Starting today, Weekender will feature a series of four articles taken out of the book 100 Treks Across the Kokoda Trail
CHARLIE Lynn served in the Australian Army for 21 years. He is a Vietnam Veteran, a qualified military free-fall parachutist and a graduate of the Army Command and Staff College.
During his time as an exchange instructor with the United States Army he completed their Special Forces HALO parachute program which involved high altitude jumps from 20,000 feet at night with full combat equipment. He was appointed Captain of the Parachute Display Team at Fort Lee in Virginia and completed 200 jumps during his tour of duty.
After leaving the army Charlie specialised in organising ultramarathon events and ran outback survival programs for mining companies in remote areas. In 1986 he held the NSW ultramarathon record by running a distance of 213 km in 24 hours.
Charlie was elected to the NSW Parliament in 1995 and served as the Parliamentary Secretary for Veterans Affairs under Premier Barry O’Farrell and then Premier Mike Baird. He retired in 2015 after almost 20 years’ service in the NSW Legislative Council.
Charlie was due to celebrate his 100th trek across the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea – and then the Covid 19 pandemic struck, effectively leaving Charlie on 99 not out.
Rewind 30 years. Prior to his first trek in 1991 only a small number of hardy adventurers trekked across the trail each year. At this time the combined income of all the villagers along the trail was estimated to be approximately $30,000 per year.
In 1992 Charlie organised and led a group of 20 trekkers across the trail to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign. His trek featured as a cover story in the Bulletin magazine.
The publicity sparked enough interest in the trek for Charlie to organise another trek later in the year with a group of journalists. This trek led to national stories in the Australian newspaper, the Canberra Times, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Age.
The interest generated by these treks led to more treks the following year and this led to more media stories in national newspapers and magazines.
Around this time Charlie began to lobby the Australian government to work with the PNG Government to have the Kokoda Trail proclaimed as a National Memorial Park. Unfortunately it was not on their radar at the time and there was little interest on either side.
In 1996, Channel 9 asked Charlie to lead a group of celebrities including Angry Anderson, Colette Mann, Darryl Braithwaite, Dermott Brereton, Shelley Taylor-Smith and Dr Kerryn Phelps across the trail for an Anzac special. The group was joined by a young PNG botanist, Justin Tkatchenko in Port Moresby. The documentary was titled The Angry Anderson Kokoda Challenge and was viewed by more than 3 million people.
Over the following three years Charlie was asked to lead treks sponsored by all the major television networks. This created an enormous amount of interest in trekking Kokoda.
As a direct result of the increasing public interest in the Kokoda campaign the Australian government built a significant memorial on the Isurava battle site which Charlie had re-discovered in 2000. The memorial was officially opened by PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Aug 26, 2002.
Charlie then lobbied the PNG Government to establish a Kokoda Track Authority to manage the emerging trekking industry and ensure local villagers received shared benefits from it. He worked closely with Sir Peter Barter, then Minister for Intergovernmental Relations to make it happen. Charlie’s private company Adventure Kokoda provided an advance of K20,000 to enable it to operate for the first couple of months.
After the opening of the Isurava Memorial trekker numbers began to increase rapidly from 365 in 2002 to a peak of 5,621 in 2008. Over the following decade more than 40,000 trekkers crossed Kokoda. This generated approximately K335 million for the PNG economy. Approximately K63 million of this has benefited local villages directly in wages, campsite fees, food and souvenirs. But most importantly it has generated positive stories about PNG and now acts as a gateway for the establishment of firm friendships between Australian trekkers and their PNG guides and carriers.
As a result, the Kokoda Trail is now the prime tourist destination in PNG, and the Australian and PNG governments have received approximately $16 million in GST as a result of the trekking industry.
Charlie Lynn’s commitment to PNG is broader than his involvement with the Kokoda Trail.
In 2003 Charlie developed and funded the establishment of The Kokoda Track Foundation which provides educational scholarships and health care support to villagers along the Kokoda Trail.
During the drought in PNG in 2004 he established a PNG Drought Appeal in partnership with the National Australian Bank and the Returned Services League (RSL). The appeal raised $500,000 which was used to purchase seeds for villagers in the highlands. Charlie accompanied the consignment to PNG which was then delivered by Australian Army helicopters. Later in 2004 he undertook a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Study Tour to PNG to investigate access for seasonal work opportunities for PNG workers. This led to a submission to the Australian Senate on the issue.
In 2010 Charlie developed and funded the established Network Kokoda as a not-for-profit company that builds community development centres in villagers along the Kokoda Trail and has introduced Agricultural Learning Centres at the Sogeri National High School and Iaowari High School. These centres are now providing fresh produce for approximately 1,200 boarding students and the programs have been replicated in seven villages on the Sogeri Plateau.
In 2012 Charlie was invited by Glenn Armstrong (then with Air Niugini) to help develop a programme to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign. The programme included a map decal of the Kokoda Trail on a new B737; the participation of singer/songwriter, John Williamson in the official 70th Anniversary Dawn Service at Bomana War Cemetery; a fund-raising dinner hosted by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill at Parliament House; and the production of a documentary on Rabaul which was then screened on the Air Niugini inflight entertainment system.
For the past two years Charlie has hosted the PNG Independence Day Celebration in the NSW Parliament on behalf of Sumasy Singin, Consul General in Sydney.
In 2014 he hosted a two-day Centenary Forum for the PNG-Australia Association at Parliament House. Speakers included Senator Julie Bishop, then Minister for Foreign Affairs; Major-General Michael Jeffery, Sir Charles Lepani, PNG High Commissioner to Australia; and Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston.
In 2015 Charlie was inducted as an Officer of the Logohu by the PNG Government in their New Years’ honours list for service to the bilateral relations between Papua New Guinea and Australia and especially in the development of the Kokoda Trail and its honoured place in the history of both nations over the past 25 years.
This book is a story of reflection of the past 30 years of Charlie’s commitment to the Kokoda Trail, told in his own words with photographs from a wide variety of sources, including Charlie Lynn himself.
First Kokoda trek
Arriving at the old Jacksons airport in those days was a bit of a shock. I was met by Bernard Choulai who drove me to his house in Badili near the Koki markets in Port Moresby. Every house along the way was surrounded by razor wire and there seemed to be an armed guard at every entrance. Potholed roads and decrepit buildings were stained red with blobs of betel nut spit. The streets were littered with rubbish, disposed of by the lighting of small fires every few metres. This forbidding first impression contrasted with the uninhibited friendliness I encountered. I was warmly welcomed by everybody I met and quickly felt at ease.
Bernard introduced me to the guide who would lead me across the trail. His name was Alex Rama, a mountain Koiari from Naduri village on the trail. I couldn’t get much out of Alex – his English was poor, and my Tok Pisin was non-existent, so I felt we were in for some interesting days ahead.
A lack of information and maps meant I had to overcompensate with rations and gear. All I could get from Alex when I asked him how long it would take us to get to Kokoda was ‘maybe a week – maybe longer’! I assumed he was going to see how I coped in the wet with my old army A-frame backpack that weighed in at 35kg before he would give me a more accurate estimate.
The next five days were the wettest and toughest I can remember. The trail itself was not marked or even visible in many areas. Alex often stopped to scan the area before committing to where we should go. I later read where a British trekker got lost for a couple of weeks in the area between Imita and Ioribaiwa ridges which extends for five kilometres and crosses Emoo and Matama creeks 22 times. He was lucky to be found and very lucky to survive.
We pushed on until dark each day and then I would rig up my old army hutchie to sleep under. The constant rain had increased the weight of my pack and caused my skin to chafe. The hills never seemed to end. After a couple of days, I stopped asking Alex ‘how far to go.’ Wherever we were going the answer was always the same – ‘about 25 minutes’ he would say without changing his facial expression or giving any further hints.
We had our first disagreement on direction at Efogi. My sketch map indicated that we should continue directly north to Kagi village, but Alex became animated for the first time and indicated we should take another track to the north-east. There were no villages in that direction on my sketch map, but it was apparent this was his preferred route, so I slung my backpack across some very sore shoulders and followed.
Hours later we entered a misty village perched on a mountain spur towards the top of Tovovo Ridge. Alex was obviously well known to the villagers and he soon disappeared with a number of them. All I could do was pull out my ration pack and hexamine stove to make a brew. I soon noticed that villagers were sitting in a semi-circle about 30 meters away – it was apparent they were carefully observing what I was doing as they sat in silence and stared.
Whenever I looked down at my stove to check my brew, I noticed very young children tiptoeing towards me to have a closer look. Whenever I looked up, they would giggle and rush back to the safety of the elders in a semi-circle. This became a ritual until Alex appeared about half-an-hour later. He told me this was his village which was called Naduri and he had gone to see his parents.
Later in the afternoon a villager with a machete and shoulder satchel approached me and introduced himself as ‘Mark’. He asked that I follow him. I asked him where we were going. ‘Myola’ he said. ‘How long will it take? I asked. ‘About an hour’ was his response before turning and heading off up the mountain in the mist. About three hours later the jungle cleared to reveal an expansive grass covered plain. It was a remarkable contrast to the jungle that had enveloped us since we left Owers’ Corner. I later learned that the two dry lakebeds locals call ‘big Myola’ and ‘little Myola’ were extinct volcanic plateaus. I also learned they are anything but dry – ‘swampy’ and ‘marshy’ would be more appropriate terms.
The lake beds are such a contrast to the surrounding jungle which extends as far as the eye can see – and beyond. The local Koiari tribes regarded it as ‘tabu’ land. As I gazed across the area, I felt a distant familiarity with the area but was too tired and physically sore to think too deeply about it.
Alex had lingered in his village for a while and caught up with me at the edge of the lake. Mark was not to be seen but the smoke coming from the hut in the distance indicated that he had already arrived at his guest house. We joined him over an hour later after trudging through the swamp.
I settled into my hut which had a fire on top of soil to stop it burning through the floor. The soil was surrounded by small rocks to keep it in place – crude but effective and very welcoming. We were at 2,200 metres where temperatures can drop to near zero. We rigged up a line to dry our clothes, but the most painful part of the operation was lifting my arms due to the soreness in my shoulders.
Next morning Mark surprised us with some fresh bread he had baked – my first piece of toast since we started. It was the beginning of a long relationship with Mark and his guest house.
After breakfast Mark presented me with a visitor’s book to sign. As I perused it, I noted that previous guests had commented on a plane they had visited. I asked Mark where it was, and he explained that ‘long time ago mixmaster come from Jesus and took it away’.
This helped explain my distant familiarity with the area.
In 1979 I had returned from a two-year posting with the US Army Parachute Rigging School in Fort Lee, Virginia. On my return I was promoted to major and posted to the RAAF Base at Richmond. One of our specialities was rigging underslung loads for helicopters. We received an order to fly to Papua New Guinea to recover a Talair aircraft that had crashed in the highlands. We had a Chinook helicopter and about half-a-dozen riggers. After recovering the aircraft to Goroka we were tasked to lift an old warplane in a location east of Goroka and recover it to Port Moresby for restoration.
I recall the Chinook shutting down its engines and we alighted in what we all felt was an eerie scene – remote, isolated and silent. We had landed beside an old Ford Trimotor which had crashed in the area during the Kokoda campaign, recovered it to Port Moresby then returned to Australia. Mission accomplished.
On my return to Australia after the trek I checked my army records and the place we lifted it from 12 years earlier was Lake Myola!
Alex and I resumed our trek back across the lakebed. The terrain had changed into moss forest and walking was not as difficult for the next couple of days.
Our next obstacle was Eora Creek. The rain had not let up and it was thundering white-water. The log bridge had been swept away and our only chance of getting across was with our rope. Alex gestured that he would try and find a crossing point downstream. He then disappeared for a couple of hours. All I could do was make another brew and rest.
Alex eventually emerged from the bush and led me through a path he had cut. We reached the edge of the water then took it in turns to cut a tree with our machetes and drop it onto a group of large boulders about a third of the way across. We then eased backwards down the log and took a break. Alex then secured a rope to the boulders and entered the raging creek which was about waist-deep. I was amazed at his strength and his poise as he edged his way to the next group of boulders unfurling the rope as he progressed. He then held the rope which allowed me to edge across and grab his outstretched hand as he hauled me out.
Alex then went back to recover the rope and do it all again.
We took a long break as we examined the next obstacle which was about a two metre gap to a boulder on the edge of the other side. Alex eventually removed his boots and stood rocking back and forth before launching himself into the air and landing on the rock – it was as if his feet had suction cups underneath them. He looked back at me with a huge grin – the first sign of emotion he had displayed since we started.
I threw the rope across to him to secure on the other side then had to drop into the water-gap which was shoulder-deep. The pressure of the water against my backpack was incredibly powerful. I looked up at Alex – I could see the concern on his face, but my focus was on my inch-by-inch progress until I could reach Alex’s outstretched hand. It was the second time he grinned that day.
We continued our trek up to Alola village where we were warmly welcomed once again. I later learned that Alex was telling the villagers that I would be bringing many trekkers across later on.
A day out of Kokoda and I was in a lot of pain. My skin was pulpy from the constant wet – my shoulders had welts on them from the backpack and my toes were stuck together. I didn’t have much left in the tank.
During the final few hours I started to fantasise about a hot bath in Kokoda – I had been told it was the biggest village across the trail and was the catchment area for a couple of thousand Orokaiva. I assumed it would have at least one hotel. My vision of a big steak and hot bath were soon shattered – the only luxury was an old building with a septic tank and a wash basin on the Kokoda Plateau.
On returning to Australia, I resolved to organise a commemorative trek across the trail. At the time Australia was experiencing ‘the recession we had to have’ and times were tough. I wrote to most of the CEOs of our major corporations and asked them to send a representative across the trail so they could walk in the footsteps of our troops, experience the conditions under which they fought and died for our freedom, interpret the spirit of Anzac and bring it back to their colleagues to put the challenges we faced during the current recession and the Kokoda campaign into perspective. I reminded them that whenever Australians had their backs to the wall in the face of adversity they came together and overcame it.
The Bulletin with Newsweek published a story on the trek, and this led to more inquiries.
After a few more treks Channel 9 asked if I could lead a group of celebrities across the trail for the Angry Anderson show on A Current Affair. The program reached an audience of more than 3 million which led to more inquiries.
By then the reality of trying to do business in PNG had dawned on me. There was no organisation to manage the trail and no infrastructure. Organising treks and the logistics involved was harder and more time-consuming than leading them. By this stage I was operating at the edge of my credit card limit and had to decide whether to give it away or get serious about it.
‘Kokoda’ was starting to re-emerge in the Australian consciousness as a result of the publicity we had generated and was almost sharing equal-billing with Anzac. According to one commentator: ‘at Gallipoli, we fought for Britain and lost – at Kokoda, we fought for Australia and won!’
I therefore decided that we would need to become more professional if we were to achieve our objectives of ensuring our wartime Kokoda heritage was not forgotten. Soon after I established Adventure Kokoda as a specialist Kokoda trekking company which would focus on the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign.
Next week: Ensuring their sacrifice is never forgotten
Excerpts reproduced by kind permission
100 Treks Across the Kokoda Trail
by Charlie Lynn with Glenn Armstrong