Val’s letter extract, Day 6
“The next morning we slept later to get enough rest, and when we had breakfasted, packed up our wet things, and tramped off into the mud, it was obvious that we wouldn’t catch up with the others. The rivers were swollen, and we sat for an hour by a crossing until a native lady came down the trail on her way to her garden. And of course, it was embarrassingly easy to cross once she showed us where the stepping stones were. But she had the advantage that she had been crossing that same place since she was about five.
Although our packs were becoming lighter, we were getting more tired with each day – the rainy season has started early this year, and every day the clouds build up and the rain sets in.”
In the broadest sense, from the smallest to the biggest, thereby hoping to leave out as little as possible. The very tiniest were gnats (no, not mosquitoes),+ we only noticed these in one small area, along the wettest part of the track, just north of the Kokoda Gap. They weren’t annoying, but hung in a cloud in front of one’s face. Next up were the mosquitoes proper. These, we had been warned, would make our lives a misery, but in fact they were very little problem at all – barely noticeable even. At the beginning of the Trail, we had regularly smothered our faces + body with Rid, but soon were using the stuff very sparingly, since not only did we not really need it, but especially when mixed with sweat, made one’s body very slimy. And on the face, it soon ran down into eyes + mouth – revolting. Leeches were the other thing we’d been warned about, but for ages there was no sign of one – it was almost disappointing. Not to worry tho’ – on Day 6 we were really in the wet, + leeches started to appear, fortunately mainly on our boots, from which they could be flicked off. Extraordinary things, like thin little worms with their noses up in the air, sniffing the breeze. And 2 of them were lucky enough to get their teeth into English flesh. One slipped down under Val’s sock, + another latched himself onto a blister of mine the following morning, when I was wandering around in flip-flops. One’s first reaction was of paralysed revulsion at this fat black slug, tucking away happily on one’s blood, but one resists the temptation to swat at the thing, douses it liberally with salt, + it curls up + drops off. The next animal we hadn’t heard mention of at all, but it succeeded in disturbing us intensely during both the first mornings. This was the wasp, or it may have been bees – we disagreed about it at the time. At both our first 2 camp sites, we were plagued by them, + the second morning both Val + I were stung, tho’ the pain soon went away once the stings were pulled out (suggested bees, I suppose.) I became totally paranoid about the things – just one of the many aspects of the Trail provoking fear in me. Next animal was far more pleasant – the butterfly. There were thousands of these all the way along the Trail, + many of them were incredibly beautiful, my favourite being a huge one with sky blue + black markings. They were also very tame, + at several places they would rest on one’s clothes or body. Next animal is the chicken, seen (+ more, heard) in every village. The cockerels would crow from 2 am until right into the afternoon, annoying Greg in particular. But strangely, we were never offered eggs, + they never seemed – not that we saw much of it – to be a part of their regular diet. Dogs were also a part of every village – pretty scrawny specimens they were too – + curiously we even saw a couple of cats, tho’ what practical purpose they could serve in village life I wouldn’t know, except possibly the control of vermin. The only wild animal we saw was a cus-cus, sitting in a tree. A very furry + huggable creature he looked too, a sort of cross between a racoon + a koala, with big brown eyes. He was quite aware of us, + curious too, tho’ also clearly he wasn’t going to allow us to come too close. Towards the end of the Trail, in an old Isurava village, abandoned, we were told, because of disease, there lived a flock of goats, presided over by a big old ram. As we walked thro’, I was approached by one or 2 of them, curious no doubt, but when Val tried to shoo them away, she was given a not so gentle butt from the old feller. It was only when we were in the guest house at Kokoda that we read in the visitor’s book that he’d given similar treatment to several others, including, I was delighted to read, Terry. The only other animals we saw were cows, also at Isurava, so we thought they might have similarly aggressive tendencies. Fortunately, they didn’t.
Generally speaking, we all survived very well. The worst thing that befell any of us was that June had some badly infected toes (there’s new boots for you) so bad that she very nearly was forced to fly out. Luckily for her, she was able to exchange her new boots in the next village, Efogi, for a pair of sturdy sandals. Terry, and to a lesser extent Heather, had upset stomachs caused by eating under-ripe paw-paw, + that key Terry up + on the move for our night in Efogi. Other than that, we all, more or less, suffered the same things: blisters, cuts from grass + thorns, stings from nettles. Terry + I both developed a nappy rash from climbing back into wet shorts, but that was nothing too serious. I managed to keep twisting my right ankle, which has always been weak, but luckily it was never too violent. Both Val + I survived very well indeed until the last day, when suddenly everything started to go wrong. Val had allowed grit + small stones in her socks to sandpaper away the underside of her toes, so that she was hobbling the last couple of miles, + I felt a pulled muscle in my thigh, plus a curious loss of circulation in my arms. We were also, I need scarcely add, very very tired, so that the last couple of miles, altho’ easy, seemed to stretch on + on.
So what was it like?
Hm, difficult to say, but a few random thoughts. There weren’t, except for the one occasion in Kagi, fantastic views – the forest cover was just far too dense for nearly all the time. There weren’t thousands of war relics lying around – it hadn’t been the sort of campaign to leave large pieces of hardware, too much time had gone by, + too many people had been through before us. But to have walked the trail in peacetime, + then to imagine doing the same under enemy fire, was just remarkable. I’ve never been so wet with sweat my entire life, especially during that first day. I’ve never worked so hard physically for a sustained period – carrying the packs (weighing at the beginning 17 or 18 kilos each) up those hills was destroying – at times I had to count to 50 as I walked to keep myself going, + then take a rest. Generally, Val coped a little better than I. Going across some of the river crossings almost paralysed me with fright (as it did Val) so much so that I would wake in the morning with the familiar dull ache of apprehension if I knew that there was one lined up for the day. About the only cause for pride is that I got across them anyway, on one or two occasions even carrying Val’s pack for her. The highlights, as I remember them, are: washing sweat, dirt + fatigue from the body in an icy mountain stream. The best were so good I would just lie there for 10 mins at a time. Only in the last couple of days when the rains came were we deprived of this pleasure. Arriving at a village – that was always marvellous, no matter how long or how short a time we had been walking. Looking out at the valley below Kagi at sunset. Eating soup in the tent the day we walked over Kokoda Gap, our tent pitched under the shelter for added warmth, the rain beating down. The worst things were: walking, sliding + falling over in the rain just an hour before that, with darkness on its way. Climbing into cold wet filthy clothes in the morning. Crossing rivers, + thinking about river crossings to come.
This is about as good a summary as I could hope to provide, so I will add nothing. And my feelings about the whole thing have not altered in all that time. In truth, we were never in danger, and scarcely got lost, quite an achievement for the likes of us.