For many, completing the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea’s rugged Stanley Owen Range is a way of recognising the hardships and sacrifices of the soldiers who fought there in World War II. Kokoda is a difficult trek, both physically and emotionally, and those who complete the 96-kilometre walk speak of being changed forever. For Simon Bouda, walking the Kokoda Track meant many things, but above all, it meant fulfilling a promise to a friend.
“I want to do Kokoda before I can’t do it,” my mate Ross ‘Beno’ Benson explained to me on the telephone one night in November 2015.
Battling Parkinson’s disease for the past five years, Beno knows that one day he simply may not be able to.
“Sure … I’m in,” I replied.
I’d met Beno while covering a plane crash in Papua New Guinea in 2009 for Nine News Australia. Nine Australians, who were on their way to the Kokoda Track, had been killed when their Twin Otter crashed as it was approaching the Kokoda airstrip. Beno was a Royal Australian Air Force pilot and was assisting in the recovery mission.
Beno was one of Australia’s best military pilots. As a squadron leader with 38 Squadron, it meant that he often piloted the prime minister’s aircraft. But, out of uniform, he was a loving husband and father of three with a passion for fast cars, adventure and laughs. Flying was his life. His shock and heartache were profound when he learned he was suffering from Parkinson’s.
It began with a tremor in his hand. He’d never forget that day. Beno was the Parade Commander for the Freedom of Entry to the City parade in Townsville on June 4, 2011. His left hand shook uncontrollably as he was trying to hold his sword’s scabbard. At first he tried to ignore it but soon the symptoms became too onerous to disregard. I remember the day he rang to tell me he had been diagnosed. He was shattered.
It ended his flying career but he was determined not to let Parkinson’s slow him down. In fact, I think it spurred him on to push himself to the limit. He had never done things by half before. Now it meant that he had to try just a little harder.
To walk the Kokoda Track is a rite of passage, especially for infantrymen. In 2015 alone, 3581 people travelled to Papua New Guinea to pay homage to this extraordinary World War II battlefield. For Beno, it also meant showing himself and the world that Parkinson’s would not stop him enjoying an active life and facing physical challenges.
For me, too, returning to Papua New Guinea would mean confronting some personal demons. Both my grandfather and my father died there.
My grandfather, George Heads, was a pilot who was killed during WWII in a plane crash near Milne Bay. My father died from a heart attack while managing a hotel in Mount Hagen in 1976.
After I’d finished covering the plane crash story in 2009, I’d set off to find the graves of both men. My grandfather’s had been relatively easy to locate; he was buried at the Bomana War Cemetery on the outskirts of Port Moresby. But finding my father’s grave had proved much more difficult.
I knew he was buried in Mount Hagen – in the Highlands – but exactly where was a mystery. That was until a local, Solomon Wokolon, manager of the Avis car rentals in Mount Hagen, offered to help. After a day’s searching, Solomon’s enquiries lead me to a man named Roy Kumbi. It turned out that Roy had worked with my father and cradled him in his arms as he died. Roy had buried my dad, and it was he who, some 33 years later, led me to the gravesite, where I was able to pay my respects.
So now my son, Max, and I were planning to tackle the arduous and treacherous Kokoda Track. We, too, would be flying in a Twin Otter in the Kokoda Valley. It also wasn’t lost on me that two previous generations of men in my family had died in Papua New Guinea and now two more were heading there. Max would celebrate his twenty-first birthday on the track.
In the end, Beno convinced eight mates to join him on the adventure. There were his RAAF mates, Tony ‘Thorpie’ Thorpe, Mike ‘BO’ Burgess-Orton, Justin ‘JD’ Dickie and Richard ‘Penners’ Penman. They’d flown together, studied together and lived together – for them, supporting a mate to tick the Kokoda Track off his bucket list was a natural thing to do.
Then there was Beno’s best man, Tony ‘Timor’ Moore. Over the years, rearing families, geography and busy lifestyles had meant they had drifted apart. But, like me, Tony jumped at the opportunity to take part in the ‘stroll in the jungle’.
Tony was joined by his 25-year-old son, former Australian infantryman Brodie ‘Tulip’ Moore, who had served on Mentoring Task Force 1 in Afghanistan. He had been a pageboy at Beno’s wedding.
And then there were Max and I. On the track Max earned the nickname ‘Donuts’, while my childhood nickname of ‘Bouds’ sufficed.
Basically, we were a bunch of strangers brought together by the linchpin, Beno. From the moment we met it was as if we had been lifelong mates. We soon began referring to ourselves as members of the 1st RBR – the First Royal Benson Regiment.
We were to be accompanied by a team from the trekking company Kokoda Spirit. Our Australian guide and former soldier, Cameron James, had encyclopaedic military knowledge. He’d walked the track ten times before. Accompanying him was a trainee guide, Craig Thomson, a big, burly, no-nonsense New Zealander who was also a former infantry soldier who had served in Afghanistan.
“This is as much mental as it is physical,” Cameron warned us. “The tears will flow.”
I confess – in my case – those tears flowed freely and often. Thoughts of my father and grandfather were never far away. And that I was undertaking this trek with my son.
As we filed under the famous arches at Owers Corner marking the start of the southern end of the track, we realised there was no going back. We were all nervous, with thoughts of our own families and comrades who had experienced the track.
But underlying that, I suspect, was that we were also nervous about Beno. He’d been gradually deteriorating over the last couple of years. He still had more good days than bad – but everyone was worried about how he would manage the track.
My local porter was, co-incidentally, named Max. While on my feet I sported $400 Salomon boots, he wore a pair of rubber thongs. I was soon to learn that this wiry little man had the strength of an ox as he dragged me back from tumbling down steep inclines when I lost my footing.
Over the next nine days he walked the 96 kilometres with me, including 6000 vertical metres, over some of the most rugged terrain Papua New Guinea has to offer.
Our group soon slipped into a routine. Each day began bang on 5am with Cameron’s dulcet tones of: “GOOD MORNING EVERYBODY!”to be heard bellowing from his tent.
We learnt the importance of happy feet. We developed a ritual each morning of taping just about every centimetre of them for protection. Then, after a quick breakfast of Weetbix, honey and boiled water or porridge, it was back on the track for another eight hours. Every day, eight hours of just walking or climbing or sliding or falling. Eight hours – it gives you plenty of time to just think.
At the start of the trek, Cameron had handed out small laminated cards. On each was the photo and details of a soldier who had died. There were brothers Harold ‘Butch’ and Stan Bissett, Bruce Kingsbury, John Metson, Sam Templeton, Charlie McCallum, William Owen, Claude Nye, Breton Langridge and Henry Lambert – all heroes of the Kokoda campaign. We were also handed the details of soldiers who had died in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’d met some of the families, some of us had known them personally.
These fallen soldiers were never far from our minds as we slogged up endless inclines, then slithered down muddy and slippery descents. Torrential downpours, rickety wooden bridges, perilous crossings of rivers and rocky creeks: the track is every bit as arduous as the history books and guides warned us.
Still, we couldn’t help but be overcome by the raw beauty of this place. The lush greens of the jungle, the towering trees filtering the harsh sunlight. From the ancient rainforest to the fast-flowing rivers, it seemed that everywhere you turned was another vista, another battle site.
Strangely, we saw little wildlife, apart from soil turned over by wild boars. I expected the trees to be filled with birdlife, but it was eerily quiet in the canopy above us. At just over 2100 metres above sea level, there are few mosquitos, and only occasionally would one play host to a leech.
As we walked through small villages we’d occasionally stop for morning tea. The locals would be there selling cans of Coke and packets of Twisties – vital nutrition for any serious trekker.
We knew we were doing it in relative luxury with tents and warm sleeping bags – not the conditions faced by the soldiers who fought for every inch of this track in horrendous and humid conditions.
Cameron talked about the 39th Battalion – a group of mostly 18 and 19 year olds – who had been called up for national service in 1941. It was a militia unit: farmers with guns.
Initially the 39th was used for garrison duties and working parties in and around Port Moresby. But in June 1942 it was sent to the Kokoda Track to block the Japanese, who were advancing towards Port Moresby.
What followed was a series of battles that ebbed and flowed across the Kokoda Track. Eventually the Japanese were repelled back to the north. But the price of victory was great.
Here we were walking in these boys’ footsteps.
Next we tackled Brigade Hill, where the three-day Battle of Mission Ridge–Brigade Hill was fought between September 6 and 9, 1942. Fourteen hundred Australians temporarily held back the Japanese forces, which had been advancing towards Port Moresby.
As we approached the summit, we could see a mass of wooden stakes topped with a red ribbon – some with a poppy – commemorating diggers [ANZAC soldiers] who had died here.
Tears again welled in my eyes. After the three-and-a-half-hour climb up ‘The Hill’, exhaustion and emotion intertwined. It was here at Brigade Hill that those young men had gone into action knowing they were going to die. We were broken physically, and pushed mentally to a place we had not been before.
Solemnly we held a memorial service. Poems were read, heroes remembered. The last post was played. Then we were astounded as our porters gathered to sing their national anthem. In return we stood to attention and in faltering voices gave a rendition of ‘Advance Australia Fair’.
The next day, Beno hit his own wall. Day 5 was a particularly tough day. Beno started slowly and it was clear to all he was struggling. But this was a man with a stubborn determination. The track was not going to beat him. We all, at different times, offered words of encouragement, only to be met with Beno’s blunt and stubborn reply: “I’ll be right”. He didn’t look like he’d be right.
Our tea break that day was longer than usual to give Beno the chance to recharge.
The legend of Kokoda seeped into our veins like the moisture in our sleeping bags. As we rested at the top of a particularly arduous climb, we all chipped in. Suddenly Beno’s pack was on someone else’s back. Packs were swapped to share the load so Beno could continue without the burden of weight.
That day Beno’s body began shutting down, but there was nothing he could do about it but grit his teeth and keep going. And so he continued walking. Cameron later revealed he had already been formulating a plan to organise an emergency airlift.
“Giving up went through my mind initially, for about a second. But I could never give up. It hurt. It was the hardest thing I have ever done … I was in a world of hurt. The only reason I kept going was because of the other eight guys,” Beno said.
But there were highs, too. The cooks whipped up tremendous meals, seemingly out of nothing: rice, noodles, pasta and even a baked bean and onion pizza were on the menu. For one lunch they somehow managed iced donuts – when my son Max confessed to taking two, earning him the nickname ‘Donuts’.
On the day Max’s birthday fell, to our surprise, our cooks were able to bake a cake – in a pot over an open fire. They even iced it and decorated it with Max’s name. I have to say it was close to the best cake I have ever tasted in my whole life.
Sparklers lit the air as we sang a hearty ‘Happy Birthday’. The smile on Max’s face said it all. I suspect he didn’t want to be anywhere else in this world at that moment but on the track as part of the 1st RBR.
The nine days merged together, and started to pass too quickly. My lows were no longer about the humidity, basic toilet facilities, a damp sleeping bag, the smelly socks, or the never-ending hills – they were that the trek was nearly over.
It was Day 7. We woke to rain, and it rained all day. Everything was wet. It was impossible to get dry, and we all just wanted to give up. But our discomfort paled into insignificance as we thought of our forefathers in the atrocious conditions they faced. We doggedly ploughed on, the rain dampening any conversation.
By mid-afternoon we arrived at the Isurava Battlefield and as we approached the famous four pillars, which are engraved with the words “Courage, Endurance, Mateship, Sacrifice”, the rain eased. The misty clouds lifted and we got our first glimpse of the valley below.
Just across the adjoining valley was the site of the plane crash that first drew me to Papua New Guinea seven years earlier. I could still make out the scar in the jungle.
After setting up our campsite Cameron gave us another military history lesson. He told the story of Bruce Kingsbury, who earned a Victoria Cross after bravely weighing into the advancing Japanese forces, only to be shot by a sniper.
We then quietly moved to the Australian-built memorial for a sombre service. More poems, more readings. Cam asked me to read Sapper Bert Beros’s ‘A Soldier’s Farewell to His Son’. My tears flowed like a flood as
I read this ode, knowing that my son was standing beside me. Knowing also that my father and grandfather died in this land.
It wasn’t lost on Max that many who fought and died here were his age or younger. The track had shown him he was capable of more than he ever thought, both physically and mentally. Now, he knew he could face a daunting challenge, no matter what life threw at him. He had grown up.
There were hugs all round as we walked under the arches marking the northern end of the trail at Kokoda village. We had shared so much, a bunch of people who did not know each other had become close. Beno had turned a bunch of his mates into each other’s mates. We had walked in the footsteps of heroes.
It’s often said walking the Kokoda Track is life changing. I’m not sure if it changed my life – time will tell – but I am confident it changed my perspective. Walking Kokoda was, without a doubt, a highlight of my life.
Looking into Beno’s eyes, as we walked under those arches, I could see the sense of achievement he felt. He had conquered what, for many healthy people, is an unsurmountable challenge.
“I never thought I’d go to one of these places where we’d all hug, we’d all cry,” Beno said. “I just never thought that would be me.”
We had all been taken to places in our characters that we didn’t know existed.
After we descended on Kokoda Airport’s ‘lounge’ – a concrete slab under a tin roof – Beno ducked away to the ‘Chinese Shop’ to buy a case of SP Beer, the local brew. After a leisurely drink, we boarded our Twin Otter for the short flight back to Port Moresby.
Then the 1st Royal Benson Regiment disbanded. Nine men who had shared a 96-kilometre adventure. Nine men who had shared their lives for nine days. Nine men … nine days … 96 kilometres. Never to be forgotten.
A Soldier’s Farewell to His Son
I stand and watch you, little son,
Your bosom’s rise and fall,
An old rag dog beside your cheek,
A gaily coloured ball.
Your curly hair is ruffled as you
Rest there fast asleep,
And silently I tip-toe in
To have one last long peep.
I come to say farewell to you,
My little snowy son.
And as I do I hope that you will
Never slope a gun,
Or hear dive-bombers and
Their dreadful whining roar,
Or see or feel their loads of death
As overhead they soar.
I trust that you will never need
To go abroad to fight,
Or learn the awful lesson soon
That might to some is right,
Or see your cobbers blown to scraps
Or die a lingering death,
With vapours foul and filthy
When the blood-flow chokes the breath.
I hope that you will never know
The dangers of the sea.
And that is why I leave you now
To hold your liberty,
To slay the demon War God
I must leave you for a while
In mother’s care – till stars again
From peaceful heaven smile.
Your mother is your daddy now,
To guard your little ways,
Yet ever I’ll be thinking of you both in future days.
I must give up your tender years,
The joys I’ll sorely miss,
My little man, farewell, so long,
I leave you with a kiss. – Sapper Bert Beros
Herbert E. Beros, better known as ‘Bert Beros’, served in both World Wars – in the navy in WWI and in Papua New Guinea during WWII as part of the 7th Division, Royal Australian Engineers.