We awake a little later on our final day on the track. This is it….we’ll be crossing that finish line in a matter of hours. But not before some serious shenanigans happen…
It’s still dark when my bladder calls, and for the last time, I forge my way through the camp to the long drop at the top of the hill. Thank goodness for head lamps, an absolutely essential item in the world of no electricity!
I make my way back to my tent and crawl in amongst the mess and while I’m waiting for the rest of the world to wake up, I lay there and think about the day ahead. Will it be easy? Will it be emotional? How will we finish? Will we need the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire as we cross the line? I start to visualise the photos we’ll be taking, under that famous arch. Can’t quite believe this moment will be here, very soon.
I hear someone rustling around in their tent, then the sound of Renea’s voice. She’s cursing someone, not quite sure who, but at first guess it would be one of three people….Joey, Trace or Mark. Turns out a mysterious gust of wind has blown her tent in…or perhaps there was some human intervention. I know how difficult it is to get your skins on in an upright one man tent, so I’m kinda giggling at the thought of her trying to get hers on in a collapsed tent, in the early morning light. I can sense a payback coming on…and young Joe will almost certainly be the target!
Everyone begins to emerge from their tents to prepare for our last day. Spirits are high, with plenty of laughter but you can feel the mixed emotions in the air. We’re torn between feeling a bit sad that this will be our last day together on the track, and the excitement of actually completing this physical challenge.
After our final breakfast of champions, we disperse to pack our belongings and I hear Joey swearing like a trooper. I look over to see he’s in his tent and Renea has undone all of the pegs, leaving this pretty funny image of him kneeling with the tent now draped all over him. Everyone else has now gathered around to watch the spectacle. Hilarious start to the day.
We finish packing up and we’re standing around ready to go, and we hear this loud explosion coming from the porters’ camp. We look over to see all of them scrambling out of the hut in fits of laughter and a smoke trail following. Our trusty lead porter, Terry, decided it would be funny to throw batteries in the camp fire. It certainly got everyone moving! They were all in hysterics and continued to giggle amongst themselves for ages. Traditionally quiet and reserved in nature, these boys were really starting to show us their mischevious side.
We eventually get ourselves organised and begin the final day’s play. Stepping out onto the the track, we take our usual positions in line, but today I decide to shake things up….I’m taking the lead position behind young Joey and I’m determined to stay there until we reach the end.
After traversing through the familiar jungle environment for about an hour, we’ve set a pretty swift pace. In fact I can hear rumblings from the pack behind me about the speed we are travelling and there’s a call to slow it down, which we ultimately do. Too much excitement I think!
To add to the hype, Mark is running back and forth between us all, trying to push in, in front of me and I successfully deflect him, so he continues to bounce back and forth off everyone, all the while yelling and laughing and generally geeing us all up for good measure. It’s a crazy scene, but we’re all loving it.
We eventually reach the Goldie River and it’s time to take our boots off and wade through the cool clear waters of the PNG highlands for the very last time. In fact we don’t just take our boots off, we decide it’s time for a swim, but not before a conspiracy to dunk Renea takes place. Well, the conspiracy (led by Trace and Mark) was all good in theory, but the universe had other ideas…. Trace’s enthusiasm got the better of him as he started to make a break to chase Renea while crossing the creek, but as fate would have it, he slipped on a rock and fell in the drink himself. By this stage, Renea was well aware of what was going on. The secret was out, but it didn’t stop the chase, ending with Renea dunking herself before they even got to her.
We hung around this little oasis for quite a while, swimming and dive bombing off the rocks, soaking up the tranquility. With only an hour to go to Owers Corner, we had it in the bag.
After our refreshing dip, we strap on our boots and prepare for the final ascent, which we all thought would be easy….but we were just about to find out that we were a little incorrect in our assumptions.
We begin the climb…..I’m still at the front behind Joey. It’s no secret by now, that the up-hills are not my forte, but I’m determined keep the pace. Surely it’s not that far.
We climb…..and we climb…and we climb. It’s hot and humid, but spirits are still soaring. Lots of jokes and yelling out amongst us as we travel in a tight pack (thanks to my snail’s pace at the front!). I keep looking up and all I see is blue sky. Where the feck is the top!? Joey asks Terry, are we nearly there? He answers simply. No. My shoulders slump a little, but still, we climb.
As we press on for what seems like an eternity, I look up again….and there it is. Such a beautiful sight, those familiar arches that I’ve seen in so many photos taken by others before us.
Woooooooooooooohoooooooooooo! WE MADE IT!!!!!!
We are all whooping and cheering and hugging as we cross that line. A few tears are shed, but we’re mostly so happy and relieved we have actually done it. Team T20 – mission accomplished!
All that training and preparation for the past year, has finally paid off and we’re standing at the top of this mountain like the champions we feel that we are. The obligatory photos are taken by all and we settle down for a rest and a nice fresh sandwich! I’ll never forget that sandwich and ice cold Fanta! When you’ve been living on the food we had for the past ten days, a simple sandwich tastes like the best thing in the world!
We begin to take our porters aside and privately thank them for their assistance and companionship. We each give them a tip (double what we were advised to give) and a lot of us gave away some of our belongings to them also. I wanted to give my boots to Max, but they were too small…I did however give him my water bottle, poncho, all of my leftover snacks and anything else I thought he could use. He then presented me with his hand carved gift, which had the words Kokoda – The bloody track! inscribed on it. How sweet. It now sits on my mantelpiece at home.
We said our goodbyes, which were extremely difficult. I watched my porter Max, step back off the mountain that we just came up, as he began his personal trek back to his home village of Naduri. Another 2 days of walking for him….with no boots. I am in awe of these young men.
We hopped on an air conditioned bus, with the next stop before Port Moresby, being the Bomana War Cemetary. As we begin to leave the mountain, I am overcome with emotion and burst into tears. I just can’t stop them flowing. I don’t really know why they started at that particular moment but I suspect I felt some sense of finality right about then. I genuinely did not want the experience to end. We all felt that way. We could have turned around and walked right back to Kokoda, the mood we were in.
The bus trip was a little quiet on the way down the mountain as we all began to process the situation and reflect on what we’d achieved. It wasn’t long before the mood lifted a little as we passed waving children and families along the road. At one point we stopped to throw out my last tennis ball to an excited child. This made me smile.
As we pull into the Bomana War Cemetary I start to get a little nervous as the sheer number of headstones came into view. It is my turn to do the reading today…..it’s going to be a tough one.
It’s hot and muggy as we explore the cemetary. Row upon row of immaculately kept headstones amongst finely manicured gardens. We gather under a tree and it’s time for me to read my poem. It’s WX Unknown by Sapper Bert Beros.
I get through the first few paragraphs ok but break down in tears when it comes to the third.
Just a boy he looked, with his snowy hair; As we laid him down in the clay; The padre’s voice was low and clear; No others had words to say.
By this stage, I think everyone was in tears. I didn’t want to look as I fought my way through the rest of the poem. It was a very tough assignment, but I felt privileged to be reading it. Young Joey found it particularly hard, as his personal Kokoda campaign was in honour of his best mate, Chris Lane, the Melbourne baseballer who was senselessly shot down in the US just a few months earlier.
We were all moved by Joe’s emotion on this day, but we also admired his determination, resilience and constant humour along the track. He was our shining light a lot of the time, always making us laugh. Our little Italian pocket rocket. The trek certainly wouldn’t have been the same without him.
We continued to wander around the headstones for a while, stopping to read the names and shockingly young ages of Aussie diggers inscribed on them. Some of them don’t even have names on them, just the words “Australian Soldier”. It’s a sobering afternoon, with most of us taking the time to write personal messages in the visitors’ book.
It’s time to leave and we head back to the bus and we come across the second bus containing some of the porters. Chad’s porter, Blackie, comes up for a final chat and we notice he’s already wearing the boots Chad gave him! Perfect fit and well deserved, considering he completed the whole trek in Crocs!
We board the bus again and head for Port Moresby. We do a loop of the city in the bus before heading to the hotel, for a long hot shower and a few beers around the pool. It’s strange to be back in civilization, but we’re all looking forward to that beer!
Most of us are up for another 4.00am start to get to the airport, and we retire relatively early, however there were a couple of Queenslanders that were lucky enough to have a later flight, which meant they were intent on having a few more beers than the rest of us. This seemed to result in Renea and I receiving late night visits from the concierge with fresh towels and quite a few incomprehensible phone calls…we did laugh. What’s a few more shenanigans amongst well worn friends eh?