‘’Wartime Kokoda Track” Re Discovered
“In the footsteps of heroes”
By Wayne Wetherall – Kokoda Spirit
The story of our Australian Diggers and their Papuan Brothers on the Kokoda Track has become folklore, an Australian legend. The courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice shown by our boys have made them and the Kokoda Track an Australian Icon.
The Kokoda Track is one of the World’s great treks, surrounded by impenetrable jungle, raging rivers that have cut deep into the brooding mountains and then plunge into ragged, tortuous valleys that crisscross the track.
The Kokoda Track is also the home for the Koiari and Orokaiva people the original “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels”. This is their native walking track and encompasses many side tracks or trails that thread their way across the Owen Stanley Ranges.
My team and I have crossed the track many times on research, training and exploration treks to ensure the story of the Kokoda Track is as accurate as possible.
Our latest research project involved the survey of the Kokoda Track from Ower’s Corner to Imita Ridge in search of the infamous “Golden Staircase” and from Imita Ridge to Amoduri and the new village of Nauro in search of the western war track that runs parallel to the existing walking track.
There has been recent media attention regarding mining along the track and claims from “Track Historians” and “Kokoda Track Specialists,” that parts of the Kokoda Track are not original “War Time” tracks but merely easier “Tourist Tracks”. I also had reservations about the authenticity of the track that we were walking on and decided to investigate deeper.
We engaged the assistance of the local Koiari landowners, Village Elders and our local PNG Trek Masters to ascertain their understanding of the location of the “Original War Time Kokoda Track.” We also spoke to Lt Nicholas Walsh, Engineer in Charge of Owers Corner. This local knowledge was backed up with my recent survey of the area by helicopter, World War 11 maps, survey maps from 1966 and 1973 and Global positioning technology.
On our walk down from Owers Corner to Goldie River we uncovered sections of the original “zigzag track” cut by the Australian Engineers. This original track is just west of the existing walking track. This track was cut in the zigzag formation into the steep slope to lessen the severity of the slope and aid the progress of supplies carried forward by the mules and pack horses on their journey towards Imita. This is also the track that the 25-pounder guns were manhandled down the slope from Ower’s Corner, beyond Uberi and travelled towards Imita.
The original zigzag track is also clearly visible on crossing of the first stream into Dump 66. This zigzag track was also cut into the ridge heading from Dump 66 towards Imita Ridge. This track is clearly defined on the eastern slope of the existing walking track.
It is possible to divert off the existing walking track and easily join the original “zigzag track”. The original track winds its way up the ridge and rejoins the existing track at the first rest area on the existing track. The discovery of this original track would support the belief that the “Golden Stairs” are on the existing track climb to Imita Ridge. We also found a number of weapon pits on this existing track and on the zigzag tracks towards Imita Ridge.
Just north of Dump 66 is an alternative track that leads east back down towards Goldie River before turning upwards on the opposite ridge towards Imita. This ridge also showed potential for steps to have been cut leading up to the ridgeline. This track emerges east of the existing track crossing of Imita Ridge. This track follows the base of the rock walls that made Imita such a great defensive position. In this area there are a number of defensive gun pits possibly occupied by the 2/33 and 3rd battalions. It is also possible that this track was extensively used by the 36th battalion as they patrolled east and west of the existing track. The track then crosses Imita Gap very near the existing track before appearing to descend west of the existing track down past the weapon pits to Ua Ule Creek.
The “Golden Stairs”
We were very fortunate to travel and meet with a number of knowledgeable Elders along the Kokoda Track, who confirmed the positioning of the “Golden Stairs” along the existing southern slope to Imita Ridge. They confirmed that there was some 1000 steps cut into the ridge after the creek crossing but were adamant when I showed them the Australian War Memorial photo AWMPO2423.009 of the Golden Stairs that the “Golden Stairs were not in this area but on the southern slope to Iorabaiwa Ridge north of the last Ua Ule creek crossing. On our investigation in the area north of Ua Ule Creek on the Iorabaiwa Ridge we managed to clear a 100m section of track just 3m west of the existing track that clearly showed the existence of a cut and prepared section of track.
On comparison of the AWM photo it was very clear to all that this was the fabled “Golden Stairs” that featured in the picture. This climb had nearly 4000 steps cut into the track and was known to the locals as the “step ladder”. Our guides and Elders also insisted that there were 1000’s of steps cut into the northern side of Imita Ridge west of the existing Kokoda Track heading down towards Ua Ule Creek. This was quite apparent that steps were also cut into the northern side of Imita Ridge when you compare the gradients of both sides. The southern approach to Imita is quite gentle with the northern descent being extremely steep and treacherous. They also made very strong references to numerous other sets of stairs along the track including 1000s of steps rising up to the old war time village of Iorabaiwa.
Perhaps the final word should go to our Army Engineer Lt Nicholas Walsh. He stated that the “Golden Stairs were on the southern side of Imita Ridge. “I should know. I built the bloody things!” It is clearly apparent that there are many different sets of “Golden Stairs” along the Kokoda Trail.
War Time Kokoda Track
Our investigations took us down from Ponoon to Ofi Creek in search of the original war time Kokoda Track to Nauro. On many occasions I have discussed the positioning of the original track with the landowners and Elders along this section of track. They all consistently insisted that a small section of the track from Dump 88 to Jap’s Ladder was a subsidiary or village track to Nauro.
Armed with my trusted band of guides, landowners, Elders, GPS and World War 11 maps, survey maps and my recent fly over of the area we set off to put the discussions to rest.
On the track north of Dump 88 on a rise in the track and just before the Japanese Camp (Japanese trenches) we reach a fork in the track. The original war time track heads down the ridgeline towards the abandoned village of Eida, while the current track continues along the ridgeline towards “Jap’s Ladder”.
It has a surreal feel as we veer off the ridgeline into the partially cleared former village. The Jungle has once again consumed the former village.
Our search of the area revealed numerous war artefacts including, metal boxes, containers, Dixies, water bottles, ammunition, weapon pits and cable. The most telling evidence of the authenticity of this original war time Kokoda Trail was the discovery of the communication cable running down the valley towards the Esorea River. The track then crosses the river before rising up towards Jap’s Ladder to rejoin the existing track. The track also splits near the Esorea River diverting along the valley and around the ridgeline. This track then continues down past the abandoned villages of Odobaiwa and Begai towards Amoduri near the Brown River. Amoduri or Hamuduri is the existing trekker camp site in the swamp lands on the southern side of the Brown River. This is the track patrolled by Robson and his men in September/October 1942. It is also interesting to note that the Japanese Camp is north of the turn off to the original war time track. The Japanese Camp or Japanese trenches face east of the existing track looking towards Ponoon and old Iorabaiwa. This positioning also shows that the Japanese were concerned about being out flanked on the eastern side, or the side of the valley near the proposed mine site. This was also the site off one of the Japanese Mountain Guns. There is also a series of scattered weapon pits along the existing track to Jap’s Ladder that would indicate that this area was also patrolled by both the Australian’s and Japanese.
The evidence would suggest that there is more than one original Kokoda Trail in this area and the two tracks that we investigated split just north of Dump 88 thus bypassing the existing walking track. The existing walking track was also used during the war as a war track and as a Village Track. It is difficult to discount the possibilities that both Armies patrolled extensively on both sides of the ridge in search and probing exercises to out flank one another.
The existing walking track will be continued to be used for the present to ensure that the people of the Village of Nauro benefit from trekkers passing through their village. If it becomes necessary to utilise the other track due to mining then this is possible and certainly the Kokoda Track will be authentic.
I think it is pretty common knowledge that there is more than one “Golden Stairs” along the Kokoda Track. I would also suggest that the location of the “Golden Stairs” in the Australian War Memorial Photo is on the southern slope to Iorabaiwa Village not far past the last crossing of Ua Ule Creek.
It is very apparent that there is many alternative tracks cut along the Kokoda Trail and more than one original, authentic war time Kokoda Track. As the battles progressed new tracks and trails were cut to service the needs of the Australian Soldiers along the Kokoda Trail.