My Kokoda Challenge
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:06 AM
In January this year, I had surgery for prostate cancer. I couldnít bear to think of myself as an invalid, and I started looking around for a big challenge that would help me to feel and act normally. Perhaps running the Kokoda Track would not be considered ďnormalĒ behaviour by most people; but it gained momentum in my thinking in the weeks following surgery, and with the encouragement of my wife, I decided that this would be a worthy goal for 2007. It was 7 months away, so I figured that ought to be enough time to recover and get my training underway.
The Kokoda Track was the scene of bloody fighting between Australian and Japanese forces during World War 2. I have a strong interest in military history, and this definitely increased my desire to participate in this challenge. There are many outstanding books on the subject, so I wonít be giving a blow by blow account of what occurred on the Track in 1942. Suffice it to say that I was aware of the extreme hardships faced by our soldiers on the Track, I felt apprehensive about the challenge I was facing ... the more so knowing that I would probably be the oldest competitor, with my 60th birthday not far off.
Photograph: John Lindsay, far right back row in this photograph taken shortly before the commencement of the Kokoda Challenge at 7am 26th August, 2007
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:11 AM
The Kokoda Track was 96kms long with similar elevation gain and loss. I knew it would be harder, but given that it was only 60% of the distance, I figured that 30 hours would be reasonable. I would be carrying about 6 kgs in gear which would make a difference. Still, I felt reasonably comfortable with my estimate of 30 hours, clearly unaware at the time just how wrong this would prove to be.
I am one of around 30 who are starting the event at Owers Corner in the south and running north; a similar number are starting at Kokoda and running south. All up there are 11 expatriates. The bulk of the field is comprised of PNG nationals who normally work as porters and guides along the Track.
At 7 am Gail (owner of Kokoda Trekking Limited and organiser of the race) sends us on our way and we take off down the steep 400 metre descent to the Goldie River, which I reach in about 20 minutes. My legs are already wobbly from the downhill running as I wade into the fast flowing river and follow one of the guides across to the bank on the other side. The water is just under waist deep. I briefly consider talking my shoes off, but know from other reports Iíve read that this will ultimately be futile.
Photograph: Owers' Corner Archway - I am second from the left in this photograph:
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:14 AM
I see a well preserved Australian trench on the side of the track, and think about the two young men who dug it, perhaps with their bayonets or tin hats, and sat in it in the rain waiting for the advancing Japanese. I reach Nauro village and check in. Iím now an hour and a half behind schedule, and realise I am not going to be completing this event in 30 hours. Clearly I have seriously underestimated the difficulty of the course. I readjust my sights to 36 hours.
Photograph: Nauro Village - Checkpoint 2:
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:15 AM
Beyond the Brown River the track starts climbing again. I turn on my lights as it is getting dark. I have three torches with me. Two are Petzl Tikka Plus which are fastened on to the bottoms of the straps of my hand held water bottles, so I can simply reverse them and see the way. These work great, picking up the rocks and casting shadows nicely so you donít trip and fall. For those times when I need to clip my bottles to my pack and use my hands to help climb or steady myself, I also have a head torch.
After a while, I see the first runner from the other direction. Itís Brendan Buka whom I met over dinner a couple of nights earlier. Brendan is from the highland town of Goroka and already holds the record of 17 hours 49 minutes from Owers Corner to Kokoda. Heís a porter working on the track much of the year, and heís having a crack at the record from Kokoda to Owers which stands at 22 hours. I shake his hand and turn to watch the ease with which he trots down the steep incline with a surety of footing that people like me can never hope to achieve. I later learn that he smashed the record with a time of 17 hours 20 minutes. Well done Brendan.
Photograph: Brendan Buka arrives at Owers' Corner
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:17 AM
Iím off again, down the side of a ridge, negotiating my first night time creek crossing and starting one of the steeper climbs on the track up to Brigade Hill. This was the site of a major battle during the war, with many Australian and Japanese lives lost. Upon reaching the summit, I pause by the small plaque to reflect on the events that occurred here 65 years ago. I canít see them in the dark, but I know there are dozens of sticks in the ground at this site, each marking the grave of an Australian soldier buried here some weeks after his death. These bodies were later re-buried in the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby.
There have been storms across the ranges during the afternoon, although very little rain has fallen on me. Some time after leaving Brigade Hill I come out of the forest to an open area. The sky has cleared and a near full moon casts a glow across the landscape. All around me I see trees glowing in the moonlight. I later realise that this is caused by phosphorescent moss that grows in these parts. Fireflies wink brilliantly in the night, and the sound of night birds and animals is everywhere. I think ďwhat a wonderful place to be on a Saturday nightĒ.
I need to be careful on this section. The track is narrow (about a foot wide in many places) and crosses the side of a mountain with dangerous drop-offs. The surface is slippery and it is not an exaggeration to say that one false step here and you could disappear forever. I reach the bottom and cross a fast flowing river. A short climb then brings me to an airstrip and some houses, signalling I have reached the next checkpoint at Efogi1.
Photograph: Plaque at Brigade Hill
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:20 AM
I leave Efogi1 just after Saturday midnight. On the steep climb up to the next village (Efogi2), I meet the 5 expatriates who started the other way. Itís nice to see someone after many hours alone, and we talk for a few minutes.
At Efogi2, I know I have to take a turn to the right near a church and a tap; otherwise Iíll go the wrong way and end up in Kagi like Damon Goerke did last year. Iím looking everywhere in the dark village for a church and a tap. Eventually, a lady comes out of a house and gets her husband to kindly show me the way. I continue to be impressed at the number of people in these villages who speak good English.
The track descends again and is narrow and overgrown. It has numerous crossings of waterfalls and streams. Then itís up hill again, and I eventually enter the darkened village of Naduri. Here I have an accident.
I hear and then see the pipe bringing water from a mountain stream to the village, and go over to fill my bottles. Water cascades out of the pipe into a hole in the ground about 3 feet deep and 6 feet wide. It looks a bit of a stretch to reach out to the end of the pipe, so I take my pack off and start to climb down into the hole. What looks a secure surface is as slippery as ice, and in a split second, I am crashing down into the hole, cracking my back on a boulder along the way.
I lie there for a minute, certain that I have done some permanent damage. Then I see my headlamp glowing under the water, and I need to retrieve it before it is damaged. I swear and curse like a bullock driver, and eventually climb out the hole, shaken but not broken. Iím not prepared to attempt that again, and eventually find the route that the villagers use to collect their water directly from the tap.
Having picked up stomach bugs from crystal clear mountain streams before, I am filtering all my water, irrespective of the source. This makes water refilling a longer process than I would like, but I donít want to be struck down with intestinal parasites.
Despite my bruised back, I have clearly not broken anything, and I am able to saddle up and continue. I move into the village which is in total darkness and deathly quiet. This is a common feature of most of the villages at night. Iím looking for the track that will take me east towards Myola Ė I donít want to go north as that will take me to Kagi. No track in sight. I walk all around the village and find nothing. I decide just to strike east from the middle of the village and see what happens, and I eventually find a narrow track which leads me past some native gardens. I constantly consult my map and compass to ensure that I am on target, and some hours later just after daylight, I come to the check point at a place called 1900, so called because it is at 1900 metres elevation.
The next stretch takes me up to the high point of the track, over Kokoda Gap at 2190 metres, approximately the height of Mt Kosciusko, Australiaís highest peak. Itís not so steep here, and I find the going easier, despite the altitude. The mountain top is shrouded in mist and the temperature is cool Ė perfect running weather.
I am expecting a sign announcing Kokoda Gap, and then one announcing Kokoda Lookout which is on the map, but see nothing. I realise I have crested the top because I start descending. This section of the track down to Templeton 1 Crossing is a real mongrel Ė very steep, muddy and slippery. By now I have fallen around 50 times since the start of the run, and thatís not an exaggeration. Each fall is now accompanied by ever more strident swearing. My wife doesnít understand this propensity to swear in such circumstances, but Iím sure most blokes do.
I am passed by some of the PNG boys who have been at check points and are on their way home. It gives me quite a jolt to see the way they descend these muddy trails at a goodly pace, slipping and sliding but not falling over.
Photograph: KTL Checkpoint Staff
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:22 AM
Itís another climb back above 1900 metres, and then down the other side to Templeton No 2 Crossing. The track does not in fact cross the river here, which I find confusing until I recheck the map.
After a time, I need to re-work the plaster on my feet. I begrudge another half hour lost, but by now I know I wonít be coming in for another 12 hours or so, and I canít afford to be cavalier.
The next crossing is Eora Creek. This one has worried me for some time, as Iíve seen pictures of it in flood and it is utterly fierce. I was relieved before the race when I heard that the organisers had decided to create a check point here this year, and man the crossing with helpers. I go through the check point, and move down to the crossing. I see no one at the crossing and figure that Iím too late for assistance, so I start my journey across the logs. Half way across I look back and see one of the check point guys waving frantically at me. I canít stop here though, so I continue on and get to the other side. He comes across and explains that he was there to help. He also tells me that apart from a very steep section before Alola, there are no more serious up hill sections.
Itís now early afternoon on Day 2. I am surprised that Iíve been able to stay awake for over 30 hours. But I now notice I am swaying more as I rock hop from stone to stone along the wet and muddy trail. This is no place to get careless, so I lie down on a level section of the track for a 10 minute power sleep. It feels like heaven, and restores my vitality.
Unfortunately, it is not long before I have to stop again though, this time to replace my foot plaster yet again, because it is clearly not working. Another 25 minutes lost, but I have no choice.
A steep descent takes me down to another log crossing over a 6 metre wide fast flowing stream. The other side is one of the steepest sections, and I am on all fours for some of the way. I come to a very pretty village called Alola. A group of trekkers has settled in for the evening and give me a big cheer as I go past.
Photograph: Templeton's Crossing
Posted 15 September 2007 - 11:23 AM
As darkness approaches, I get closer to the famous battle site of Isurava. I know that there is a creek each side of the battleground. When the first creek comes into view, I am surprised that it is in fact a major waterfall plunging off the boulders on the side of a cliff, with a log crossing just downstream. There have been rain storms in the area during the afternoon, and I suspect the stream is full of running from that.
After looking closely at the crossing, I conclude that Iím unlikely to get across dry, no matter what logs and rocks I try and stick to. By now, my feet are relatively dry and I prefer to keep them this way, so I sacrifice more time to remove my shoes and wade across. This delays my entry into Isurava, but I must protect my feet.
I reach the memorial in fading light Ė just enough time to take some poor quality photos. It is a remarkable memorial. I quickly go to the perimeter of the clearing and find Kingsburyís Rock. This is the spot where 2 days short of 65 years ago, Private Bruce Kingsbury was shot dead by a Japanese sniper. In a moment of supreme bravery and decisive action, he had charged the advancing Japanese attack firing his bren gun from the hip, and routed them. Unfortunately, a Japanese sniper then shot him dead as he regrouped with a couple of colleagues by a large rock. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry. I look at his picture on the plaque and think he was only 24, a decade younger than my sons. Boys became men quickly on this track in 1942.
I see a group of PNG boys getting ready to bed down for the night, and seek their help in locating the track out of the memorial site. I know Iíll be crossing another creek shortly, based on my reading of the battle history. I hear the roaring well before I reach it, and find it like the previous one Ė fast flowing and wide and fed by a waterfall. A skinny log crosses it.
Posted 15 September 2007 - 06:24 PM
I find my pocket knife in my pack and open the light. No doubt about it. The batteries are soaked and there is water in the electronics area. I shake it and dry it as best I can on my wet shirt, and reassemble it. After a few attempts, I get the light going but not on the strongest setting. It will have to do.
I look again at the raging stream and try to summon the courage to cross the log. In most cases, falling off a log crossing will get you wet and maybe a bit banged up. I think in this case if I fall I could be swept downstream over the rocks. I decide this is a good time to abandon my attempts to preserve my drying feet, and I step into the water upstream of the log and allow the current to push me against it as I forge my way across. This works, and I emerge on the other side in one piece.
The track from here on is very slippery, having been affected by the afternoon rain. After a time, I see a light and come into New Isurava Village. I approach the light thinking it is the check point. It isnít. They tell me I need to go further into the village, which I do, but there is no checkpoint. A lady with small children comes out but canít speak English. She and the kids yell at the tops of their voices through the village, and after a time a young man comes out and tells me that the check point closed at 11:30 am and everyone has gone.
No problem. ďWhereís the track out of the villageĒ, I ask. He takes me to the exit point at the top of a steep hill. I thank him and start down. I immediately fall flat on my back and slide about three metres. I swear profusely, a pattern which is emerging with increasing vigour as each fall occurs. I attempt to get up and immediately fall. Same again. After three attempts, he tells me to stay off the track and walk on the rough grass and bush on the edge. This is better. He then leaves me.
I fall at least ten times as I make my way down that hill. I cannot believe how slow my progress is. The storm during the afternoon has turned the mud as slippery as glass. Two of my falls are more serious. On one occasion my left foot stays put while my right one makes itís way unstoppably downhill, causing me to seriously strain my abductor muscles. I think I am done for, but manage to get up and remarkably continue with little pain. On another occasion, both feet shoot out together and I fall back on my two hands. The problem is that while my hands remain firm, the rest of my body continues its downhill slide, pulling my arms back painfully in my shoulder sockets. Again, I am amazed that a fall that in normal life could have been a show stopper, is hardly noticeable after a few minutes.
Isurava Village is at 1375 metres, and the map shows that apart from a few smallish peaks, the route from here is predominately downhill to the finish in Kokoda at just under 400 metres. So lots of down hill. The soldiers on the Track in 1942 talked about having laughing knees. I know exactly what they mean. You spend so much time going down steep declines that your quads are in a constant state of trembling.
Photograph: Isurava Village:
Posted 15 September 2007 - 06:30 PM
The downhill continues. I hear the roaring of another fast flowing stream, and eventually see a log across it. I search with my weakened lights for the track on the other side, and canít see it. Still, the track seems to end here and thereís a log across the stream, so it appears that I have to cross it. But this log has thick vines growing around it, and contains none of the machete marks that the guides have cut into some log crossings for better grip. I start across, and half way there, Iím thinking this canít be right. I pause and ponder the situation. Do I go back and look for a crossing further downstream, or go forward and hope that I am on the right path?
Suddenly the small log near (the main one) on which I am now standing gives way, and I fall with a jolt onto a rock in the water below. I swear (of course), and stand on another log to climb back up. It also breaks. I eventually climb out of the water and sit on the big log for a minute, momentarily uncertain what to do. I decide that this canít be the right way, so with more verbal abuse of the track, I eventually arrive back where I started. I look around and chide myself for not seeing the track that continues further downstream to a safer crossing point.
After a while, I come out of the timber into a large cleared area covered by choko vines. These vines were introduced a long time ago and have taken over the land beside the track. By now the clouds have cleared and the moon is up and it is glorious.
I come to a pipe dispensing water from a stream and think that a village must be nearby. I hope it is Hoi, the last check point before Kokoda. I decide to chance my arm on the quality of the water and fill my hand held bottles without filtering. After all, I reason, Iím miles from human life and the water is fast flowing from steep mountains Ė hope Iím right. A little later I come to a village. It looks totally deserted, and I conclude that it is not in fact a village but a collection of rest houses for campers. No one appears to be home tonight.
My wrist GPS has been unable to get a signal since around 4 am this morning. I donít know why. I turn it off and on again, hoping this will fix it. I finally get a reading and learn that I am at 792 metres elevation. Hoi is at 600 metres, so this isnít Hoi. Whatever it is, it is not marked on the map. I wander around looking for the trail out. I take a compass bearing on the direction I have to travel according to the map, and find a track. It is in fact a surprisingly well maintained track with steps made out of logs and stakes. There hasnít been too much rain on this spot today and Iím making good time down this section.
Just after Sunday midnight, Hoi comes into view. I smell the pungent odour of the special tobacco that is smoked by some of the PNG boys, and am greeted by men who walk out of a darkened tent. They write down my time and one of them says heís going to come with me to Kokoda.
Photograph: The choko vines around the Deniki area:
Posted 15 September 2007 - 06:38 PM
We reach Kovelo, the village before Kokoda. The trail here becomes a wide path used by a tractor. Easy running. 50
At 4 minutes past 2 on Monday morning 27 August, 43 hours and 4 minutes after setting out at Owers Corner, I reach the finish line at Kokoda. It is finally over.
The tent outside the magnificent Australian Government funded hospital in Kokoda is deserted. There is not a light in the town. Joey says heís heading back to Hoi. I ask him where I am going to sleep. I had sent on a bag of fresh clothes so I could shower and change at the end. He thinks this is at Russellís (Gailís business partner) place outside of town somewhere. He knocks on the door of one of the nearby houses and wakes up Oro. After a time Oro emerges and together we walk over to the hospital guest house where he wakes up Megan and Larry, two other expatriates in the run who had come in some hours earlier. Larry asks me ďWhereís Lorraine?Ē (his wife). I had heard from one of PNG boys on the track that the ďwhite meriĒ had been seen sleeping on the trail at Naduri at 6 am the previous morning. So I figured that she was a good 4 hours behind me, maybe more.
I have a cold shower in the dark with my torch, pile all my filthy clothes in a dry bag that Iíve used as a pack liner, and put on a spare pair of jocks and shirt I had been carrying in my pack in case I needed it en route Ė glad I brought these.
I climb into a bed with a mattress and sheets and am asleep in minutes.
Next morning, my clothes bag arrives and Oro makes us some breakfast of noodles and baked beans, which is beautiful. Around 9:30 there is a shout and a truck comes by. Lorraine is coming in. We all down tools and run out to welcome her. She looks so fresh I canít believe it. She explains that she had a one hour sleep at Naduri and 4 hours at Eora Creek, where the PNG boys washed her socks and dried them over the fire, fed her and otherwise tended to her needs. The 4 hours at Eora Creek energised her and she powered on for the next 9Ĺ hours to finish strongly in a time of 50Ĺ hours. I am in awe of her positive attitude.
Photograph: Lorraine Lawson at Nauro Village:
Posted 15 September 2007 - 06:42 PM
A number of individual performances are recognised, including the winner of both the Kokoda-Owers run Tom Hango (19:09), and the winner of the Owers-Kokoda run Brendan Buka (17:20) who each won 5000 Kina for their achievements. Brendan won a further 5000 kina for setting a new course record. His time was an astonishing 17 hours 21 minutes Ė remarkable. Also recognised was Lulu Pehara, the first PNG female to participate in the Kokoda Challenge. She ran barefoot and finished in the outstanding time of 30:29.
A big Ďthank youí to Gail for running this outstanding event. Congratulations to Brendan and Tom for their great wins. How these blokes can cover the distance in the time they do is astonishing.
Congratulations also to every participant - to those who did not win. There can only be one winner in a race, but that should not detract from the exceptional efforts of everyone who stayed the course to finish such a tough and gruelling event. Kokoda demands the exceptional.
Theodore Roosevelt put it well:
ĎIt is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.í
So, for those of you who love to test yourselves and are seeking a course that is Ďso hard you wonít have to lie about it when you get homeí, you will love the Kokoda Challenge. Kokoda is not for Ďtimid soulsí.
Photograph: International Competitors from Owers' Corner to Kokoda, left to right: Michael Le Roux, John Lindsay, Lorraine & Larry Lawson, Rohan George, Damian Caniglia and Megan Davidson.
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