The Trip That Almost Broke Peter Fitzsimmons

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Nov 28, 2017

For the prolific author, walking the Kokoda Track was a test of fortitude and Aussie mateship.

The journey

Sydney to Kokoda, Papua New Guinea

The year

2002 

I’ve done a few tough things in my life – travelled overland from Cairo to Cape Town, opened a door for Germaine Greer – but nothing compares to the eyeball-rolling exhaustion of walking the Kokoda Track. With 17 mates from Sydney, I set off from the southern end at Owers’ Corner as the sun went down, guided only by torchlight. We made camp at midnight, were back on the track by 5am, pushing on up mountains, through marshes, across rivers, down gullies, up yet more mountains, all the way towards Templeton’s Crossing. If, at any point, I could have called a helicopter to get me out of there, with honour, I would have. But there was no way out. We just… had… to… keep going.

Five days in, in that last insane two hours after dusk, I became separated from the group, without porters or guides, tearing down a mountain in a fierce rainstorm. The wind was howling, it was close to pitch-black and the only illumination came from my feeble headlamp, which just managed to pick out the track in front.

One slip and I could fall into a chasm, break my leg, pulverise my spine, lose my life. What could I do? I only had one option: push on, hoping to see the light in the valley that would show I was close to our encampment.

And, sure enough, somewhere near 9pm, there it was. It took me 20 minutes to get there but I made it, to find the others huddled around a tepid wet fire under a canopy, grimly eating their gruel. They nodded their exhausted hellos but looked like a line-up of the living dead.

Too destroyed to even eat, I crawled into my tent and somehow managed to get my boots off as the roar of the rain on the tent intensified into a mini-cyclone.

And right then, it hit me. 

Gordie! My friend Gordie Alexander, a 61-year-old Vietnam vet and neighbour who had come on this trip at my invitation, was still out there. The oldest of the group, Gordie had been struggling for the past three days, propelled only by his mental strength and willingness to start early and finish late.

We’d become separated as his need to have more rests became stronger and longer. And in the hurly- burly of getting myself to this camp, I forgot about him.

Obviously, it was my responsibility to go back out there and find him. Wasn’t I writing a book about Kokoda that, among other things, was celebrating Australian mateship? What sort of a man was I if I didn’t drag my boots back on, borrow a fresh headlamp and go and look for my mate? It was my duty as an Australian to at least try to save him.

But then an even greater Australian compulsion overwhelmed me, so strong that I just couldn’t fight it.

“Naaaah, bugger it,” I thought. “She’ll be right.” And I rolled over and went to sleep. Sure enough, he was all right. When I checked in the morning, I found he had got in just before midnight. But I still wish I’d gone out in the night to get him. At least sort of…

Top image: Peter Morris

SEE ALSO: Michael Kirby on the Journey That Changed Him