With exams just around the corner, the stress of study and the impending doom of exams has the capacity to consume some students. Additionally, some are, or they will be, hounded with the inevitable questioning of what to do with all the time that they suddenly have on their hands over summer. Australians are very familiar with New Zealand, Bali, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Perhaps it’s time consider one of Australia’s often-forgotten neighbours as a source of distraction and adventure.
The Kokoda Track between Kokoda and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea has an infamous place in Australia’s collective conscious. It was the closest Australia came to fighting on our own soil during World War II when the Japanese landed on the northern Papua New Guinean coast and began to make their way overland. When tour groups from Australia set out to do the track, it is spread out over ten days or so but for Papua New Guinean locals, they complete it in three days because it is simply the most practical and feasible way to get from Kokoda to Port Moresby.
Papua New Guinea’s environment drags people in and fascinates them. It consists of more shades of green than imaginable, and dotted amongst the green are flashes of incredible and unexpected color. Hand-sized spiders, head-sized moths, electric-blue butterflies and breathtaking birds of paradise were both awe and terror-inspiring. During three days on the track, I saw six millipedes and three snakes, all at least half a metre, and those were only the ones that crossed directly in front of me. I thought it seemed foolish enough to walk through knee-high grass without anything to protect my shins from whatever might have been lurking in the grass.
Yet somehow, I still made the decision to sleep only on tarp-covered ground and half inside, half outside a sleeping bag. The sleeping bag was simultaneously pointless in the overnight low of 20°C and a safety blanket, something I haven’t needed since I was three, but wasn’t going to let go of during those nights. Sleeping at ground level on the track wasn’t smart, and this became painfully evident after regularly-interrupted nights of sleep. On numerous occasions, I sprung into a bolt-upright sitting position and rubbed my arms vigorously to shake off any real or imagined creatures.
I survived, with diminished energy for a few days, but comfortably alive. The purpose of my ‘sleeping-with-the-insect’ experience was to reach a place called Isurava, home to a memorial that recognises the combatants who lost their lives. It overlooks the Kokoda valley, so densely green that no light seems able to escape and covered by a ceiling of low-lying clouds that create an ‘other-worldly’ feeling. Crickets scratching, majestic bird calls, the occasional distant squeal of a wild pig and the light crackle of small mammals and birds through the undergrowth all contribute to the natural symphony that filled my ears. It was impressive, calming and reassuring that humans haven’t completely destroyed everything natural. Isurava demands attention and reflection.
The Isurava memorial swept away the concerns of my two-night adventure, and a significant chunk of my other worries too, and prompted me to think about the men who fought on the track. The men who were as young as I was, sleeping in the same conditions for months without the reassurance of malarial medication and with the added fear of not waking up or waking up to the sound of bullets tearing through the curtains of leaves that hang either side of the track.
Papua New Guinea is a land that asks you to stop and think. As the chaos of exams goes on around you, remember that life has always found a way to continue – both the natural habitats that continue to thrive and the endurance of people who have conquered fears and stresses through human history. When you get beyond exams, find something that inspires you to stop, breathe and think. Of course, I’m biased to the land that has captivated me – you don’t need war history and tropical rainforests to pause and reflect. However, when those questions start coming about what you are going to do with your holidays, maybe it’s time to consider a land that isn’t so well known.