- Gaba Gaba Trek
(Papua New Guinea)
In 1942, in a march that historians call one of the most grueling in modern military history, 1100 American soldiers trekked 130 miles across Papua New Guinea's Papuan Peninsula. The soldiers were shattered by the experience. Malaria, dysentery, trenchfoot, jungle rot, and the rugged jungle and mountain terrain turned their hike into a nightmare.
In Port Moresby I talked with members of the PNG Defense Force and former colonial patrolmen who had walked over much of PNG while it was still an Australian colony. What they told me was not encouraging. Though they had never walked across the peninsula, they were familiar with the country; it was some of the roughest in all of PNG. Thick jungles, rain-swelled rivers, a muddle of steep mountain peaks, hungry leeches, and swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes separated me from my destination.
Undeterred by their reports, I visited a number of the villages on both sides of the peninsula. The problem was that the villagers knew little more than I. Did a trail exist? No one could tell me. Was the terrain as bad as everyone said? One man pointed at the mountaintops as if to say, "See for yourself." And no one would vouch for the friendliness of the people along the way. They were "wild and isolated" and had very little contact with the outside world. One villager said ominously, "If you go, James, I fear for you." Nearly a year later, poised upon the precipice of history, my expedition team and I stood on a high hill looking north at the mountain country that confronted us. Though it was likely that villagers had moved freely across the Owen Stanley divide in the decades following WWII, no team from outside PNG had ever attempted to retrace the soldiers' route across the Papuan Peninsula. If we made it to Buna, a small village on the peninsula's north coast, we would make history.
The whole country was excited about our undertaking. PNG papers trumpeted our undertaking. Port Moresby news stations had sent reporters to interview us before we left the city. PNG Tourism was eager to open up a new World War II trail to foreign adventurers. The U.S. Embassy worried about our safety.
Sixteen days after setting out, our team reached Buna. Our trek, however, was not without incident. On the first day, I fell and badly injured my knee (a doctor in the U.S. would later confirm that I'd torn my ACL). Just days short of Buna, another member had to be escorted out of the jungle when leech bites on his legs turned into large, festering sores. Back in Port Moresby, he saw a doctor, who confirmed his worst fears: His leg was seriously infected. Eventually two-thirds of the team would come down with malaria.
The above is just a glimpse of what I have written about in a feature story devoted to our history-making trek across New Guinea.