Thursday, January 17, 2013

Christmas on the Kokoda

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

                Intermittent screams carried in the wind during the dark nights, startling pops of fire crackers illuminated the rubble and concrete roads, men and teenagers alike staggered hopelessly towards any creature within an arms striking distance, the dull slowing hum of fans and cooling street lamps during daily power grid black outs. It’s important to see the dark side of the tourist pamphlet but I wanted the truth to this country and that truth is only to be found far from roads, alcohol, drugs, and the white man’s invention of money. I spent a full week in the capital city of Port Moresby venturing little and I was sick of it. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I knew it wouldn’t be found in the city. A rushed shopping trip stocked me up with a tarp, extra malaria medication, and an assortment of dehydrated foods. I laced my boots to the very top ringlet and knotted them tight, take a step into the unknown, it was time to hit the jungle.
               The Kokoda track is a 96km footpath leading across the Owen Stanley Range in the central province of PNG. The trail gets its world class reputation partly for the Iconic roll the Australian army played in WW2 defeating the Japanese advance on the gateway to the South Pacific and partly for its stunning scenery and extremely difficult terrain that summons the most experienced, intrepid trekkers from across the globe. The terrain is so aggressive in fact that still to this day there are no roads connecting PNG’s southern provinces to its northern neighbors on the opposite side of the mountain range. The only option is by expensive domestic flights or gather what you can and attempt the grueling 7 to 10 day journey by foot to the other side. Inexperienced with mountain terrain and horribly unfit it seemed like the perfect adventure for me. I’m often wrong.
                My journey began like most other endeavors I take on… hung-over.  With three hours sleep I woke to my host Sam summoning me to get my bags to the front door, my ride was on the way. Too sick to eat or drink anything, we drove the hour long trip to Ower’s corner early in the morning on Sunday the 23rd of December. The original plan was to arrive early so I could get a good full day’s hike in. That plan was sabotaged by the cans of beer consumed the night before. Instead I spent the entire day lying on a picnic bench sleeping and trying to find the courage to start my journey. Occasionally Australian tourists viewing the monument would come give me a shake and ask if I was alright, even the locals were a bit freaked out that I was alone and comfortably sleeping away. It wasn’t until five in the afternoon that I had my first drink of water and set off for the 1km distance from the start of the track to a shelter at the Goldie River crossing at the bottom of the hill. The first steps through the gateway onto the track were the foreshadowing to the following three weeks, flat ground became a dream such as an oasis in the desert. The ground gave way to the curvature of the slope; small steps were laboriously etched into the tough red soil as the gradient continued to fall into the valley below. I grabbed onto tuffs of grass, branches, and anything justified a suitable anchor incase my feet fell out beneath my heavy pack. I’ve fallen snowboarding down a double black diamond before and didn’t stop until I hit the bottom; my fear was that this hill would have the same effect.
                Forty five minutes later I reached the river and my first night’s camp. My legs were quivering like match sticks supporting a grand piano. It took me three quarters of an hour to walk 1km downhill… shit, I realized how debilitating my 70 days in a kayak had been to my legs. Convinced it was the hangover and lack of food that day, I still couldn’t get my mind off the fact that ahead of me was another 10 days, 95 km, and the elevation equivalent of climbing Everest twice. I had six packs of noodles, 750grams of oats, 750 grams of rice, five cubes of chicken stock, eight packs of salted peanuts at 40 grams a piece, and two pints of rum. I cooked up a pack of noodles leaving me five packs and the worry of running out of food had already begun.  It was clear that a starvation diet would be necessary for rations to last the journey but I had no idea how bad things where actually about to get.
                Day two started out with promising sunshine glimmering through the trees mixed among the morning mist. A nice swim in the crystal clear water revived my spirits and I forgot about the worries that haunted my dreams the night before. A warm pot of oats for breakfast filled my stomach but did nothing for energy levels; I had no sugar so I would have to go without until I found some sugar cane. The first couple hours went pretty smooth with rivers flowing low enough to cross without removing my boots and terrain hospitable enough to scamper across while making good time on kilometers. Unfortunately though this trail gets its reputation for its unforgiving slopes, not the Snow White woodland and friendly talking animals I was envisioning. So the climbing began. The hill grew and it grew quickly. I started out by keeping my head down and not looking to see how far I needed to go but scampered up the steepest sections quickly, letting my heart rate soar in a strategy to get the ascents over quickly and rest on the less gradient sections. What I didn’t realize was that there weren’t any flat spots or ridges until the very peak.
                The climbing went on. I changed strategy to picking spots above that looked flat and would work towards it motivating myself to make it just to that spot and once reached I would find a new goal and work towards the latter. The worst part about this method was that upon reaching each point it revealed not a flat spot but a twist in the path and the climb would continue. At my rate each peak took me three to four hours to summit. A steady drip of sweat fell from my nose and finger tips. I couldn’t seem to drink enough water to replace what I was losing. At the streams and creeks I would drink until I felt nauseous and then drink some more.
                My morning oats energy didn’t last long and I was rationed to one 40 gram pack of salted peanuts for lunch each day. I hit the metaphorical “wall” at 10 am each day. Hitting the wall is a term used by marathon runners and extreme athletes that describes the body’s reaction to running out of usable calories and short term energy storage. The sensation is as if running into an invisible wall that only the body feels. The trick is to keep resupplying energy stores before the tank hits bottom because once it does you’re screwed.
                The day went on progressively worse. I needed to take breaks walking down mountains and my heart rate was slow to recover. I found myself losing consciousness when I stopped to rest and waking up an unknown amount of minutes later wondering how long I had been out. Luckily the giant carnivorous bush flies would dig their jaws into my flesh waking me from my coma before the daylight hours could escape for too long. I spent a good few hours criss crossing a river system and navigating steep banks and slippery rocks. At one point the trail followed a creek away from the river that I missed and spent an hour backtracking up the river to find my fault. Immediate regret of not hiring a guide filled me and I thought about how much that wasted hour was worth to me, how much was I willing to pay not to suffer any more than what I had to. Although it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if everything went to plan right?
                That second day finished at 3:00pm for me. I was 1.8 km from the village and dry shelter where I had planned on sleeping but my map told me that in 1.8km I would climb nearly 400 vertical meters. I contemplating pushing for a few extra hours but I’m glad I didn’t because I would have never made it. It took me the next three hours to set up a two person dome tent as I kept losing consciousness when taking small breaks. I’ve read stories of similar situations for climbers summiting Everest. I vaguely remember being thirsty and making three separate attempts to crawl the two meters to my bag for my water bottle. The daily monsoon rain woke me up on my last attempt and I knew things would get worse before they got better if I continued at that rate. The last of my energy went to dragging my things into the tent and securing the tarp to keep the rain out. I slept two hours before regaining enough strength to boil a pot of water for my dinner. Worried and alone this adventure was quickly crossing the line between excitement and dread. The closer I got to my destination, the further I got from my back up plan. I felt myself losing control; the percentages between success and failure were exchange figures by the minute. Sleep on it and it will get better. I hope.
Day three started out similar to its prior. Refreshed, revived, restored, I felt healthy and hopeful. However hope alone cannot propel a body up and down mountains. 10 am came quickly and the wall was a lot more solid this time. The hours pushed on and progress was arduously slow. I rationed my peanuts yet again, eating 20 grams at 10:00 am and the other 20 grams at 1:00 pm. I would carefully cut the package open and lick the salt from the inside of the wrapper. I was losing too much body salts in my sweat and I had no way of replenishing them with only the peanuts and noodles. I calculated I was burning about 6000 calories a day and consuming only 700.
My back was weak as well since it had been a full year since my last real hike with substantial weight. I started with 22kg including food, water, and stove fuel, the same weight the Australian soldiers had to carry across these same mountains in WW2. Something had to give, I knew I couldn’t go on like this and the sacrifices began. The first things to go were the two bottles of rum and rain jacket. There was no remorse in seeing the alcohol go, I hadn’t forgotten how awful the previous Sunday had been.  I left it on the track with a note and I’m sure whoever found it had a good Christmas. It was an eerie sensation passing memorials on the mountain marking the locations where young adults like myself had come to conquer the terrain and met tragic ends. I was pushing myself harder than I ever have; my body was grinding well past its physical limit. I’ve run marathons without training but this was like running a marathon every day for 12 hours a day. My heart was struggling to keep up and I knew it. I would wake up in the night and it would still be beating fast and hard inside my chest. I understand how these people got their names planted in the soil here, I could feel my own wasn’t far away.
That afternoon I stopped to rest on the crest of small hill, during so I took another squeeze at a pimple on my right knee that had started in Australia and been there nearly a month. Exhaustion and adrenaline numbed any pain so I squeezed extra hard pushing my thumb nails deep until they broke the skin. I watched the yellow puss ooze followed by the clear plasma turning to blood. I kept squeezing well beyond what was needed for a pimple or splinter and I don’t know why, maybe I liked the sight of blood or the pain in my knee momentarily diverted the attention from the full body ache. To my surprise a small white wiggling worm began to emerge from the wound. I managed to pull a good 2 cm out before it severed between my nails and disappeared back into my body. I looked down and saw clots of blood hanging from the tong of my boots and pulled my socks back to reveal a number of leaches feasting on my ankles. Some fat and swollen, some already exploded in a bloody muck. Bush flies circled and bit me below the shoulder blades through my under armor shirt. Mosquitoes feasted on the back side of my knees. The jungle was kicking my ass. I didn’t have enough energy as it was and these little bastards were having a feast on the fresh white meat.
I came across a banana tree near an old ammunition dump and the Rambo inside of me came out to play. I had bragged to friends and family that I was heading into the jungle with no food and would survive off the land and this was the first and only sighting of wild fruit in three days. I hadn’t the energy to climb the tree so I fashioned a bamboo spear and tethered my Bear Grylls knife to its end. It took allot of time and energy hacking away at the banana pod but I just thought about all the energy I would get out of the delicious banana’s. I could smell something gross and later I realized I was standing in human feces but the thought of fresh bananas foraged by my own resourcefulness trumped the unlucky footwork so I continued cutting regardless. After some time the pod of bananas fell free and I celebrated by pounding my chest like an ape. I cut a banana open and took a big bite of the internals. The delicious sugary texture never came; the inside of my mouth was coated with a dry sour sticky substance similar to eating an orange peel. Silly white man, I’ll later learn that most bush bananas need to be cooked for a long time over the fire.  The only thing I got out of that banana tree was a boot that smelled like shit and a mouth that tasted like it.
I had run out of water hours ago and the sky was darkening. A premature camp wasn’t possible; I was out of water and on the top of a mountain where rivers don’t tend to flow. I had to push on and make it to the village where I would find water and shelter. Luckily the last two km into camp were downhill and the rain had held off for most of the afternoon. Dusk was rolling in quickly; I staggered into the village and got directions to the shelters by a woman washing some dishes. I filled my water bottle and emptied it down my throat before I even reached the shelter. I was delusional and off balance using things around me to keep me on my feet. I dropped my bag on the bamboo floor and scattered the internals out over the floor. I decided to rest my back for a moment and lied down. The next memory I have is waking up in the pitch black of night still in a daze and shivering. Clumsily searching around for my sleeping bag, I kicked off my boots and crawled inside fully clothed in wet hiking gear. Traditionally in my life Christmas eve was spent anxiously waiting for morning to receive gifts, food, and hugs. As I lay there shivering in my sleeping bag, the only thing I wanted in the morning was to wake up.
I woke up late the next morning still exhausted but warm and in good health. I hadn’t eaten anything since the 20 grams of peanuts the day before and I was hungry to say the least. I decided I would treat myself to a double serving of rice since I missed dinner the night before. I looked around the floor for my food bag and it wasn’t there, I checked through my bag twice and still couldn’t find it until a shimmer of yellow plastic caught my eye in the opposite corner of the shelter. No way. I found my food, well at least what was left of it. All my noodles and chicken stock were gone. The oats were untouched and two zip lock bags of rice where torn open but still relatively full. I still had my six packs of peanuts in a separate compartment of my bag but my heart sank none the less. Merry Christmas. The wild dogs had ransacked my food supplies during the night and I was too tired to notice. I was out of luck. I knew for sure then that I could never make it another eight days on the little food I had left. I was devastated, my trip was over and I would never make it to Kokoda on my own. I wasn’t going anywhere that day until I made a new plan so I changed into dry clothes, hid what remained of my food and fell back to sleep.
I limped up to the village later that day with a pocket full of money and tried to buy some food. A younger man came out and refused any money and told me there was none. I walked down to another smaller hut and told the men that one of their dogs had eaten all my food. Their response was “you should hide your food at night” while they cooked up a wild pig that had been recently slaughtered. The conversation was over and I wasn’t going to leave that hut until they forced me to. Just the smell of the pig boiling in the pot allowed me to pretend I was eating it. I looked around and saw five dogs all anxiously watching the pot of steamy deliciousness. I stared at the dog closest me and he growled, I wanted to growl back and challenge him to a fight. There we were sitting together, human and dog, five of them one of me, but all six of us were tired starving animals waiting to be the first to get a scrap that falls from the pot. The young man who had told me there was no food earlier presented two banana’s similar to the ones I had cut down and fried them up for me. He said he felt sorry for me and would give me the banana free of charge. I felt like telling him to cook me enough food to replace what his dog stole or I’d take his dog and eat and it. I didn’t of course and I even felt bad for the dogs, they were all scraggly and starving with their skin tightly wrapped around their rib cages. I would have stolen the food too If I where them.
I asked if I could hire one of them to guide me to Kokoda and help me buy food in the villages along the way. They had lengthy discussions about it and after some time agreed to accompany me with two men for 60 kina ($30) /day. All was good, a revised plan much more reliable than my original however my gut feeling was warning me. I woke up three times that night with a bad feeling about continuing on so I wasn’t disappointed when the village elder came to visit me early in the morning to tell me he had changed his mind and would send me back the way I came. He explained Christmas and New Year’s is a dangerous time on the other side of these mountains where kidnappings and murders on the trail are common. I knew he wasn’t trying to fool me because they would have made eight times the amount of money to take me to Kokoda but the safety of his men and my own were his concern.
The journey back was a demoralizing one, tracing the path of my hard earned ground step by step, kilometer by kilometer.  My guides offered to carry my bag but I refused. I got myself into this jungle and I’m going to get myself out under my own two feet. One of them disappeared into the jungle for some time and reappeared a half hour later ahead of us with three fully grown ripe pineapples. If only it was that easy. I realize though that these jungles are as familiar to them as the streets are to me in my own city.
We stopped for the night in a mountaintop village before the afternoon rain fell. I sat alone on the steps to my shelter reviewing my experience in PNG as pretty bad one. I was already planning to rebook my ticket to the next available flight to the Philippians where I would spend New Year’s like every other year since I was sixteen. Drunk, stupid, and sucking the face off a stranger. Worst of all I was dreading the depressing sob story of a blog I would write like so many others where I’ve been hard done by nature. But I’m an optimist and everything happens for a reason. There was something bad waiting for me at Kokoda and if I hadn’t turned back I wouldn’t have been sitting on those steps alone while the man who later came to be my father walked in from out of the rain with that broad white tooth smile I grew to love.
Sometimes my friends ask me how I’ve managed to travel the world and live the unique experiences I’ve lived. Others ask me how I always land on my feet when a fall is immanent. My response is always simple and always the same. I’m no different than anyone else in the world. We are all presented with opportunities, decisions, and choices. The only difference is the way we answer those questions. When that smiling man’s destiny crossed paths with my own I presented him with opportunity and he presented me with a choice. So for the second time in 12 hours my fate changed and I made a choice that changed not only my life but the lives of hundreds of other’s in a place I would have never expected. Opportunity exists all around us, we just need to know when to stop holding our breath and breathe it in.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see you taking it easy Joe.

    Peter Lucas (raftman)