THE Kokoda Trail is a punishing and emotional trek through the Papua New Guinean jungle.
It's a challenge known for the mental and physical battle it can pose to those who tackle it.
Eight students and two teachers from Bendigo Senior Secondary College recently returned from the famous track and say it was a journey they will never forget.
Teacher Dan Hurrell said the trip was “jam packed” with learning.
“It’s pretty hard to sum it up in one sentence. The mix of education, adventure, environment and culture was just very extensive,” Mr Hurrell said.
Student Paige Gammon said she was scared she wouldn’t make it to the end of the trek because it was so emotionally, physically and mentally demanding.
“It’s something that’s going to stick with us forever,” Paige said.
Mason Swandale said it was a mental challenge that was relentless - just as he thought he'd reached the top of a mountain peak, there was another.
The students agreed a highlight of the trip was the couple of days they spent at a remote village.
They cut grass, picked sweet potatoes, chopped wood, visited a school and spent time playing with local children.
“We literally became part of the family,” Paige said.
So much so that the Bendigo students pooled together money to pay for hospital treatment for “Junior”, one of the local children who had a badly infected wound in his leg.
Student Zac Holden said prior to the trip, seeing such a different culture up close would “shock” him but he was keen to learn about it. Speaking afterwards, the village visit was clearly his highlight.
“It was definitely still unexpected,” Zac said.
“Everyone was so friendly - it’s very hard to explain.”
A couple of students enjoyed the journey so much, they want to return.
Paige said she wanted to return to the village to spend more time with the locals she befriended.
Year 11 student Samantha Hills is keen to return for another reason.
“I can’t leave it undone,” Samantha said.
Ever since a primary school project about the 623 Australian soldiers who died along the famous track, the 17-year-old has wanted to visit.
But her journey last month took an unexpected turn when, on the third day of the hike, she fell and injured her hip.
Known for her determination, Samantha tried to go on.
“She’s the most determined hurt person I’ve ever seen,” Paige said. But Samantha could not walk and so her trip, at least in its planned format, appeared to have come to an end.
The other students and Mr Hurrell hiked on to the next camp site while teacher Jannah Mulqueen and guide Andrew Flanagan remained with Samantha.
Samantha said Ms Mulqueen and Mr Flanagan became like parents to her during the following three days as they sought evacuation out of the jungle and back to Port Moresby for a flight back to Australia.
“They needed to help me go to the toilet, get changed, they made me food. I was relying on them like parents, they were always there to help,” Samantha said.
At first a helicopter tried to rescue Samantha in the spot where she had fallen, but after multiple attempts over the steep valley, it turned back.
The following morning, the helicopter tried again but mist and rain closed in and again it was a no go. Samantha needed to be carried to a better evacuation point.
Two dozen Papuan porters turned up to stretcher Samantha uphill for two hours to the next camp.
The men made a strong stretcher out of wood and rope.
“They literally cut down a tree I’m pretty sure,” Samantha said.
Night had fallen and the group set out at a cracking pace going up a steep valley.
The men took turn, six at a time, to carry the stretcher. They rotated every 15 minutes.
“There was nothing in it for them. We weren’t paying them. They weren’t getting anything from me. I didn’t even ask them to help us,” guide Andrew Flanagan said.
“When one of the boys would slip - you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it - one of the other boys who was walking along beside them would step in and grab hold of that stretcher. She did not deviate from horizontal the whole time,” Mr Flanagan said.
It was a challenge for Samantha who could only look upwards at the trees.
“I had to keep straight on my stretcher, keep my mind occupied on something else than my pain,” she said.
They finally arrived at their destination and Ms Mulqueen and Mr Flanagan were at a loss for words to thank the men.
“They lowered her to the ground and I gathered all the boys, all 25 of them, and I didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t really feel that I had any words in me that could describe the incredible thing that they’d done,” Mr Flanagan said.
Then half the men turned around and went back the way they had come – they were from another trekking group that needed to continue in the opposite direction.
The remaining group carried Samantha to two more locations before the helicopter was able to land.
After two days, and almost 30 kilometres covered with Samantha on the stretcher, they were reunited in the village where the other students were staying. Samantha was amazed at the generosity of the Papuan men who carried her to safety.
“I saw the porters, how much they care about us, and how much they help. They’re willing to give all their strength just to help you out, to get you safe and home again,” she said.
Ms Mulqueen said it was challenging to deal with such an unexpected situation, but was proud of how Samantha coped.
“I was able to see how brave Sam was throughout that situation,” Ms Mulqueen said.
Mr Flanagan, a passionate teacher of military history, said seeing Samantha so well cared for by the porters reminded him of the legendary Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – the local men who had helped Australian soldiers to safety during World War Two.
Having not seen the rest of the students for a while, Ms Mulqueen said she could see how the journey had changed them.
“It was awesome to see how the group had bonded in the village. You could tell that they got so much out of that part of the trip and I could see it because I’d been away from them.”
There were hugs and tears.
The helicopter arrived the next morning to take Samantha to Port Moresby and she flew back to Australia the next day.
Samantha’s father Andrew Hills is proud of his daughter and her response to the challenge.
“She’s a stronger person for it,” Mr Hills said.
“I think she’s grown up a lot.
“I can just see in her determination, even her saying, 'I didn’t finish it, I want to go back' - there’s a strength in that that maybe we didn’t see before.”
Mr and Mrs Hills have been inspired to do the trek themselves and have started training for it.