Kokoda Track – Breathtaking (in many ways)
Recently a friend and I decided to tackle the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea (PNG). For any of you that haven’t heard of it you’re not alone. I hadn’t until about a year ago when I just happen to look at PNG as an out-of-the way place that looked interesting to visit.
The first thing you notice when doing some research is the history of the track. It is the site of one of Australia’s most important victories in World War II. This makes it an important destination and challenge for many Australians. On a side note, before departing on my journey I mentioned the trek to an Australian, now living in the U.S., and his face lit-up. He starting reciting facts about the battle and track from a report he’d done in the third grade. It’s that important of a part of their military history.
The next thing you’ll see is the beauty of the track. The 96 km trail runs through the Owen Stanley Mountain Range providing spectacular views of the rain forest and mountains that cover most of the island.
After researching the different trekking companies (you need one to hike the trail) we landed on No Roads. Chose them for a few reasons. 1) they offered a trek with all local guides as opposed to Australian guides which meant more money went back to the local economy and 2) the dates matched up better with our travel plans. However, most of the trekking companies looked respectable and we probably would’ve felt comfortable with just about any of them.
We arrived in Port Moresby a few days before the trek to get accustomed to the time change. One fair warning here - there isn’t much to do in this city. It isn’t really set up well for tourists. The day before the trek began we happened to find an island, Lolata, which had snorkeling, kayaking and lots or relaxing. That same night we met up with our trekking mates, four Australians, and had a meeting with the trekking company. I bring up that they were Australians because our lead guide had done the track almost 100 times and we were the only two Americans he had in any of his groups. All other trekkers had been from Australia. Our accents made it somewhat difficult for him to understand us at first but I think by the end he got used to the way we said Breakfast instead of Brekkie.
The next morning we were off!
You can start the trek at either end of trail. We were to start ours on the end that usually was reserved as the finish. Everyone said it was the more difficult way to start as that end had more steep climbs and descents but I would disagree. I’m pretty sure there is no easier end on this one.
After loading the bus we stopped by the Bomana military cemetery on the way. This really sank in what this track is famous (or infamous) for. There are thousands of beautiful white gravestones lined up in perfect military precision rows. Many have names and ages (almost all too young) some did not and simply said “An Australian Soldier of the War.” Heavy stuff.
The start of our trek was in the mountains. Looking over the Owen Stanly Range is beautiful. Think Jurassic Park without the large ferocious deadly animals. This trek can be done anywhere from six to eleven days. Eight days was just about right for us.
On all of the guiding company sites there is a part about needing to be in good shape and emphasizing
physical fitness. Some even go as far as giving you a baseline fitness test – number of push-ups, sit-ups, wall-sits, and so forth. Wish I had taken these more serious. I have done a few of the more of what I thought were challenging treks in the world and thought these guidelines were to scare away the folks that think walking a half-mile down to the bakery to grab breakfast is being in shape. I was wrong. This is one of, if not the most physically challenging things I’ve done in my life. However, determination is more important the physical fitness here. There are points where you think you may not to be able to go on and that’s when you just need to take a break, drink a bit of water and say “Kokoda, I’m not done yet!”
The terrain is challenging. There are very few flat parts. There are many ups and then of course you have to go down all of those ups. Most of the ground is either a wet clay or uneven footing caused by roots and stones. You’ll spend most of the time looking down to make sure you don’t wind up twisting an ankle or end up on your backend. But when you have the opportunity to look around the views are spectacular! Make sure you do this. The river crossings along the way and end of day swimming holes are welcome relief from the heat.
Our guides were terrific! They worked, what seemed twice as hard, as the trekkers and always were there to help when the footing may be tough and at the end of the day to give you a smile and shake your hand for making to camp. They then have the energy to make an outstanding dinner. Most of the days start at 6:00a.m. and the trekking can last anywhere from 6-9 hours.
The ghosts of the War are everywhere. From the battle monuments, the stories from the guides and even some rusty munitions on display, you’ll get a deeper understanding and develop an emotional tie to the track. The memorial at the village of Isuvara is particularly moving. I had done a bit of research on the War history but would’ve been served better to dig a bit deeper into it. There are many personal stories worth knowing.
At the end of each day we spent the night in a camp set up for trekkers or in a village. The villages were particularly interesting as we got the chance to walk around and see how the locals live. The villagers are very welcoming and show a real interest your visit. Some even line up to waive you goodbye as you leave them.
Oh my goodness the fruit! Some had fruit for sale and let me say this is some of the best I’ve ever had. Maybe it was my physical and mental state that made these so delicious but I’d like to think it’s the way it’s grown. Make sure to take advantage of these little treats. You won’t regret it.
At the end of a most challenging week you’ll see the arch that says “Kokoda Track.” At this point you’ll know you’ve accomplished something really special. My recommendation is to then make your way to a spot in the shade and grab yourself one of New Guinea’s premium beers, an SP. You deserve it.
Kokoda You what won’t soon be forgotten.
- Research the World War II history of the track before going. It’ll serve you well
- Blisters and the threat of blisters are a given. Protect your feet at all times. Athletic tape was immeasurable for me.
- Don’t take the physical requirements lightly. You need to be in shape for this one.
- You can carry your pack or hire a local porter to help. I recommend hiring a porter (if you can). It’ll make your trek easier and it helps out the locals. You’ll still have to carry a day pack – mostly for water.
- Get travel insurance. In the off-chance something happens the only way out is by helicopter.
- Bring good well broken-in walking boots and a few changes of socks. Wet socks will bring you trouble.
- Although there are several poisonous snakes on the island we never saw any. The guides are well equipped to deal with any that you may come across.
- Enjoy the trek. It certainly is a one-if-a-kind experience.