PEREGIAN BEACH - Many years ago, I walked the Kokoda Trail, starting from my station at Tapini on an election patrol for the House of Assembly (I was the returning officer, amongst other things).
I crossed the mountains and followed the northern river called the Chirima. By the end of this I was as close to Port Moresby as I was to my station, so I continued to Kokoda and walked the next four days to Port Moresby.
In those days a walk from Kokoda to Port Moresby was considered to be four to five days.
The last two days into Kokoda were quite long. After starting at six, at about 10 I said to my porters, “Where should we stay tonight?” “In a cave,” they replied.
We were travelling light with a couple of ballot boxes and no tents. At about 2pm I asked, “Where is this cave?” They said, “We don’t know. “So how will we find it?” “Oh, someone left earlier this morning and said he would put a stick on the track with a red leaf on it.”
It sounded great, a stick on a thin track in the middle of the jungle with leaf attached.
About a year later I was walking up a remote valley on a dreary wet day through stinging nettles, leeches and mosquitoes and when I got to the top of the pass I saw a bundle of long stringy sticks.
They were quite out of place and looked like rafters for a house but there were no houses here.
When the porters arrived, I said, “What are these for?” They replied, “We knock the birds of paradise out of the sky when they fly out through this pass.”
Well, I was pretty exhausted and didn’t get excited. How ridiculous, I thought. Ask a porter a question and he will give you the answer he thinks will please you. Just then a flock of Regiana flew low through the gap.
I was astounded. I had never heard of Regiana flying in a flock, only in pairs, if that. There were 12 to 15 birds.
So I took more interest and the porters explained how they brought them down. They hid in the scrub with their sticks vertical, absolutely still. At the first sight of the birds they waved their sticks frantically and hoped a bird or two would be knocked down. Well, it must work.
Sometimes our native friends will do anything to make us happy. After independence in September 1975 a lot of expatriate staff were localised, many Australians were leaving and airline bookings were congested.
A colleague sought assurances his booking was confirmed. The new booking clerk assured him “no problem boss”. Then a couple of days before departure, the clerk said, “I knew you’d be unhappy if I told you there were no available seats. I didn’t want you to be upset.
Anyway, back to the Kokoda Trail. At about 6 o’clock with the last of the jungle light disappearing, I said ‘that’s it. I’m stuffed’ and sat down in a puddle of water with my back to a tree.
I looked down at the leeches on my legs. They can stay there for the night, I thought. It was still raining lightly. I thought, ‘this is not too bad, at least no one is shooting at me’.
I woke at about 3 o’clock in the morning. It was still raining. I got up when daylight started to filter through the trees, stretched and said to the porters, “I’m heading off.”
I walked slowly on to the track and within five minutes, I found it. A stick in the middle of the jungle with a red leaf projecting from a sharp smooth cut. As good as a signpost.
I waited for the porters to come and said, “Well, let’s have a look at this cave.” It was little more than a hanging rock. Hard rock offering little comfort. Often populated with little bitey things But they are out of the rain. Today’s walk was only eight hours and so I reached Kokoda.
Kokoda is a rubber plantation and a government station with an airstrip. A few miles away is Mount Lamington which erupted in 1951 wiping out the station and local villages. The local people are the Orokaiva. I’ve had some good police from here.
From Kokoda, it’s two days walk to the top of the pass at 7,000 feet. The people on the southern side are Koiari. At Kagi village, a couple of Aussie backpackers were struggling up. Huge back packs, heavy shirts and long pants, every pocket stuffed with something, boots and hats. One had a rope hanging off his belt. I don’t know why
“G’day mate,” I said with a grin. He looked at me with disdain. I was wearing a torn tee-shirt and dirty boxer shorts. My boots, I’d lost them long ago and was going barefoot. No hat either. He struggled past without a smile or gesture of any kind. “Nice day,” I said but there was no response.
His mate came along a couple of minutes later. I gave him another hearty “G’day mate” but he would not talk either. He was not impressed with me. Not a word was spoken. Head down, he struggled past. Clearly I am not dressed as stylishly as a backpacker.
At the top of the pass is an old garden and the track is overgrown in parts. When it rains, the grass lies flat and the track can’t be seen. On occasion, trekkers have lost their way. I go barefoot and can feel the way of the track with my feet.
There are five villages and five airstrips on the way down to Ower’s Corner. Kagi, Efogi, Manari, Nari and I forget the others. Bodiunomo and Suria are further to the west and then you have the Goilala where I had come from.
In my opinion the mountains – from 11,000 to 14,000 feet - are more interesting. Mount Albert Edward is a large alpine grassland with deep glaciated valleys, rhododendron forests and lakes. It’s very pretty and very cold.
The Koiari number a little more than 1,100. They live in small villages. Their houses were once built in the very tops of the trees for their protection. Today they have been outnumbered by Highland settlers who have migrated to the old and decaying rubber plantations and the newer settlements around the Sirinumu dam.
The Koiari are very different from neighbours to the southwest (the Motuans) who live on the edge of the sea. Indeed the Motuans lived in houses out over the sea in fear of their enemy, the Koiari.
The plateau rises up to the Kokoda at Kagi. It is forested and drained by small stream flowing to the west into the Brown River. The Goldie River is to the south and, like the Brown, it flows into the swamps.
Setting out from Kagi will take you up and down many ridges and across many streams to the Goldie River. After two days we climbed up to Ower’s Corner and travelled on a dirt and gravel road to reach our destination, Port Moresby.
Approaching Ower’s Corner late in the afternoon, I heard voices with one proudly proclaiming that “kiaps never go on patrol any more”.
To my astonishment the words came from Steve Cutluck, a mature age patrol officer, who had come up the range with a small group of tourists.
I had to correct him, though it might be quite rare to see a kiap on patrol these days. But here was I and my little patrol with its ballot boxes walking down the long gravel road.
I stayed with Steve for a couple of days in Port Moresby article to complete my electoral returns and returned to my station.
The porters returned to their mountains homes. It was tough but it was our journey together telling stories about the bush, the war, the government, the past and the future. Among these were my best friends. They have gone now.
Bill Brown transcribed the foregoing article from an old letter from Bob Hoad about this patrol conducted from Tapini government station around the time of Papua New Guinea's independence in 1975. The following video with its wonderful photography and production (and stirring soundtrack by Pink Floyd) is taken from other earlier Hoad patrols in the Western and Southern Highlands districts in the early 1960s - KJ