Max Cameron is a lawyer working at one of Melbourne’s top law firms, in an all-consuming corporate position. Late 2017, Max and two of his four children went to Kokoda in what turned out to be a life changing experience.
By Max Cameron
“Walking the Kokoda Track has for me been one of the more challenging and more rewarding experiences of my life.”
To set the scene, I work a busy professional life and with a full family and social life outside my professional commitments.
Prior to Kokoda, my weekday was something like alarm at 6.00am, at my desk by 7.30am, home by 9.00pm or 10.00pm if not later with numerous weekly flights and five star hotel stays. The last time I had seen the inside of a gymnasium or done any other form of physical exertion was the night before our youngest son’s birth – a month after we walked Kokoda he turned 20! In addition, I had not camped out (with the exception of a week in South America) for about 35 years.
Walking Kokoda was not something that had ever really crossed my mind. However, I was having dinner with friends and they invited me and, possibly after too many glasses of wine, it seemed like a rather good idea – different and challenging.
Next thing I knew, I, together with our 24 year old daughter and 19 year old son, was all but locked in.
I realised at that stage exactly what I had committed to as friends’ reaction was either:
are you sure you are fit enough; or
do you realise just how hard that is meant to be; and
surely you are not actually going to walk it.
A well travelled cousin of my age, used to roughing it, told me I was mad! As far as I was concerned however, I had committed to go and, perhaps unwittingly, committed to a challenge – both physical and mental beyond which I had anticipated.
Friends immediately started gently counselling me on exercise and training and the tour leader sent through various screeds on all the exercises we should be doing beforehand – some of them looked more like training programs for an elite athlete than something to do before one goes on a holiday.
Perhaps foolishly – remember, I had not exercised for over 19 years – I ignored the rigorous training program given but rather:
(a) formed a bond with a personal trainer to increase my agility and flexibility; and
(b) walked up and down the 49 floors of my office building at least three times a week for the six month period leading up to the expedition.
Nevertheless, when I woke up in the mornings I still ached and when I walked up the stairs I still puffed.
The arrival in Port Moresby was somewhat of a shock – there were enough mushrooms and other fungi growing in our bathroom to feed a small Indian village. Not the five star business luxury I was accustomed to for business trips!
There are two basic ways in which to walk Kokoda:
Kokoda to Owers Corner (about a one hour drive from Port Moresby); or
Owers Corner to Kokoda.
Either way it is about 96 km traversing the Owen Stanley Ranges, our trek started in Kokoda.
An early morning breakfast and the warning of the last decent coffee for a week was followed by a quick ride to the airport and boarding a modern Air Papua New Guinea flight. The plane smelt refreshingly clean like a new car. It was a good start. A quick bump back to reality, however, when we landed in Popendetta and the 10 of us were picked up and herded into the back of a truck which, after one hour, stopped so we could get a drink and then had to be push started. A sign of things to come!
“Are you sure you are fit enough?”
Our group compromised a husband and wife who were both approximately 60, myself (just under 60), three friends in their early 50’s and two of my children, 19 and 24. All participants, other than myself, were what I call experienced bush walkers, which was somewhat intimidating. We were, however, each accompanied by our porters who carried our backpacks (maximum weight 20 kg), leaving us with relatively light day packs.
Prior to leaving Port Moresby some serious rationalisation of the backpack had been necessary: having purchased everything recommended, I soon realised that my backpack was approximately 15 kg over the permitted weight. When the truck ride ended and we had regained feeling in our buttocks and backs, we enjoyed a lunch (Salada biscuits and Kraft processed cheese in blue packets – straight out of the 1960’s) before heading off on the trail.
It was a magnificent sunny day, neither too hot nor too cold, and perfect for walking. The land was generally even and I immediately gained a sense that ‘I’m going to kill this – my trainer, together with the office building stairs had put me in good stead for the even ground’.
The first hill/mountain, however, made me realise otherwise. There were two things for which I was singularly unprepared:
the uneven nature of the ground – almost every step was a balance either between rocks and roots or on slippery clay; and
the unrelenting nature of one hill/mountain after another – almost invariably two hours straight up and then two hours straight down.
Worse still, whilst I had gained a basic level of fitness climbing up and down the 49 flights of stairs daily, suddenly not only was the ground uneven and very slippery, but there were no stair rails to hold onto! The feeling of satisfaction on the first night, however, was immense: going to bed at 7.00pm physically tired and without the brain racing with the 400 odd emails that I was accustomed to sending and receiving daily was a new and refreshing experience. Quite uplifting and something I had not experienced for about 40 years.
Welcome though that might have been, the 5.00am wake up did not go down that well. This repeated itself every day.
From the first night in Deniki we walked to Euro Creek (meant to be 9 hours) the from Euro Creek to Kagi (meant to be 9 hours), Kagi to Menari (meant to be 8 hours), Ofi Creek (meant to be 7 hours), Ofi Creek to Goodwater Creek (meant to be 7 hours) and Goodwater Creek to Ower’s Corner (meant to be 3 hours).
Three things that particularly amazed me every day were:
the collegiality of our group – 9 people from diverse backgrounds and our leader and with diverse life experiences;
the support of our porters who were always by our sides and, in my case, at times two of them; and
the unrelenting nature of the uneven ground and the hills/mountains to climb up and then down.
The climbs up and down were daunting: if you were going down, although physically easier but for the fear of falling, it meant that shortly you would be going up and if you were going up, you would know that it was at least an hour’s worth before you could start going down.
However, throughout there was an atmosphere of optimism and excitement. Indeed, there was never a word of misery, anger or serious complaint from any member of our group and the support that each member provided was quite amazing – even when I came in about 2 hours after everyone else, there was nothing but words of support.
“Worse still, whilst I had gained a basic level of fitness climbing up and down the 49 flights of stairs daily…there were no stair rails to hold onto!”
I was slower than the rest of the group but that didn’t worry me: the challenge was purely finishing and finishing in one piece. The thought of not doing so was never an option.
We all experienced different emotions during the trail and, in particular:
mothers seemed very focused on the hardships of the young Australians the age of their children who had fought the Japanese;
fathers seemed much quieter on the topic, possibly, like myself, feeling and hiding the challenge of the physical conditions; and
the younger members of the group were silent also, possibly out of respect for what their contemporaries would have endured 75 years earlier.
The final one hour climb to Owers Corner brought to an end an amazing eight day walk – something 12 months before I would neither have thought of doing nor been physically able to do. However, it brought not only a sense of accomplishment, but more importantly a sense of reward and appreciation for what had gone before me and, on a personal level, the importance of things in life other than simply the professional environment in which I work.
What then would my recommendations to someone approaching his or her 60’s be if they were thinking of Kokoda? They can be summarised as follows:
physically prepare, but do not be obsessive about it;
mentally prepare and be prepared to endure physical and emotional discomfort – it is not a race but an endurance;
select a group of people who you like and are comfortable with and in front of whom you are not afraid of showing personal weakness and also of people who you know will support you; and
be optimistic and have a ‘can do’ attitude.’
Finally, and most importantly, book yourself into the most comfortable resort you can afford once you have completed the Kokoda Trail as you are going to need at least a week of rest, relaxation and pampering – the first night after I walked the trail I had a massage and I would swear that it felt like a Japanese war widow taking her aggressions out on me!
Max Cameron – 2017 Kokoda Trekker