December 10, 2019 – Rick Antonson, “Papua New Guinea”

Former President and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, the self-proclaimed “accidental executive” Rick Antonson habitually opts for the path less wandered – or sometimes where there’s no path at all. In his travels, Rick chooses countries seldom referred to as bustling tourist destinations, including the Belarus, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Libya, Algeria and North Korea.

This love of travel coupled with his passion for writing and his ability to think philosophically has led to books which Rick has either authored or co-authored. His works include To Timbuktu for a Haircut; A Journey Through West Africa (2013, Second Edition), Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America’s Main Street (2012),and the forthcoming Full Moon Over Noah’s Ark: An Odyssey to Mount Ararat (September 2015),and his co-authored work Slumach’s Gold: In Search of a Legend (2007). Rick’s Route 66 Still Kicks chronicles the 2,400 mile roadtrip adventure from Chicago to LA looking for all the old parts of the highway, and was called “one of the best books of the bunch” by the New York Times in their year-end travel book round-up, 2012.

Here is an intro to his talk.


Crossing the Kokoda Trail in the Last Wild Place on Earth
By Rick Antonson

Author Rick Antonson will be sharing his experiences and adventures with us on this important and often overlooked part of the world.

Rick has lots of miles under his belt: from the summit of Mount Ararat in Eastern Turkey, to the abandoned stretches of Route 66, from going to Timbuktu for a haircut, to travels in Iraq and Iran. He didn’t think twice when one day a chance Australian acquaintance invited him for a “walk across the country” of Papua New Guinea.

The “walk” turned out to be a grueling trek on the notorious Kokoda Trail—a narrow, 60-mile footpath featuring rough jungle, 6,000 feet in elevation change, and punishing weather extremes. The country and the trail both get fresh perspectives in Antonson’s new book, which is built around Antonson’s accepted invitation of his new friend nicknamed Monk and the resulting trek, but it’s hardly a mere travelogue. 


Rick started his presentation by thanking PROBUS for having him back, remembering that his last presentation was before he retired. His new career as an author, he said, is a job that requires him to go to work (at home) each day and write! He quoted several well-known authors advice to would be writers, including Ernest Hemingway, whose advice was to write drunk and edit sober! So how it was that he came to walk the Kokoda Trail? He told us about his companion on that adventure who was his neighbour, Glen, nickname Monk. At this time, Rick was splitting his time between Vancouver and Northern Australia, where his wife was the General Manager of the Cairns International Airport. They had just moved into a new house and Rick was there helping with the move in. They invited Monk and his family over for dinner, during which, Monk told Rick that his father had fought on Kokoda with the Australian Forces during World War 2. When Monk was 11 years old, his father went out for some milk and a newspaper and never came back—he hadn’t died, he had simply abandoned his family. As the evening was drawing to a close, Monk told Rick that he was planning to hike The Kokoda Trail. Rick innocently asked where that was, which was when he first heard about the Kokoda Campaign and the horrors of those battles for control of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, between the Japanese and the Allied Forces, mainly Australian, from July to November, 1942. Monk and his family had travelled all around the South Pacific and when Rick described some of his travel adventures, most recently climbing to the summit of Mount Ararat, Monk suggested that he join him. The Kokoda Track or Trail is a single-file footpath that runs 96 kilometers overland through the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea; Rick described it as doing the Grouse Grind, up and down, 3 to 4 times per day for 5 or 6 days in a row. This is not an easy walk! One year, 4 people died on the trail, 2 within one week. He and Monk went to PNG to train for the trek. Rick then showed a series of slides showing the location of the island of New Guinea, the 2nd largest island in the world, in relation to Cairns, Japan, Korea etc. Another slide showed the division of the island between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The 3rd slide showed the route of the Kokoda Trail with all its twists and turns and the fourth showed the changes in altitude, from a low of a bit less than 400 meters to a high of 2,490 (8,169 feet). He explained that, as tough as it was for them, carrying their 15 to 20 lb backpacks, it was nothing compared to the conditions for the soldiers fighting the battle with 60 lb packs and weapons to carry, all while being shot at. At the same time as the Kokoda Campaign, the Battle of Guadalcanal was being fought from June of ’42 into early ’43, with the US Marines. General Macarthur described Kokoda as the worst fighting conditions anywhere in WW2. He called it Green Hell and it
was a miracle that the Australian forces came out victorious. The Battle of the Coral Sea was where the Japanese came down to take control of Port Moresby. They lost this battle, against Australian and American forces but they still wanted Port Moresby. They didn’t have as good information as they should have had and so decided to go overland on the Kokoda Trail. They landed on the Northern Beaches with hundreds of horses, some thought that they could drive, some actually thinking they were in Australia, which the Japanese had their eye on. Most of the Australian troops at this time, were in Northern Africa or Europe. Those on the island were woefully inadequately equipped, with World War 1 rifles and non-camouflaged uniforms. So what happened was that the Japanese landed and pushed back the Aussies and kept pushing until they were close enough to see the lights of Port Moresby. However, the same Japanese Commandant was overseeing Kokoda and Guadalcanal, and he shifted resources – the backup that was supposed to go and help on Kokoda were sent to the Guadalcanal which he thought would be a quick fix. What happened next was that the Japanese advance, stopped. The story is that the Japanese language doesn’t have a word for “retreat” so the command was to “advance to the rear”! As they retreated, they were followed, pushed and pursued by Australian troops who were reinforced with men, arms and food arriving in Port Moresby, which they still controlled. On the other hand, the Japanese were weakened, their supplies were running out, their food resources were depleted and they had been marching, marching, marching. In the end, the Japanese were trapped and while many of their troops were evacuated, many were not and didn’t survive. Rick told the story of Kokichi Nishimura, called The Bone Man of Kokoda, who had fought on the Kokoda Trail. He was one of those evacuated and in 1945, when he married, he signed a note with his father-in-law that one day he would return to Kokoda to find his mates. So, in 1980, armed with a metal detector, he returned and with help from the local Papuans, he did whatever he could to find a belt buckle, a badge or a ring to identify his fallen comrades. He gathered bones and he did what he could to give them a respectful memorial. If he was able to identify the individual soldier, he took back whatever belonged to them and returned it to the family. He had found literally hundreds of his fallen comrades. Later in his life, he became a prominent businessman, developing, among other things, a rotary engine for motor vehicles, now used by Mazda. Rick concluded his presentation by giving a general description of the day-to-day activities as the group made their way along the trail. There were many emotional times for Rick as he thought about all the men whose lives were lost and their families at home. He described it as “not a happy journey but definitely a fascinating one.

Q & A session

Q. What were the losses in total between the Japanese and the Australians?

A. I write about it and break it down – it was into the thousands. I break it down because a lot of them died of disease, a lot were killed in battle and a lot after being wounded and not being able to get proper medical attention. So I do break that down between the Americans and the Australians and the Papuans. There are 3,779 graves in the Bomana cemetery, heroes all, so when we walked around before we went on the trail, 2 things were heartbreaking, one was ages, some of the older ones were 19 or 20, the other was that some of the graves were marked with “Known only unto God” as they weren’t sure whose remains were in the grave. Maybe now with DNA they’ll be able to identify some of them. I have it all broken down and in some battles each side lost 100 to 150 men. There were many cases of malaria as well as dysentery, dengue fever, typhus and fungal infections.

Q. Rick, can you give us some idea of the use of this trail, maybe chronologically? How was it used before the war, during the war and how many young people are hiking it now and what kind of difficulties do they get into?

A. A few separate things there! This started out as a Trading route going back and forth hundreds of years ago it was there, it just hadn’t evolved and then it started to disappear through lack of use; a lot of the villages were self-sustaining. When the missionaries arrived in Port Moresby they found that it had already been carved up by others who were there earlier. The Northern part had been a German colony, Lutherans were there so the 7th Day Adventists decided they would take their message along the Kokoda Trail and that activated the trail a bit more because they also brought with them some training, health care and education. It was then used as a postal route for the longest time. The Kokoda Trail is the part from Port Moresby to Kokoda Station, which is about 60 miles. The entire trail ending up at the beaches, about 100 miles, is called the Kokoda Route by the Australians is used a bit for trade and there are a lot of young people that go – a buddy of mine in Melbourne just put me in touch with his daughter who’s learning Australian sign-language. She did the Kokoda trail with aids who helped her get across it. One of our guides will take school kids, usually high school kids, on the track. But if you google it and watch videos, what you’ll see quite often are young people, guys or girls, just exhausted, in tears from the physical demands of it. There were three women with us and one was the mother of an 18 year old and she’d be the first in a village to connect with the children who were there. Back in 2001 or 2002 there might have been two or three hundred, mostly Aussies, hiking the trail but it was much quieter when we were there. We also had good weather and it would have been very different if we had bad weather. Our guides told us about places that we traversed in 3 hours that could take all day in the rain.

Q. You mentioned at the very beginning of the trail a reference to Churchill – what is that about?

A. So Churchill had a European First policy and under his deployment were the Aussies in North Africa, the Aussies in Europe and the Australian Prime Minister at one time wanted them back and Churchill didn’t want them back. The Prime Minister called them back and all the time they were back, Churchill tried to re-route them to Singapore. In the greater context, the Japanese had been occupying Manchuria for decades, the Korean Peninsula was occupied by the Japanese. When the Japanese attacked Darwin in Northern Australia, the Aussies were on guard and the Prime Minister told Churchill that the Australian boys were coming back. Churchill was opposed to it.

Q. Do you maintain any contact with people from your trip and will you send your book to anyone there?

A. I have. I’m still in touch with all the other trekkers, the Aussies. The Papuans, my porter and friend who would check on me first thing in the morning but I’m not in touch with them. You have to go with a professional trekking company and I’ve been in touch with some of the guides. I benefitted from a war historian in Australia who has written two books on Kokoda and he read my manuscript twice which was really helpful so I benefitted from his knowledge of the history. I’ve been in touch with people like that but no – I would say though, sometimes, for whatever reason there’s a closer friendship and one of my books that I have out there is on my travel to Timbuktu in West Africa and that was quite some time ago and I’m still in touch with Zak who was my guide. He’s got married and has kids and we have a couple of little . . . he’s got some business enterprises and it’s amazing how you can help someone with $150 in that part of the world but it’s troubled now; any of us who went to Timbuktu today would be kidnapped so you wouldn’t go but we’ve stayed in touch. There’s a bit of a side story because French was mentioned. When I went to West Africa, different book, different journey, but I went to Timbuktu and Zak, my guide, early 20’s, spoke 5 dialects of the local language, a bit of German, French is the official language so he was fluent in that, good English. I had gone to Alliance Française to spruce up my high school French but one day I said that we should just speak French. Towards the end of the day, he said “Reeek, I have broken English but you have unfixable French!” So I do try to stay in touch with people. Papua New Guinea has amazing opportunities to visit remote villages but it still hangs under this image of cannibalism and head-hunting. I had read about inter-rival battles, I talk about how we were going to extend our trip and do something called the Black Cat Track but literally weeks before we were into the final arrangements, a trekking group there was attacked and while the Australians and New Zealanders on the trek were left unharmed, the porters were all slashed with machetes and two of them died. So that image makes it very difficult on that country which is a beautiful country but it suffers under the image of what are called raskols, and they’re sort of from tribal areas who carry that into the drug trade which diminishes that country’s beautiful brand of welcoming because it puts the fear into people.

Q. Having not been able to win the Battle of the Coral Sea, and therefore have control of the sea, what was the benefit to the Japanese of having control of Port Moresby?

A. The benefits were several, one of which was that it’s a flat area, it already had an airport and a good harbour so they could build more ships there; they could expand the airport, they could fly in other aircraft. And with that they could re-mount an assault on the India/America/Australia battle ships. It would also mean that they had a southern perimeter because when they did the invasions, they went into Hong Kong and Malaysia and what today is the Vietnam area. Their victory ratio on land battles was 100% but they wanted this perimeter in Asia. They were going to go back and settle Hawaii, they were going to formally invade Hawaii, so when all this was happening, it was a master plan, a 6 month plan, and Guadalcanal and Kokoda changed that plan with those defeats and reversed it.
OK, just one last really quick story! It`s a back to training story when Monk and I were near the end of the 3 month training and he and I would go up a place called Earl`s Hill and it was half an hour up and half an hour down and they told us that it kind of replicates what would see for hours on end on the Kokoda. So Monk and I got into a bit of a routine, we`d go up this and I`d ask questions and he would talk and talk – talk all the way and talk all the way down. We`d get to the bottom and I`d be gasping for air and I`d take a deep breath then shoot back up the trail. So we`d go up, down and do this 3 times at the end of which Monk would say “Well, let`s go for beers and chips” so off we`d go and do that. We did it one day – we`re in Cairns where there’s lots of mountains, lots of jungle, we get home and that night, Monk phones me – I had tripped going up that day so we’d stopped and had some sweets – I’d caught my shoulder before I fell to the ground. So he phones and says “Did you see the evening news?” I said “No” and he said “Well you remember where you tripped today, well” he said “about half an hour after we were there, this guy was climbing up, had his i-phone with him and his video’s on the evening news. He stopped where we stopped because there was a 12 foot pipe going across the trail!”
Laughter and applause.

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