Sailors Conquer Kokoda Track

Department of Defence

Wading through waist-deep water didn’t faze five sailors as they pushed through their first river crossing on day one of the Kokoda Track.

However, it wasn’t until they encountered the next thunderous white-water obstacle and saw a local porter swept downstream, that the enormity of the trek truly hit them.

“We all thought, ‘are we really crossing this?’ It was nuts,” physical training instructor Petty Officer Kerryn Seaborn said.

Fortunately, the porter found a fallen tree and clung to its branches, but lost his tools and shoes.

Five porters formed a daisy chain to help the hikers cross the 10m stretch safely.

With rising waters, a rope was fetched to assist the last trekkers.

Petty Officer Seaborn said the trek leader had never seen the creek so high and dangerous in his 70 tours.

“It was wild but exhilarating, and it fired us up for the rest of the trek,” she said.

The high-performing sailors, senior sailors and officer from HMAS Cairns were chosen to begin the trek in Papua New Guinea.

The initiative was originally planned as a trip to Everest Base Camp in 2022.

“We had to change the destination and kept pushing the dates due to finance, but ended up raising just over $23,000 through fundraising and donations from local industry as well as Cairns RSL Sub Branch and Navy Anchorage,” Petty Officer Seaborn said.

On day one, the team passed under the memorial arches at Owers’ Corner, named after Lieutenant Noel Owers, a surveyor tasked to seek an alternative supply route to troops on the trail.

The trekkers navigated rugged mountains and narrow ridgelines and visited historic battlefields, ammunition dumps and crashed fighter planes.

They braved muddy inclines, cooled off in creeks and waterfalls, and crossed log bridges into moss-covered forests.

Villagers sold refreshments and fresh fruit for the weary hikers, while women wove bilums – traditional string bags for purchase.

“We played touch footy with the kids at Efogi village. They have no power and hardly any possessions, but are the happiest children,” Petty Officer Seaborn said.

Guides shared insights into the campaign’s strategy, tactics and soldiers’ stories.

Unlike the soldiers who fought along the trail, the sailors trekked with the support of porters and a campsite crew who pitched their tents and provided fresh, local food.

On the 10th day, the team attended a service at the Isurava War Memorial where the trek leader briefed them on the significant four-day battle of 1942.

They stood under the Australian black granite pillars, each inscribed with ‘courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice’.

“It sent goosebumps through my body to be there and hear the stories of the brave young men who fought the enemy, some by hand, showing incredible courage and self-sacrifice,” Petty Officer Seaborn said.

Leading Seaman Liv Harrison, a maritime personnel operator and mother of two, described the trek as life-changing.

“Seeing how happy the children are with so little put everything into perspective and made me appreciate the little things more back home,” she said.

She watched children walk up to 3km to school, carrying only a raw potato for lunch.

The sailors trained for over a year in Cairns’ humid, rainy conditions, progressing from small hikes to summiting Queensland’s highest peak, Mount Bartle Frere.

“We have amazing mountains here, so every month the team hiked a different one,” Petty Officer Seaborn said.

Each sailor had a personal connection to war history, and the trek allowed them to reflect on the fierce battle that occurred so close to home.

“It was overwhelming to think such a brutal war happened in such beautiful surroundings,” Petty Officer Seaborn said.

Commanding Officer Cairns Commander Alfonso Santos was proud of the team’s achievements.

“This journey has further developed them as outstanding leaders and has connected them with our rich military history as well as giving them perspective on our current and future Defence mission,” he said.

The 10-day hike covered 152km, climbing a total of 7150m along the original wartime trail.

Boarding the small plane back to Port Moresby, they underwent a passenger weigh-in and discovered some had lost up to 9kg.

After hearing the stories, seeing the locations and developing a deep connection, the sailors paid their final respects at the Bomana War Cemetery.

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