For nearly a decade, Zimbabwean Nikki George has led treks through the 96-kilometre-long Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. The arduous jungle route was the setting for fierce World War II battles and soars to a height of 2,190 metres. Ellie Dyer meets the adventurous tour leader at her Phnom Penh home.

How did you become involved in the Kokoda Track?
I was a diving instructor for 15 years in Australia and everybody was constantly talking about the dive sites in Papua New Guinea. When I got there, I thought I was going to fall into the diving side of things, but I met this lady in the gym one day who told me she was starting a trekking company. I was helping her with marketing and I just went along on a trek and said: “You know, I think I can do this.” Within a couple of months, I was leading the treks and getting very much involved in trying to understand the history and the spirit of the experience.

What is the historical significance of the track?
It’s World War II history. The Japanese were trying to get to Port Moresby and use its airbase to cut off Australia in 1942. After the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, they couldn’t reach it by boat, so they decided to take Port Moresby by land, which is just crazy. When you see the terrain there are no flat bits, it is all mountains. The only people who were going to stop these Japanese were the Australian reserves. They were graded ‘F’ for unfit for combat. This group of 500 men were up against 4,000 initial Japanese and they had to try and delay them as long as possible to get troops up from Australia to reinforce them. They were out there for two and a half months in the jungle in torrential rain, really bad conditions. It was about the spirit, the courage and the endurance that brought the best out of them. It could have broken them, but it didn’t.

Do you feel a sense of the past on the route?
It’s an incredible journey because when you are walking the track, you are walking history. Every single time you walk in these footsteps or think oh god, I’m exhausted, you just think back to what if I’d been shot in the leg or the arm or had lost my buddy that morning. But the general beauty around is incredible. You can’t imagine that it was the site of a major battle, and that so many men lost their lives on the track. Eventually, the Japanese had to turn around — it was the first time they retreated in the Pacific War.

Are a lot of people drawn to the trek because of its history?
Generally, it was the first time that Australians had battled on their own soil, of course remembering that it was Australian territory in 1942. So for Australians, it’s a bit of a pilgrimage to who they are and what their culture is all about. If it wasn’t for the unity that Australians can pull together in times of difficulty, I don’t think they would have been as successful. While we are doing the trek I usually pick out a few poems. One is ’What do you say to a dying man’ — it is incredibly emotional. Not many people walk away without a tear.

How challenging is the jungle terrain?
I call it the Amazon of the South Pacific. It’s thick jungle, but beautiful and scattered with stunning foliage. It’s all pinks, greens and vines draping down; waterfalls and rivers with amazing bridges put together with sticks and vines. I’ve walked it 55 times and spent more than a year in the jungle. It just keeps giving something else of itself. When I started you just couldn’t help but see the [local] kids, and learn their names. But over the 10 years that I’ve been trekking, those kids are now adults and having children of their own. One lady, her name’s Eileen, was an eight-year-old girl when I first met her. She’s just had her baby, and she’s called her Nikki, which is really sweet.