Charlie Lynn has guided walkers along PNG’s Kokoda Trail 100 times. In part one of a two-part story Charlie talks about the very first time he did the walk.
"Arriving at the old Jackson’s airport in May 1991 was a bit of a shock. I was met by Bernard Choulai who drove me to his haus in Badili, near the Koki markets in Port Moresby. Every haus along the way was surrounded by razor wire and there seemed to be an armed guard at every entrance. This forbidding first impression contrasted with the uninhibited friendliness I encountered.
Bernard introduced me to the guide who would lead me across the trail: Alex Rama, a Mountain Koiari from Naduri village on the trail. I couldn’t get much out of Alex – his English was poor, and my tok pisin was non-existent, so I felt we were in for some interesting days ahead.
A lack of information and maps meant I had to overcompensate with rations and gear. All I could get from Alex when I asked him how long it would take us to get to Kokoda was “maybe a week – maybe longer”!
The next five days were the wettest and toughest I can remember. The trail was not marked or even visible in areas. Alex often stopped to scan the area before committing to where we should go. I later read where a British trekker got lost for a couple of weeks in the area between Imita and Ioribaiwa ridges, which extends for 5km and crosses Emoo and Matama creeks 22 times. He was lucky to be alive.
We pushed on till dark each day then rigged up my old army hutchie to sleep under. The constant rain had increased the weight of my 35kg pack and caused my skin to chafe. The hills never seemed to end. After a couple of days, I stopped asking Alex “how far to go?” wherever we were going because the answer was always the same – “about 25 minutes” he would say without changing his facial expression or giving any further hints.
We had our first disagreement on direction at Efogi. My sketch map indicated that we should continue directly north to Kagi village, but Alex became animated for the first time and indicated we should take another track to the north-east. There were no villages in that direction on my sketch map, but it was apparent this was his preferred route, so I slung my backpack across some very sore shoulders and followed.
Hours later we entered a misty village perched on a mountain spur towards the top of Tovovo Ridge. Alex was obviously well known to the villagers and he soon disappeared with a number of them. All I could do was pull out my ration pack and hexamine stove to make a brew.
Later in the afternoon a villager with a machete and shoulder satchel approached me and introduced himself as ‘Mark’. He asked that I follow him. I asked him where we were going. “Myola” he said. “How long will it take?” I asked. “About an hour” was his response before turning and heading off up the mountain in the mist.
About three hours later the jungle cleared to reveal an expansive grass covered plain. It was a remarkable contrast to the jungle that had enveloped us since we left Owers Corner. I later learned that the two dry lakebeds locals call ‘big Myola’ and ‘little Myola’ were extinct volcanic plateaus. I also learned they are anything but dry – swampy and marshy would be more appropriate terms.
Alex had lingered in his village for a while and caught up with me at the edge of the lake. Mark was not to be seen but the smoke coming from the hut in the distance indicated that he had already arrived at his guesthaus. We joined him over an hour later after trudging through the swamp.
The next day Alex and I resumed our trek back across the lake bed. The terrain had changed into moss forest and walking was not as difficult for the next couple of days.
Our next obstacle was Eora Creek. The rain had not let up and it was thundering white-water. The log bridge had been swept away and our only chance of getting across was with our rope. Alex gestured that he would try and find a crossing point downstream. He then disappeared for a couple of hours.
Alex eventually emerged from bush and led me through a path he had cut. We reached the edge of the water then took it in turns to cut a tree with our machetes and drop it onto a group of large boulders about a third of the way across. We then eased backwards down the log and took a break. Alex then secured a rope to the boulders and entered the raging creek which was about waist deep.
I was amazed at his strength and his poise as he edged his way to the next group of boulders unfurling the rope as he progressed. He then held the rope which allowed me to edge across and grab his outstretched hand as he hauled me out. Alex then went back to recover the rope and do it all again.
We took a long break as we examined the next obstacle which was about a 2m gap to a boulder on the edge of the other side. Alex removed his boots and stood rocking back and forth before launching himself into the air and landing on the rock – it was as if his feet had suction cups underneath them. He looked back at me with a huge grin – the first sign of emotion he had displayed since we started.
I threw the rope across to him to secure on the other side, then had to drop into the water gap which was shoulder deep. The pressure of the water against my backpack was incredibly powerful. I looked up at Alex – I could see the concern on his face, but my focus was on my inch-by-inch progress until I could reach Alex’s outstretched hand. It was the second time he grinned that day."
Read part two of this story next week.
More info: kokodatreks.com
Words and photos_Charlie Lynn