What it's like to walk the gruelling Kokoda Track (and why you should do it)

They were never intended for the front line, but the men of the 39th Battalion - initially branded the "chocolate soldiers" and later immortalised as "those ragged bloody heroes" - were thrust into World War II tasked with halting the Japanese advance into Port Moresby. SALLY WILLOUGHBY retraces their fighting withdrawal along the gruelling Kokoda Track.

W. M. Speed.

"He thought not of the cost but gave his glorious youth for us."

Age 25

The inscription on the grave at Bomana War Cemetery is a sobering reminder of the horror borne of the Kokoda Track 77 years ago. It is one of 3779 graves - hundreds of them unmarked - that line the cemetery and as we weaved our way through we reflected on our journey.

Hours earlier we had made the final merciless climb and stepped off the Kokoda Track at Owers Corner.

The jungle is extraordinarily beautiful, and the gruelling ascents and descents are peppered with lush moss forests, choko vines and fast-flowing rivers.

The jungle is extraordinarily beautiful, and the gruelling ascents and descents are peppered with lush moss forests, choko vines and fast-flowing rivers.

Our 31-strong group gathered at its peak and crossed through the infamous Kokoda arches together. We embraced; some of us cried at the physical and mental feat we had achieved.

After eight physically demanding and emotionally taxing days, we had traversed the renowned Kokoda Track. Though officially 96 kilometres long, our expedition was closer to 140 kilometres with the detours and battle sites visited.

Our crew, who ranged in age from 16 to 74 years, spent just over a week retracing the fighting withdrawal of Australian troops in their campaign to block the Japanese invading Port Moresby.

Our trek focused heavily on the 39th Battalion, a militia group whose intended duties were to unload ships and build huts, but who were suddenly thrust onto the front line, experiencing some of the most vicious fighting ever endured by Australian troops.

With the Australian Imperial Forces (regular army) committed to Britain, the militia battalion were called on to fight an aggressive, highly disciplined Japanese army. Despite being ill-equipped, out-numbered and under-trained, they were instrumental in blocking the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby.

With our five-kilogram day packs, full stomachs and personal porters shadowing our every step, our journey was a stark contrast to the Diggers who followed the path 77 years ago. With heavy packs, rifles and suffering malaria, dysentery and starvation, they were also being shot at. Their heroism isn't lost on us and often as our energy wanes, we draw strength from their grit and tales of courage.

The Kokoda Track has become somewhat of a cultural pilgrimage for many Australians, and while you can trek the track from either direction, our group flew into Popondetta and walked back through the Owen Stanley Ranges to Owers Corner.

The days are physically and mentally hard and long with six to 10 hours a day on the track. The jungle is extraordinarily beautiful, and the gruelling ascents and descents are peppered with lush moss forests, choko vines and fast-flowing rivers.

As we made our way through the jungle, we are often forced to lean into a mountain to navigate its ridgeline and avoid tumbling down a cliff face.

Much of the track is narrow, plagued with mud and tree roots, but there are occasional clearings, including at Myola, an extinct volcano crater where Australians set up a field hospital and arranged for supply drops.

Myola is an extinct volcano crater where Australians set up a field hospital and arranged for supply drops during World War II.

Myola is an extinct volcano crater where Australians set up a field hospital and arranged for supply drops during World War II.

We passed through multiple battle sites and explored Japanese slit trenches and ammunition dumps - still with live grenades - that gave us a glimpse into the horror of the Kokoda campaign.

On our second day, we passed through the Isurava battle site. Now a memorial, it was the place of a particularly vicious four-day battle that claimed the lives of 76 Australians.

The Diggers endured relentless attacks by the Japanese with the battle so intense the jungle foliage was stripped bare.

The Australians were eventually forced to withdraw, but numerous tales of heroism arose from the battle.

The site of the bloody Isurava battle. It is now a memorial where the four pillars stand branded courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice.

The site of the bloody Isurava battle. It is now a memorial where the four pillars stand branded courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice.

Australian Kokoda Tours director and former boxing champion, Mick O'Malley, led our trek along with former police inspector Carl Peers. Their passion for the Kokoda campaign is palpable and together they bring the Kokoda Track, and the heroes who fought along it, to life.

At Isurava they recounted the actions of Private Bruce Kingsbury who was awarded the highest military honour of the Victoria Cross for forcing the Japanese to retreat back into the jungle before he was himself killed by a Japanese sniper.

His story personifies the four pillars - Courage, Endurance, Mateship, Sacrifice - that now stand prominently on the battleground as part of the memorial.

One of the ammunition dumps along the track.

One of the ammunition dumps along the track.

We also learn of Corporal John Arthur Metson, who despite being shot through both ankles refused to be carried by his starving, exhausted men and instead crawled through the jungle to safety for three weeks living off the land. He was later found by the Japanese and killed.

A short distance from Isurava, we detour off the track, down into a small clearing with a large rock slab known as 'surgeons rock' or 'Con's rock'.

It's beautiful now - adorned with deep, red flowers placed by the villagers - but it once held maimed men, brought here for treatment - including emergency amputations.

Surgeons rock: Soldiers were brought to this slab just off the track for medical treatment, including emergency amputations.

Surgeons rock: Soldiers were brought to this slab just off the track for medical treatment, including emergency amputations.

Not far from the rock, we are told, is where Butch Bisset spent his final hours. Having been shot multiple times in the stomach by a Japanese machine gun, a man of such injuries would usually be left.

But so highly regarded was Butch, his comrades risked their lives to carry him to a safer position. His brother Stan was summoned, and lay with him for hours, singing songs and recalling memories from the family farm, before his brother died in his arms.

Of course it's not just the Australian heroes we remember during our pilgrimage. Many sites pay homage to the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who Australian soldiers relied so heavily upon for their local intel, to transport supplies, and extricate sick or dying soldiers.

Our porters, the new generation of Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, are incredibly strong and kind. Their innate knowledge of the track is invaluable and the track would be near impossible to navigate without them. They held our hand as we crossed rivers (themselves trekking through the knee-deep water while we tried to rock jump and keep our feet dry).

Often on particularly arduous climbs, we'd feel a little push from behind - a gentle prod of encouragement. On descents they would have one hand on our packs, the other held out for us to help balance. The villagers, too, are kind and humble and greeted tourists with huge smiles on their face.

Our eight-day pilgrimage culminated at the war cemetery. We spent time there reflecting on our journey and quietly reading the grave inscriptions.

We returned again the next morning for the Anzac dawn service.

It was a sobering end to our pilgrimage, and while the allure of Kokoda often lies in its physical challenge, it is the military history and tales of valour that you will remember it for.