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Rick Antonson has lots of miles under his belt: from the summit of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey, to the abandoned stretches of Route 66, from going to Timbuktu for a haircut, to travels in Iraq and Iran. He didn’t think twice when one day a chance Australian acquaintance invited him for a “walk across the country” of Papua New Guinea.
The “walk” turned out to be a grueling trek on the notorious Kokoda Trail – a narrow, 60-mile footpath featuring rough jungle, 6,000 feet in elevation change, and punishing weather extremes. The Kokoda Trail featured some of the fiercest fighting of World War II among the Australian, Japanese, and American armies. The stark history unfolds with each conquered mile, as Antonson’s astute asides bring out real names and people from the faceless fog of history.
Antonson sets out to understand the magnetism of Papua New Guinea, a place both misunderstood and lionised by the likes of Amelia Earhart, Errol Flynn, and Michael Rockefeller, whose cameos add vibrant colours to his journey. Antonson struggles with his own demons summoned by the unforgiving trail: travelling with a mostly Australian group, he catches himself sympathising with the Australian war casualties over the Japanese ones, despite being intellectually aware of the impartial horrors of war.
Further, Antonson fights the temptation to carry on the sensationalist reportage of headhunting and cannibalism, the scourging stereotypes the young country is still trying to shake off. His writing shows that dated imagery in sharp contrast to today’s realities, and Antonson’s new-forged friendships with the expedition’s porters, Bowrie, Winterford, and Woody, who represent the best of Papua New Guinea: proud of their land and eager to share it without sacrificing their dignity.
Walking with Ghosts in Papua New Guinea is like the Kokoda Trail itself: a winding path that glimmers with beauty one moment, and darkness the next, illuminated by its inhabitants, both living and ghosts.
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