Things learnt on the Kokoda Track

I walked the Kokoda Track over seven days from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda at the start of June 2019 with South Sea Horizons. This is what I learnt…

The Kokoda Track
Lived up to its reputation as technically and physically challenging, with steep, slippery ascents and descents pretty much a constant. I found it quite manageable though, with nothing excessively steep or requiring huge step ups or step downs, that is in comparison with some of the walking I’ve done in New Zealand. For an experienced hiker the track is pretty straightforward, but if you’re not used to walking ~15km a day over uneven terrain then this is going to hurt…

It felt longer than 96km and about 6,000m of ascent and descent, probably due to the constant up and down hill. These rarely lasted more than an hour in either direction, generally descending to a river crossing and ascending up the other side. In comparison many New Zealand hikes or the Tour du Mont Blanc involve climbing hundreds of metres over a pass and back down the other side, tougher in some ways as repetitive on the knees and ankles, but mentally easier as you know when you’ve reached the top. In comparison the Kokoda Track seemed completely unpredictable as to how much further you would need to climb or descend.

There were surprisingly few animals along the track, with some bird song though it was rare to see them. Most days you would hear the sound of a few planes overhead, the Kokoda Track is not that far from Port Moresby, though it feels a world away. There is some litter along the track, though nowhere near as bad as many other countries and expected given the difficulty of disposing of rubbish along the track (villages burn it).

There are many rivers to cross but most have log bridges. There were maybe four where we had to remove our shoes to cross, and an hour either side of Va’ule Creek we wore our hiking sandals as there were over a dozen crossings to make.

Off the main track there are a few spots where locals have found ammunition from 1942 and stacked it in neat piles. To visit usually costs 10 Kina, if there is someone there to take the money.

There are a number of museums along the track with similar items and some information, including at Efogi, Kokoda, Isurava Memorial, and Alola. They’re not guaranteed to be open though, depends if the person with the keys is around.

Track Operators
The Kokoda Track can be walked independently but isn’t recommended from a safety perspective in terms of the remoteness and roughness of the track. Local rangers strongly encourage use of a guide. It is almost always walked as part of a group, with a lead guide, historian and one porter per group member plus porters for the party. I had a great experience with South Sea Horizons and would recommend them over other operators for three main reasons…

1. They’re locally owned, whereas the vast majority of operators are Australian owned, ensuring that all the money stays locally. They give back to the local communities along the track, for example supporting the school in Menari.

2. Their groups are typically smaller than most operators, making for a much more enjoyable experience. There were only three of us when I walked, though the average is 6-8 people. In comparison the five other groups we saw (three on the track and two at Kokoda airstrip) from Adventure Kokoda, Escape Kokoda, Kokoda Courage, and Kokoda Spirit (two groups) were ~15 people, plus ~20 porters. A larger group will walk more slowly, and share the same campsite facilities, typically one shower and 1-2 toilets.

3. Their guiding style is more flexible than some operators. We could walk more or less at our own pace, with our porters keeping a close eye on us and grabbing our packs if we looked like slipping. They learnt our capabilities and adjusted, for example letting us walk across log bridges with our packs on. Other groups seemed to move as one large group, at the speed of the slowest person, and took their packs off to be escorted across bridges. Personally I would have found this approach massively frustrating. Group size wasn’t something I considered when I booked with South Sea Horizons (local owned and previously using them for a trip to Rabaul and Kokopo convinced me) but in retrospect this was the biggest factor in how much I enjoyed the trip.

South Sea Horizons have been operating for 14 years and have about 100 porters, all from Menari and Efogi villages. They rotate porters to share the work. None of their porters chew betel nut, smoke or drink on the track, respecting the strongly religious communities along the Kokoda Track.

They do have an historian and provide local insights but many other Kokoda operator lead with ex-military guides, who I suspect provide much more detailed insight into the battles fought along the track. I was interested in the history from 1942, but more interested in the local culture.

South Sea Horizons are the tour operator for Intrepid Travel in Papua New Guinea, so if you book through them you’ll be with South Sea Horizons, though they only advertise trips from Kokoda to Owers’ Corner. Booking direct with South Sea Horizons is not as slick as through Intrepid but will save you money.

Who walks the Kokoda Track
Based on the five groups I saw the typical walker is an Australian male in his 50s, making up a least half of the people on the track. Probably more than 90% of the people walking the track are Australian, with very few Europeans, and I saw no Asians. My observation is that most of the people who walk the track are not experienced hikers, but are doing it in memory of those who fought here in WW2, military history and / or for the physical challenge.

Duration
Locals can walk it in three epic days at a push, but they travel light and are used to the heat, humidity and hills. Guided tours are between five and twelve days long. I walked it in seven which was perfect for me, walking for between three and six and a half hours a day (excluding breaks and lunch). We would get to campsites / villages between late morning and mid afternoon, allowing time to rest and explore. Note that we were a particularly fast group though, three young fit guys. Larger groups apparently can be walking until late afternoon / early evening.

Direction
Kokoda to Owers’ Corner is the most popular direction to walk the track, apparently being slightly easier and following the advance of the Japanese. It involves flying to Kokoda, walking the track, and an hour and a half bus ride back to Port Moresby, stopping at the Bomana War Cemetery.

Owers’ Corner to Kokoda is apparently harder but is less busy, and finishes with the flight rather than a twisty drive back to Port Moresby. Personally this was a much better way to walk the track, the flight was the perfect ending, flying over the track we’d just walked, able to identify the villages we’d passed through, and enjoying the best views of the track. Flying to Kokoda to start would be scenic but not really mean much without the context of having walked the track.

Time of year
By far the most popular time of the year to walk the Kokoda Track is over ANZAC Day, a public holiday in Australia and New Zealand held on the 25 April. This is toward the end of the wet season with 2-3 wet days a week to be expected. The actual Kokoda battle was fought between July and November 1942, during the dry season when rain is much rarer. It can rain anytime of the year though, particularly in the higher parts of the track. Walking the track at the start of June we just missed the rain while walking, but had two wet evenings at Templeton’s Crossing I and Isurava Memorial. It was also pretty quiet, we only passed three other groups heading in the other direction from Kokoda to Owers’ Corner.

Typical day on the track
Wake up between 4.30am and 5am, pack up, have breakfast, and start walking as the sun rises around 6am. Walk, with short breaks for rest and any historical sites visited till lunch, which would either be at the final campsite, or somewhere not more than a few hours before the final campsite. Get set up at camp, have a shower or soak in a swimming hole, and spend time exploring or relaxing. Dinner was around 6pm, bed followed not soon after.

Places to stay
There are a large number of campsites along the track, either by villages (such as Menari and Efogi) or standalone (such as Templeton’s Crossing I and Va’ule Creek). Their set up is basically the same though the quality does vary.

They all have two huts for the crew, to cook and sleep in, one hut for the group to use, a grassy area for tents, usually a shower or at least a swimming hole, and one or two long drop toilets with standard green seats.

The larger groups appeared to mainly use tents, for greater privacy and protection from mosquitoes. We didn’t use them at all, enjoying the space and better air flow in the huts. There were mosquitoes around though far fewer than I was expecting, though it was advisable to wear insect repellent first thing in the morning, and late afternoon / evening.

Drinking water
The locals drink directly from the rivers and streams along the track, and in New Zealand I would do the same. Not wanting to risk getting ill in the rainforest though I used water purification tablets for the first time. They worked brilliantly, cheap and effective, though they take half an hour so it’s a good idea to have two water bottles to rotate between.

Things to take
Everything you take needs to be carried either by you or your porter, who will have a weight limit (up to 18kg for their and your gear combined), so pack as light as you can but carry the essentials.

  • Light sleeping bag, mine was rated down to -6C and was too warm, even at Templeton’s Crossing, the highest and coldest part of the track
  • Sleeping bag liner, a great way to keep your sleeping bag clean and to use as a sheet when warm
  • Anti malarial drugs, a must
  • Couple of warm layers, for the higher, cooler areas around Templeton’s Crossing and Isurava Memorial
  • Good boots, essential, trainers won’t cut it, you need grip and ideally some ankle support
  • Travel towel and / or sports chamois, to dry yourself from showers / swimming holes, and feet after river crossing
  • Swimming costume, for washing in streams, no nudity along the track
  • Inflatable mattress, sometimes provided by the operator
  • Hiking pools, a must to prevent yourself from slipping on the muddy track, two poles are much better than one
  • Spare shoes, for walking around campsite / village to allow your boots to dry and feet a rest from them
  • Earplugs, expect at least some snorers on your trip
  • Hydralyte Electrolyte Powder Sachets, you will sweat a lot walking this track due to the heat humidity and terrain, I would have one sachet at the end of each day’s walking to help recovery
  • Gaiters, though I only used them a couple of times, there is plenty of mud but it isn’t particularly deep and my near knee length gaiters were rather warm
  • Dry bags, essential to keep your things dry in case it rains (possible at any time of year) and they make packing much more organised, I had a large one inside my day pack, and smaller ones to pack different things in my main pack
  • Full set of clothes, to only wear at camp allowing you to stay dry if you get wet on the track
  • Fresh socks for each day on the track, things can be washed but are not guaranteed to dry, and having dry feet is important

Things to carry in your day pack

  • Two water supplies, I had a 3 litre camelback built into my pack for walking and 1.5 litre bottle for use at camp, and could switch between them to allow time for the water purification tablets to work
  • Hiking sandals, for river crossings
  • Head lamp, for the campsite at night
  • Sun lotion, though I didn’t use that much as the majority of the track is shady in the forest, only clearing at villages and campsites
  • Sunglasses, though didn’t wear at all, relied on my sun hat
  • Sun hat, useful for villages and campsites
  • Camera, and something waterproof to put it in, I brought standard and telephoto lens with me, but hardly used the later, no wildlife to photograph other than when I was back in Port Moresby, at the Nature Park
  • Plate, bowl, spoon, knife and fork, if not provided by your operator, plastic ones are good for minimising weight
  • Insect repellent, though only needed in the morning and late afternoon / evening
  • Snacks, energy bars or high energy food like nuts, welcome for a mid-morning boost
  • Water purification tablets, to fill up from streams along the way, you’re usually never more than an hour between them so can travel light
  • Insect bite cream, if you get a reaction from bites antihistamine cream is very useful
  • Kina in small notes, for snacks, crisps and soft drinks mainly, rare to see fruit for sale unfortunately
  • Hand sanitiser, to use before meals
  • Toilet paper, there is none on the track so essential to bring along

Handy optional things

  • Inflatable pillow, my favourite travel item, lightweight and relatively small, ensures consistent support when sleeping
  • Z seat, one of my favourite hiking items, weighs almost nothing, folds up neatly, and makes the wooden benches far much comfortable to sit on
  • Umbrella, has been very useful on previous hikes, but didn’t use here, though could be handy in camp if it rains, on the track both hands will be full with your poles
  • Eye mask, personally I find essential, avoids getting woken up by people accidentally shining headlamps in your face when sleeping
  • Solar charger, another very useful hiking item as there is no electricity along the track, but hopefully some strong sunshine, usually around lunchtime, to charge your phone, Kindle or camera
  • Old toothbrush, to clean your shoes properly after the track, as they’re likely to be pretty muddy and anyone returning to Australia or New Zealand will want clean boots to avoid getting held up with border control

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