Window into a Kokoda Kid's World: Part 3
'Peachy Beachies' in Papua New Guinea
Jane and the other Kokoda Kids recently left for Papua New Guinea, their peak experience for the Kokoda Challenge Youth Program.
Each year, there are two tours in this trip. The Kokoda Track Tour involves walking the Track and learning more about the experiences of the diggers and the Papuans who fought together there during World War II. The Beachhead Tour includes some trekking but also has a strong cultural element, focusing on understanding the significance of the second half of the Papua New Guinea campaign on the northern beaches of PNG.
Jane was selected for the Beachhead Tour and the group gave themselves the nickname ‘Peachy Beachies’. They refer to those who went on the Kokoda Track Tour as ‘Trackies’.
These recollections are in her own words.
First impressions of Papua New Guinea
The heat and humidity struck me straight away. You get out and it’s so muggy! The locals were all very friendly and made us feel so welcome. The kids were high-fiving us as we went past.
On the first night, we walked through some of the villages and could hear singing. They have such angelic voices. It was so beautiful. We passed under this ceremonial archway and they were wearing tapas and gave us leis. They did a traditional dance, welcomed us and gave us brown coconuts to drink. We were just standing there in awe and then they sprinkled water on us from a little kettle (as if we weren’t wet enough from the rain!). I think it might have been an initiation or cleansing ritual.
Things we learned about the Kokoda story
The chief told us about the history and how the Australians and Papuans suffered more casualties on the beach in the last two months (December to January 1942/43) than at any other time in the campaign. There were three more major battles there and it looked like the Japanese were going to win. They had barricades set up and blockages across the road in several sections but somehow the Australians managed to outflank them, defeating them.
The stories you hear over there makes everything so much more real. They see us as their brother country. The villagers speak about how our grandpappies and their grandpappies fought together – so we are one now. We’re no different.
On our first day of walking we could see the ‘Trackies’ on a ridge opposite to ours. They were walking away from us and it was a bit far for them to hear us even although we yelled and cooeed really loudly. We could clearly see them across the ravine as they were leaving their village for the morning. We were on a track that the Aussie soldiers used to outflank the Japanese. It was a ‘secret’ track and it felt like we were reliving the experience of the Aussie diggers – knowing they had to get in front of the Japanese. We realised how close the Australians were to being discovered.
When we left Buna we were taken out along this road with massive weeds either side. They told us that this was the track from that iconic photo of the injured Australian soldier with a patch over his eye, being helped along by a Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel. Apparently the Japanese occupied some of the fields flanking the roads. He also told us how the Angels were very stealthy in helping the Australians. They hid in the bushes at night and snuck past the Japanese very slowly. The Japanese were unable to detect that they were close by because they moved so slowly and they just thought it was the rustlings of frogs in the grass. This allowed the Angels to take fresh fruit to the Australians in the trenches.
Our cultural journey
We learnt so much about how Papuans live. They taught us how to make their grass skirts made of tapa ‘cloth’. You break a branch off a tree and strip the hard bark off the outside, skin the stick itself, then use water and a stone mallet to pound the long strips and roll it out. The idea is to stretch it out to whatever width you want so it can fit around the women and then decorate them with paint made from berries.
They also showed us how to weave mats using pandanus leaves. The centre part is easy enough but it’s very intricate and confusing on the corners. You have to fold them in a special way to make them neat on both side – top and bottom.
We were also shown how to make billum bags that they use to carry food and their babies. The bags have a long strap allowing the sack to sit on their backs while the strap comes up around their bodies and pulls against their foreheads. These take a few weeks to make and are made from water reeds. One day, people from surrounding villages came and put on a market for us. I spent about 75 kina (approx. Au$36) on necklaces, sea shells, & billum bag for everyone back home.
We played a lot with the kids. At first they were really shy because they don’t get many visitors. Once they came around though, they wouldn’t leave our side. Each of us girls had about three little girls holding our hands wherever we went and they loved playing with our hair. We took photos with the girls and they loved doing that. They wanted to take photos of everything. They even followed us to the toilet and waited outside. I still remember them all: Lillian, Grace, Rose, Lilith and Sardi.
We helped make a roof for a welcome sign out of palm leaves. We used our machetes to hack up all the leaves. It was a little scary to be wielding such big knives! We’d then use a stick with long leaves on the end to weave through them. We felt like we were helping. Then we fixed a broken roof.
I missed showers but didn’t mind too much because I was so ‘in’ the culture at the time. I missed flushing toilets more, especially when we went onto the track where we had to go in holes in the ground. But they had toilet paper for our benefit! Even semi-flushing toilets were a luxury in one of the villages where you had to use a bucket of water to flush the contents through the system.
Getting water was a bit of an experience. You had to throw a kettle down a well and flick it over at the bottom to fill up. It was one of the hardest things we tried to do but we had so much fun standing around trying to nail this manoeuvre. Here we were – 15 and 16 year olds who were unable to get it but then this five year old walks over and gets it every single time! The kids thought it was hilarious.
We ate a lot of taro that they mixed with herbs and cooked in different ways such as potato bake. That was so good! We also had a lot of chicken, fish, salads and ate pretty well while we were there. Compared to the ‘Trackies’ we were eating much better food! They had spam, canned cheese and crackers.
At one village we helped the villagers plant taro. They also had beans, watermelon and sweet potato in their gardens. While there we also tried to make fire using sticks. Our leaders managed to get them smoking but didn’t have the stamina to sustain it and get it into a fire. Then this 12 year-old village kid walked over and started a fire within minutes! We were like, OK then! Then he used it to light someone’s cigarette and blew it out again!!
They also showed us how to cook on stones and some of the natural medicines for things like dislocated joints. We learnt the difference between wild and edible bananas and how they cook all the different vegetables. Beetlenut is their main drug, a bit like tobacco. The red colour makes their teeth and gums look like they’re bleeding, which is a bit scary.
Mamma Philippa at Sarota
This was an unforgettable, unrepeatable experience. I’ll always remember all the tiny little details – like the faces of the kids and the villagers, seeing my village mother at Sarota (Mamma Phillipa) cry when I was leaving after just two days, holding my hand as we got on the truck. There was such a strong emotional bond over such a short period of time.
They’re just so willing to accept you no matter what your flaws are. They don’t judge you. It just felt natural – like it should be like that. They were so welcoming, taking you into their homes and showing you around the village.
Mamma Phillipa and I connected on a deeper level and it really felt like ‘home’. It’s so different to the Australian culture. Everyone helps everyone else out. Any money they make as individuals goes to the village. If you didn’t do something, it doesn’t happen. It’s a beautiful, simplified life. I felt in the moment. It helps me understand that connection to land that indigenous people have and the value of culture, dance and tradition. But I also appreciate my own life more as well. I appreciated turning on a light, not having to set up a mosquito net every night, having a shower without a bucket, using a toilet that flushes… standing at a fridge and marvelling at all the food!
Knowing that we were invited into a culture that very few people have the chance to get into and going on a track that not many people go on, was amazing. We just felt so welcome because of our history. We felt that we were one and the same. Knowing that the cooperation between our two nationalities was so beautiful.
Songs at dawn
Our trackmaster taught us some songs and phrases in Pidgin English and we’d be walking along the track and he’d call out “Sing-sing everybody!”
At the dawn service, he sang his national anthem and they joined in with the Australian national anthem. It was absolutely amazing! My first ever dawn service! Being there in our KCYP uniforms in the mist and then the sun appearing and shining brightly, we were right where our soldiers had stood and where the four pillars now stand. It was a very special moment. Our porters stood behind us. You could see them starting to tear up when they were talking to us, reading the Ode “They shall not grow old…” It was absolutely breathtaking! We did the Ode every day and every time we did it, shivers went down my spine.
*Jane is a past Kokoda Kid and this name is a pseudonym.