October 22nd 1983

posted in: The way back | 2

This is going to require a certain amount of explanation. During the trail itself, I decided not to even attempt to maintain the diary on the trail, and even notes, in the conditions we were in, frequently soaked with sweat and rain, often muddy, would have been an impossible task. So, for the first time on our trip I decided to describe things after the event (nothing new there, after all) but by topic, rather than keeping a day by day diary, when one day staggered muddily into the next, with little to distinguish them.

However, in retrospect, that failed to do what you want a diary to do, which is to mark the time passing. So it was as well that Val wrote a letter home (again, shortly after our successful completion, but with her possessing a better memory than me, even then.) So I have interpolated her account into mine. Hope that is a little clearer than the mud we encountered.

 

Up early, with a dull ache of foreboding in the pit of the stomach, thinking of the privations (+ dangers?) to come.  Breakfasted on a similar meal to last night’s, left various presents – a  bag of coffee, a bag of salt, a roll of toilet paper, a couple of brooches, some rice, the juggling balls, K2 – as tactfully as possible, + said goodbye.  Also took Toina’s address, to send her a couple of photos,+ write.  I feel sorry for her.  She is intelligent, + trapped in her environment.  As we all are, only hers is more limiting.

And so the trail.  As I’m sure you’ve discovered, or deduced, I am no longer on the trail.  It is now beyond me, recent history, + I was far too exhausted to write it up as we went.  So, in order to record the experiences as fully as possible, I’m treating the whole thing as one unit, + will write about the different aspects under categories.

                                            The Kokoda Trail.

Val’s letter extract, Day 1.

“In the morning we shouldered our overweight packs and walked off down the old army road to the start of the trail.  After ten kilometres it was beginning to get hot and I had already slipped over a couple of times.  The road was practically non-existent when we reached the village at the Goldie River crossing, and when we saw that we had to wade the river and climb the steep bank on the other side, our hearts sank.  The people in the village must have seen the looks on our faces as they came to give us some encouragement.  They showed us where to cross and a couple of teenage boys led us up the hill on the other side.  The trail seemed to fade and then reappear, cut across banana plantations and gardens, disappear over fallen trees and re-emerge through deep undergrowth and always it went upwards.  Our guides would climb agilely, finding roots and footholds easily while we scrambled and spluttered, sweat streaming down our faces and dripping off the end of our noses, hearts pounding, backs breaking under the strain of our packs, which still weighted about seventeen kilos each.  When the path became clearer and our guides headed back to their village with a tip and some barley sugars for their trouble, we collapsed in a heap and rested, too dazed to think about what we might be letting ourselves in for.

Our two rescuers

During the heat of the day we were drenched in sweat, but the jungle cover was so dense that no sun could reach us through the trees.  We plodded on for another hour or two, resting frequently, checking our map, and taking small sips of water.  Our aim, the top of the Imita Ridge, was accomplished by late afternoon, and after a brief celebration and a couple of photos, we were faced with the daunting prospect of the near sheer drop to the valley below.  It took us about two and a half hours to descent this one kilometre.  Why?  Because we were scared to death.  When we reached the creek and found a camping spot all we could think of was to throw off our sticky muddy clothes and bathe in the cool clear water, soothing our tired limbs and washing the mud and grit out of our socks.

It quickly became dark as we squatted in front of the tent, cooking soup and rice on our stove; the cicadas chirped louder and the fireflies held my attention.  We drank several cups of tea to quench our raging thirst and were then so bloated that we couldn’t eat.  Most of all we wanted sleep, but were so exhausted that sleep didn’t come soon enough; we lay awake fretting about the 15 kms we had put behind us and the 85 yet to come.”

              The Group.

I’ve already mentioned the people concerned, but it would probably be as well to outline them again, along with individual’s traits, strengths + weaknesses, viewed in retrospect, + relevant particularly to the requirements of the Trail.  Paul.  Physically huge, massive chest, massive arms + legs, might have been built especially for the task of carrying a heavy pack up + down hill.  A deliberate stirrer, he enjoyed (quite openly) searching for people’s weak spots, + teasing them.  Rather selfish too – he happily carried the bulk of his + June’s food + equipment, + took on more when she found it tough going, but he rarely walked with her, preferring to charge on ahead.  June.   Pleasant + diplomatic, in reasonably fit condition, but she clearly found it a tough trail.  Greg.  As I’ve mentioned, the worrier of the group.  Also the talker.  Also, naturally enough, the loner, in view of being the only one not with a partner.  Was inclined to worry at what seemed to me to be impossible questions, such as what was the best type of camera, for which he required an absolute answer.   But at least he did think about things.  Physically, he was entirely suited to the requirements of the Trail, tho’ it did take its toll, since he was pretty tough + wiry.  Terry.  I liked Terry – he was good fun.  Friendly + anxious to keep people happy, he rather reminded me of Steve Blakesley, tho’ without most of Steve’s more gregarious skills.  Physically small, but very strong.  Heather, his wife.  Also very pleasant.  And also in pretty good condition, being an aerobics teacher, tho’ Terry carried most of their weight.  Val  The only woman to carry a full pack, for which I admire her hugely.  Tough + resourceful, physically afraid at times (of steep downward slopes, fierce river crossings) but able to overcome that fear.  Considerate of others (notably me) tho’ tetchy + irritable at times.  Chris  Not fit or strong, requiring many rests when climbing hills.  Lazy whenever allowed to be so.    Physically afraid often – of animals + (especially) rivers.  Main asset a sense of humour about the absurdity of it all, plus a certain mulish stubborn determination to finish the thing somehow.

               Preparations.

Nobody came particularly ill prepared.  Quite the contrary, it would seem, in view of the other heavy packs.  In terms of food, we all had much the same – mostly dried foods, a couple of Vesta meals – tho’ we did learn from each other, eg I think I would now get instant soup, + I think others saw our custard with envy.  As for other equipment – we managed.  The others didn’t bring tents, just flies, + that would make me feel very uncomfortable.  As it was, they managed, but with the rain we had, they were a bit lucky.  They all had Gaz stoves with 3 blue cylinders each, but they were all running very low on fuel by the end, and even with the added convenience, I wouldn’t swap their stoves for ours.  Footwear provided the greatest diversity – 4 pairs of trainers, 1 pair of jungle boots, 2 prs other boots (ours), but I think the ideal would be well broken-in strong walking boots.  June committed the cardinal folly of walking in new boots, + paid the price.  Our boots were OK, but the tread wasn’t designed to do the job, + they slipped.  A lot.  Slowing us down, especially downhill.  Everyone had rainwear, but I couldn’t abide my poncho, + it didn’t work on my pack anyway, so we tied it on as a pack cover, + I got wet.  We had some rope, + used it a couple of times, for river crossings, tho’ only as a precaution.  And Greg had bought a machete,  but it wasn’t necessary, + he left it behind accidentally in  one of the huts.

And so the walk has begun, though already I can see a weakness in this joint mode of preparation, in that I have written about our fellow-walkers even though they have not yet caught up with us. So for this first day we were on our own, and feeling the struggle. Don’t know if this is something which occurs later, but the guide book we had cannibalised mentioned the danger of “false crests” (something which has become part of our vocabulary even now), of thinking that you were about to reach the end of an uphill stretch, only for more to reveal itself.

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