I felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness as soon as I opened my eyes at 4:30am. Today, was the day that many of us had spoken about since we first saw a map that showed the steepness of the route that we would be walking.
As I packed my tent up, I created a strong visual of me standing on top of Brigade Hill. Even though I had no idea what the top of Brigade Hill actually looked like. In my mind – I was there.
I heard our trek leader, Nelson,tap his shovel a few times with a rock to signal that the trek had begun. Backpack on, check. Playlist loaded, check. Game face on, double check. I was ready for this bad boy!
We started meandering through more of Papua New Guinea’s breathtaking jungle. Because of the unforgiving terrain, it’s is often not possible to look up and marvel at this magical landscape, and walk at the same time. So, at times, I would pause, drink it in the scenery and then keep moving – watching my every step like a hawk.
It didn’t take long before the relatively flat became this crazy looking vertical wall – actually it almost looked like a landslide. Then it dawned on me as I recalled this vertical line from the map, this was ‘the wall’ and it was very much part of the track! And there was only one way. Up!
It didn’t take long before each breath became more and more challenging, but my mind was distracted by a game a group of us were playing called ‘Categories’. In between gasps, I was calling out the names of countries working from A-Z, while never taking my eyes off my feet as each step required careful placement. This went on for what seemed like hours, but time was an illusion while on the track as I discovered, just like ‘false peaks’!
Once at the top a short break followed by another challenge ascent – Brigade Hill.
As I stood at the base of Brigade Hill, I took in a few deep breaths while I watched two magnificently coloured butterflies fly in perfect unison. Earphones in, my ‘Kokoda Metal’ playlist on. I closed my eyes, took a few more deep inhales and then start moving rhythmically up a challenging and steep jungle staircase. It didn’t take long before I could feel my airway tighten and each breath became increasingly difficult. I sucked the air in, doing my best to fill my lungs as best as I could, before exhaling. Aware of the fact that breathing with a very narrow airway is like trying to breath through a straw – a huge challenge, to say the least!
I found myself in a deep, methodical rhythm with Metallica blasting through my headphones. The rest of the world seemed to melt away, and I became totally unaware of anything around me – I was in a trance.
Then I got a jolt. Our team medic, Tito, who was only a few short steps behind me, tapped me on the shoulder. He had become concerned about my worsening wheeze and shallowness of breath. ‘Mate, you need to stop and have a rest!’. My eyes prickled with tears. Frustration immediately surfaced. ‘Stop, breathe…deep, slow breaths and then you can go once it settles’, he took my finger and attached a little monitor to check my blood/oxygen saturation and heart rate.
Frustration that I had to stop (even though I knew it was for my own good) got the better of me, as I struggled to get back into the rhythm. I knew that if I didn’t want to be pulled out of my trance again, I’d have to move slowly and really monitor my own breathing and stop before I got stopped. So that’s exactly what I did.
I moved slowly. Deliberately. I was going to make it to the top of this mountain and that I was sure of! I paused, regained my breath, put ‘Shepherd of Fire by Avenged Sevenfold’ on, closed my eyes and got totally immersed in the melody. It was game on!
This beast felt relentless, but I was excited by the challenge.
As I trudged through the steep, muddy and challenging ascent, each step became a dance of focus, commitment and purpose. Time, distance and everything else in between just melted away.
Then, the ground levelled out – Brigade Hill appeared. Magnificent, breathtaking yet tainted with a deep sadness, as my mind quickly diverted to the dozens of white crosses marking many of the lives of Australian Solider’s that were slaughtered here on this hill.
Again, I am reminded that this breathtaking land holds the heavy scars of war . A place that was once filled with fear, bloodshed, bravery and sacrifice.
The hardship that I had faced only moments ago was nothing in comparison to what so many had to face.