Kicking it in Kokoda

Rob Clarke takes on Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Trail with Project Booyah

When Gold Coast Zarraffa’s Coffee consultant Rob Clark walked into the Project Booyah information session at Ormeau Community Centre, he had no idea he was about to leave for Papua New Guinea.

When he was asked to participate in the organisation’s Kokoda Challenge as a Zarraffa’s representative, he assumed they were talking about the endurance event held each year in the Gold Coast hinterland. Then Detective Senior Constable Nathan Antonik began his slide show.

Imagine Rob’s confusion when the photos showed dense, tropical jungle.

“I just thought it must have been a really wet season on the coast when the photos were taken! Then Nathan throws up an itinerary that says, ‘departing Brisbane to Port Moresby’. Then the light bulb went off,” Rob says.

“I had to apologise to Nathan after the presentation for looking like a stunned mullet – I was so shocked! But of course I still wanted to go.’”

Project Booyah, a joint effort between the Queensland Police Service and the Coomera District Child Protection and Investigation Unit (CPIU), was established in 2012 to manage growing crime and health issues for adolescents in the area.

Mentoring a specific group of high- risk youth, Project Booyah seeks to break the cycle of crime and truancy and encourages participants to reach their potential. During the program, participants are employed in the program’s partner businesses, including Zarraffa’s Coffee.

As thanks for its ongoing support, Project Booyah offered Zarraffa’s a place on the Kokoda Trail. Whoever accepted would join nine of their graduates, a guide, historian and videographer, and four Queensland Police officers.

“Kokoda was a congratulatory trip for the standout Project Booyah boys from the Gold Coast to Townsville. It was an adventure for them, some having never been on a plane. Me, I was ready for the challenge,” Rob said, referring to ten weeks prior training.

“But nothing can prepare you for this,” he exclaims.

The team took a 25-minute, light aircraft flight from Port Moresby to Kokoda, crossing a thick canopy of broccoli-like jungle with no sign of civilisation. “I turned to ‘Framey’ (Senior Sergeant Ian Frame) and said, ‘I just realised we have to walk back through this!’”

Welcomed by some 250 locals peacefully crowding the airstrip, the Project Booyah team disembarked to meet their porters, and local guides Isaac and Ricky. Bags were weighed, boots tied and the forty-man crew set off.

“Only 4,000 people are allowed on Kokoda per year, and you can see why. The track is delicate and crumbling in most parts, covered in roots and foliage. Each step demands caution, especially up rocky escarpments and waterfalls.”

“One of the interesting things about our guides, who only wore thongs, was their way of describing distance.” Rob’s hands scale an imaginary hill. “We would ask how long until lunch and Ricky would say, ‘Three big up, two small down.’”

“They often miscalculated the topography too. ‘Two river crossings’ was usually ‘nine’ and ‘26 minutes’ meant ‘two hours’. I’m not sure if they were having us on.”

While they never lost the track, which braided through a world of vines and electric-green fields, time was another matter.

“By the fifth day, each day blended into the next. We would walk, set up camp, eat and go to sleep by 7.00pm, to be up before the sun. The food was great.” Rob particularly liked curry or stews eaten by the fire.

Rob had a realisation. As an avid camper, he’s used to being in the bush, but never short of comfortable camping facilities. “On that trek, I only had what was on my back. It was a very grounding moment.”

“Oh, I did have my FitBit – 121,900 steps in total!”

The crew became good mates, learning each other’s stories and pulling pranks on Assistant Commissioner Taylor. The Project Booyah boys embraced every moment, even playing village football with the locals.

While holding Australian and Papuan flags, they participated in a moving Dawn Service at Isurava Memorial, to commemorate the soldiers killed on the trail.

Senior Sergeant and Project Booyah State Manager Ian Frame observed a connection between the boys and the region’s wartime history. Each was allocated a fallen digger to read about on the trip.

“In the past, we’ve seen how much respect the boys have for the army personnel we’ve had on board. We knew the Kokoda Trail would have a big impression on them, especially when we gave them a digger’s story,” Senior Sergeant Frame says.

‘Framey’ watched the boys absorb the simple and happy lifestyles of the porters. “They saw how selfless the porters were, who didn’t have any of the expensive possessions we’re used to. It really struck them.”

As friendship grew between Rob and local guide Isaac, “He started talking about construction. Now, these guys still use knives and axes to build their huts, so I asked Isaac if he had a chainsaw. He told me they cost 6,000 kina (AUD$3,000), which is far too expensive. Instead his village hired a man from the next village for construction.”

Rob had an epiphany. “I had been wanting to give them something as thanks. So, I decided I would buy Isaac a chainsaw and send it back to PNG!”

It wasn’t the first promise visiting trekkers had made, but Isaac thanked Rob and they continued walking.

Once back home, Rob phoned Assistant Commissioner Taylor, who was set to return to Papua New Guinea for a conference. “I said, ‘Mate, could do me a favour?’ Then I purchased a Stihl chainsaw, chains and a case and had Paul take it to Port Moresby, where it was received safely six days later.”

After eight-and-half-days of traversing the jungle, the boys donated their hiking equipment – boots, batteries, bags and all – to the local porters. This is Senior Sergeant Frame’s fondest memory.

“The boys really connected with the porters, so they saw this as the perfect way to say thank you. Their generosity told me something very important about the trip.”

After conquering the Kokoda Trail, Rob says he’s inspired for his future travels.

“It’s not an easy trip, nor a vacation, but it was beautiful. My next idea is to fly straight into Kokoda and stay in Isaac’s village for a few weeks, where I can experience pure village life. That’s my cup of tea.”

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