Peter Walsh didn’t know it, yet.
But what he thought he knew was about to prove it was nowhere near enough.
Because what he thought would happen, in the end, wasn’t going to be within coo-ee of the reality.
And days after getting home, he’s still getting over the whole experience – physically and emotionally.
Would he do it again? Certainly not next week, or next year, maybe not ever. Then again, he just might.
However, despite being treated for some seriously ugly blisters, despite almost hitting the wall two days from Kokoda and despite days of trudging up and down mountains on a trail well-hidden between endless tangles of massive tree roots, in clothes you could never dry and pouring five litres of water down your throat to try and compensate for the fluids you were losing faster than you would have thought possible in the steamy depths of the Owen Stanley Ranges, there’s no way Peter Walsh is ever going to forget it.
After all, he, fellow Nationals Mel Bath and Tim Bull, former Liberal MP Gary Blackwood and a group of secondary school students from Bairnsdale, Warragul and Wangaratta, had just spent eight days walking, as he put it, “in the footsteps of heroes”.
“This proved to be, more than anything I expected, I think we expected, to be such an emotional experience even though it gives you just the very slightest comprehension, an incredibly tiny window into what our soldiers had gone through, in far, far worse conditions,” Peter says.
“But even that fraction of the true story gives you a much greater understanding, an awareness I sincerely doubt you would ever have unless you go to Papua New Guinea and walk the Kokoda yourself,” he says.
“By comparison we didn’t do much but walk for those eight days, sure, it was hard, very hard, but we had good food every day, unlimited access to water, porters and guides carrying everything you needed except your daily necessities. We’d had vaccinations, carried effective malaria pills, dysentery was unheard of, and two steps in front of us (going uphill), and one step behind (downhill), was our personal porter, much of the way down he had a hold of your backpack to grab you in case you stumbled or fell, going uphill he was there to pull you along.
“My porter for the whole trip was Nick Lalaga, he was a very quiet, very shy young man, who might have been 60kg wringing wet, so I did have some concerns about how he might anchor me if I went over the edge somewhere – and he did the whole trip in thongs, until he broke one, and then he finished the trip with one thong and a bare foot,” he marvelled. Fortunately the most treacherous stretch, a very narrow track (with a chain to hang onto) was one step from a sheer 1000-foot drop, passed relatively uneventfully.
“Of course the obvious differences are we weren’t lugging rifles weighing 3.5kg, we weren’t limited to drinking water from streams (on a good day), we hadn’t cut out the seat of our pants because the dysentery was so bad, we knew there would be breakfast, lunch and dinner, and no-one was shooting at us, throwing grenades, or lobbing mortar shells at us.”
This, Peter says, is the historical backdrop of the Kokoda Trail during four months in the middle of 1942.
It was a close quarters encounter, of battle after battle, with two armies mauling each other, often in hand-to-hand combat, or frantic defence against suicidal Banzai charges.
He says you can read about it, see the documentaries or the movies, but none of it can prepare you for that first step off the plane, into a heat and humidity which simply saps the energy out of every pore in your body.
“At that point you can raise your eyes to the skies and clouds, you can see mountains reaching right up to them, and you already know whatever training you have done, whatever you saw in the back of your mind, it all just went out the window,” Peter adds.
“And you could see it in almost everyone’s face, that sudden doubt, concern even,” he says.
“But really, there is only one way to go about this. You don’t look up, you don’t look back, you take one step, then another, and another, and you keep going until the group leader says we are stopping for a break, or to camp.”
After a few months slogging around Echuca – complete with mandatory 8kg backpack – and some (possibly a little behind schedule) trips to the Kokoda Track Memorial Walk 1000 Steps climb at Ferntree Gully and the 15km of the old class-five Sunset Track up Gentle Annie in Bunyip State Park near Gembrook Peter was on a plane to Port Moresby.
Where he became one of a party of 29 (which swelled to 90 by the time you added all the guides, porters, helpers and one medico wearing a vest which read Trek Dokta) who were up before 5.30am the next day, in two mini buses on their way to Owers Corner, a gentle introduction to the neighbourhood, looking at memorials and old artillery pieces and then the trek began.
Past old weapon pits, live shells dug up decades after the war ended, through places such as the Golden Staircase (don’t let the name fool you), the sheer rock face of ‘fortress Imita’ before heading down to another valley creek crossing, another steep climb and then running into Ioribaiwa, the bloody scene of the furthest point of the Japanese advance.
“Surprisingly, the next day had us back on the road at the crack of dawn, with another massif in front of us, on another hot steamy day – this would be a signature part of the journey, you are never dry, you can never get clothes dry, you pull on half wet skins to walk in, wet tops and soon after you are drenched again anyway,” Peter explains.
“Thanks heavens my wife Liz convinced me to pack enough socks, so I had a new pair every day – they were lifesavers,” he says.
“Because I hate to think how badly this could have gone with constantly wet socks, the blisters I did end up with just about did for me on top of the tiredness that became exhaustion to the point if I had woken up on Day 7 and been told there was a mistake and we had two or three days to go I would have been gone.”
But at the same time the senior citizens of the group could not help but be buoyed by the sheer enthusiasm and wonderment of the students in their party.
And what Peter says he can only describe as a “fascinating evolution” as one day turned into the next.
“I guess being young gives you all that extra energy, but every time we had a break in a village, the students would be out with a ball playing with the local kids, and then start walking again,” he added.
“But starting with the hotel in Moresby, which is gated for safety, with every village through which we passed, like a dripping tap the message got hammered home and nearly all of them came to realise what a truly privileged life they have in Australia.
“And that awareness was beautifully complemented, for all of us, by the many presentations done by fellow Nat Tim Bull, a longtime and very serious student of military history in general, and the Kokoda in particular – he is a veteran of multiple trips, and his wartime briefings were inspiring, humbling, at times chilling, and always emotional.
“He brought most of us, me included, to tears during the Dawn Service at Isurava Memorial – with some unexpected and spectacular singing by our porters and guides.
“No-one who took part in that Service will ever forget it.”
Just as Peter is trying to forget the pain of his last few days on the trek, with blisters on both feet, despite the dry socks, which threatened to derail the whole experience, although he swears nothing was going to stop him.
The (almost) breaking point was the decision to change routes to Templeton’s Crossing – setting for one of the most desperate battles of the campaign.
They started walking at 5am and did not stop until 5.30pm and not even five litres of water could offset Peter’s dehydration and the ‘shower’ they got was a swim in a very cold river, very high, very fast flowing and if you accidentally drifted out to the middle you would have got washed away.
“The Templeton’s walk is the first time I ran out of water, some of the kids who had spaghetti or baked beans for breakfast were soon vomiting that, it was a horrendous day and Bully (Tim Bull), who helped set the course, swore never again.”
By now Peter’s survival was in the hands of the Trek Dokta, who was treating his worsening blisters with a mixture of sticking tape, hot salt water, ti-tree oil (that stings)/iodine (ditto)/gauze and an antiseptic powder – supplemented on the final two days by doses of powerful painkillers.
“It hurt like buggery when you started each morning, or after any break, but once you got going it wasn’t quite so bad, but the worst one, on the inside of my left heel, got to about two inches long and was turning into a bit of a mess.”
In the end, however, even Peter got a wakeup call about his privileged life in Australia.
A life he would have told anyone pre-Kokoda he understood just how lucky he was to be born in Australia.
“Until we were on the final stretch down to Kokoda, we only had a few kilometres to go, and we met this PNG family coming the other way,” he recalls.
“For them the trail was their main road, it got them from point A to B, in this case it had got them down to Kokoda to do their shopping for food.
“There was mum and dad, with three kids. Going uphill, towards Deniki. That’s about 14km down and 14km back, and a climb to about 1600m above sea level.
“The mother was carrying the youngest child; dad and the others shared their shopping – all dry food or canned so it wouldn’t spoil. So they smiled as they passed and kept going.”
For those last few kilometres to Kokoda and flights back to Moresby, Brisbane and home, those blisters didn’t seem quite so bad.