I’ll always remember how it started – even if I don’t know how it will end

It was the first mountain I climbed – Mt Kinabalu in Borneo. 

“What on earth made you want to get into that kind of thing?”

You’d think I’d confessed to being involved in some illicit deal or less than socially acceptable pastime.  But the question was posed to me at an event recently where I was asked what I enjoyed doing in my spare time.  When I answered with mountain climbing, trekking and rock climbing, that was the response.

It’s not an unusual response, the words might differ as might the context, but they have a common thread.

Why would you put yourself through something like that?”

What, you carry your own bag?

Are you crazy?

I don’t understand you.

Where do you shower?

This gave me cause to think back to where it started.  Where I went from a pack a day smoker to wanting to climb a mountain.  To being drawn to do this without any knowing why, without any prior experience hiking or climbing mountains.

I remember it well.  With the family I was spending a week in Borneo before a week in Singapore.  When the trip was planned, I stumbled across some information on a mountain in Borneo that you could trek to the top of and it only took two days.  I was really drawn to do this – and to this day I don’t have a concrete reason why – I just was.

My family weren’t really interested, preferring the 5 Star resort (and one can’t blame them – this was me the mountain was calling, not them).  In the end my son who was 13 at the time, agreed to keep me company.

We all have our mountains to climb, real or figuratively.

It would seem mine for that year was to cement my life as a non-smoker, and to climb the highest peak in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo (13,428ft or 4095.2m).  Or to cement my life as a non-smoker BY climbing the highest peak in South East Asia.  Up until this point, the highest thing I had climbed was the water tower in Longreach, an outback Queensland town that I was living in for a few years.  You probably haven’t seen it, it’s not very high. Not compared to a mountain.

The time for thinking about climbing a mountain was over.  After a few days of resort living, eating well, laying by the pool and generally relaxing, my son and I were off!  We hired a guide and elected to carry our own packs.  It was hard work from the outset.  Monsoonal rain commenced about five minutes in and didn’t let up for six hours.  The steepness was extreme and my legs were screaming after only a short distance.  We had 6km to climb to get us to Raban Lata Resthouse which sits at about 11,000ft, (3350m) where we would sleep for a few hours before heading up to the summit.

 

One foot after the other

We were soaked through despite our Gore-Tex jackets, and we were sweating profusely from the exertion.  Our packs seemed heavy.  The air became thin and we were cold.  There were times where it was all a mental game.  The pain in my legs was constant.  I was oxygen deprived and struggling with my breath.  Everything was slippery and it was still pouring down, and given the cloud cover, we could see nothing more than about 20 metres all around us.  The steepness seemed never ending.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

It was a hard slog and a serious physical and mental challenge for me.  The final 500m to the Resthouse were on all fours it was so steep, and the air was very thin.  We were wet and cold, and tired of course, but with a renewed energy knowing we were almost at the Resthouse, and a hot shower as promised in the brochure!

 

A sight for sore eyes – Laban Rata Resthouse

There was a flat piece of land in front of the Resthouse and for the first time that day, the clouds briefly cleared and we could see something other than thick, white mist.  It was breathtaking.  We were so high the clouds were all below us.

The sun was setting on the horizon and for the briefest of moments, we got to see some lower mountains and the most beautiful colours of the sunset through the clouds.  Then it was gone.  We were at about 11,000 feet or 3350m.

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

We headed up the final rise to the Resthouse but there was no hot shower – there were signs around saying that the generator had broken and there was only enough power for lights and cooking!  The sign had been there for some months by the look of it.  I was really cold, and I had a hacking dry cough that I couldn’t stop.  Twenty cigarettes a day for twenty years will do that to you.

After an arctic shower we ate despite not having much appetite, and went to bed.  We rose at one in the morning, and started to get ready for the climb to the summit (Low’s Peak).  We knew it was a further 2.7km up and that we were above the treeline so it was granite and not much else except the ropes to keep us on track.  Off we went with our headlamps on, rugged up against the below zero temps.

It was 2.45am and it was cold and dark and the air was so thin I felt like I was going to suffocate.  My first experience of altitude! A combination of the altitude, steepness, dark and cold, and exhaustion from the previous day made this extremely challenging.  I couldn’t see where I was going except for the circle of light put out by my headlamp, and I had no idea, relatively, where I was.  I had thought of not going on, only once, of seeing the sunrise from just where we were, instead I continued putting one foot in front of the other.  It took everything I had.  It was so hard to breathe and my legs and lungs were screaming.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

Finally we made the summit. It was cold with a really strong, bitter wind.  It was dark but the sun was staring to make its mark on the day and giving a little pre-dawn light.

Over three hours after leaving the Resthouse, we sat on the cold rock at the summit, and waited.    

The sky turned a magnificent yellow and orange as the sun rose up above the horizon through the clouds.  The darkness lifted and I felt like we’re on top of the world!  The sun rose a little more and provided an awe inspiring view.

 

Worth the climb

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

We were cold, sore and exhausted, and elated to have made it.  I felt like I could do anything.  The sun came out in all its glory, darkness was gone and I could see where we had climbed up.  I wondered if we’d actually get back down!  We were at 13,500ft or 4095.2m and it was below zero.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

The trip down was hard on the joints and we arrived back at the Resthouse two hours later.  From here we continued on for the base where we had started the morning before.  All up today we would climb, or down-climb, for over 11 hours.

 

Heading down…down…down

More monsoonal rain.  Soaked, sore, tired and elated, we arrived at base. Elated.

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

It had started – this climb up a mountain in Borneo had started something.

One mountain called.  One wild experience called to me. 

Now I can hardly hear myself think with all the other mountains and wild experiences calling me every day.  Some days they are loud and relentless, other days it’s just a whisper, a nagging feeling.  But every day I can feel their call.

That calling, well it’s taken me to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp, to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa (the highest freestanding mountain in the world), across the Kokoda Track (5 times), to the summit of Mt Meru in Africa and numerous other adventures that are now part of me – they exist inside of me.

I don’t know where it will end – but I remember where it started.  And it was here, where it started, that, for the very first time, I really learnt that when I think I can’t go on anymore, I can.

I’m forever grateful to my son who at 13 took on this challenge like a champion, and honoured (or is that humoured) his Mum by coming on this journey with me.  It’s something we will share forever.

What’s whispering to you?  What’s calling to you? What’s your mountain? 

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi

The Kokoda Track – it gets stuck in your heart

Have you walked it yet – the Kokoda Track?

I was standing in the aisles of the aircraft on the tarmac after an early morning flight from Brisbane when the Captain came over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and gentleman, there will be a short delay as we seem to have misplaced the key to the airbridge”. I had arrived. Welcome to Papua New Guinea – Hurry up and wait!

It started, like many great ideas, over a wine with my simple comment “I’d love to trek Kokoda one day”.  My word for that year was ‘action’ so I did just that, I took action, booked in and started training. I trained and researched and read up about the Kokoda Campaign, and before I knew it, I was off and here I was in Port Moresby, albeit stuck on the plane until they found the key!

What is the Kokoda Track?
The Kokoda Track (or Trail) is a mostly single-file track that runs 96 kilometres overland – 60 kilometres in a straight line – through the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea. The track was the location of the 1942 World War II battle between Japanese and Allied (primarily Australian) forces in what was then the Australian territory of Papua. Here, it rains, a lot. It’s humid and hot even when it’s raining, and it’s beautiful country and it’s tough country.

Why the Kokoda Track?
Well honestly at that time, I didn’t have a good knowledge or appreciation for the Kokoda Campaign. I can’t recall learning about it at school. So it wasn’t primarily for the historical aspect that I was going. I was going because I wanted a challenge, I wanted to stretch myself and what better way than to embark on one of the most arduous long distance walks in the world. The Kokoda Track is known for being physically exhausting, but it is also without a doubt, one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging things you will ever put yourself through.

 

It’s no walk in the park

Well they found that key to the airbridge, and after a night in Port Moresby, I was off for nine days, and eight nights, to trek along 96 kilometres of treacherous terrain over the Owen Stanley Ranges, in the footsteps of heroes.

That trek was at that time in my life, the most challenging thing I had ever done in a physical, mental and emotional sense. It tested my mettle on many occasions, and also provided me with endless opportunities and memories along the way.

In fact, it was such a life changing experience for me, I just knew I had to go back. I fell in love with the people and places and learnt so much about the sacred history.

 

Swimming, bathing, laundry

So go back I did. I’ve hiked the Kokoda Track five times now (four of those as a Track Guide). It is such an honour and privilege to be one of the guides on the Track, to hold that history and be able to impart that to others, to support, guide and assist others achieve what is for most trekkers, the single most challenging thing they have ever done in their lives.

You would think my strongest memories would be of the hardship, the hills, the mud, the exhaustion, the pain and the blisters, but they’re not. There was definitely all of that – but my most vivid memories are those that taught me something, about me or about life. The ones that gave me pleasure or made me smile. The ones that gave me goosebumps.

Like when the village children would come to sing for us, not for reward but to please us. I remember vividly the feeling when taking my boots off after those 11 hour hiking days. Icy cold swims in crystal clear rivers. Children laughing and playing. The rain, I recall the rain, dripping on my face. Our porters and local crew, quiet men, very capable and proud of their job, and with unforgettable voices when they sang to us. I will never forget meeting on a number of occasions, Ovuru Indiki who has now passed away, and was one of the few remaining Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – such a privilege and honour. Crossing rivers raging with icy cold torrents on flimsy tree branches, but with sturdy and trustworthy hands holding mine.

 

So much joy

Thirty metre high pandanus palms and everything so green. So green, almost unnatural, that it’s like someone photoshopped the trees. Remembering at old weapons pits from the war, long trenches for the Australians, and deep holes for the Japanese. Avocados so creamy you’ll think you’re in avocado heaven – and some the size of your head! Fresh fruit everywhere, and the best passionfruit I’ve ever tasted. Reconstituted meals, tea, popcorn, choko vine, noodles, crackers and tinned meat – and never going hungry.

The simple but compelling Isurava Memorial – Mateship, Courage, Endurance and Sacrifice. These are the things I remember.

Of course my first trek holds very special memories for me. I will always remember the tears as I crossed under the archway at the end of that trek.

Tears for what happened there so many years ago, for all the horror and the lives lost. Tears for my mates with me that day for overcoming their struggles to make this journey, tears of relief because I made it, tears of happiness because I fulfilled my own dream.

The trek ends with a visit to the Bomana War Cemetery which contains Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. I still remember how I felt the first time I saw it, it brought more tears, and goosebumps, with over 3800 graves of soldiers, 700 of them unidentified, and many too young to have been fighting, let alone dying.

 

Bomana War Cemetary

Each year as I journey back to Papua New Guinea and to Kokoda to guide and share the experience with a new group, I am reminded of what is so special about this hike, and what brings me back each year.

1. People and connections
Material wealth doesn’t make people, character does. We could learn a lot from our porters in Kokoda. What’s important to them is not whether or not they have a smart TV, a new car or even a pair of shoes. What is important is their family and their friends. I meet up each year with friends in Villages along the Track. We see each other only once a year, they never know when I’m coming, but when they see me, it’s like they were expecting me. They have gifts for me, they ask about my family, I ask about theirs. I walk on, and I see them again the next year. It’s uncomplicated, it’s familiar, and it’s a blessing. To top it off, the children you come across in the villages along the Track are some of the happiest I have ever seen and their laughter is contagious.

 

My porter and his family

Sometimes you travel for the scenery, the structures, the adventure, and most times it’s none of that you remember, it’s the people. They get stuck in your heart.

2. Natural Beauty
From streams to raging rivers, almost all icy cold, to hot, humid, dense jungle, to open plains, the Kokoda Track will provide you with a sensory overload of natural beauty – I never tire of it. Swimming in crystal clear rivers, laying on the grass looking over at the sun setting behind the ranges, the colours vibrant and calming at the same time. The Kokoda Track shows us some of the most untouched and amazing natural beauty you will ever see.

 

Upstream – Goldie River

Lift your eyes, today, tomorrow. Lift your eyes to see the beauty around you.

3. Physical Challenge
In repeating the trek each year I also remind myself of just how challenging the Kokoda Track is to walk. I can say that even after five times, it doesn’t get any easier physically. I’m reminded each time how important my training and preparation was. I am also reminded that I can keep on going, long after I think I can’t. We all have a reserve in us and we can all do hard things.

 

What goes up….

I can do hard things – we can all do hard things

4. Technology Free
It might sound counter-intuitive but the unplugging, the releasing of our technology for nine days is surely the best way to recharge. You won’t hear mobile phones ringing and pinging, and you won’t hear people talking on their phones. The people you are with will be really there, with you, not in some faraway place inside their mind connected to their phones and tablets. This trek reminds me to get back to the basics, to be present where I am. To recharge from the energy in the natural environment, not an electrical socket.

 

Real people, face to face

Sometimes it takes a decision to unplug, in order for us to recharge.

5. Reminders to be grateful
I try to always practice gratitude but my first world problems sometimes get the better of me. Spending nine days on the Kokoda Track each year reminds me to be grateful. Grateful for the sure footed angels of today who guide my way, grateful for the meals I can enjoy in the middle of the jungle, grateful for a safe trek each time I cross under the finishing archway at Owers Corner.

This excerpt from my journal from my first Kokoda Trek says it all.
´My little toes were black and bleeding when I took my boots off this afternoon. I laughed a lot again today. I’m now in bed and it’s 7.30pm. The dinner tonight was amazing – spaghetti with reconstituted mince and Tim Tams for dessert! It’s raining hard, the tent is leaking and dripping on me, and my legs are so sore I can’t even touch them. What a wonderful day.” Private Journal August 2011.

Of course, gratitude abounds when I hit Port Moresby at the end of the trek too – that shower, club sandwich and cold beer are always cause for much thanks.

 

Colour and laughter

It’s not just about remembering to be grateful in the moment for all we have, we should also be grateful for all we don’t have. This is the key to abundance.

6. One day at a time
It’s a strict rule that I, and most of the other trek leaders I know, like to adhere to. One day at a time. When you’re on a trek like Kokoda where each day is the same, and at the same time, very different from the last, you and others, can get carried away worried about what’s coming up on day five, or day eight, rather than being in the moment of the day we’re in. So to counter that, I was taught (and readily adopted) to have a once a day (normally in the evening) news bulletin.

It is here that I take the opportunity to outline to my team of trekkers what the next day and night would hold for us, where we could get water, where we might have lunch, what terrain we would be covering and if we were crossing any rivers. We have a chat about the day coming, I answer questions and concerns and we stay right there, in that moment. Just one day at a time. No worrying about that very steep looking incline on day seven, no worrying about whether the swamp was going to be wet or dry. One day at a time. It’s a concept I think we could all benefit from adopting.

 

One step, one day at a time

Just today. Just now. What’s our next 24 hours look like? What’s right now look like? What’s right now feel like?

If you’re considering trekking the Kokoda Track – check out Back Track Adventures. You can find me on the Track Guides page there. I can’t recommend this adventure highly enough. It changes lives, I’ve seen it happen so many times.

In case you’re wondering, even after five treks, I still cry a lot. Some happy tears, some sad. It’s just that kind of place.

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi