Oceania: All quiet on the jungle front

Papua New Guinea's dense rainforest hides poignant reminders of a brutal Second World War campaign, says Mark Stratton

Anthropologists adore Papua New Guinea. Most of this immense country remains blanketed by impenetrable tropical forests while its numerous indigenous tribes pursue rural subsistence lifestyles. Yet, running through much of the country, you find evidence of the Second World War – a conflict that remains exposed like an open wound.

"Two years ago near my village, a B-26 bomber was found in the jungle with six dead American crewman," said Rodrick Vane, my trekking guide. "The airmen were still strapped into the plane and American officials came and took them away for burial more than 60 years after they'd died."

I'd met Rodrick in Popondetta, the northern airport hub of the Kokoda Track – and the beginning of my journey through history. This year marks the 70th anniversary of fighting all along this route between Japanese and Australian soldiers. Having steamrollered through South-east Asia, the Japanese invaded northern Papua New Guinea in July 1942. They set off south along a jungle trail over the Owen Stanley Mountains of Kokoda towards the Australian-held capital, Port Moresby.

The Australians were fearful the Japanese foothold would prove a stepping stone to an invasion of Queensland, just across the Torres Strait, or Darwin. What ensued was a long and bloody campaign featuring pitched battles and hand-to-hand fighting.

These days, things are more tranquil. The Kokoda Track is now a 96km-long hiking trail that has become Papua New Guinea's most popular tourist attraction, courtesy of several thousand annual Australian hikers to whom the trek represents a war pilgrimage to rival Gallipoli.

My intention was to hike the Kokoda Track north to south across the Owen Stanley Mountains' dense jungle to its end at Owers' Corner near Port Moresby. It's a physically demanding hike through mountainous rainforest and jungle. However, planning anything in Papua New Guinea is tricky. Tropical downpours had precipitated landslides, and my planned six-day traverse had stretched to nine days even before I was trapped in Port Moresby airport for 48 hours because of flooding. Rodrick suggested I downsize my aspirations, and take a four-day taster trek along the track instead.

The drive from Popondetta to the trailhead – in the company of Rodrick, a porter and a cook – followed an abysmally rutted road where numerous river-bridges remain collapsed from a 2007 cyclone. The road was probably in better repair when the Japanese advanced along it after landing on the Pacific Ocean coast on 25 July 1942. Oil-palm plantations now smother the lowland jungles they marched through.

At Awala village, in sight of Mount Lamington volcano, we stopped to inspect a plaque marking where the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion fired the campaign's first shots. Then in the village of Kokoda an excellent museum explained how both sides endured terrible conditions of quagmire mud, exposure, starvation and unforgiving malarial-ridden jungle.

The museum's crisp wartime photographs also highlighted how native Papuans supported the Australians as stretcher-bearers and supply-carriers. For this, the Aussies christened them "fuzzy wuzzy angels". It's not the most political ly correct term of endearment, but Rodrick doesn't seem to take offence. "My father was a fuzzy wuzzy angel," said Rodrick.

From Kokoda's trailhead we ascended on foot as oil-palm reverted to rainforest peppered with the breadfruit, papaya, and banana trees that spill out from the food gardens of local villages. Fast-flowing rivers skidded off the Owen Stanley Range ahead and the birdlife proved scintillating: not least the raggiana bird of paradise, which flounced its gingery-orange plumage like a Moulin Rouge can-can dancer. Accommodation along the track is provided in Kokoda's scattering of simple village communities. We overnighted first in a basic thatched palm-wood shelter in Hoi, home to the Biage tribe, one of Papua's 820 distinctive language groups. Hoi's residents proved generous hosts bringing us young coconut milk and a starchy meal of yam, taro and red-coloured plantain.

After overcoming Australian resistance in the first skirmish at Kokoda on 29 July 1942, the Japanese pushed into the mountains – as did we. The lung-bursting ascent to Isurava imbued in me a sense of shared adversity as a downpour turned the steep track into mud and swelled fast-flowing rivers that we crossed on slippery single-log bridges. Unlike the soldiers, though, my only assailants were horseflies that left tennis ball-sized welts. "Bombs and bullets crashed in an uncaring clamour … as Nippon's screaming warriors streamed out of the shadows," wrote Lt-Col Ralph Honner, who commanded the 39th.

The Japanese eventually reached Isurava's grassy plateau in August 1942. Here they started the pivotal battle against the Australians, who had dug in and offered tigerish defence. It proved a turning point because although they overcame the Aussies here, heavy casualties would undermine their push towards Port Moresby.

Today, Isurava is divinely peaceful. The rainy mistiness parted like stage curtains to reveal spellbinding views back down the forested Yodda Valley towards the Pacific Ocean. An Australian memorial to Isurava Battle perches on the plateau in the form of four polished granite stones inscribed: "Courage, Mateship, Endurance, Sacrifice". Nearby is a plaque to Pte Bruce Kingsbury, awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for a solo attack that broke up a Japanese advance. There's also a tiny museum run by Martin Liva, whose folks once farmed this land. I was examining a rusting grenade when Martin casually mentioned it was still live. Replacing it among rusting Bren guns and bayonets, I noticed a sack of bones. "They're human," said Martin, "we find them all the time but I've no idea if they're Australian or Japanese."

My trek would go no further. The Japanese, however, struggled on until 50km from Port Moresby where their assault foundered on 25 September 1942 at Ioribaiwa Ridge. The Australians pursued the retreating enemy. By early November the Japanese were cleared from the Kokoda Track after 97 days of bloodshed that cost them several thousand lives – many through disease. The Australians lost 600 men.

Japan's stubborn occupation continued until 1945 as they hung on to important parts of the coast. Several hundred kilometres north-west along the Pacific coastline, near Wewak, is a whitewashed cenotaph on Mission Hill – paid for by a Japanese visitor who, in 1969, was appalled to find his countrymen's bones still scattered on the hillside.

I walked from here to Surrender Park along a coconut palm-fringed beach of caramel sands that conformed to every preconceived idea of a South Pacific paradise. When Lt-Gen Hatazo Adachi handed over his sword to the Australian High Command in September 1945, Papua New Guinea was left to resume its stumbling progress through the 20th century and beyond.

Getting there

British Airways, Qantas and Singapore Airlines fly from Heathrow to Singapore, where you can connect with Air Niugini (airniugini.com.pg) to Port Moresby.

Staying there World Expeditions (0800 0744 135; worldexpeditions.com/uk) offers 10-day group traverses along the Kokoda Trail, June to September, from £2,790pp excluding flights. A local cheaper option is Kokoda Trail Adventures (kokodatrailadventures.com.pg).

More information

The Foreign Office warns: "Law and order is poor in many parts of the country." PNG Tourism: 020-7260 2993; papua newguinea.travel Kokoda Track Authority: kokodatrackauthority.org

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
premier league
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam