A wild and forbidding terrain reveals its dramatic history.
Vancouver-based travel writer Antonson (Full Moon Over Noah’s Ark: An Odyssey to Mount Ararat and Beyond, 2016, etc.) vividly recounts a two-week, 60-mile journey on the formidable Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea, a rugged terrain marked by jungle, bogs, gullies, cliffs, malarial mosquitoes, rigorous ascents, and steep, slippery descents. After accepting a neighbor’s invitation to go on the trek, the author discovered some unsettling rumors about the region: Crime was rampant, gangs marauded, and hostile native tribes were known to attack. Port Moresby, where the walk would start, had been ranked “among the world’s most unlivable cities.” But the chance to see breathtaking vistas, “awe-inspiring foliage,” and sites known only to Papuans and trekkers lured him. “If the demands of the trek didn’t kill us (as they had others in recent years),” writes the author, “we’d have the trip of a lifetime.” In preparation for the arduous demands of the hike, he and his neighbor practiced power-walking on sand and climbing steep hills in the Australian rainforest; he made sure all his vaccinations were up to date; and, to sate his curiosity, read up on Papua’s history. Papua, the world’s second-largest island, had been a critical battleground during World War II, “the lynchpin” that decisively foiled Japan’s plan to position itself to attack Australia. Although many battlefields change over time, the Kokoda Trail “was almost identical now to then” and evoked a clear sense of its violent past. Antonson and his party of trekkers and porters found unexploded bombs, rusted Japanese hand grenades, chipped helmets, and shallow foxholes. With the ghosts of Japanese, American, Papuan, and Australian soldiers always hovering, the author had a palpable sense of “the dismay their earthly beings must have felt in all of this.” As intensely as he responded to the natural surroundings, he also felt a growing disgust with “war’s inherent vulgarities.”
An absorbing account of a physically and spiritually challenging journey.