Kokoda Track (2. Camp 1900 to Owers' Corner)

Day 4 - 1900 Campsite to Menari (21km - 770m ascent – 1850m descent)

It was an interesting start to the day – I awoke a bit after 4.30am to the sound of people rolling up sleeping bags and packing packs. One of my fellow trekkers (I promised not to mention Shawn’s name) had misread their watch and woken everyone an hour early! Still, it was good to be a bit early, despite the slight chill in the air, as the stars were out in their glory.

We managed to eat breakfast, complete packing and be ready at 6.30am, just in time to watch a large group (30 or so) from another trekking company doing their morning exercises and communal chants in matching t-shirts before setting off to the north. I was glad to be heading south with our rag-tag little band of 11.

A short time back into the forest brought us to a junction where some of us dropped our packs to make a brief detour. Horace wanted to show us the crash site of an American B25 Mitchell bomber near Myola. The remains of four of the crew members were discovered and repatriated to the US in 2005. Myola has a large dry lake, which was used for supplying the Australian troops by plane drop, the so-called "biscuit-bombers". Myola was also the place where the 3rd Battalion spent a bit of time when not on frontline duties. My father-in-law spent even more time here at the field hospital after contracting malaria. For every Australian troop wounded or killed, another three were incapacitated by tropical diseases – malaria, dysentery and scrub typhus. Such was the country they fought in, sustained by bully beef and dry biscuits.

Wheel strut of Mitchell B25 crashed in 1942

Heading back into the forest ....

... amongs the aerial roots of pandani ...

... and moss-covered trunks of giant trees

Back on the track, we continued a slow climb up through the moss forest. Reaching a junction of the track, we turned left to head for Naduri. Other treks go on to Kagi, but after that the two tracks reconverge. I stopped at the junction to change my GPS batteries, which gave me the chance to walk alone for a while and take in the tranquil beauty of this magnificent forest, softened by the ubiquitous covering of mosses and lichens on everything that stands up or lies down. You felt that if you stopped, you too might start to develop a green tinge. I caught up with the others when they stopped to admire the views through an opening out and over the distant blue ridges – we had reached the southern slopes of the Owen Stanleys and everyone felt their first sense of real achievement.

A small opening in the moss forest

At last sweeping views ..... southward over the ridges of the Owen Stanley foothills

From here the track dropped off swiftly, first on glistening mud, but gradually getting drier as we descended and the forest canopy opened up. Ahead lay a long open ridge covered with thick kunai grass and scattered shrubs. The path on this ridge was firm and flat and walking on it was a pleasure.

A smooth track at last

Cloud hangs around the top of Mt Victoria (4038m)

View across the village gardens to distant ridges

You could actually walk and look around at the same time, which was timely because the views out to the north-west were spectacular – looking over villages on open slopes backed by the green-clad ranges. On the horizon, cloud floated over the summit of Mt Victoria, at 4038m the highest peak in the Owen Stanleys. Finally reaching Naduri, we stopped for a break in the sunshine, to the great amusement of the local children.

Track through the kunai grass

Descent from Naduri in green and purple

From Naduri, the the track dropped steeply on a knee-jarring 300m descent to the Efogi River. Once across the river on a four-log bridge, the ascent out of this verdant gorge was just as brutal (in Tour de France terms it was hors-categorie). It was on this climb that I realised Imogen had three lungs, as she strode casually up while chatting to her porter Jerry. I took a steadier pace to emerge at Efogi 2 village where we declared a lunch break to the delight of the local vendors of bananas, avocados, mandarins and tamarillos. We were all saturated after the climb up to Efogi and a good break was needed – time to dry our clothes of yesterday in the sun.

The fruit vendors of Efogi

Four boys and an owl (injured we were told)

Jodie crossing the Efogi River

Post-climb recovery

From Efogi 2, a steep descent took us past slash-burn vegetable and corn crops and across the Elome Creek to reach the larger Efogi 1 village and its upward sloping airstrip. We were fortunate to be passing as a small plane circled overhead to line up the runway, then disappeared below the horizon and suddenly roared over the verge as it taxied to a halt (flying in the Papua – New Guinea highlands requires an extra level of pilot skills).

The barren "square" of Efogi Village (apparently bare earth is easier to clean)

Plane landing at Efogi

The track through Efogi was almost dry and, with the sun burning fiercely into our backs, we commenced the steamy ascent of Mission Ridge – easy underfoot but still hard work. From the ridge top we had wonderful views back over the village in its superb mountain setting. Mission Ridge was a forward defensive position in the Battle of Brigade Hill (perhaps with Isurava, the other defining battle of the defensive phase of the Kokoda Campaign). From here the diggers watched with grim amusement the hordes of Japanese troops stumbling and sliding down the slopes from Kagi to cross the Efogi River and mount their attack.

View from Mission Ridge to Kagi Airstrip
(can you spot it? - clue: its green)

Looking back over Efogi from Mission Ridge

Our climb continued, before traversing around the very steep hillside that led on to a narrow spur which terminated at Brigade Hill. Here we stopped at the memorial to the battle, a place where the Japanese managed to infiltrate the Australian lines cutting off headquarters from infantry companies. A desperate fight enabled the headquarters company to retreat down the track to Menari, while the infantry companies were forced to take to the jungle and cut their way back through the dense vegetation. It was yet another delay with heavy losses and whittling of supplies for the Japanese, who although winning ground were discovering that it was a very pyrrhic victory indeed.

After the battle, the Japanese buried their own dead, but left the Australians as found. During the counter offensive three weeks later, the 3rd Battalion patrols discovered the remains of their fallen comrades all along this section of track, many still at their posts - gun in hand. The horrors of warfare are not confined to the heat of battle.

The memorial to the Battle of Brigade Hill

The Vabuiagi River

Markers for the soldiers fallen on Brigade Hill

We followed the path of Headquarters Company, on its long and arduous descent from Brigade Hill on a track of slick orange clay criss-crossed with a varicosity of tree-roots. It took us from 1500m to 700m, including one final and very steep descent to the next river crossing. Three quarters way down, we could look across to the village of Menari through a gap in the forest, so close, but between us and it lay the deep ravine of the Vabuiagi River. The pattern of steep descent, river crossing on a log bridge and steep ascent was to be repeated.

Passing through a village vegetable garden at Menari

View through a gap to Menari village

Chris tackles a log bridge over the Vabuiagi

The sky was darkening as we descended into the still humidity of the ravine and a distant peel of thunder warned of more rain to come. By the time we had crossed the river and begun to climb out, the first drops began to fall. The climb brought us to the far end of the Menari airstrip, which we wandered along to the steady patter of tropical rain, passing through the village to finally reach our destination 9½ hours after setting out. The last of our group wandered in just on dark almost 2 hours later - it had been a hard day, moreso for the knees and feet, with almost 2000m of descent. In the meanwhile, I was doing a bit of podiatric first aid - with damp socks and friction from the long downhill sections, I had developed a few blisters on my toes, something I rarely get while trekking. Kokoda has a way of finding the weak spots.

The good news was that tonight we had a tin roof on our hut - no need to worry about drips tonight. After another big feed of rice with beef and vegetables, we all went to bed early- tomorrow was also going to be a hard day. The Nine False Peaks of the Maguli Range lay ahead.

Day 5 - Menari to Ofi Creek (18km - 910m ascent – 1260m descent)

We were woken by the gentle sound of guitar and soft singing - it was a pleasant way to start the day and pack up our gear. By the time we finished breakfast and were ready to hit the track, it was 6.45am - another long day of walking lay ahead. Leaving our hut, we strolled through the village vegetable gardens to drop quickly to Emuni Creek. Another log bridge crossing and the ascent of The Wall began immediately. The track was smooth underfoot, but slick with the previous night's rain. Still, we reached the narrow saddle 300m above the river in under an hour, encouraged by the loud clear song of an unseen bird in the canopy above.

From the saddle, began a steady descent, sometimes on steps cut into the greasy orange and tan clay, sometimes over the gnarly roots of rainforest trees. At one point, a gap opened in the thick forest to reveal a distant ridge line rising above the cloud in the valley deep below - magical!

Jodie picking her way down the muddy slope

Early morning mist over Menari

Morning cloud cloaks the Brown River Valley

Descent of The Wall

Crossing the Brown River
(did someone say crocodile!)

Flat at last (if somewhat muddy)

The track became steeper, as we descended the slippery clay staircases and trippery root ladders. It was a slow and careful process finding the right foot-holds, until eventually we reached a shallow side creek. We waded across to reach the first bit of flat ground since the road out of Kokoda village. This took us across swamplands to a sweeping bend in the Brown River - it was great to be walking on the flat, but the price was a track of squelching brown mud that had us weaving like a line of drunken sailors to avoid its excesses.

Sweeping curve in the Brown River

Tristan on yet another log bridge

Bill charging through the muddy flats

The Brown River flowed wide and strong and, without a log bridge, it was off with the boots for a refreshingly cool waist-deep wade, followed by a quick dry-off on the sandbank on its far side. Then it was boots on, back into the swampland and the wallow continued. Bill, showed the technique, ploughing on through with scant regard to how wide or deep the mud was. It became too tedious to try and avoid and most of us followed suit. After what seemed an interminable time, the track finally began to climb away from the swamplands. We had started the crossing of the Maguli Range and its nine false peaks.

Out of the swamp and on to an open slope
Looking back towards The Wall from Nauro
The joy of an open landscape

Fortunately, lunch was planned for Nauro Village, which is 300m into the climb. With a hot sun beating down on this relatively open slope, it was a long and tedious ascent, that cost me a litre of staminade to make up for the perspiration I was losing. By the time we reached Nauro, everyone was drenched and decidely in need of a long break. Our campsite lunchspot had the prime position in the village, with glorious views back towards our route down from The Wall.

Some village residents join us for lunch

Lisa leads the way out of Nauro

At 2pm, the cry of "yumigo" got us up and ready, climbing steeply out of the village and up to the first false peak. I was definitely climbing more slowly than previous days, as we pushed steadily up the track, passing several false peaks with only occasional glimpses of neighbouring ridges through gaps in the dense green jungle. I tried to count the false peaks, but by the fifth or sixth had lost track in the monotony of the climb, getting a slight surprise when the cry of "oro, oro, oro" welcomed me to the top of the range.

Strangler fig on a false peak of Maguli

Somewhere between false peaks 5 and 6

A rare glimpse of distant ranges

The trekking trio on the true peak of Maguli

Descending the Maguli Range

Remnants of an Australian weapons' pit

A long set of slick clay steps

Planted by porters in memory of a trekker
who died here

The blue on blue of receding ridge lines

This may have been the top, but it was only half way across and we headed off southward along a long and gradually descending spur, that plunged down to valleys on both sides. At times flattish and at times quite steep, at times muddy and at times dry, at times passing narrow necks a few metres wide and at times climbing over broad knolls, the track led us on through the afternoon hours to the rhythm of our own thoughts. Here and there, the odd weapons pit or an old bullet casing reminded us of a very different crossing many years ago.

The rugged profile of the Maguli Range

Passing an abandoned hut

Sunlight filtering through the vegetation

Late afternoon sun on the rain forest

Boulder-strewn Ofi Creek

Crossing the creek to Ofi campsite

Finally we crossed the last knoll and started the descent of the spur's southern end. As we had come to expect, this last section was very steep, but fortunately relatively dry, giving good traction underfoot. It led us down to the beautiful setting of Ofi Creek in its lush green ravine. A quick wade to cross the creek and it was up to the campground on a grassy ledge above. We had arrived at 6pm and the sun had already left this deep ravine. We quickly unpacked, put on our bathers and headed back down to the creek to soak off the days sweat and effort - it had been a hard 11 hours on the track and the cold waters of Ofi Creek were just what was needed. It was even longer for some of our party, who arrived after dark, led by torch-toting porters.

We had a late dinner and everyone retired very soon after to the two-level thatch hut that was home for the night. It's funny how little luxuries can make your day - at Ofi Creek, it was a plastic toilet seat on the long-drop. Aaaah, the sheer comfort of it! As I lay on my sleeping mat reflecting on the events of the day, the gentle sounds of guitar and Melanesian harmonies drifted sweetly across from the porters' quarters - as the day had begun, so it ended.

Evening swim at Ofi Creek

Day 6 - Ofi Creek to Ua'Ule Creek (7km - 280m ascent – 630m descent)

Once the singing stopped the insect night chorus took over and took us through to morning. It was a good morning as we didn't have to get up in the dark. After two long days, today would be relatively easy - a climb up to Iorobaiwa Ridge and then down to the next campsite. We were looking forward to a nice long break once we reached Ua'Ule Campsite.

Gnarly roots on the climb up Iorobaiwa Ridge

Another night in a long hut

As always, we set out and almost immediately started to climb steeply up from the campsite to reach the spur. The pattern of the track was emerging as it then followed the long spur up to the top of the ridge - steep ascent followed by flatter section then another steep ascent and so on, until we reached the crest of Iorobaiwa. Here the 3rd Militia Battalion formed part of the defensive positions stretched out along the ridge-line, waiting for the advancing Japanese. They had marched up the track a few days earlier as fresh reinforcements and it would be the the first taste of combat for Bill and his mates. As before, the Australian forces held the Japanese at bay for several days, exacting a heavy toll on the enemy, before strategically withdrawing to Imita Ridge where they would begin preparations for a final stand.

Brendan took us out to see the remnants of Japanese trenches, where they established their headquarters after taking Iorobaiwa. Across, through the vegetation you could see the outline of Imita Ridge - two armies facing each other off for 12 days before the Australians pushed forward to start their counter-offensive. For Nick, Imogen and I, it was a poignant moment on the trip.

A massive tree on Iorobaiwa Ridge

Remnants of the Japanese trenches

View from Iorobaiwa Ridge to Imita Gap

From the ridge, a set of muddy wooden steps took us quickly down the southern flank to the new Iorobaiwa village, superbly situated in a kunai grass clearing. From this open spot, we could look back at the rugged profile of Iorobaiwa Ridge behind us and cloud-capped Imita Ridge ahead. This was the most southerly point of the Japanese advance, a place where, during those 12 days of waiting, patrols inched their way through thick grass and sudden ambushes were sprung. For us it was a pleasant stop in the sunshine.

Arriving at Iorobaiwa village

Looking back from the village to Iorobaiwa Ridge

Cloud topping Imita Ridge

The massive buttress roots of a forest giant

Heading on, the track took up its usual pattern of descending a long spur to the south. Soon the sound of rushing water far below told us that we had arrived at the end of the spur and a steep final descent awaited. We were quickly on the floor of the deep and darkly beautiful ravine, where sunlight reached down through overhanging vines to sparkle on the fast-flowing waters of the Ua'Ule Creek system. We stopped to swap boots for rubber sandals - for the next couple of kilometres, we would wade across the stream 11 times as the track worked its away around the sweeping bends of the creek system.

Start of our many crossings of Ua'Ule Creek

A ray of sunshine spot-lights the creek

Gemma crossing the creek

A quite sun-dappled pool

The tranquility of Ua'Ule Campsite

The eleventh crossing brought us to the welcome sight of Ua'Ule campground, a grassy opening deep in the rain forest, where once again we would bunk down in a thatch and timber hut. It was only lunchtime and the rest of day was ours to do as we please in this idyllic setting.

Fairly succinct message!

Ua'Ule Creek at the campsite

The campsite had an interesting warning about malaria prevention, which reminded me that I hadn't seen a mosquito to date - curious. Still, I took it to heart and rubbed some DEET on my exposed skin - after all, this was one of the lowest and warmest points of the track.

Relaxing in the waterhole

An underwater shot of the cascade

The first (and definitely not the last) stop was a waterhole in the creek just beneath a foaming cascade. Unlike the cold waters of the higher creeks, the water temperature here was just right. Then began a lazy afternoon, as our sweat-soaked clothes dried in the sun, and we relaxed among the many-coloured butterflies and dragonflies that flitted from flower to flower or sucked the salt from our clothes. It was just what we needed after two hard days on the track.

Sione and his mates having a jam session

Fast man of Kokoda

We were lucky to have had Brendan Buka as one of our trek leaders. He holds the record for the Kokoda Track in both directions; 16 hours 34 minutes from Owers' Corner to Kokoda and 17 hours 20 minutes from Kokoda to Owers' Corner. When you think that is 96 km of muddy and gnarly-rooted track, climbing 5500m and descending the same, it is an impressive feat.

Brendan told me that this was his 37th crossing of the track, not counting the races - impressive!

The usual cloud developed and a few showers fell in the late afternoon, not a problem apart from the fact that drying clothes came inside the hut - after seven days of walking in high humidity, a ranker-smelling collection of apparel could not have been imagined. In some ways it was good that tomorrow would be our last day on the track.

Day 7 - Ua'Ule Creek to Owers' Corner (10km - 870m ascent – 480m descent)

The day broke bittersweet over our campsite. It is always the same on the last day of long trek – the knowledge that this would be the end of a great adventure balanced by the knowledge that this would be the last stumble uphill to a slit-trench latrine in the pre-dawn darkness and the last time you would have to put on sweat-damp clothes. My shirt and shorts were not only dank, they were decidedly rank.

Setting off to follow Ua'Ule Creek

One last “yumigo” and we were off and back into the humid half-light of the Papuan rainforest. We had left our boots off as today was to start as yesterday finished, with a series of wades across the shallow watercourses of the Ua'Ule Creek system, as we picked our way upstream towards Imita Ridge. After the ninth crossing, we booted up – the climb to the ridge had begun.

At first, the track took a more gentle ascent as it followed a deep gully upwards, but the price for this was a saturating humidity and within minutes, the perspiration was pouring from forehead and salting up my eyes. It was almost a relief when the track turned steeply upwards to take us to the crest of the spur. I understood why Papuan tracks tend to follow spurs and ridges – at least here there is a bit of air despite the dense forest, unlike the dank stillness of the gullies.

I was starting to recognise the patterns and this spur was no different, as we steadily climbed a series of steep pitches separated by flatter terrain. No zig-zagging here – Papuans attack their climbs directly and I was definitely slowing down.

Back on a ridge-line

Finally, I could see a grassy lip up above and hauled myself over it to the cries of “oro, oro, oro” from the small group of porters and fellow trekkers already there. I had reached the gap in Imita Ridge, guarded by a high rock bluff. Here, 70 years ago, the Australian troops were preparing to fight to the death against the invading Japanese – it was the last bastion on the track and there was to be no further retreat. It is hard to imagine what Bill and his comrades of the 3rd Battalion and the other units would have been thinking as they sat and waited, or probed the region we had just walked through with patrols to check on enemy movements. But the attack never came, for across the valley on Iorobaiwa Ridge the Japanese forces had reached the point of exhaustion and starvation due to the long and costly campaign. The orders came to “advance to the rear” and Imita Ridge became the launching point for the Australian counter-offensive.

At the gap on Imita Ridge

The last log bridge

With Hobert on the ridge

This was the last significant site of the trek and thought now turned more to finishing the job and getting to Owers' Corner. The last section provided a recap of the trek for us – a steep drop off from the ridge on slick orange-yellow clay (I wonder if this is the origin of the name "Golden Staircase" given by the troops to the notorious muddy and log-stepped climb up the Imita Ridge), brown muddy tracks criss-crossed by tree-roots and sharp blocky rocks, all requiring an intense focus to negotiate, a grassy clearing with campsite to take a break, creeks to wade, and a setting of all-encompassing green - in its many shades and textures that make up a tropical rain forest.

Clearing beneath Uberi Bluff

The last big descent

On the path from Uberi to Goldie River

Finally we reached the Goldie River for one last waist deep crossing in the cool waters of a Papuan mountain stream.  One final climb was all that separated us from the end of the trek at Owers' Corner – somehow it seemed fitting that the trek should end thus, with a demand for one last effort.

The wide and fast flowing Goldie River

Crossing the Goldie

Start of the final ascent to Owers' Corner

View back towards the Imita Gap

Clearing the forest, we regrouped – trekkers and porters together – and pushed up the last 40m of the climb to crest the grassy plateau and pass beneath the Kokoda arch as one. It was an emotional finish to the hardest seven-days walking that most of us would have done – hugs, handshakes and high-fives all around as elation became tinged with sadness that this was the end of an incredible shared adventure. According to Jodie's pedometer, it had taken us 182,000 steps to get here - no wonder my feet had lost a bit of their spring!

At Owers' Corner - looking back from whence we came

Arriving at Owers' Corner (photo by kokodatrekking)

The trekking trio at trail's end

Imogen and Jerry

Jessie with Nick (looking justifiably proud of his efforts)

We shared a birthday cake at Owers' Corner for Jodie (courtesy of the trekking company) and beer and pizza back at Sogeri Lodge with our guides and porters (after my first hot shower in a week), but already the bonds that tied us for the last week were weakening and soon people would head back to their own lives. The trek had brought together an eclectic bunch of people from all over Australia, aged from 19 to 62, and it had been a pleasure to walk with them. Thanks Nick, Imogen, Bobbi, Jodie, Chris, Shawn, Lisa, Tristan, Gemma and Bill.

As Nick said when we farewelled our trekking team, we not only learnt a lot about ourselves during the walk but also a lot about the people of this part of Papua – thanks to our leaders, Horace and Brendan, Hobert, who carried my big pack and was a ready presence at every river crossing, the other personal porters, Jessie, the two Jimmys, Jerry and Trofian, with whom we shared some good moments on the track and the food porters, Bunny, Pescol, Tommy, Noah, Bill, Nelson, John and particularly Sione, whose guitar and golden voice often sang us to sleep and woke us up. As I mentioned earlier, it was quite the expedition.

One final recognition, in many ways the whole point of the trek – to Bill Brown and his comrades of the 3rd Militia Battalion, and to all the servicemen who fought and died on the Kokoda Track, from the generations that reap the rewards of your deeds. Thank you.

Courage – Endurance – Mateship - Sacrifice