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The Kokoda Track Revisited - April 2007 – With Friends


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#1 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:44 AM

What made me do this again I ask myself? It must have been around July last year the idea began making itself known. I was turning the big six O in April 2007 and I suppose one of my thoughts was how many sixty year olds do the Kokoda Track? That would be a challenge. Whilst I had derived immense satisfaction from doing the Track in 2005, it was all a bit of a blur.

We had more or less done the walk in five and a half days. Not much time for looking around nor was there much down time. In August I contacted Gail and made a booking for a nine day walk to finish at Ower’s Corner Anzac Day eve. I chose the same route, the same direction as in 2005 but more walking days. I also requested that the trusty Wallace be my porter again.

A little housekeeping here. I make no apology for wandering between the past and present tense, that is the author’s privilege.

I then sent an email to all of the 2005 trekkers advising them of my intentions fully expecting a chorus of derisory comments as to my sanity. To my surprise and immense gratitude I found some like minded souls who also had some unfinished business on the Track. Dan the Spandex Man was first in,  Barbie soon followed, as did Sir Kenneth from Melbourne. By default Alissa joined us at the last minute through the late withdrawal of Dan’s brother. A wantok of the Flight Centre crew, Shane Irwin joined as well. Already we had a core group of six, of which five are second timers. We were off and running.

Photograph:  Waiting for the chartered Hevi Lift flight into Kokoda to depart - Bob is on the far left in this pic:

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#2 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:45 AM

I commenced training during the first week of January. Not wishing to change the way of doing things too much from the first time around, I decided I would do more of the same but eliminated all of the running. I am training for a walk so I shall walk - uphill and downhill - same old Philip Street in Norman Park.

Running was eliminated as I thought if I was injury prone it would more than likely happen when running. I decided the Morningside railway station overhead bridge was too brain-numbingly boring so that got the flick as well. So it was up and down Philip Street for three months, six days a week. Santa had delivered an Ipod to this intrepid walker in the nick of time.

I am not sure if radio station 97.3 could have kept my brain from imploding a second time around. This is really monotonous stuff up and down the same street for so long and you need some kind of diversion. Music helps because it conjures up time zones as well. Certain tunes can be pigeon holed into events and this brings back all sorts of memories. A stand out is the classic American Pie, which, for me, flashes vivid recollections of the TAA Club and the parties in Lae 1972.

Only those who were there know what I am reminiscing about. It was a wonder I didn't get run over, be-bopping along, living in memory lane. It was a mixture of the 70's and 80's music played in the random selection mode. The Eagles, Elton John, The Boss, Bread, the BeeGees, America, Dire Straits, CCR and the best bopper of the lot Bryan Adams. I am really giving away my age now. Enough.

Footnote: I too lived in Lae from 1972 to 1986 so can relive these memories with which Bob refers to.  After TAA it became Australian Airlines and I worked for them for a couple of years.

The author Bob Robertson seen here in the foreground (with hat) shortly after they arrived at Russell Eroro's family block in Kokoda along with other people on the same trek:

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#3 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:46 AM

In 2005 I did a total of 400 k’s walking and running over three months including 160 k’s on Philip Street. This time around it was a total of 440 k’s. The big difference was an unbelievably boring 314 k’s on Philip Street. At the highest point you can see the Brisbane River and how many times I wish I could have jumped in – every bloody time I got to the top. Lois even commented on my intake of water during this time. I lost megalitres sweating, up and down this street to which I shall never return.

I had a major scare midway through three months of training. Around mid February, handling something too heavy my back decided it had had enough. For two weeks I could do nothing. I had a week’s holiday at the beach and could not even catch a wave. All I was capable of doing was walking to the pub. I began to have thoughts of doom and gloom and no Kokoda at this time. I was not game enough to go to a physio or bone cracker for fear of them doing more damage. Best advice I received was to dose myself up with pain killers. This would at least let my back do what it was meant to do without the associated pain. It worked. After two and a half weeks I was back in training. Much longer doing nothing though, meant I was in trouble. Taking three weeks training out of twelve was a setback of some stature.

I had two major walks outside my regular routine. My wantoks from trek number 1 were hiking most weekends and I joined them on a visit to Mount Warning. Walks of this nature are generally not what is required for Kokoda training. The paths are well maintained and the gradient is too kind. However the last fifty metres to the summit was a bitch. Those of you who have been there will know what I am talking about. Another hike was up Camp Mountain, on the steep side. This was more like it. Steep and rough and a tough climb. Needless to say I shall not be re-visiting this part of the world.


#4 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:47 AM

Departure date April 12 was fast approaching. Being an old hand (of sorts) I knew exactly what I needed to take, quite different from the first time around. I hired the same equipment from the same source, tent, sleeping bag and inflatable mat and backpack. A trip to Doctor Jim for some prescriptions and then to a chemist warehouse, and that took care of all things medical. My boots and day-pack I still had from trek one, as were my trekking clothes. One addition was some supplementary food in the form of Safcol tuna in Thai chilli sauce. This is packaged in alfoil so it was a “light to carry” addition to the lunch menu. Some balloons for the village kids, a pair of new runners for Wallace and I was nearly ready to go.

I finished training over the Easter weekend with the trip to the infamous Camp Mountain. I celebrated my 60th with a big steak at the Norman Hotel on Tuesday April 10 and flew to Moresby on the 12th. This was a no training week, I was tapering off as in competitive swim talk. Plenty of SP was consumed. As was the case on the first trek that venerable institution, the Papua Club put on a Saturday Steak Day which was well received by this trekker. Saturday evening we all converged on the Gateway Hotel for a pre trek briefing and to meet our fellow trekkers. As mentioned previously there were five of us doing the trek again, that was Dan, Barbie and Alissa, all Flight Centre people and Prince Kenneth from Melbourne. Shane Irwin, a business colleague of the Flight Centre lot, rounded off our group of six. We were joined by Michael, Jesse, Michelle, David and Michael Currie from Melbourne, Ruth and Barry Bishop from Perth, Dave Bowden and Tony Loveridge.    


#5 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:48 AM

Sunday morning we flew to Kokoda and we were able to fly through the Kokoda Gap in clear weather rather than over it due to clouds. Having been over this ground once before I was able to recognize the villages of Efogi and Kagi and we flew quite low over the Isurava War Memorial. As we approached Kokoda I was wondering what we going to do for the rest of the day. Kokoda is not quite a tourist resort. We paid a courtesy visit to the museum which was exactly how we left it two years ago.

A traditional welcome awaited us at Russell’s block where we were to stay overnight. After that what to do?? The locals told us that there were two shops selling cold beer in Kokoda. That was a start. The appropriate time neared for a coldie and we set off in Rusty’s truck to locate one of these shops. To my surprise the owner not only sold cold SP but he had the Sunday NRL game on between the Sharks and Manly. I had no idea these creature comforts had reached the backwaters of Kokoda.

Armed with a couple of cartons of this fine brew we returned to our camp and shared the spoils of our expedition with our other trekkers before dinner and an early night. Tomorrow would reveal if our endeavours on the training track would match the physical demands the Kokoda Gods have prepared for us.

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#6 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:50 AM

An early start saw us reaching Deniki around nine in the morning and quite a number of the group were feeling the effort, including our porters. For some of them it was the first trek of the season and even they are human and need some conditioning. We climbed all day to reach Isurava village about 2.30 in the afternoon.

For us repeat offenders this was luxury, for on our first trek the walking days finished much later in the day. This trek was to take nine days compared with 2005’s seven, when each of days one and seven involved only one hour’s walking and on day six we finished at lunchtime.  Reflecting on that trek now, it was a sprint.  

We decided to stay at the village rather than continue on to the Isurava Memorial. For me, to camp at the monument would lessen the reverence the site of the battle of Isurava deserves. I understand you are allowed to camp there but if I had a say I would discourage trekking companies to allow this. Let the ghosts of those fallen at Isurava wander through their space in the night in silence and in solitude.

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#7 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:51 AM

We had a guesthouse to sleep in at the village, again, two nights in a row now, and a basic village shower, which consisted of a pipe carrying ever-running water into a crude cubicle which provided cover on three sides for modesty’s sake – luxury.

Sleeping on a blow up mattress on grass may be more comfortable than a rough timber floor but the convenience of not having to pitch your tent and be dry in a large room outweighs the tent argument. Added to that your tent will be wet in the morning because of overnight rain and you have to dry it out at some time during the next day.

I forget precisely what we ate each night but I do remember the rations provided were a welcome improvement on what was provided on Trek 1. There was more substance to them and the taste of the main meal was a vast, and needed-to-be, improvement. It was here at Isurava village we discovered that the Melbourne contingent of our group were heavily into cards. Not gambling, but each afternoon they were to be seen at the table playing a particular game of cards. Not sure who won though, and I’m sure it didn’t matter.

Photographs:

Pic 1:  KTL Boys relaxing with their uke'ule providing entertainment
Pic 2:  Boiling the billy
Pic 3:  Trekkers mixing with porters at night by the campfire

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#8 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:54 AM

We were off at seven the next morning, our first destination the War Memorial at Isurava. It was a steep climb out of Isurava village and we arrived at the Memorial with the weather kind to us. A sunny morning with a clear view down the gap to Kokoda. I have been lucky on two visits now, and I would sympathize with other trekkers who have arrived here to be confronted with rain and poor visibility because this is a very special place and needs to be seen in all it’s glory.

As in our previous visit we had asked our porters to gather flowers along the way to the Memorial and we gathered around the site to prepare for a ceremony to honour those fallen heroes in whose memory the monument stands. We had agreed with our porters that we would both sing our respective national anthems. They were brilliant, we were awful.

Why is it we can remember the words to God Save Our Queen but not Advance Australia Fair? After our brief ceremony and the laying of our locally made wreaths we wandered around the battlefield for a while, absorbing the atmosphere and then it was time to move on.

We reached the village of Alola for lunch, a pretty village perched on the side of a mountain in grassy surrounds with views to die for. At each village along the track the locals would prepare a stall with fresh fruit and sometimes soft drink for sale. Such was the case here, though whoever carries the cartons of canned soft drink to these places must be very strong with very capitalistic intentions.

Photographs:

Various Pics: Part of the walk from Isurava Village to the Isurava Monument Area.

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#9 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:56 AM

A very steep descent to another creek crossing followed our brief sojourn at Alola. A short way out of this village an enterprising villager, make that plural probably, had cleared a piece of land for what will presumably be the site of his new dwelling or maybe a guesthouse.

I hope he has the wherewithal to complete the exercise because the views will be simply stunning, with a clear view up the valley towards the North, it stands perched on the side of a steep slope descending straight down to the creek where we are headed. Another climb out of the creek and then we are on relatively flat country (by Kokoda standards) until we reach Eora Creek and our intended campsite for night two of our adventure.

Two years before when we confronted Eora Creek there were palpitations of the heart as we crossed via a single log which only partially traversed the creek, which was running full and angry. However this time it was a tame experience, with quite a substantial bridge constructed a short distance up the creek from the previous crossing site.

The steep climb to the campsite had not changed though, but instead of rain and the time being around six in the evening, this time it was sunny and around 2.30 in the afternoon. In comparison we have travelled as far to where we are now, in two days this time, whereas in 2005 we had covered the same distance in one day plus an hour the previous day. And for us repeat offenders we are quite happy about that.

Photographs:

Pic 1:  walking to Alola
Pic 2:  Alola Village
Pic 3:  Bob's porter Wallace Lemeki takes a drink (Wallace is normally a guide but because he walked with Bob on his first trek, this time round walked as a porter and an assistant guide.  David Currie from this trek is walking agian in 2008 and has requested Wallace as the guide for his trek).
Pic 4:  A trekker teaching our porter a new way of smoking

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#10 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:57 AM

We slept in tents this night for the first time, and it was cold enough for a few of us to break into our rum rations. At each campsite this trip we witnessed various improvements made over the two years we have been absent. Here we have the luxury of a roof over a crude but effective eating table and alternately, a card table for all those Melbournian.

There was also a hauswin for our porters. As we would discover though, at some sites large tracts of forest had been cleared for the intended construction of more guesthouses. At some sites new guesthouses are there in evidence, but at others just the trees have been felled and if the development is not completed these cleared areas in the jungle wilderness will become needless scarring. That will be a pity.

It would seem the area cleared is in excess of what may be needed for the guesthouse area. You cannot blame the locals for cashing in on the booming trade trekkers are bringing to their special part of the world, but you have to fear for what it may become. The rugged terrain and naked beauty of the track is why trekkers want to visit, and whilst the comfort of guesthouses is appreciated, it is not a necessity. Let us hope the path of progress is tinged with some rationale and caution.

Photographs:

Pic 1:  Author of this article, Bob Robertson trying his best not to fall in
Pic 2 & 3:  Eora Creek Crossing
Pic 4:  Eora Creek Campsite (trekkers think its quite a hard climb just to do it once whereas the boys go up and down to fetch water and then back to wash the cooking pots)
Pic  5 & 6: Eora Creek Campsite area

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#11 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 11:00 AM

Underway at seven on Wednesday, trekking day number three, we were headed for Templeton’s Crossing for lunch. That much we achieved with minimal fuss. Soon after lunch we reached the summit of Mt Bellamy, the highest peak on the track at 2100 metres. From there things started to go downhill in more ways than one. Rain. And it didn’t let up. Wallace and I decided we would push on ahead of the main group, one reason being we might walk out of it quicker, the other being it best not to bunch up because the track had become quite treacherous due to the slippery conditions.

My memory of this passage of the track must have blurred in time for Myola Creek took so much longer to reach this time. We walked, slid and fell over for about three hours and were thoroughly drenched by the time we reached our campsite just past four in the afternoon. I hadn’t bothered donning a raincoat and the only part of me that was dry was my feet. Bloody marvelous Scarpa boots.    

The rain had eased now but it was still a miserable afternoon. There was no dry ground to pitch a tent in the open and the hauswins would be shelter for the porters who do not carry tents for themselves. I spied a lean-to with a corrugated iron roof, which solved my dry ground dilemma. I was joined under this construction by Shane, who had a small leak in the roof of his tent.

Others pitched their homes for the night on soggy ground, and the rest elected to sleep on the dirt floor of the one hauswin designated for us in which our porters had started a fire. These trekkers would have to be the last to bed as this was the only dry and warm place for our group to eat and reflect on the day – as you do.

Needless to say the rum soon appeared on this wet and cold evening. I recall the water in the creek flowing beside us was very cold two years ago when I had a bath to wash off the day’s exertions. This time the weather was too miserable to contemplate a dip.

Photographs:

Pic 1:  packed up and ready to move on
Pic 2:  our KTL boys doing what they love to do, sing and play their uke'ule's

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#12 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 11:03 AM

Day four, Thursday, dawned and whilst misty and cool, the rain had gone. We were headed for the village of Kagi where we would camp the night. This was to be a fairly easy day because it was only four hours trek. For the repeat offenders, we would cover new ground, as the route we took to Efogi in 2005, where we would stay the next night, did not pass through this village.

The track this morning was very muddy, as you would expect after the rain of yesterday. First port of call was the site of an American bomber brought down over sixty years before. It's resting place is about fifteen minutes off the main track. Two years before, the crash site was void of any villagers and we had a look around and moved on. Now there is a Papuan gentleman in residence who claims to own the ground and needs a five kina donation from each trekker to fund the cost of the site's maintenance.

Now five Kina is next to nothing ($2.00) but it is a sign of times. As long as trekking companies make trekkers aware of these little extras I am sure no one will mind forking over extra Kina. However, I can see the practice of selling these places of interest escalating to the point where trekkers are more or less held to ransom to visit the sites, the very reason why we all come here.

It would be a shame for this to happen because there is so much genuine goodwill between the people along the track and the trekkers, and for this to be soured by a greedy few would be most unfortunate. If all the 2006 trekkers visited this crash site, some three and a half thousand of them, this landlord, who is exercising his rather recently found landowner rights, would be better off by some 17500 Kina, a small fortune in this part of the world. And quite out of kilter compared with villagers who provide goods and services for trekkers and share the spoils, however big or small, amongst their numbers, not solely.

Another steep climb led us to a peak where an unbelievable view would have been possible if not for the weather, which decided to fog in. No rain just fog, but I am sure it hid a magnificent panorama but that's the way it is in this country. We cannot complain though, the weather has been reasonably kind to us, on both treks.

Later in the morning we passed the first group of trekkers coming the other way. Wallace and his band of minstrels put on a show for them and had them entranced. I am sure trekkers using alternate Australian based organizers are poorer for the experience of not accompanying Gail's bunch of musical amateurs who are porters for some of the time and pose as entertainers when they choose.

Photograph: Wallace Lemeki and other porters singing away.  To us as Australian's unless we can actualy SING, we choose to shut up and not even try.  By contrast all our porters sing whether they have fantastic voices or not - somehow it just seems to work and our trekkers love the music.  I can recall when one of our staff carried a uke'ule for the very first time, a trekker remarked how good it was and why don't we encourage it.  I asked Russell....how many of our boys can play and sing.....he looked at me like it was a very STUPID QUESTION!  after a pause, he replied, we ALL sing, we do not have TV in Kokoda and are used to sitting around campfires;  next to river banks and just relaxing singing with our friends and families....now couldn't we as Australian's learn from this.

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#13 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 11:05 AM

We arrived at Kagi just after noon to find a funeral for an important villager going on. The locals did not seem to mind this intrusion although we were well apart from the ceremony. Kagi is quite a developed village with many buildings of some substance, made from more modern material than kunai thatching. Gail has funded the construction of a house here and it was equipped with a battery-operated radio providing communication with her Port Moresby headquarters. Some, who preferred a corrugated iron roof and a dry floor, slept in the house, whilst others opted for tents.

We learned via the radio’s speakers there was an evacuation going on during that afternoon. A village dog had bitten a female trekker at this village, two days previously. The wound had turned septic and she was complaining of a high fever. She was some distance further along the track from us and was awaiting a ride out by chopper, as she was unable to continue. I hope her travel insurance was valid as this is a very expensive way out of the Kokoda Track. Needless to say we gave any village dog we saw, a wide berth.

Later in the afternoon a villager was stretchered in. He had fallen out of the branches of a tree he was cutting down, and met terra firma some three metres below. Doctor Dan gave what assistance he was able to, but you have to wonder how these people handle adversity of this kind. There is no doctor or medicine for miles and Dan’s diagnosis was fractured ribs. They just get on with it, there is no alternative.

That night we had organized dinner of a different kind. Instead of the “add hot water to the foil bag” and wait for the substance inside to change into something edible, we tried a variation. Some of us had surplus tuna in foil sachets and this, added to the tin fish the bois eat, would provide the basis for dinner tonight along with locally grown vegetables and rice. A green vege hit is something you miss along a nine day hike and it went down very well – for most.

During the night there were many tummy rumblings and subsequent tummy evacuations for some unfortunates amongst our group. It would prove a tough day on Friday the fifth day of our adventure for those who had succumbed to this mysterious ailment. It would make sense if we were all crook to blame the food but that was not the case. The packs were lightened for those afflicted with the Kagi demons and we were underway at eight in the morning – destination Efogi.

Photographs:

Pic 1: Kagi Village - just what are they negotiating?
Pic 2: Camping area - Kagi
Pic 3: Kagi Village

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#14 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 11:08 AM

This was to be another short day – maybe four to five hours walking, but there was a very steep, long descent out of Kagi. Pretty scenery but underfoot was treacherous due to overnight rain. The descent was made more difficult by trekkers heading north. In most parts of the track there was no width to pass each other and one had to clamber aside to make way for the other.  
    
We reached Efogi early in the afternoon and found our home for the night in the middle of the village. A green oasis surrounded by muddy playing fields on which there was not a blade of grass to be seen. I guess that is one less job for the villagers, cutting grass. There were three main buildings in the camp, one a dormitory for us with mattresses – bloody luxury. Gail has a deal with the owner of the land and buildings, paid for I would imagine, and it is a pretty scene. A large grassed area to dry tents and clothes, running water for showers and a hauswin with dining table and benches to play cards or whatever else you do with no newspapers, radio or TV.

Those still with the Kagi tummy demons collapsed immediately on arrival and after several hours sleep appeared somewhat recovered. It was just as well we had these short trekking days for occasions such is this. It provided recovery time for whatever injury or ailments we might encounter. Unlike in 2005 when we were trekking until nearly dark each day. It also gave us time to visit the local museum. A little village hut, not far from our camp, was well stocked with wartime relics. A variety of ammunition, a bren gun and a Japanese sword were amongst this interesting display.

Another group of trekkers arrived late in the afternoon to join us. They appeared exhausted and stressed, complaining about their lack of food. Trekking the Kokoda Track is hard and you have to give yourself the best chance of doing it. Apart from doing your pre-trek training you have to be well equipped on the track and that includes food. The next morning I got an insight of their problems.

Their trek organizers were not using individual rations; instead they had a cook who would prepare breakfast and dinner. He would have to be portion genius to get that right. It would only take a few to over indulge and the same number would go short. We are more than happy with the arrangements made for us.

We heard more trekkers arrive and pass our camp during the night. You are insane to be walking in this country after dark and you would have to blame the guides for exposing trekkers to the dangers of this folly. We were headed out at 7.30 the next morning, but before we left we heard a helicopter arrive to evacuate a trekker, for what reason we never found out. Another expensive ride for someone. This was Saturday and day six of our trek and our destination was Menari, some six hours away.

Photographs:

Pic 1:  steep descent
Pic 2:  another river crossing
Pic 3:  the boys find a guitar at Efogi Village Guesthouse and cannot resist playing it
Pic 4:  Efogi Village Guesthouse area
Pic 5:  KTL Porters

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#15 Boss Meri

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 11:10 AM

Last time here I thought the walk up and around Brigade Hill was the most scenic stretch of the track and this visit has not changed my mind. It was a clear dry day again and you can see for a long way. Signage close to the Brigade Hill battle sight suggested we were about to be charged for the view but the fee collectors were strangely absent. Perhaps we were to early for them. The descent down Brigade Hill is the determining factor in making your choice which way you want to trek, North or South.

It is a very hard down of about three hours, so it would be a bitch of an up, taking that long at least. We passed a number of trekking groups coming up and the body language said it all. If anyone reads this who is yet to decide which way to trek, take note.

We arrived at Menari around 1.30 to find a neat little campsite with grassy surrounds and running water for a shower, something every trekker looks forward to. Some elected for tents the rest of us were in another dormitory situation. Our decision made early in the planning of this trek to spread our journey over nine days resulting in early arrivals was paying dividends. We had the choice of campsites by being first there, this is Kokoda etiquette.

That evening we were entertained by the local church choir. One doesn’t mind donating a few kina for this cause. Any church in PNG needs all the money that it can muster. After their presentation of church songs our own band returned the favour with some KTL classic hits. All good fun and then Dan had all the kids in fits of laughter playing a Towler variation of hide and seek.

Photographs:

Pic 1: Group photograph at Brigade Hill
Pic 2: Trekkers group photograph
Pic 3: Guide and porters group photograph
Pic 4: Ex trekkers and porters from 2005 trek - back for seconds!

Please ignore date as somehow the date was changed on our camera and our staff did not notice.

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