The Big Trek: a journey of 220km along the Kapa Kapa Trail

Longer and steeper than the Kokoda Trail, PNG’s Kapa Kapa Trail took its toll on US soldiers during World War 2.

(Original article posted January 2017 via Paradise – Air Niugini’s in-flight magazine)

By the light of a fire, I’m listening to a story about how a big snake formed the Bofu River and how evil spirits blocked it. The legend goes that the warriors who tried to unblock the river were turned into black and white birds that to this day come out before every flood. My son, Jake, and I are trekking 220 kilometres over the Owen Stanley Range on the little-known Kapa Kapa Trail. It runs roughly parallel, and 50 kilometres southeast, of the 96-kilometre Kokoda Trail. Also in our small trekking group are a few local people.

Peter Bonga is from the northern beaches village of Buna, and Bardey Walbino and Didibu Iova are from the village of Laronu in the southern foothills of the Owen Stanley Range. They accompany us as guides, carriers, and increasingly as we travel, friends. We’re spending the night at Bofu village, where the welcome has been spontaneous and heart warming, and we’re sharing the prize from the recent village hunting party – wild pig, roasted over hot rocks. Our host, Mary, is not only feeding us tonight – but also about 30 other transient villagers from far-flung communities who are making their way to the markets in Popondetta.

Popondetta is the capital of Oro Province and is a day’s walk plus a 30-minute truck ride away, and is also our restocking destination. Our ultimate destination is Buna on the coast. We are walking the Kapa Kapa Trail, following the route taken in October 1942, by the US 126th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Red Arrows Division. General McArthur, who was the commander of the South West Pacific forces, sent 1000 troops over this barely passable trail to cut off the Japanese supply line to the Kokoda Trail and mount an assault on the Japanese fortification at Buna. The Kapa Kapa Trail took its toll on those troops. By the time they got over the ranges only a quarter were still fit to fight, the rest having succumbed to exhaustion, sickness, tropical infections and injuries. As I sit in the open guest hut in this one-family village, I reflect on how we started our trek 25 days earlier. We travelled by truck a few hours east of Port Moresby to the coastal village of Gaba Gaba. (A mispronunciation of the village name by the US soldiers gave rise to the name of the trail, the Kapa Kapa.)

At Gaba Gaba, we meet Bala, who tells us that he recalls the Americans passing by in 1942. Bala, who must have been about 14 at the time, says the soldiers were mostly kind. While many of the locals fled, some were conscripted as Fuzzy Wuzzies to help the soldiers. After Gaba Gaba, we continue our trek alongside the Kemp Welsh River. We sweat profusely in the humidity and even the smallest of hills has us sympathising with the soldiers who started discarding their full packs at this point. They dropped anything they thought was not essential, including blankets, but regretted this later when they were in the damp and cold of the high country. In the lower villages by the Kemp Welsh River the village life is basic. They grow betel nut and bananas to take by raft down the river to sell at the markets in Kwikila or Port Moresby.

At Kokenomu village, our host Debbie empties out part of her two-room hut for us to stay and she feeds us with their staple diet – boiled green bananas. It is a bit hard for our stomachs to get used to but we eat it because we know we will need the energy for the next day’s walk. We leave the banks of the Kemp Welsh River and climb up and over our first mountain range. The track is narrow, and after a night camping in a jungle clearing, under a tarpaulin, where the leeches find their way into our sleeping bags, we pause at the quaint village of Imiduru on the way to the central and largest village on the south side of the range, Doribisoro. We stay overnight in a house vacated for us, and in the intense heat of the morning sun we follow our village guide to the grave of an Australian soldier, private Albert King. Private King, who perished as a result of sickness, was the aide to Captain Buckler. Buckler was the leader of a party of 41 Australian soldiers from the 2/14th who found themselves behind enemy lines after being cut off at the battle of Isuava on the Kokoda Trail.

After a six-week journey, which was undertaken mostly without food, Buckler and the rest of his party made it out successfully along the Kapa Kapa Trail, rafting the last section down the Kemp Welsh River. Just after leaving Doribisoro, we visit the sister village of Igonomu on the other side of the Mimai River. The access across the river is a wire-rope bridge patched up with many pieces of wood and vines. Just to be safe and sure, we cross one at a time and we are careful where we place our feet. At Igonomu we are welcomed by villagers in traditional dress and offered food for our journey up the Mimai River valley.

We walk for about four hours along the banks of the Mimai River, criss-crossing this beautiful mountain stream, as we make our way to the village of Laronu and the home to Walbino and Iova. It is still hot, but the walk is pleasantly relaxing. The people in the villages along the way want us to stop and talk and share their shelter and some of the fruit they have picked. It is here that we get our first taste of the local pineapples. They are beautifully sweet and thirst quenching. Laronu village is the jewel of the Kapa Kapa Trail. Nestled in the foothills of the ranges, the climate is temperate, the accommodation in a comfortable guesthouse, and we find the best, albeit cold, swimming hole so far.

I spend time talking to Berua about the history of the village and his recollections of the time the ‘Americans came’, while Jake is off with the older boys, trying his hand at fishing for eels in the mountain streams. After leaving the comfort of Laronu, we rapidly climb to the plateau looking over the Mimai River valley and then walk further to a remote hunting camp by a jungle stream, about 1200 metres above sea level.

This is the start of a continuous climb to our highest point on the trail. Rising early, we start just before daylight. It is a matter of head down and one foot in front of the other, sometimes grabbing trees to help get up the steep and ill-defined trail. Eventually, after clambering through a moss forest that could have been the set for Lord of The Rings, we reach Niori, or Bardey’s Pass as it has locally been dubbed, just before midday. It is cold here and we put on our warmest gear while we spend a little time celebrating having reached 2750 metres, the highest point on the trail.

As the sun disappears behind the constantly forming cloud over the ranges, we are happy to make as rapid decent as possible to another bush camp, about 1500 metres lower. This camp is also the site of a grave of one of the US soldiers and a sobering reminder to us of the hard times the 126th endured. There’s another early start the next day and we walk for about 10 hours through uninhabited country to the remotest village on our journey. I dub this village New Suwari because it was created just a year ago in the confluence of two rivers, replacing Suwari, an old village that had poor access to water and land for gardens.

Leaving some newly formed friends at New Suwari behind, we walk for a couple of days, dropping down further out of the mountains to the river systems until we arrive at the village of Umwate. In the centre of the village are towering coconut trees, the first we have seen since leaving Gaba Gaba.

We are surrounded by children eager to engage us in a game of soccer. Their ball, which is the consistency of rubber, has been crafted from the trunk of a large tree fern. Jake is surprised and delighted when he is given one of the largest pineapples I have ever seen. After a few steep hills, the terrain flattens out and we walk through a series of pristine villages to arrive at Itokama. We are welcomed like royalty, and villagers from the surrounding area are there to greet us and share a feast of local food, the highlight of which is a vegetable frittata more than a metre in diameter that was cooked with hot rocks, or mumu. At our next stop of Natanga, I am taken to the site of an ancient cannibalism-era village where the huts were built in the trees.

On the way back to the village we visit the dancing trees of the bird of paradise – with two magnificent male birds in full swing, flying between two of their favourite trees. Close by is the wreck of a cargo plane that was downed in 1942 when a parachute fouled the tail while dropping food to the 126th Infantry Regiment. The regiment’s leader, Colonel Quinn, who was on board to make sure the supplies got to the troops, was killed in that crash. When we finally end this amazing adventure in Buna on the northern beaches I know we will be both sad and relieved. We are thankful we have made the journey in safety, but it is going to take a big effort to return to ‘normal’ life. For those prepared to take this journey, collectively climbing 9500 metres – much more than a Mount Everest summit, you are guaranteed an adventure at a grass roots level. In many places the trail and the jungle are the same as they were for the soldiers of the 126th.

Today, however, the thoughts of the tragedy and hardships then suffered are overshadowed by the beauty of the landscape, the sense of adventure, the culture and the welcoming communities along the way.