Walking with Ghosts in Papua New Guinea: Crossing the Kokoda Trail in the Last Wild Place on Earth by Rick Antonson, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2019, 260 pages, ISBN:9781510705661, hardcover AU$39.89, eBook AU$21.99 from Amazon Australia
TUMBY BAY - Walking along parts of the Kokoda Trail in the early 1970s it didn’t strike me as being any more rugged or arduous than other tracks I had walked as a kiap.
A 200 kilometre long track between Port Moresby and Buna on the north coast had, after all, been in use since the early 1900s.
The heyday of the Port Moresby-Buna track occurred between 1900 and 1939 when it was an important communications route to the northern goldfields.
Roads evolved to replace portions of the route at either end but the central part over the Owen Stanley Range remained as a walking track, just as it was when the Pacific War commenced in December 1941.
Standing on the track in the early 1970s it was difficult to imagine how large portions of it had been turned into a muddy quagmire by the boots and feet of the hundreds of soldiers and carriers using it.
Even harder still was to imagine what it was like to fight a bloody strategic withdrawal through such terrain.
In the early 1970s there was little to remind people of what had happened along the track. There was the Bomana War Cemetery, of course, and at Ower’s Corner a rusty wrought iron stick figure of a soldier and an archway to mark the start of the track, but that was about it.
People occasionally walked in from Ower’s Corner looking for wartime relics such as helmets and shell cases, but regular trekkers were virtually unknown.
That has all changed. The Trail has now become a mecca for the wartime pilgrimages that seem to have become part of the Australian psyche.
Pilgrimages are curious things and it is difficult to define what people actually get out of travelling to places where significant historical events took place.
In the case of Kokoda there is no way a casual trekker, or even a dedicated military history buff, can feel or experience anything like what those brave few soldiers and dedicated carriers went through.
Apart from ghosts there are not even many of the jagged physical remains you see at other wartime sites in PNG such as Wewak or Manus or Bougainville.
I thought that reading Canadian travel writer Rick Antonson’s account of his ‘walk’ along the track with a team of Australian trekkers might provide an answer to our national obsession with ‘pilgrimage’.
Antonson was, after all, an outsider and a keen observer.
What was encouraging was that until his sojourn in Cairns he had never heard of Kokoda and had only agreed to walk it after a boozy night with one of his new Australian friends.
At first it doesn’t seem like he is going to come up with an answer.
The trekkers are mostly younger men but there are also a couple of women who seem to be fitness freaks. To both the young men and the young women the trek is more of a sporting challenge than anything else.
I guess in a country like Australia, obsessed with sport, that sort of approach is inevitable.
However, the leaders of the trek keep up a running commentary of how the wartime events played out and they begin to sink in.
Finally, one of the trekkers, who had done the slog before, says, “On this trek, I feel more kinship with the Aussie soldiers…. Being here, and knowing why it matters. That’s clearer to me this time.”
A short while later another one comments, “I came on this trek for the physical challenge. I never thought I’d feel so many emotions.… I sense Aussie soldiers everywhere. I could sense Japanese in those trenches. It’s as if they’re still headhunting each other as we walk by.”
Towards the end of the trek the impact of information about the Kokoda campaign seems to reach a point of overload. The trekkers are happy to have made the physical journey but they have had enough of hearing about the war.
What is curiously missing from their experience is any meaningful contact with the people living in the villages along the track.
Apart from the camaraderie developed with the carriers, there is a kind of disjuncture with the village people. Interactions are confined to a few kids and some of their parents who are attempting to sell things to the trekkers.
There is an air of resentment coming from the villagers, which is understandable given their apparent exclusion from the commercial aspects of the Kokoda trekking industry.
It is not stated but they harbour a distinct feeling of resentment and intrusion towards the trekkers.
It’s as if the trekkers are ignoring Papua New Guinea and don’t want to become engaged with it. They see it as a troubled country they don’t want to buy into, even at a basic level.
When they get to Isurava, they discover that the local landowner has built a fence around the Australian built black granite monument and wants payment before he will let anyone near it.
One of the trek leaders comments, “Up until a month ago this fencing wasn’t here and no one paid. So it’s a standoff. If we pay now, we’ll always have to pay.”
The trekkers eventually pay and a little later Australia’s foreign affairs department (DFAT) negotiates a long term resolution.
This is a good book, better than I expected. The day-to-day descriptions of the grind of the walk are standard fare but the contemplative stuff is extremely well done and the historical research is solid without the usual resort to hero worship.
The Crocodile Prize gets a mention in the ‘sources and recommendations’, as does ‘My Walk to Equality’.
I was also impressed by the physical presentation of the book. Skyhorse Publishing has done an excellent job.
If you are contemplating trekking the Kokoda Trail it’s probably worth reading.