Travellers Zoe Palmer and Matt Young embark on 2 epic journeys through the Pacific. Zoe heads off to the South Pacific to explore the idyllic Cook Islands whilst Matt explores fascinating and remote Papua New Guinea.
The Cook Islands lie 3,500 kilometres north east of New Zealand and comprise 15 coral atolls and volcanic islands. Zoe’s journey takes in the 4 islands of Rarotonga, Atieu, Mitiaro, and Takutea.
Her adventure begins with a trek across Rarotonga, the largest of the islands with a population of 10,000 people. The island measures 32 kilometres in circumference and, with a circular road following the coastline, it’s not difficult to get around. Renowned for its beautiful beaches, 70% of Rarotonga’s surface is mountainous, and covered in almost pristine native forest. From the tiny capital city Avarua, Zoe hikes along an ancient pathway to the centre of the island and historic ceremonial site of Te Rua Manga where local people once carved the faces of their gods into the rockface.
Back in Avarua, Zoe takes part in the Mire Tarai Festival, an annual celebration of local culture, crafts and traditional sports. She joins an all female team of canoeists to compete in a canoe race across the local lagoon. No one knows who wins – or fact cares – it seems the festival is more about celebrating ancient customs and having fun.
From Rarotonga, Zoe flies to the island of Atiu, where Captain Cook landed in 1777. Cooks landing party were met by curious islanders who’d never seen white people before in their lives. Cannibalism was known to take place on the Pacific islands so their Tahitian interpreter was terrified when he noticed the islanders preparing a large bonfire. Luckily, his fears were unfounded and the the party received a warm welcome from the Atiu islanders.
Two years’ later Captain Cook was in fact killed and cooked (literally!) by Polynesians in Hawaii. Ironically, the Polynesians had much in common with the man they killed – just like Cook they were highly skilled navigators and intrepid explorers. There is also archaeological and genetic evidence dating back 1,000 years that suggests Polynesian canoes sailed 2,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, discovering en route: Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand.
Next Zoe hitches a ride to the nearby island of Mitiaro in a traditional voyaging canoe named the Te Au o Tonga. Built in 1994, it’s the only voyaging canoe of its kind on the Cook Islands today and an exact replica of an ancient canoe design. Apart from voyages of discovery, this type of canoe would also have been used for regular warrior raids when cannibalistic Atiuans launched terrifying attacks on the terrified Mitiaro islanders. Thankfully, the Atiuans are a much friendlier bunch today. And, when Zoe arrives at Mitiaro, the welcoming festivities are in full swing. These days having the voyaging canoe in port is a really happy event and Zoe is treated to a traditional Polynesian welcome.
The final leg of Zoe’s trip takes her to the nearby uninhabited island of Takutea where she gets to test her survival skills. Following in the wake of ancient warriors and intrepid explorers visiting these remote, idyllic islands has been an unmissable experience. Zoe is enthralled by the Cook Islands.
Meanwhile, Matt Young is en route to Papua New Guinea which is situated 150 kilometres north of Australia and has some of the world’s most impenetrable rainforest. From the capital Port Moresby, on the south coast of Papua New Guinea, Matt flies to the remote village of Kokoda where he treks in the footsteps of Australian soldiers battling with the Japanese during World War II along the infamous Kokoda Trail, otherwise known as “the devil’s design, the ultimate military obstacle course”. The Kokoda Trail is centuries old, and has traditionally been used by locals to travel between their villages and to move from the mountains to the coast. Today, apart from flying, hiking the trail is still the only connection between the villages along the Owen Stanley Range.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour during World War II, Port Moresby was of great strategic importance. Had it been captured by the Japanese, Australia would have been at risk of attack. As it happens, the Japanese landed on the north coast of Papua New Guinea in 1942. Their plan was to advance along the Kokoda Trailand capture Port Moresby. After fierce fighting Japanese troups advanced as far as Kokoda within a week and the Australian forces had to retreat towards Port Moresby with the Japanese in hot pursuit. Matt Young retraces the combatants’ terrible struggle for survival, as they fought their way through almost impenetrable rainforest and across steep mountain ranges.
Setting out from Kokoda, Matt is drenched by rain and perspiration as he treks for days through the humid, dense rainforest. En route, he is invited to take part in a traditional wild boar hunt by the villagers of Kovelo. he finally arrives at Isurava village, site of a major battle in 1942. Continuing his journey, Matt passes some recently discovered WWII artefacts war – amongst these a collection of hand-grenades, flares, sub-machine guns, an unexploded bomb, and the wreck of an American B25 bomber. He also meets a remarkable old man who was one of the local “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels“, and affectionate nickname given by the Australian troops to the Papua New Guineans who helped them during the fighting.
Finally, having climbed over the highest ridge of the Owen Stanley Mountains, Matt’s trek of a lifetime ends at Brigade Hill, site of one of the Kokoda Campaign’s bloodiest battles in 1942. This marks the spot of the first defeat on land for the Japanese Army in the Pacific. Although the Australian forces were greatly outnumbered, they fought back with ambush, delay tactics and by frustrating the enemy in every way possible. Over 2,000 Australian troops were killed during the Kokoda Campaign and – of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers who fought on the Kokoda Trail – it’s estimated that 13,000 lost their lives.
Trekking the Kokoda Trail has been a gruelling experience both physically and mentally – just like the Australian soldiers during the Kokoda Campaign, Matt couldn’t have done it without the help of the locals. Jam packed full of war history, local culture and spectacular scenery, Papua New Guinea has been a truly is a fulfilling experience for Matt.
Places Mentioned - Papua New Guinea, The Cook IslandsShare the series
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