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

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