“I am going to Papua New Guinea. I am going to hike the Kokoda Trail.”
Saying the words out loud was frightening enough. However the enormity of the actual task itself didn’t even register on my fright-o-meter. But I was done with feeling defeated, feeling down and knew there was more out there for me. I just needed to do something to wake myself up first.
Whilst flying to Popendetta I realised I had never seen real mountains until that moment looking out at the Owen Stanley Range. It was dense jungle littered with waterfalls and cliffs seeming to go on forever. It took thirty minutes to fly from Port Moresby and was going to take six days to hike back through this picture book. The runway where we landed was a small grass patch with gun mounds on either side remaining from the war. The airport was a tin shack approximately 5mx5m and the place was full of local villagers casually holding machetes bigger than Kanye Wests ego all chewing on beetlenut. Beetlenut is a nut mixed with chemicals to give a high but it also makes your mouth and gums go blood red. In hindsight perhaps they were chewing on the last girl who dropped in for a visit? To say I was intimidated is an understatement.
A local guide named Russell called out letting me know he would take me to the camp site where we would meet up with the crew. Russell was larger than life and I loved him. I asked him so many questions and I could tell he enjoyed scaring me stiff. He told me that ten years ago the road we were driving on was renowned for armed robbery. To stop the trouble the police went into the village and shot a group of men in the knee caps. They didn’t know it was them but thought it would be a good warning to whoever was causing the trouble. Sure enough it worked and there were now loads of men hobbling around Popendetta clutching their knees but no road robberies. Russell found it hilarious when I was aghast saying they couldn’t that. Much to learn you still have young padawan.
Starting the hike the next day I hooked up with Ramsy my porter aka guardian angel and we headed off. The first mountain was tough but, as was every day, it was breath takingly beautiful. Yes I was sweating like a hooker on a double shift and felt a bit light headed after hours of climbing but one look around me would wash it away bringing a smile from ear to ear. After a few hours I could see up ahead that the trail seemed to vanish being replaced with dirt and rock. There had been a landslide and it had covered the trail in front as well as half the mountain. I honestly thought we would have to go back but the boys decided we would climb it. I precariously followed Ramsy’s every step with his words ringing in my head “don’t make anything move”. We got up and over but then had to get back down. I was looking perplexed at the vertical wall back down to the trail when the boys threw a rope down because OF COURSE we would abseil down. Luckily I am frequent abseiler so had this in the bag, not. If you could have seen my face. We made it safely across though and kept on our way.
We stopped at the Isurava Memorial which is a site where a lot of men were injured or killed. Ramsy said a few words and I became so overwhelmed I started crying. I’m not usually a break into a tear kind of gal so surprised myself when I needed to spend a few moments alone to regroup. Each night I was reading history of the part of the trail I would do the next day so I guess reading personal stories and then physically being there struck a chord. It was also hard to process fighting in such an unforgiving environment.
Over the first few days I proudly accomplished many things which are now second nature to me. The first is going to the bathroom off the side of a trail. I was apprehensive about this at first but now I’ve done it so many times whilst trail running that occasionally I would rather it than have to use public facilities. The second is picking leeches off my skin. I’ve always struggled with my calloused running feet but apparently leeches think they are divine, bless the little suckers. Finally, wildlife. Now I can quite happily detour around a snake or critter doing his thing but on my first encounter I wasn’t the calmest. It happened when Ramsy, Junior (who was along for the fun of it) and I were walking along a ridge diligently practising my Pidgin when Ramsy stepped over a snake. My reaction was to psychotically scream SNAKE as I was dancing backwards. The boys were saying to hit it with the stick I was holding but I was too busy recreating Footloose. Next thing I hear a schwing and Junior had thrown his machete past me and chopped the snake in half. The boys were in stitches when they casually told me that if the snake had bitten me I would have died in seven hours. Yeah hit it with your stick, good one.
About half way through the hike we came to the Brown River. Locals from the village we had camped at the night before walked with us to the river because they were concerned we wouldn’t be able to cross due to it being the wet season. We got to the Brown River and it was huge. The boys told me to sit tight and they decided they would make a raft. Yes, a raft. I could see in the distance trees falling over in the jungle and chuckled to myself at their craftiness. While they were making the raft I started to try convincing Junior and a village local to teach me how to use a machete. After agreeing to tell the others I had forced them to do it if we got caught they proceeded to explain to me how to cut trees and hack away scrub. They even set up logs for me to practice on. After a while the boys came back with this little raft and we were ready to cross the river. The first idea was to create a pulley system and pulley the raft across. There were some other villagers on the opposite side and after many failed attempts at throwing a vine across Ramsy thought to heck with it and dived in. I screamed like a schoolgirl “Ramsy NOOO” which opened me up to some ridicule but he got across. Alas he was about 200m downstream and had to trudge back up through the reeds. The pulley system failed miserably as the water was too fast. The next idea was for us to walk upstream and some of the boys would swim me and the gear across on the raft and by the time we got to the other side we would be washed down to where we needed to be. We walked up stream and they gestured for me to hop on. They were confident with this approach so with me sitting like the Queen of Sheba in the middle of the raft the boys each took a corner and swam the bags and I across. We got to the other side in shock that we had survived yet again another challenge. The river crossing really built camaraderie and I felt like I was part of the gang. The boys said they had never spent so much time with a hiker but I guess with me being the only one they didn’t really have a choice. They started to teach me Pidgin smack talk and Ramsy and I started referring to each other as tripela ass meaning fat ass. I had the most fun at night sitting around the fire with them and learning about their culture. They still paid dowries and wanted male children. I did my best to convince them girls were just as tough but I don’t know if I succeeded.
On the last day I experienced one of the most spiritual moments of my life. Sitting looking out over the valley I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It was a beautiful moment and one that will stay with me. When we started hiking again I told Ramsy I was in love with Kokoda and wished I could stay. He had just the solution, to carve my name into a tree then I would be on the trail forever. I may have got a bit teary at the gesture. I was also starting to consider turning around and hiking back in the other direction. Unfortunately no one else shared my enthusiasm. We kept moving forward and climbed up to Owens Corner getting in our last tripela ass comments. When I got through the trail arches at Owens Corner I burst into tears (again!) feeling so overwhelmed. I had just finished the Kokoda Trail.
Hiking Kokoda inspired me to start exploring more, start trail running and gave me a newfound internal strength. It was the first adventure of a new chapter in my life and represents what being a dirtbag is to me: finding your passion even if it’s as simple as being on the trails, doing more of what makes you happy and not needing anything else to get by. Just give me my dirtbag smile, a trail and everything will work out.