Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Kokoda Ultra Marathon 2017 - Part 1

In today's times we take for granted the lifestyle we have and the opportunities that are afforded to us. It is easy to forget that things could have been different if it had not been for the commitment and sacrifices of those who came before us. As an Australian I am reminded of our nation's history through annual days of remembrance, respect and celebration. On a personal level I was fortunate enough to have my Pa, Jim Rowland, to share with me war time stories and recount his own personal experiences from his time in the Australian armed forces during the Pacific Campaign of World War II. When Pa spoke about his war time experiences I would listen, even though I had heard his stories many times before. But now he has gone and I reminisce about his telling of his experiences, I can recall the tears in his eyes and the raw emotion in this voice. I cannot imagine a time when people so young, as my Pa was, were entrusted with so much responsibility and were asked to do so much with the very real possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice for others. It is a result of their sacrifices that I don't have to make my own. What I can do to pay homage to those Australian's is to remember them and their actions.
As a mark of respect and to honour the actions of others I'd considered traversing the Kokoda Track. I had no particular date or time in which I'd traverse the track, but it was there on my bucket list. By chance the opportunity arose to partake in the inaugural Kokoda Ultra Marathon on the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Track Campaign, Papua New Guinea. Organised by Wayne Wetherall of Kokoda Spirit and Anthony Thompson of 360 Athlete, the Kokoda Ultra Marathon traverses the full 96km length of the Kokoda Track over 3 days and 2 nights, taking in places of historical significance along the way. It was a history lesson as much as it was a staged running event.

I haven't done much hiking where I had to camp over night. The last time I did an overnight hike was back in 2002 which resulted in a marriage proposal from Brian. That was at a time in our lives before either of us did anything remotely running related. So once I committed to participating in the Kokoda Ultra Marathon I had a pretty steep learning curve. I had no gear and no idea of what to expect. All I had were my trail skills and a dubious level of fitness leading up to my departure. 

The support leading up to the event was really good. Anthony Thompson was the main point of contact and he probably got a little annoyed with my novice questions, which he hid well, but his help was invaluable in setting me straight. Communication amongst other entrants on social media was also useful to get to know each other and provided lots of light-hearted entertainment before we convened in person. It was good to know that other people were thinking and asking the same things. 

Training for the event comprised my usual amount of "junk" kilometres, mostly without a back pack. It was about two weeks before I left that I finally got all my mandatory gear together, apart from my shoes which I got the week before departure. I managed one small run with a "full" pack, then did something to my back which put an end to my preparation. So the training I did with a full pack was best described as limited. Consequently I decided to "wing it" and risk what ever consequences may come. I'd put it down to being part of the adventure.

With all my gear sorted and vaccinations taken care of, all that was left to do was depart for Papua New Guinea. The flights I had booked coincided with most of the other entrants. So on Monday morning at sparrow fart I departed for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. This was my first time to the country and though I had heard many mixed stories, I along with the other members of the group, were well looked after during our entire stay.  Our base in Port Moresby was the Stanley Hotel which was luxurious. It provided a lovely relaxed environment for us to get to know each other and to be briefed on what lay ahead of us. 
Group photo at Owers Corner. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
In addition to Wayne and Anthony who organised us, the remainder of the cohort comprised Tegyn Angel, Kellie Emmerson, Ashley Raymond Benett, Shane Antrobus, Rebekkah Middleton, Mark Middleton, Steve Bain, Grant Wallace and Chris Ord. It was a small intimate group of like minded people whom I had the pleasure of sharing this experience. I shouldn't forget to mention the Papuan porters who were instrumental in assisting with the logistics along the track. Without them I'd have been carrying a lot more gear in a much bigger pack.

Shortly after settling in to our accommodation, the event itinerary was torn up and thrown out. Due to factors beyond the control of the organisers our planned Tuesday flight from Port Moresby to Kokoda fell through and on the Monday evening we were informed that the track may have to be traversed in reverse, starting from Owers Corner heading to Kokoda Village. Ultimately it didn't really matter to us as we were to be be prepared to set out on this event on Tuesday morning either way. The only difference was that instead of heading out onto the trail from Kokoda Village on Wednesday, it might be that we would become acquainted with the track on Tuesday at Owers Corner instead. 

So on Tuesday morning it was confirmed, we would be heading to Owers Corner on a bus with the assurances that our altered flight from Kokoda would be sorted by the time we got there on Friday. It was a bit like preparing to do something on the count of three and then having it done on the count of two. I therefore had the bus trip to mentally prepare that in just a few short hours I'd actually be on the Kokoda Track. 

After a bumpy bus trip along PNG's rugged roads we finally made it to the head of the Kokoda Track. At Owers Corner we were greeted by friendly locals and gorgeous clear weather which bathed the dense Papuan jungle with tropical sunshine. Before heading off onto the track, we took time to understand the historical significance of the area that we were in. As was the case throughout the event we paid our respect to those who had been here before us. One of the ways we remembered what had happened on this track was through poetry which we all took turns to read. I find the verse of poetry to be quit powerful and the subject matter firmly installed the importance of this track and the sacrifices that were made so many years before. The Kokoda Track isn't just another walking track through nature. The Kokoda Track is steeped with countless accounts of battles, heroic acts and sacrifices during the Kokoda Track Campaign of World War II. Being on the Kokoda Track helps to bring all these accounts into perspective. 
Reading a poem about the Diggers. Kokoda Ultra Marathon
At about mid-morning it was time for us to head out and finally become acquainted with the Kokoda Track. The track was pretty easy to follow. It wasn't signposted but was marked occasionally with pink tape, though we were told not to rely on it. Though we all carried a map, which we now had to read in reverse, I rarely used it for navigation as I found the Track was the most prominent of any other intersecting tracks. The few times I used the map was to check that I was in the correct village and to point out places of historical significance, both of which were mandatory requirements of the event.
The downhill start from Owers Corner. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
Though the Kokoda Track is "up hill" from Owers Corner to Kokoda Village, we started the first section of track on a very step descent to Goldie River. It was here that we said goodbye to dry shoes and socks for the remainder of the day, as we made our way across Goldie River's wide waters. The track followed the banks of the river until we started the climb to Dump 66 and Imita Ridge. The ascent up to Imita Ridge is very steep and intimidating. During the Kokoda Track Campaign there were 2,000 timber steps cut into the mountain side, though these have now been reclaimed by the jungle. 
Imita Ridge during WWII. Australian War Memorial.
The further our group progressed along the Kokoda Track the more we spread out and found our own space. Though most of us are competitive, we weren't racing each other, but just going at a comfortable individual pace as the terrain dictated. After Imita Ridge I found myself all alone on the trail. It was a surreal situation to be in. Having spent time in the morning and the previous day hearing about historical events on the Track, being in solitude helped to give it a new perspective. On the Track, alone, I wasn't distracted by conversation. I was in the moment imagining what it would have been like to face an enemy who didn't want to be seen until the last moment. Looking around I can understand how easy it would have been to blend into the jungle. 

From Imita Ridge we descended about 550m down to Ua-Ule Creek and its tributaries. In all there were 22 creek crossings in this section, or so I've been told as I'd lost count. So our semi-dry shoes became completely sodden and muddy. Lucky for us we were on the track during the dry season and there hadn't been much rain so the track was relatively "dry". In the wet season it must be a quagmire.

By the last creek crossing my shoes were looking like they had done 1000kms, not the 10kms that they had really done. From Ua-Ule Creek the track headed up to Iorabaiwa Ridge, 600m above. Iorabaiwa Ridge marked the furthest point of Japanese advance. It was also a good opportunity to take a moments rest and reflect upon its significance. 
Day 1 Map, which we had to read in reverse. 
Though I was alone on the Track, I wasn't completely alone. Interspersed randomly along the Track were the Papuan locals, some of whom were supporting our event, others just going about their daily business, including cooking meals on the side of the track. It didn't matter which local I passed, they always greeted me with a warm smile and a friendly wave. I'd always test their English by saying something to them. Some times it would start a conversation, other times a "Kokoda?" from me would be followed by a "Kokoda" from them then a pointing finger and smile. 

Our porters were amazing throughout the event.  They would always be at the check points setting up camp and cooking our meals.  Occasionally we would pass them along the trail as they would usually head off before us in the mornings. They were always there to help us in any way they could. Nothing was too much trouble for them.

Every day along the Kokoda Track I would randomly come across a hiking expedition. Judging from their accents they were mostly Australians, making the same pilgrimage along the Track as we were. Traversing the Track unsupported is frowned upon and I can understand why. The local people rely upon the expedition companies to provide them with employment and income. Some of the villages we passed through stocked cans of soft drink. Heeding some earlier advice, I took with me some money which I used to buy drinks from the locals. Even though not every village benefited from us staying in it, at least we could contribute to the economy in one small way. I was more than happy to exchange some heavy coins for a much appreciated can of soft drink.
Day 1 Profile.
The track descended off Iorabaiwa Ridge down to Ofi Creek before another large, but less steep, ascent up to Maguli Range and Naoro Village, our camp for the night. Day One ultimately saw us arrive in Naoro Village after covering 22km with approximately 1800m of ascent and 1400m of descent. It was a tough slog along the Track. I can only imagine just how tough it would have been carrying a full military pack or injured soldier along a sodden track. Near impossible would be my guess, but it was done nonetheless.
Naoro Village. Kokoda Ultra Marathon 
Arriving at Naoro Village was a great feeling. I emerged from the jungle to see a cleared grassy area with a scattering of huts made from local natural resources. The local children came out to greet me and show me the way to the camping area. Kokoda Spirit had arranged for their Papuan team to meet us at every camp site. Their guys helped with transporting equipment along the track, including setting up the tents and making us meals. While I waited for everyone else to turn up I struck up conversations with the locals and we discussed the Kokoda Track and what it's like to live on. It was interesting to learn just how different our lives are but yet we can still find many common connections, such as cleaning and washing. Once at the camp I was directed to a shower which I did not expect. The shower turned out to be just a tap connected to a pipe. It didn't look like much but it felt like luxury. After my "shower" the Papuans boiled water for me so I could have a hot drink. So after unpacking my gear into my tent I spent the afternoon sitting on the grassy slope at camp sipping my hot milo, soaking up the beauty around me while waiting for the other members of our team to arrive. Tegyn  was next in to camp and wasted no time in refuelling himself and sorting his gear out for the next day. While watching him it made me think that maybe I should be doing the same, instead of sitting around drinking milo, so I went and had another milo to help think about it some more.

Our morning and evening meals were carried in by the Papuan porters. I had already indulged myself by way of hot drinks. Next on the menu was dinner which comprised fried rice with a meat sauce, which tasted amazing. There was no skimping on quantities either, as there was always enough for seconds. It was a well cooked hearty meal to compliment the day's efforts on the track. 

At the end of Day One, once we had all arrived safely into camp, we convened over the campfire to discuss the days events and the significance of the section of Kokoda Track we had just covered and were about to cover on Day Two. I thought Kokoda Spirit had struck a good balance between allowing us to cover the Track at our own pace, while taking the time educating us on the significance of each section we covered and its history. With our minds processing the days events and our history lesson, we headed to our tents for some much needed sleep ahead of our longest day on the Kokoda Track.


The second and final part of the journey will be posted in a few days under Kokoda Ultra Marathon 2017 - Part 2.



2 comments:

  1. Love it Beth! Thank you for sharing. It was an absolute please having you and the other runners on the trail with us.

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  2. Hi Beth, I really enjoyed the first installment and am looking forward to part II. This event sounds both challenging and rewarding on many levels.
    Cheers,
    Kathy Palaski

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