I had fled, especially when a wild land of opportunity like New Guinea lay more directly on my route.
At any rate, I believed in making my own luck on this voyage and was fortunate to have been offered a job through my new friends at the yacht club. In a land of mostly agricultural labor, my modest shipwright skills meant I was qualified to take over the final fitting out of a 40-foot wooden sailboat that had been under construction off and on for the past three years at the shipyard next to the yacht club. The builder of the boat became fed up with the difficult and primitive working conditions and sold the unfinished boat to a couple of Australians who ran a building supplies import company. They hired me to work alongside and supervise the unskilled laborers and be a general problem-solver in order to get the boat finished and ready for sailing. The job paid US$500 per week, tax-free, which I considered fair. I certainly earned it though. For over three months, I worked up to 65 hours a week, finishing the deck, fitting out the entire interior, the plumbing and electrics, installing a diesel motor, rigging the boat as a ketch and painting the entire boat.
During that time I went through six workers from four different tribes. None of them spoke English, so I learned to communicate in Pidgin. At times our progress was painfully slow. I'd start at sunrise and continue for ten or twelve hours, often without the electricity working. The heat was terrific and sapped all my strength by the end of the day. If we were not working in the scorching sun, we were working in the rain. The minute my back was turned, all work came to a halt. If I had to leave for a few hours to get supplies, it was inevitable when I returned I would have to awaken my crew, who were sound asleep on the ground beneath the keel, or curled up in one or another corner of the hull. My crew was just marking time, doing the absolute minimum they felt they'd get away with. Sometimes they left after a few weeks on their own, but I refused to fire them. The Melanesians do not all believe in the European work ethic, much to the consternation of those who see themselves as their masters.
I couldn't blame these men for their apathy because they were only paid the going rate of the equivalent of US$8 a day in a city where the cost of living was nearly as high as in most U.S. cities. Since I was earning ten times their wages, I felt obliged to do ten times the work. In their situation, I would also have little enthusiasm for this kind of work, and would probably go back to a life of subsistence farming in the bush country, a life that these men had left for the lure of the good life in the city. It is the same throughout much of the undeveloped world, where desperate people leave their small farms for a life of squalor and crime in cities where they cannot support themselves.
Typical of this situation was a young man named Kerowa, who approached me for a job soon after I began work at the shipyard. This big, strong fellow, about 20 years old with a beaming grin, told me in Pidgin that he had just left his village in the Western Highlands Province for the first time in his life. If he got this job, he planned to send money back to his family and the village chief who had paid his travel expenses. He had begun his journey by foot, then by truck, and because the fragmented road system doesn't connect the capital city to the rest of the country, took a plane from the north coast to Port Moresby.
Many of Kerowa's countrymen were doing the same thing. Most would be sadly disappointed. They are usually faced with returning to their village in shame, and in debt, without finding a job. Some resort to crime by joining gangs called “rascals.” That is a cute name for organized gangs of up to thirty men and boys who roam the streets at night committing mass rapes, robbery and murder. Even the police turn and flee from rascals armed with guns, knives and clubs. While I was there, the attacks had become so frequent and vicious the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency, imposing a curfew at night and ordering the military to patrol the streets of the capital.
Meanwhile, many of the Australian expats earned a fair wage and had their house servants and swimming pools and locked themselves behind roof-high electrified fences. Some hired house guards, preferably from the short-statured and short-tempered Kukukuku tribe, so feared by all other tribes. Even a gang of murderous rascals avoided messing with one five-foot-tall Kukukuku carrying a long bush knife.
I tried to live as a bridge between these groups of nationals and expats. I doubled our workers wages as an incentive to get them to take their work seriously. It was unpopular with the other expat foreman in the yard, but it seemed the right thing to do. As for myself, I had no official work permit and paid no income taxes, but through my travels around the island, I would be putting much of what I earned here back into the local economy before I left.
During the next few months, despite our boss/employee relationship, Kerowa and I became good friends. Because he had no close relatives here and he wanted to save money on rent, I invited him to stay aboard Atom and bunk in the forward cabin v-berth. Kerowa was so unsophisticated and lost and homesick in the city that I became like an older brother to him. He in turn, told me stories of tribal wars and sing-sings and chasing small game through the forest with wooden bows and bamboo arrows. He also taught me some of his village Tok Ples, which is spoken by only a few thousand people in one highland valley. Learning one of the 700 Tok Ples languages of New Guinea might seem the ultimate exercise in futility, but it proved a great asset later when I went back into the mountains.
Kerowa did have some annoying habits. He insisted on calling me, and all white people, “Masta,” meaning “Master,” one of those old colonial terms that was introduced into Pidgin and now proved difficult to be rid of. He also stuck closer to me than a noontime shadow wherever I went, partly out of loneliness and partly for mutual protection. A few times he grabbed hold of my hand as we walked together to go to work or the market. In PNG, men and women from small villages frequently held hands with clan members of the same sex. It has nothing to do with sexual preference, since it was often said there were no admitted homosexuals in PNG. It was simply an unselfconscious sign of friendship that gave them a feeling of security, especially when walking among strangers. It felt mean to pull my hand away, but his innocent, child-like gesture was frowned on by white sophisticates in the city, and well, it did look odd.
Every week Kerowa gave me half of his pay to hold for him, and in this way saved a few hundred kina towards his return to the village of Pungumu. He knew if he didn't give it to me to hold, his friends would have him spend it on them. Saying no to sharing your last dollar was unthinkable in Melanesia.
In the city, Kerowa felt alienated. In his village, he knew where he fit in. By returning with useful gifts (“cargo” in Pidgin) for his clan, he could gain prestige and fulfill his obligations. Besides, his parents had picked out a local girl for him to marry and soon he hoped he could afford the bride price of several fat pigs.
Kerowa invited me to return with him to his village once our work was finished. He promised to guide me on treks through the mountains to hidden valleys where white men had rarely been seen. Although visited yearly by a priest from another valley, his Pungumu clan never had a Westerner stay with them before. Here was a chance to live with a people who were as distant from my culture as it was possible to be. I was eager to go.
During the time I worked in Port Moresby, I made several more friends among the “nationals” and received invitations to visit families in other parts of the island. An idea began to form that I could walk across this island as I had done on every other island on this voyage. Before I had these friends and their invitations, I had not thought it possible; it was said a traveler could not just enter strange villages in New Guinea unannounced without risking attack. All land is claimed and frequently fought over by one tribe or another. Even the remotest mountains and most fetid swamps are jealously guarded. Yet, if you can give the name of even one local person as a friend, you are guaranteed a welcome.
Thus far on my voyage, by walking across the islands and climbing their highest mountains, I experienced the places and their peoples on a level a casual tourist could never imagine. Why, I wondered, could I not continue to walk across each island throughout the voyage ahead? New Guinea would be my greatest challenge, and if successful here, I could surely walk across the smaller and less deadly islands that lay ahead. I was so determined to explore the mysteries of these places that I both burdened and motivated myself with this additional challenge.
Kerowa agreed to join me on this trans-island trek that would eventually take us to his highland village. It was obvious he thought I was slightly mad to even consider it. It was not so much the physical hardship of the trek that bothered him; the jungle was his element. What terrified Kerowa was the thought of being unprotected by his clan when moving through “hostile” tribal regions. Nevertheless, he was willing, and probably felt obligated, to see me safely through.
The only way to cross PNG, other than by plane, is by walking. From Port Moresby, a wandering road runs northeast for 40 miles where it ends at the beginning of the Kokoda Trail, a twisting narrow 60-mile jungle footpath leading to Kokoda Village. From there a rough road leads to the town of Popondetta, and then on to Killerton Bay on the north coast. The island of New Guinea is shaped something like a crouching dragon and this route only cuts across the dragon's tail. It's over 100 miles across by plane, but by land it is far longer and a formidable trek no matter how you measure it. At Killerton Bay we hoped to find a boat to carry us up the coast to the city of Lae, which is connected by road to Kerowa's village in the Western Highlands.
The rainy season was winding down when we left the Yacht Club on foot one morning in March. Kerowa wondered why we couldn't take a bus to the end of the road, then easily accepted my explanation that I had to walk across the island from seashore to seashore. He couldn't quite understand it, but he accepted it just because his friend wanted it that way. An hour before morning twilight, the city streets were deserted as we walked at a fast clip, burdened with some 40 pounds of gear in each of our backpacks. By dawn, the hilly paved roads of the city were behind us and the mountains loomed ahead. The morning sun was hot in our faces and hotter still at noon as we slowed our step along the shadeless road. We trudged along as fast as we could, knowing that on the mountain trail ahead of us the forest canopy would partly shield us from the tormenting sun of the coast.
That night, we stepped off the road to make an inconspicuous camp behind a hill. I pitched my low-profile, one-man tent, and nearby, Kerowa tucked himself into my Gore-tex bivy bag, which he placed on a cushion of grass he tore up and piled under the bag. I slept fitfully, as I usually do my first night on the trail, and noticed that Kerowa was up most of the night peering into the darkness, worried that traveling through the rough outlying neighborhoods of Moresby, with a white man at his side, was an invitation to attack by rascals.
At dawn we continued down the winding, dusty road, passing small villages and banana plantations. The houses here, a full day's walk from Moresby, were ugly boxes of discarded timber and rust-streaked, corrugated tin sheets. Yet the people in these villages always greeted us warmly. One wrinkled old farmer had been waiting all morning under the sun at roadside for a bus to take him, and four sacks of his garden produce, to the city market. As we approached, he lifted his weary head, smiled and handed us each a pineapple.
From the road head at Ower's Corner, we turned onto a trail where a wooden sign marked the beginning of the Kokoda Trail. Over the crest of this ridge, the land unfolded ahead of us in its green-mantled, savage splendor. Natives have used this primitive shifting track across the island for centuries, yet the rugged terrain has defied all attempts at building a road through this section of the Owen Stanley Mountain Range.
The trail led us down a steep, nearly vertical path to the Goldie River far below. To slow our descent we clutched handfuls of grass as we slid by. There was no bridge spanning the river and it was too high and swift to cross at this point. Around a bend downstream we made a dry crossing by leaping from one giant egg-shaped boulder to another until we gained the opposite bank. My topographical map showed little but jagged lines and elevations without roads or towns. I could more or less follow our course by these lines of elevation and a compass, which taken together, indicated we faced a steep climb of 1,600 feet over a portion of the trail known as the “Golden Stairs.”
During World War II, the Australian Engineer Corps cut over two thousand steps on this spur to aid foot soldiers on their way to halt the advance of Japanese soldiers intent on capturing Port Moresby. Erosion and jungle growth had reduced it to a narrow serpentine track of orange clay, crisscrossed with exposed tree roots.
Although this was the beginning of the dry season, a downpour of rain caught us by late afternoon as we made our way along a knife-edged spur of slippery clay. In New Guinea, “dry season” only means that it might rain two hours a day and half the night, compared to most of the day and all night. As darkness fell, we made a hasty camp along the narrow ridge. I spent the next nine hours wrapped in my cocoon-like tent. Kerowa crawled under a thick bush and pulled the bivy bag over his head. Neither of us moved until dawn. Kerowa had the native smarts to travel light and I never once heard him complain about the discomforts of the trail.
After the first night, Kerowa never again used my pen light, saying it ruined his night vision. Even faint starlight couldn't penetrate the forest canopy, leaving me, lacking the eyes of a jungle cat, totally blind without my flashlight.
At dawn we were ready to go. The mornings were cooler for travel with less rainfall than in the afternoons. Our diet on the trail was basic but sustaining: cooked cracked wheat cereal with raisins and tea for breakfast, and a choice of rice, pasta or potato flakes with dried vegetables for dinner. This was supplemented regularly by fruits and vegetables offered to us at villages we passed through. Fortunately, Kerowa was used to a mostly vegetarian diet, even though it was by necessity rather than choice.
The next morning we dropped to lower elevations and moved in perpetual twilight under a heavy forest canopy that swished and gently heaved like an ocean swell to the wind above. Yet, no breeze entered below to disturb the dank humid air. The green tunnel we walked through swallowed the sounds of our voices and footsteps.
Once you find your rhythm with the mountain, like sailing a boat on the sea, your movement becomes hypnotic, almost effortless. You feel you can go on and on as the miles fall away behind you. We walked on a carpet of soft green moss, now and then lifting our heads to follow the strange trumpeting songs of Birds of Paradise. From the core of rotting stumps sprung new growth reaching for the canopy, lifting groundwater from roots to the sunlight. The giant trees of the forest link their branches with their neighbors, secured so well with intertwining vines that a tree with a severed base remains standing indefinitely. Occasionally, a laser-like shaft of sunlight cuts through the murkiness to illuminate a single point on the ground. We panted for breath in steamy air, thick with the scent of rotting vegetation.
We took our lunch of fruit and nuts beside Ua Ule Creek, still close to sea level, though dozens of miles inland. For momentary relief from the heat, we pulled off our boots and lay down in the cool rushing waters. On the trail, to avoid blisters, I changed to dry socks whenever possible, while the wet pair hung to dry on my backpack. An infected blister here can lead to nasty tropical ulcers that take months to heal. Kerowa noticed the new boots I'd bought him were starting to blister the backs of his heel, so he hung them from his pack and went barefoot across the mountains, as most of the natives here do. The only time he stopped to put the boots on his enormous feet was before entering a village. Once away from the impressionable villagers, the boots came off again.
We moved along the Ua Ule, crossing the river at each obstacle by leaping from boulder to boulder. Here, where several creeks met in a labyrinth of water and jungle, the trail was invisible. We followed several false leads that led us blindly into the green maze. I recalled recent reports on local news about a Canadian woman who attempted to cross this trail with a friend, became separated in this area, and was never seen again. People lost in the forest become desperate and keep moving in a panic, always thinking they will find their way to a familiar trail or village just over the next hill. Often, they blindly wander deeper and deeper into the jungle, becoming exhausted, injured, tormented by hunger and biting insects, to die in madness.
A creeping sense of desperation welled up in my gut while I oriented the compass to the map in a futile attempt to find my way forward. It was Kerowa who found our way out by studying the ground for native footprints in the mud, the faint clues of bent grass and twigs snapped in three pieces as if stepped on, and noting hatchet marks on the trees. Like a bloodhound, he had no use for maps and couldn't read one in any case. The more I realized my life depended on reading these unwritten signs, the faster I picked up the native path-finding techniques.
In the rainy season, even the smallest creeks grew into mad torrents of racing brown water. One fast and deep river almost took me for a ride as I stepped from an overhanging boulder onto a bridge of vine-lashed bamboo. After a few steps out, I felt them giving way. I leapt back to land spread-eagle on the side of the rock just as the bridge dropped into the swirling waters below. We crossed this river by detouring downstream, clinging to trees and rocks along the eroded riverbank until we found a felled tree that reached over to the other bank. It was a test of balance and nerve to step across that slick, moss-covered log with wet boots and a heavy pack. “Perils,” explorer Alexander Humboldt once said, “elevate the poetry of life.” Kerowa and I both knew the feeling.
We passed a barely recognizable village once known as Ioribaiwa and now abandoned. Everywhere he goes, man beats back the fast-growing jungle with bush knives and fire until he tires and moves on. When the population is small and the island big, as in New Guinea, what humans leave behind is soon engulfed by the jungle as if we were never there.
Most of the Kokoda Trail was easily distinguishable, even to me, as a narrow, tunnel-like channel through the bush, but there were numerous places where any of two or three paths looked equally appropriate. Here we became sidetracked in fields of head-high kunai grass, Kerowa leading unseen and unheard just a few steps ahead. One step off the trail is like stepping into a green wall. The mind sees it as a place beyond our control – impenetrable, forbidding and frightening. In tricky areas, as a backup to Kerowa's bush sense, I made sketches with compass bearings clearly indicating the way back to the last known point.
There were more similar-looking ridges and creek-lined valleys to cross. Once past the wide and shallow Ofi Creek, we started up the interminably long ascent marked on my map as the Maguli Range. We struggled up the slippery clay trail, always thinking the peak was at hand, only to find the trail make a short dip and then soar upwards again. Though the topography of the map indicated nine false peaks, I stopped counting at twenty. Then, at last, we were moving down – slipping and sliding over tangled roots and rocks on a steep two-hour descent to Naoro Village.
In the village, women tended gardens of corn and taro, and supervised children as they pulled up clumps of peanuts from the cleared ground. A village elder came by and invited us to stay in the broken down shack once used as a traveler's rest house. We paid two kina for the shelter, but the uneven boards of the floor convinced Kerowa to sleep on the soft grass beside the steps. Even though we remained in the bosom of the jungle, protected only by a shell of bamboo and grass, being next to a village overnight eased my child-like anxiousness to get out of the jungle after dark. I awoke at dawn, surprised at how good I felt after my first full night of sleep since hitting this trail. The aches in my legs and back were gone. I had even forgotten the incessant itching of the burrowing mites that attached themselves to us when we brushed against the grass. Either I'd outlived them or was too tired to let them keep me awake.
On the way out of the village, we passed a stout bamboo pen holding a nervously pacing cassowary bird. The world's largest forest bird, this Melanesian version of the ostrich defends itself with a powerful kick from its clawed legs that can easily knock a man down and shred his flesh. At the next village sing-sing, the cassowary would become part of the feast and its feathers part of the ceremonial costumes.
As we climbed out of the valley, the rising sun bathed the east-facing flanks of the range in an orange glow. Patches of misty clouds clung to the mountains above and below us. The sweet fragrance of coffee blossoms hung in the air around bushes with plump red coffee beans ripe for picking.
Just as I had been wondering if anyone else ever used this path, a man appeared before us who introduced himself in Pidgin as Masta Giumi. He had just set out on a days-long trip to fetch medicine for his baby daughter suffering from malaria. When I gave him half my supply of anti-malarial, he hurried back ahead of us, promising to see us again when we reached Menari Village.
Entering Menari, the entire village turned out to greet us. Because Masta Giumi had told them we were coming, even the women and children lost their natural shyness, gathering round us, all laughing and talking at once. The women loaded us down with mandarin oranges, pineapples, bananas and roasted corn. We accepted as little as was polite, stuffing the food into our mouths and backpacks. It seemed we could have stayed here for a good, long rest, but I could tell Kerowa was uncomfortable among this foreign tribe because he did not take his pack off and join me as I entered Masta Giumi's hut. While I had a short visit inside, Kerowa stood outside the door, smiling and nervously rolling his eyes side-to-side. The baby would probably survive now that she had some anti-malarials, at least for now.
Within minutes of arriving, we set out in company with a local family on their way to the market in Kokoda; a two-day walk, they claimed, and led the way up the next hill at a frantic pace. The woman in the lead carried a bundle of fruit and vegetables in her string bilum bag suspended over her back. It was perhaps twice the weight of our backpacks, most of the load being transferred to her neck by the carrying strap across her forehead. Behind her, the eldest daughter carried another loaded bilum on her back as well as her younger sister on her shoulders. The son carried only a small handbag. The father carried just his walking stick. I was half-running and still falling behind. Seeing me struggle, the father halted and asked for my bag. Handing it to his wife to carry, the old man proudly said, “Meri bilong me em strongpela tumas” (My wife is very strong).
I took back the bag and motioned them to go on ahead. The traditional role for PNG men is hunter and defender of the family. A short generation ago, the men made war on their neighboring tribes or stood guard while women did all the work in the gardens. The women still do most of the work and the men watch approvingly, often doing nothing productive all day. Besides, as Kerowa reminded me, when a man pays several fat pigs as bride price to a girl's father, he expects in return that she will work hard to repay his investment.
We stopped at the summit where the women dropped their packs and I gasped for breath. The old man told us about his life here and recounted being a child caught in the war zone in the early 1940s. Japanese soldiers arrived at his village, gave his family the equivalent of $50 in useless war currency, and took over the family farm. Forced to flee into the bush, they lived as hunter-gatherers until the end of the war. When they returned to the destroyed village, they found every single root crop had been pulled up by starving Japanese soldiers, who were expected to live off the plunder of the lands they conquered.
Since our pace was slowing down our friends, I asked them to go ahead of us. Not surprisingly, we never saw them again. Kerowa and I descended to the edge of a vast swamp where we crossed another multitude of creeks. Over the deeper waters, we balanced precariously on bundles of slimy, semi-submerged logs – the waters swirling around our feet as we crept uneasily forward.
Our camp that night was under a lean-to, which Kerowa threw together from branches and broad leaves as a light rain fell. I had come down with a fever and chills that day, sapping my remaining energy in the afternoon heat, until each step felt like my last. That night was miserable, made worse by a too-curious wallaby – a type of small kangaroo – that kept dragging our camp gear away. I got up twice during the night to chase him away, only to have him return minutes later.
In the morning, we gathered our gear strewn out around the camp and discovered the beast had chewed through two of our four water bottles.
That day we moved along muddy slopes infested with leeches, reminding me that in the jungle, humans were not always at the top of the food chain. As numerous as ants on an anthill, the ground was blanketed with black, worm-like bodies flipping from end to end, waiting for some warm-blooded mammal to latch onto. Kerowa stopped each minute to flick them off his bare feet and legs. I had better protection with long pants tucked inside boots laced up tight. Still, a few managed to inch their way up to my waist for a meal. Several times that day we took turns inspecting each other and held a lit match with trembling fingers close to the heads of the blood-engorged leeches until they dropped off. All I could think of was to keep moving, hoping to lose them on higher ground.
By the end of another day of hard climbing, we crested the high point of the trail at the 6,700-foot elevation of Kokoda Gap. In this area at least, we were above the altitude of the malarial mosquitoes that make life in the lower bush areas so miserable. From here to the coast, I was cheered by the knowledge that the ups and downs ahead were mostly down. From the ridge, finally above the forest canopy, I could see across the cloud-speckled valley to the next ridge and the one beyond; an unending ocean of waves of green. I took a photograph that – no surprise – captures little of the grandeur of that non-transferable vision.
As we immersed ourselves in the green of the next valley, we took a detour to Myola Village, a several hour walk beyond another ridge, along the edge of a dry lake bed. Observed from the western ridge, the lake bed was tucked between the mountains like an alpine meadow. We treaded on its spongy surface among blankets of yellow buttercups and wild forget-me-nots, flushing up quail as we went. Near the top of the eastern ridge, a cascade tumbled from a creek that was the source of the mighty Iora River we had crossed so many miles ago.
We took this side trip to Myola Village in order to visit a British VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) station, the equivalent of the U.S. Peace Corps. At the edge of the village, we met a young Englishman who introduced himself as Gary Thomas. Here he was demonstrating to villagers how to care for the sheep he had recently imported. The little settlement of Myola was scrupulously clean, as if it had been swept end to end each morning. We followed Gary around to trout-rearing ponds he had stocked with thousands of New Zealand Rainbows that he hopes to introduce to nearby rivers. That evening we dried ourselves around the cooking fire in Gary's house of timber and split bamboo set on stilts.
“Did you know bamboo is the world's fasting growing living thing?” Gary said. “As you can see, it provides much of the framework, siding, floors and mats for these houses.” As he spoke, behind him a well-fed rat walked at ease through the open door and up the corner post to the roof rafter where he sat as if he were another regular guest here. To avoid direct contact with rats and insects, and for Gary's amusement, I slept that evening in my tent erected within the hut.
Heavy rains that night saturated the lakebed, flooding sections of it. A man from the village offered to guide us back to the main route of the Kokoda Trail. Gary sent us off with a warning: “Stay to the high ground and don't try any shortcuts. If you step into the bog, fall face-down into it and swim or crawl out. If you remain standing you will be sucked under.” I had read the same in an Army survival manual, but was not eager to test the theory.
We followed our guide in a zigzag course, always seeking the high ground until we found the trail. Along the way, I picked up several brass shell casings stamped MG VII 1941. Gary had told us this lake bed had been an ideal drop point for supplies during the war, and showed us the remains of a crashed American fighter plane, its aluminum frame still recognizable more than forty years later.
Far from Myola, we stopped to boil our rice and vegetable lunch on our compact stove, placed on a large flat rock midstream in the Iora River. At this point the river was widening, a sure sign we were losing altitude and getting closer to the north coast. It felt good to lay back on the stone island for a brief rest away from the biting ants of the trail. The waters swished and danced over the stones, even more eager than I to be somewhere else.
That day we progressed as far as the ridge above the next valley. Fading light, and the closeness of the bush, forced us to camp directly on our narrow footpath. All night the darkness rang with the now familiar jungle songs. The chirps and buzz of insects provided an incessant background to the barks and grunts of small animals, mostly unknown to me but familiar to Kerowa. On some nights, I'd awaken suddenly to a crack and groan, followed by tearing noise as a dead tree finally broke free of its entangling vines and crashed to the ground. And always there were aggravating bush rats that tore into our gear in the middle of the night. The size of small dogs, these fearless creatures would climb right over your sleeping body in their search for food.
An uphill walk the next day brought us into the abandoned village of Isurava. A few of the thatch and timber buildings still stood upright and taro flourished in the gardens. It was hard to picture this village as the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of WWII's Kokoda campaign, where hundreds of men died in a grim back-and-forth struggle of guns and bayonets, desperate to possess this patch of jungle. The knowledge of this bitter history made me uncomfortable. Sometimes it's better not to know too much. As for the jungle, it has a short memory of man's passing, even his wars. The pits where soldiers dug in and died are now filled and healed. In a few more years, the remaining buildings would drop and disappear into the soil, feeble symbols of our own mortality. But the spirits of the dead still roam in the minds of the living who walk the trail.
A few hours later, we entered Alolo Village where there were shrieks and cries from a group of women and children as they left their laundry in the river and disappeared into the bush. Either Kerowa and I looked as rough as we felt, or it was another standard response to strangers when the men of the village are away. We moved on, feeling hidden eyes upon us.
Near Kokoda Village, we walked through an expansive plantation of rubber trees – row upon row of trees, each with a gash near its base that oozed white latex into cups waiting to be gathered.
In the village, we met the dirt road that began here and ran some forty miles to the north coast. For the past several days, Kerowa had been suffering from what we later found out was a relapse of dysentery that had him holding an aching gut and making hourly sprints into the bush for bouts of bloody diarrhea. We decided he should go on ahead by bus to more quickly reach a doctor. He could then proceed by boat and a series of buses back to his highland village. As he climbed into the back of an open truck, I assured him I would meet him in his village a month later. He looked at me with a long face that seemed to doubt ever seeing me again. I stayed in a village guesthouse that night and continued on my way to the coast the next morning by foot.