Kokoda Trail 2018: Parer Trek

We’re back from the Parer Trek. 2–11 July, 2018. Yes, that’s right, a trek with the members of the Parer family, descendants of Damien. What a privilege to trek with this group, not only because of their connection to Damien Parer and PNG but also because they are all such interesting people. The poor old guide initially felt a little, inadequate, but was quickly put at ease.

by Barry Jenks

So, lets introduce the trekkers. Firstly there is David Parer, the patriarch of our little tribe. David wont mind me telling you he is 72, but he may mind me telling you he is quite a famous and acclaimed documentary maker. He is quick to give a lot of credit for his success to wife Liz. Unfortunately, Liz couldn’t trek with us leaving David to fend for himself.

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Well, that’s not quite true. Daughter Zoe was part of our group and she turned up fit enough to look after herself and all the rest of us too. Zoe was certainly ready for the physical challenge and I might add is very protective of her father. Not that he needs it. I’m not sure whether all Zoe’s training was for Kokoda or for the half marathon she was doing a week later.

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David could also count on his niece and nephews who were also in our trekking group. In fact, each of David’s three siblings was represented by offspring on this trek.

Brothers Ben and Jon (yes Parer) shaped up looking like they would be ultra competitive with one another and there was a bit of that. Ben is originally from Victoria but now lives with his family in London. Most importantly he is an avid Geelong supporter. He is also the family historian and knows all there is to know about Damien Parer and a whole lot more.

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Jon and his family live in Maffra where it sounds like he is heavily involved in the local sporting scene. It was evident from the start that Jonno is a real character and the joker in the Parer pack. He is so funny and always there to cheer everyone up with his humour.

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Juliette Spurrett (nee Parer) is affectionately known as Bug. It took a little getting used to for me to call her a Lady Bug (ha ha), but it eventually became second nature. She is just a wonderful friendly and strong person who never missed a beat on the trek. Like it or not she is destined to be the Parer Matriach.

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Last, but certainly not least there was Bud Parer and wife Karen McCredie. Bud and Karen are the first Americans I have trekked with and they spiced up the adventure nicely. They are so so smart – you learn a lot hanging out with them. The most interesting thing for me is that Bud eats Vegemite almost every day, as does their daughter Sinclair. Bud does make the point that although he was born and bred in the US, both his parent are Australian. Bud and Karen have seen more of the world than anyone I have met and despite having been to the most exotic places in the world they really seemed to embrace and enjoy PNG.

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To put all of that another way, the trekking group consisted of David, his daughter Zoe, niece Bug, nephews Bud, Ben and Jon (they like three letter names) and Bud’s wife Karen.

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Left to Right: Karen, Bud, Zoe, Ben, Jon, Juliette, David on Brigade Hill, day 6 of the trek.

Once we were settled into the holiday I dutifully weighed the trekkers packs. Everyone except Ben had a personal porter and to my regret Ben caught me off guard. Expecting his pack to weigh somewhere around 12kg I nonchalantly hooked up the scales and lifted with my left arm and strained my shoulder, which had only just mended from a similar injury – what a great start! It resulted in a few sleepless nights, but at least I could still walk and talk. For the record, Ben’s pack weighed 19.1kg without water. Good luck!

Trek Day 1 – Kokoda to Deniki

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At the arches in Kokoda at the start of our trek from left ot right Karen, Jon, Juliette, Zoe, Ben, David and Bud.

Trekking Day 1 went very smoothly, George and his group shared the flight to Popendetta with us and the two groups were mingled all over the plane so we got to know each other. I got to sit with Julie from George’s group. At Popendetta we were greeted with a brand new airport terminal and clean toilets – amazing improvement!

George had escorted a young boy, Daniel all they way from Melbourne. Daniel is from Popendetta and with the help of Noroads to Health, had been in Melbourne for two years undergoing a series of leg operations without which he would be unable to walk. We piled him into our truck and returned him to his family in Popendetta. Then it was off to Kokoda in the back of THAT truck.

Kokoda was very busy. Counting us, there were three treks in for lunch and preparing to hit the track. David introduced his three cameras and I got a glimpse of the film maker in him and what was to come. Photography is an absolute priority. I must point out that it isn’t restricted to David. Ben and Bug have those same genes. (Well they are Parer’s) and the camera is never far away. We visited the museum, had a bite to eat and then headed off.

It was about 3.00 pm before we got moving, but it was a beautiful day and there was no concern about beating the weather into camp. In fact, perfect weather was to be our constant companion for the entire trek. As we headed off we had a few stragglers and Jon and Ben reckoned we’d be waiting around for David for our first photo. In fact, it was Zoe and Bug who kept us waiting at the starting line. Photo’s done, we headed off to Deniki. Quite a few more photos later, we arrived at Deniki. By this stage I had assessed the trekking capabilities of the trekking as follows: 

  • Zoe – very strong, 
  • Bug – very strong, 
  • Karen – very strong,
  • John – very strong, 
  • Ben – weighed down, but very strong, 
  • Bud – very fast and very strong,
  • David –bloody stubborn (which equates to very strong)

It was evident the personal porters weren’t going to have a difficult time at all. Raymon had Zoe’s pack, quiet old Dibsy had Karen’s, Solomon had Bug’s, Sambe had Bud’s and Phillip had Jon’s. As mentioned, Ben carried his own and personal porter Robin had the enviable task of being David’s constant companion. Jon and Phillip really seemed to hit it off.

We had beautiful conditions at Deniki and hit the sack after a nice feed of curry sausages. David and I made the hut our home while the others used the tents. I noted that David woke very early in the morning at Deniki. That too was to be a sign of things to come. He spends considerable time, actually very considerable time packing his gear. He calls it foostering and believe me he is an expert foosterer.

Trek Day 2 – Deniki to Alola

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From Left to Right: Jon, Juliette, David, Ben, Bud, Zoe and Karen at Con’s Rock.

On the second morning, our Lead Man, Paul Joe, kicked things off with a very enthusiastic chant. We had morning tea at New Isurava and lunch at the Battlefield.

On this morning David set the tone for the rest of the trek. He and his personal porter Robin accompanied by Local Guide Neino, would arrive at most breaks just a little behind the rest of the group. But no matter how fatigued, thirsty or hungry there was no time to rest. Out came David’s camera and he buzzed energetically around the place taking photos of everyone and everything. The first few times I tried to convince him to have a rest, but quickly learned it was futile for me to give that sort of advice.

We had a little service at the Battlefield Monument where Ben read the Ode and Bug recited the “WX” Poem.

I told everyone that the afternoon hike consisted of a bit of undulating terrain. I’d come to regret using that term. It seemed to strike a chord with Karen who seemed to think my interpretation of undulation is big hills and I was constantly jibed for describing the Kokoda Track as undulating.

We visited Con’s rock on the way to camp at Alola. Ben and Jon checked out the hut and decided they would join David and myself. However, the experience was short lived for Jon. At the first sighting of a mouse in the hut, He rejoined the ranks of tent dwellers.

Alola saw the introduction of a Parer family game. I didn’t really understand it, but it is some sort of learning process whereby someone randomly makes an outrageous statement which may or may not be true. Everyone else can call out bullshit and the truth of the matter gets sorted out down the track. (When Google is available). Bug kicked it off by claiming “Gumption” is not just a word but also a cleaning product. She was ultimately proved right. Not to be outdone, Ben confidently proclaimed that London receives more hours of daylight per annum than Melbourne. To his dismay, Google said he was wrong. 

Trek Day 3 – Alola to Templeton’s Crossing One (Dump 1)

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From front to back: David, Bud, Juliette, Zoe, Ben and Jon reenacting the 39th photo out of Eora Creek taken by Damien Parer in August 1942.

I woke early at Alola to the sounds of foostering which inspired me to do the same. I’m told that in some parts it is referred to as fanarkling. I’d assured everyone we were in for a big day and that’s how it played out. Unfortunately the bamboo bridge at Eora Crossing had collapsed and washed away, but had been replaced by a serviceable log crossing.

I hung around at the back with David for a while where his enthusiasm is just so infectious. He was taking photos at every opportunity, talking to everyone who was heading in the opposite direction and chatting away with Robin and Neino. But most noticeable was his pride in his family and the enormous pleasure he was getting from being in the jungle with his daughter, niece and nephews and of course Karen.

At Eora Creek we met a trekking group heading the other way. One of them had found a rusted old rifle which was quite possibly Japanese. Of course this presented a Parer photo opportunity. Well it did for Bug, Ben and Jon anyway.

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Juliette at Eora Creek with what looks like an old Japanese gun.

Ben and I had discussed one of the photos taken by Damien Parer of the withdrawing 39th Battalion. The available evidence led us to believe the photo was taken just out of Eora Creek on the climb to Templeton’s 2. So, at a location that we felt was in the approximate area, we stopped for a re-enactment of that photo. We visited the weapons pit and then had lunch on the track.

During the afternoon David broke one of his walking sticks, however when we got into camp Bud had it fixed like new in a jiff. That exercise was repeated the following day when David broke his other stick.

It was 5.30 before the last of us arrived at Templeton’s Crossing for the night but at least everyone was fit and healthy and we didn’t have to wait long for dinner. Ben Houlo was our Master Chef and doing an absolutely amazing job. By this time I was really copping it over my use of the word undulating and Ben in particular was giving it to me about my lack of accuracy in estimating how long certain sections of the track would take. I pointed out to him that my estimations were spot on, it was just that sometimes the trekkers walked too slow or too fast. The hut at Templeton’s seemed mouse free so Jon joined Ben, David and me in the hut. 

Trek Day 4 – Templeton’s Crossing One to Kagi

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The burnt Kurnai grass of Myola revealed many military treasures to us.

We left Templeton’s Crossing at 7.30 am after another enthusiastic chant led by Paul. David crossed the creek with Robin by his side, but of course insisted on going handsfree half way across the log crossing to get a few photos. We rested a couple of times on Mt Bellamy including Kokoda Gap and the highest point on the track. We arrived at 1900 campsite to find George and some of his trekkers kicking a footy with the porters so we joined in.

At Myola Lake an area of kunai grass had been slashed and burned making it accessible and safe. George’s trekkers had found some ammo and other items so we went looking too. We found a few rusted mortar pieces, smoke grenades and bully beef tins and Karen found 303 projectiles. Very exciting. We had lunch on the hill near Kagi Gap before a long afternoon of descent towards Kagi. Ben was doing very well with his ridiculously heavy pack, but did concede that a couple of hills had taken him to his physical limit. He’s very determined though and there was no way he would ever give up the pack.

At Kagi we paid our respects to the late Fuzzy Wuzzy Havana who died last Christmas and offered condolences to his daughter Tracey before settling in at Gerry’s Camp for a couple of nights.

By now I’d already decided that Bud was going to win my Sorbent Dunny Roll award for spending the most time right up the bum of our lead porter. Bud is just so fit and at home in California he is a member of a running club and competes in uphill running races. At times while following the Lead Guide, Bud was like a caged lion wanting to break free. To give him something to look forward to we floated the idea of a race up to Imita Ridge on our final day. That was all the encouragement that Ben and Jon needed. They accepted the challenge on Bud’s behalf and offered Bud’s expensive pair of lightweight Kona running shoes as first prize. All we needed to do was find some porters who were prepared to take on the challenge and I knew that wouldn’t be a problem. Later on, Ben put up a very nice whittling knife for second prize and Zoe put up her very special sparkling jelly sandals as third prize.

And so it was, the Imita Ridge Classic was born.

Trek Day 5 – Rest Day – Kagi

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The children of Neino’s Marobo Village eagerly await presents from Zoe and Karen.

Day 5 on the track was the Sabbath and a bit of a sleep in. David was still up early but there was no foostering on the Sabbath. Neino was keen to set off to Marobo Village to visit his family and Bud, Karen, Zoe and Ben were eager to join him.

Once they had headed off on their little adventure, the rest of us went to church along with George’s group. Later that day we all got back together to discuss the itinerary for Day 6. Most of us were keen to visit Efogi while Ben and Jon were keen to go to Brigade Hill via the wartime track which is rarely used these days and is overgrown. So we arranged for all of that to happen. Porters Phillip and Max were happy to accompany Ben and Jon while I would stay with the remainder of the group. Of course I provided an excellent briefing to Ben and Jon outlining the dangers of the old track and the trials and tribulations they could expect to encounter. I thought I nailed that briefing.

Over dinner there was a fair bit of banter, once again about my time estimation skills, the words undulation, gumption and of course the amount of sunlight they get in London. There was also more talk about the Imita Ridge Classic and I sensed Zoe may be eager to get involved. After dinner we headed into Kagi Village, met up with George and his group and did the biggest Hokey Pokey I’ve ever seen with the kids. The trekkers had piles of gifts for the children.

Trek Day 6 – Kagi to Menari

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Zoe, Bud and Karen descend the steep terrain that is typical of the Owen Stanley Ranges.

We headed off nice and early on Day 6 and parted company with Ben and Jon at the old track junction, if you could call it that. For the next five minutes we could hear them slashing their way through the overgrown jungle and along with the odd groan and curse. Then it was silent and there was no turning back.

At the creek below Kagi I asked Bud whether he wanted to push hard up to Efogi and of course he did. So he and Paul closely followed by Zoe stormed up the hill. A nice little training run for the Imita Ridge Classic. On reaching the top of the hill both Paul and Bud both had a heart rate of 93 and Zoe did well to come in just behind them. Bud is amazing and has to be the fittest 55 year old I’ve seen. I had a quiet chat to Paul who had already decided he wasn’t going to take Bud on in the Classic. Bud had shown his hand. I knew we’d find others who would have a crack.

At Efogi 2, Zoe bought a couple of large avocados to have with lunch and they were magnificent. It was pretty hot heading up to Brigade Hill where we were re-united with Ben and Jon. They had been waiting about an hour and a half for us, but nonetheless made it very clear that the old track is very, very difficult and not for the faint hearted. I’m sure they were grateful for the very comprehensive briefing they were given back at Kagi.

Lunch consisted of tuna wraps complimented by Saladas with Vegemite and avocado and we got hold of a magnificent pineapple. Ben was now the happy owner of three new bilums. We spent some time at the Brigade Hill plaque where Zoe read the Fuzzy Wuzzy Poem.

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Ben, Zoe, Juliette, David, Jon and Bud Parer at the plaque of Damien Parer at Vabuiagi River. The plaque was laid by other Parer relatives in 2006.

Then we headed down to the Vabuiagi River for a swim. Of course this is a significant site for the Parer’s. It is close to Menari, site of Damien’s iconic photo of the 39th Battalion Parade, but there is a plaque which is a tribute to Damian mounted on a large bolder beside the river. After our swim we gathered by the plaque and remembered Damien and paid tribute to the contribution he made to ensuring the Australian population learned what was occurring in PNG and on the track. As David correctly pointed out “without Damien’s Kokoda Front Line, it is strongly arguable that the heroic efforts of the troops in the New Guinea Theatre would be a forgotten incident of WWII.” After an emotional chat about Damien, David read a poem called Crossing the Owen Stanley. It was a very nice little tribute and we did remember to take a few photos. We then headed up to our camp at Menari.

As we settled into camp, excitement over the Imita Classic was reaching fever pitch. However word of Buds capabilities had spread and none of our porters had committed to participating in this prestigious event. But with PNG National Pride at stake I knew we would attract some worthy entrants.

Trek Day 7 – Menari to Nauro

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Barry lounges comfortable amongst the baggage against our hut at Menari.

On the morning of day 7 we had breakfast and then headed to the site of the 39 Battalion Menari Parade. Unfortunately the area has recently been allowed to become overgrown. This was the site where Damien Parer famously filmed and photographed the parade. Officers had planned to dress the troops in new uniforms, but Damien recognised the importance of the moment and convinced those in charge that the troops should be filmed in their ragged clothed and dishevelled state. Jon read an extract from Colonel Ralph Honner’s speech to the troops and Bug and Ben left poppies in memory of Damien.

We set off from Menari and made our way to the Brown River. Not everyone was up for swim, but Bud got in and Bug I think was only planning to wade in. Bud put paid to those plans and they frolicked around for a while. Bug showed plenty of gumption.

The swamp was very dry and a quick climb up to New Nauro ensured a nice relaxing afternoon. Well, I thought that would be case, but attempting to play cards with the Parer’s cannot be described as relaxing. Karen had the right idea by hiding herself away in her tent with a good book. Anyway, back to the card came. It was an attempt to play 500 and I’ll sum it up in the following way. Ben has a good grasp, Zoe has potential, Jon doesn’t, Bud should never play cards again and Bug is the most lovely person and a very strong hiker. Enough said.

Trek Day 8 – Nauro to Vuale Creek

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Brothers Jon and Ben in the morning at the ridge with Mount Victoria in the background, before heading down to Ofi Creek. 

As we set off on Day 8, I sensed something different and couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then it dawned on me that Bud was walking near the rear of our conga line. Miraculously, Karen still recognised him after all his time at the front. If this was an attempt to avoid winning the Dunny Roll Award he was too late. He already had that one parcelled up. I walked with them for a while and got to see Karen’s calm and quiet nature reach new levels. She rolled her ankle and responded by twice tapping a walking stick on the ground, straightened herself up and pushed on. Not a single word or groan and never mentioned again. Impressive.

We shared Ofi Creek with George’s Group for lunch and took it nice and slowly up Ioribaiwa Ridge. I didn’t want Bud or Zoe extending themselves on the eve of the Classic. We passed through Ioribaiwa Village and had afternoon tea at the first creek crossing. Zoe handed out some of David’s awful and extremely unpopular dark chocolate. By the time we hit camp at Ua-Uale Creek, David was a bit fed up with a head cold he had been enduring for days. Mind you the cold hadn’t slowed him down or dampened his appetite for adventure and taking photos. Dr Bud to the rescue!!!! He squirted saline straight up David’s nose. It was a good spectator sport, but I’m not sure about the effectiveness of this treatment. I believe it provided some temporary relief.

Bug had carried her own one person tent all the way from Canberra to the track so we thought we’d better use it. I doubt there is a smaller tent on the market but it kept her nice and snug and that’s all you need.

That night the prizes for the Imita Classic were displayed and final entries confirmed. Bud and Zoe would be competing against our chef Ben and porters Clement and Joe. Off to bed early and everyone had to settle for a tent. Clement was said to be the pre-race favourite.

Trek Day 9 – Vuale Creek to Owers Corner

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Joe Otti, Bud Parer, Clement Peter and Ben Houli line up for the start of the Imita Ridge Classic.

On the final day everyone was up early and keen to go. I’m not sure whether the excitement was due to the prospect of a hot shower or the Imita Classic. We did the Noroads Chant in Pigin and headed off at 6.10 am. We arrived at the foot of Imita and the combatants limbered up. Joe’s pack was nice and light, but we had to remove things from the packs of Clement and Ben to make this fair. Two trekking groups looked on as Bug assembled our contestants at the line and quickly sent them on their way. Chef Ben led the pack to the first corner with Bud close behind and Clement and Joe jostling for third. Then they were out of site. Zoe stayed out of the ruck but followed close behind. I strolled up with David most of the way and encountered lots of people coming the other way who wanted to tell us the race results, but we did manage to get to the top blissfully unaware of what had transpired. The official results of the inaugural Imita Ridge Classic:

Men’s Open
  1. Ben Houlo – 20min 30 sec
  2. Clement Peter – 21.30
  3. Bud Parer – 21.41
  4. Joe Otti – 22.41
Women’s Open
  1. Zoe Parer – 25.20
Veteran Class and Handicap Event
  1. Bud Parer – 21.41

Well done to all. I haven’t heard of anyone previously getting near 25 minutes. For the record, Bud who was the winner of Zoe’s Jelly Sandals, kindly donated them to Sambe who was last seen in Port Moresby wandering around trying to figure out what he is meant to do with them. But thank you for the very kind donation Zoe.

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Jon, David, Ben, Zoe, Bud, Karen and Juliette in the foreground with the full compliment of the No roads support team in rear. At the top of Imita Ridge.

At the top of the Ridge we joined with George’s group to have a National Anthem sing off against the Porters who soundly defeated us. The porters then treated us to an impromptu sing sing which was fantastic and the envy of another trekking company who happed to be on the ridge. We had a final rest at Goodwater where David dusted off his camera and interviewed Zoe, Bug and Jono. Then Bug turned the table and interviewed David. With the end near we set off and crossed the Goldie River. David led the group up the final climb which is a little more than undulating. Jack and Mortex were waiting there with fantastic snags.

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Our full group at the conclusion of the Kokoda Trail – with beers, snags and backslaps.

We visited Bomana War Cemetry on the way down to Moresby. Ben read “What do you say to a dying man” at Bruce Kingsbury’s grave and Bud rounded off our adventure by reading “Kokoda – now we’ve been”.

We had our final dinner in the Holiday Inn restaurant followed by a little ceremony on the lawn. As you know by now, Bud received the Dunny Roll award and the Best Fall award went to Jono. Unfortunately only Ben was there to see the fall because it happened while they were negotiating the wartime track from Kagi. For reasons I’d prefer not to discuss, I decided not to award my usual silly comment gong for this trek. We then joined George’s crew in a function room where we watched State of Origin Rugby Match 3 on the big screen. The porters sang for us at half time and then watched the second half of the rugby. It was a lot of fun and they seemed very pleased that Queensland won. Not so good for me and George who support NSW. At least we won the series.

To finish off I just want to thank the Noroads Team who were involved with this trek. As usual our porters were amazing and continue to exceed expectations. Thank you to the Parer’s for having me along on your adventure and I am so grateful for the way you made me feel part of it. I can see that is just the way the way the Parer’s are. No wonder the troops loved Damiens so much. I also want to publicly thank you for your generosity and friendship towards our porters and local people. I sincerely hope each of you had a wonderful experience.

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