“I probably should have read up about it before I said yes,” explains Swan Hill local Cailie Skinner when asked about what inspired her to embark on the Kokoda Track in July 2015. It was probably a good thing that she didn’t though. “After agreeing to go with my friend (who had secured our spots with a deposit), I started doing some research. That’s when I started to panic,” she laughs. But by this stage she figured she might as well just go with it and take it on.
Before commencing the eight-day walk (now held over nine days due to the hikers respecting the Sabbath and not walking on Saturdays), Cailie roped in a number of friends to help her train for the 96 kilometre trek. She accessed the training program but promptly disregarded it and instead completed multiple journeys up and down the 1000 steps at Mount Dandenong, hiking weekends at Halls Gap, visits to Six Mile Hill and the adventure course out at Marunda Road, as well as running up the Church Street hill in Nyah.
Having no personal connection to the history of the Kokoda Trail, Cailie didn’t begin the trip with much knowledge about the importance of what had happened over there back in 1942. “I thought it had something to do with the Turkish… but I soon learnt it was the location of battles between the Australian and Japanese forces.” Yet whilst she may have been a little naïve before beginning the trek, she has come away with an ignited interest in war history and the villages of Papua New Guinea. Cailie is keen to share this knowledge with her primary school students- most schools studying the history of ANZAC Day and the landing of Gallipoli this time of year gives her an opportunity to share her journey and learning with the students. “One of them remarked the other day that this war stuff is really sad. I had to agree with him.” A self-confessed ‘sook’, Cailie avoided knowing too much about what was involved in the Kokoda Trek’s history before starting the trek. “I didn’t think I would be able to handle it emotionally if I knew too much.”
Cailie begins explaining what a typical ‘Kokoda Trek’ day looked like, “We would be woken up to our guide Sooty playing ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ on his iPod speaker each morning at 5:30am. Our breakfast would be waiting for us and our tents would be whipped down by the porters so we were ready to leave at 6:30am.” The mornings would consist of 3-4 hours of hiking followed by a morning tea break of Sao biscuits with vegemite and cheese. Trekking would continue and then another break for lunch, before arriving at the camp site around 3-4pm. Depending on where they stayed, they would visit the locals of the village, playing with the children and meeting the families of the porters.
“The porters were amazing. They carried our packs, set up our tents, made all of our meals, packed up our tents. They would sing to us after dinner each night- they really knew how to sing their national anthem with pride and passion.” Though it took Cailie and her porter until Day Two of the trek before they formed a bond. “When he held my hand to help me over a rock, I knew we were ‘meant to be’,” she laughs. The support from her porter Daxy helped her get through the more challenging parts of the trail. “We knew that when they (the porters) disappeared we had an easy stretch to walk along. It was when we saw them waiting for us that we knew we were in for a challenging section!” But it wasn’t only the porters that provided support for Cailie and her friend. Previously held assumptions about some of the other trekkers in the group were quickly challenged when they proved to be the people who were the most encouraging to the girls when things got tough, “They would just be so supportive when you needed that little bit extra to help you push on.” These fellow trekkers were of all ages, capabilities and motivation; many of them forming friendships over the 96 kilometres that have endured on their return to Australia.
Asked what her next adventure might entail, Cailie doesn’t hesitate in saying that she would do the same trek in a heartbeat. The company she travelled with, No Roads Expeditions has a Health and Education Expedition that she would also like to embark on. “The company visits communities and villages, immunising the children.” But whatever she takes on next, she will make sure she does those little extras. “I do regret not walking up Cons Rock- at the time I was stuffed, but then I saw photos from people who did it and really wish I had.” Though this is a common dilemma for those travelling- there is always that one thing that someone says in horror ‘I can’t BELIEVE you DIDN’T go there!’ Yet you just have to make the most of the things you DO get to see and do. On this Cailie is pragmatic, “I did this trip for me, not anyone else. I have the memories of it in my head.” And as we commemorate ANZAC Day today, Cailie has an even better understanding compared to that of 12 months ago, of what those involved in battle had to endure.
Are you interested in tackling the Kokoda Trek yourself? Cailie couldn’t speak highly enough of the No Roads Expedition company who she travelled with.