If it's true that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, the good people of Papua New Guinea must have at least as many descriptors for mud. The stuff squelching underfoot is the hard-packed variety, distinctly different from the gritty black paste we were in half an hour ago and decidedly more slippery than the sludgy brown mud we waded through most of yesterday.
History's footnotes are written in the mud of the Kokoda Track. A ragtag company of army reservists and the heroic military campaign they waged here in 1942 to defend Port Moresby from the advancing Japanese army vaulted this muddy jungle path into legend, turning it into a byword for plucky, againstthe- odds Australian spirit. (Spend a day in Port Moresby and you wonder why they bothered. The place makes Dante's Inferno look like a theme park - but that's another story entirely.)
Walking the 96-kilometre track has become an Australian rite of passage - more physically demanding than a visit to Gallipoli and less beery than a gap year in London. It's a challenge undertaken variously by middle-aged executives on team-building exercises, members of surf and footy clubs on fundraising drives, extreme athletes, and amateur historians paying homage to the diggers. Or weekend warriors in a mid-life crisis. Like me.
Before you leave, and long after you've returned, people will refer to Kokoda as a holiday. It's about as far from a holiday as you're likely to find. You don't undertake Kokoda because you want a break. You build up to Kokoda. You train for Kokoda. And when it comes, you tackle Kokoda with all the mental fortitude and physical strength you can muster.
View of New Nauro Village halfway up the Maguli Range.
When I signed on with a Brisbane-based trekking company a year before departure, I was warned immediately of the need to train hard. Even if the vertiginous peaks and perilous descents didn't faze me, I was gravely informed the relentless heat and humidity would knock me for six.
Most of the preparation was fairly straightforward. The cardinal rule before attempting Kokoda is to break in your boots. Too many Kokoda virgins come unstuck on day two, crippled by blisters. And so, wearing the new hiking boots sold to me by an enthusiastic engineering student in an inner-city outdoors store, I spent three hours every Sunday morning for six months scampering up and down Mt Coot-tha in suburban Brisbane in the company of fellow Kokoda challengers. Muscles were toned, cardio fitness improved and the tiniest taste was afforded of the test we were about to face.
In reality, though, nothing can prepare you for Kokoda. You'll find yourself at the point of collapse at least once a day. There will be moments when you look up at the distance still to climb and whimper. You'll curse as you lose your footing on another slippery descent, legs quivering, heart pounding, head spinning with the knowledge that one misstep could send you into a ravine. And all the while you'll marvel at the soldiers who did this for months on end, carrying rucksacks, rations, guns and ammo - all while under fire.
A campsite at Templeton's Crossing.
You'll sweat like you've never sweated before and go for days without a shower - there's nothing resembling a functional bathroom along the track. It's likely that you and your party will succumb to some kind of virulent stomach bug. You'll endure the time crouched over putrid pit toilets. And you'll walk the track, as we did, on a diet of two-minute noodles and freeze-dried beef.
Physically, it's exhausting. Mentally, it takes a toll, too. Like few other experiences, Kokoda demands that you exist in the present. The minute we stepped into the jungle and the canopy closed over us, the world we left at home was shut out completely. And there's a release in that: no emails, no phone, no compulsive attachment to the minutiae. But then there's also the vaguely disturbing sense of freefall, as though the intricate web of responsibilities and routines that tethers you to your life has been severed and you're adrift. Everyone on our trek arrived with a laundry list of life matters to sort out while they walked. Some came to mull over a career move, others were determined to use the time to sort out a relationship problem.
Locals in Alola Village.
Everyone expected eight days in the jungle would be the perfect opportunity to press the pause button, shut out the noise for a while, and make some overdue decisions about the future. But we were so busy concentrating on not falling to our deaths, we didn't have time to think about the past, or the future.
From the moment we woke each morning at 5.30, until the moment we crawled into our sleeping bags at 8pm, we were fully occupied with the pressing business of survival. Kokoda is a life-altering experience primarily because pulling out and turning back is not an option. Once you step onto that track, the only way out is to move forward. And in an age crowded with choices and conveniences designed to provide easy exits, the importance of persistence is perhaps Kokoda's greatest lesson.
And then there's the majesty of the place. People who have walked the trail talk ad nauseum about the mud and the mozzies, but few seem to talk about the beauty of the terrain. The landscape took our breath away at least a couple of times every day, whether we were at the Isurava battle memorial looking into the valley far below, or wandering through a magical stretch of rainforest, vividly coloured butterflies wafting before us, or confronted by the Myola Basin, a vast, dry lake bed in the heart of the Owen Stanley Range that appears suddenly from the jungle and makes us feel as though we've stumbled into the African savannah. To wade through the pristine waters of a creek in the shade of gigantic bird's-nest ferns is one of life's great moments. To stand in a tin shed and hear soaring harmonies from a village church choir is to be truly transported.
A village along the northern section of the track.
The people are among the warmest I've met. From the hospitable villagers who serenaded us every night as we stumbled into camp to the porters who carried our cumbersome packs and doubled as safety officers - only ever an arm's length away, monitoring our every step and ready to pull us back from the brink of disaster. For the duration of the trek, they were our own fuzzy-wuzzy angels.
And then, of course, there's the poignancy of walking in the footsteps of the soldiers who served here. Atop mountain ridges or in clearings off the track, our guides stopped to relate the details of battles fought, makeshift hospitals thrown together and acts of heroism performed. The helmets of long-dead soldiers still lie just off the track, exactly where their owners fell, rusted through and slowly disintegrating.
Cooking with banana leaves and hot rocks in Menari.
Looking at them, you can't help but be struck by how strange it is that such a place could become so deeply etched in the national consciousness. Like the sliver of beach in the Dardanelles that became Anzac Cove, the Kokoda Track is nowhere near as grand as you'd expect it to be.
You envisage a wide, well-marked trail across the Owen Stanley Range, a prominent marker of the epic struggle that took place here - when in reality it's a narrow, muddy track ready to be swallowed by the jungle at any moment.
A creek crossing in Menari.
It takes a while once you've returned home to process it all. "How was your holiday?" will be the well-meaning enquiry from friends and family. You'll be at a loss to know what to say, because Kokoda has moved you more profoundly than any other trip you've taken in your life. You'll feel exhausted, elated and a deep sense of achievement. "It was hard," is all you'll manage. "Bloody hard."