One Step at a Time: Trekking Kokoda at Age 15
Long days. Cold nights. Fatigue and loneliness. Standing in the harsh sun, I’m surrounded by walls of tall jungle. Staring ahead at a steep overgrown path that never seems to end, I hyperventilate. Time passes with each step. My breathing softens as we make it to the summit. I wonder whether I’d be better off dead.
The Kokoda Track (or Trail) campaign of World War II took place in Papua New Guinea. The campaign involved a series of battles between the Japanese and Allied forces throughout the second half of 1942, during the Pacific War. The Allies prevailed in pushing the Japanese out of Papua New Guinea, at a substantial cost of lives.
Tourists now flock to Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, for yearly dawn services of ANZAC Day and other war memorial events. I was never really interested in war, but I was up for the challenge.
The track itself has become a novelty excursion for war enthusiasts and fitness junkies alike. It’s a single-file foot thoroughfare of 96 kilometres through the Owen Stanley Range. From Ower’s Corner roughly 50 kilometres east of Port Moresby to the village of Kokoda in the Oro Province, we venture predominantly through the land of the Mountain Koiari people.
If the rugged terrain wasn’t enough of a selling point to the adventurous hiker, the tropical climate and risk of disease on the fabled expedition should be the cream. Picture luxuriously humid days dragging your feet through ankle-deep mud for eight hours, before settling in to a gourmet dehydrated meal. Enjoy a freezing night’s rest in a makeshift tent; doze off to the sound of torrential rain seeping through to your inflatable mattress, as the early morning sun signals the start of another day.
I can’t say that I expected luxury upon my arrival in Papua New Guinea. As restrictions and standards to who can attempt this trek are strict, I’d been training with a Victoria Police facilitated program for nearly a year. The trek was the end-game of a 12-month-long community engagement program for young people in Melbourne’s west. I’d been hand-selected alongside my peers, deemed future leaders by their schools and based on their merit.
Yep, that’s me. A future leader. A young lady with a bright future and the weight of the world on her shoulders, heading into battle. Yet, I’d been fighting a battle in my own head in the lead-up. A battle that was much bigger than I’d given credit.
At 15, in the depths of the Papa New Guinean jungle, came my first mental breakdown.
I’m sitting by the campfire, distant enough from the group that I can hear their mumbled critiques of me that my mind has conjured. I’d slowed the pack down. I wasn’t strong enough to keep up. In my haze, I spill my hot tea over my bare legs. I don’t feel the burn at first. It’s not until all eyes are on me that I burst into tears.
Sitting knee-deep in the river’s edge, the faceless figures of my peers pour freezing water on my fresh wounds. I could lay down and let the water pull me into obscurity, but I must make it to the end. I’ll be a failure if I don’t.
Yet, even when I cross the famous gates of the trek’s conclusion, I’m numb. Frozen.
Is it the constant anxiety twisting my guts in knots? Is it the guilt of watching my peers play footy in the rain while I watch from my sleeping bag? Or is it the self-loathing I feel for refusing to escape the dialogue of my depression to sing a song ’round the campfire?
I don’t want to “have fun”. I go to bed every night hoping that sleep would eventually come and that I would not escape its grips this time. I can’t understand why this “life-changing experience” is changing me for the worse.
The Kokoda Trek was the Aussie Battler’s playground. We speak of values of courage, mateship, endurance and sacrifice. In the face of inevitable suffering, maybe even defeat, keep pushing. As much as it hurts, as disillusioned as you may be, keep running head-first into a warzone. For me, battling on meant that I forgot to breathe.
It’s more than missing the feeling of a hot shower, the smell of clean clothes or the embrace of soft sheets. I am missing a piece of myself. A black dog follows me home from the trail. I’m learning that travel isn’t always best; being stuck in your own head can be the opposite of what you need when the time isn’t right.
We tumble into a village in single file, just a little over half way on our journey. I sit on a bench and pick at my lunch. By my side, a local sits and eats with me. I don’t remember his name, but he tells me about his family and where he grew up. For the first time, I feel at ease, like I can momentarily rest and take in the day’s events. I find peace in my own mind. Of all the horizons I’ve stared at in my life, waiting for meaning to jump out at me, this one is special.
I don’t regret this trip, not at all. Retrospect is a great thing. Things are never as they seem in the storm’s eye. I know now, that I am stronger than I could have ever imagined. I am still learning this. Every day throws curveballs, some bigger, sweatier and more uncomfortable than others.
I can push through, at my own pace. I will always make it home. There is life after the finish line. One step at a time.
Cover by the author