“The Hardest Walk in the World”
This is journal of the most fascinating, yet hardest walking trip that I have ever done in my life. In June 2002, I joined a party to walk the Kokoda Track, famous as a major scene of action in the defence of Australia in WW2. It crosses the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges from the village of Kokoda, south almost to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
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June 26, 2002
My wife, Jill, dropped me at the airport and I set off with my good friend Bob Neal to Brisbane where we would meet up with the others in or party and catch an international flight to Port Moresby. We found them easily enough. There was Reg Yates (our historical guide) at the check in counter with a large trolley of ration packs. The other members of our party (Brendan – Bob’s Son, Bob’s brother Alan and Nephew John along with friends Shane and Trevor as well as Diane Wolfer) were all in the check-in area and once the formalities were over, it was time to go.
Bob & Alan’s dad, Roy Neil, was one of the young members of the 39th Battalion – a militia unit that first encountered the Japanese at Kokoda. Our trip concided with the 60th Anniversary of the Battle that took place there.
We arrived in Port Moresby on time and I immediately had a sense of recognition in that the surrounding tropical countryside was very similar to that which I could remember from my time as a soldier in Vietnam. I could see the same broad leaved tropical trees, the same red / brown soil and the same type of small simple type of houses and buildings found in undeveloped countries.
We met Francis, our head national trekking guide, and transferred to our hotel. Port Moresby is a dangerous crime ridden city – very third world. The hotel has a four metre high fence and is topped with razor wire. The grounds are patrolled with guards and dogs. A few of us went into the shopping area of Boroka to get some last minute supplies and we felt quite insecure and threatened. Back at the hotel, we watched a video of the Kokoda Track and settled in to our ‘last supper’ before leaving for Kokoda early on the next morning.
June 27, 2002
We were awake at 5.00 am and down to the hotel lobby at 5.45 am to catch the bus to the airport for an 8.00 am plane to Kokoda. On arriving at the airport we were told that because the airstrip at Kokoda was fogged in, the plane would be used for another flight and would come back to pick us up later. We saw the sun rise and found that it became remarkably hot very quickly, By 9.30 am it was already over 30c degrees. We eventually boarded with a group of men (who we later found out that they were to be our porters) armed with machetes and bush knives.
For most of the flight we flew over the route of the track. There was a lot of cloud over the mountains, but we could still see views of Mt Victoria to the west. We landed at Kokoda at 10.30 am in a steep spiralling descent and managed to get a quick view of the plateau and the site of the battles that took place there. There was quite a lively crowd waiting for the plane and seeing relatives off onto the return flight.
Soon after our gear was sorted, we were introduced to our porters. Mine was a strapping young lad from Alola named Kila. I didn’t yet realise how much I would rely on him throughout the trip. Surveying the area, I looked around at the mountains that surrounded this plateau with a sense of awe. They look as large and as intimidating as I expected and I am really wondering whether I have a sufficient level of fitness to walk across them.
The first part of our walk was a very gentle one along the grassy airstrip and to the centre of Kokoda Village. It was very hot and humid. We left our packs by the little store situated opposite the new hospital which was built by an Australian Rotary Group as a civil aid project. Kokoda has a population of about 3700 people and is the regional administration headquarters for the area. We had been issued with a plastic bag of chicken, rolls and salad at the hotel which we ate for lunch and then went to visit the small war memorial and museum.
Reg gave us his first talk, and over-viewed the Kokoda Campaign, explaining the history behind each of the exhibits. Then it was across to see the memorials to the units that had fought at Kokoda. We stood right on the battlefield and it felt very sombre.
It was moving to think that this was the very spot where many young men on both sides of the war had fought and died. We stood right that the place where Col. Owen (CO of 39th Battalion) was shot and killed on the first day of the battle. We could clearly trace the route of the Japanese as they advanced and attacked, as well as the direction in which the Australians had retreated. I had read a lot about the battles here, but it certainly has much more meaning when you are actually standing on the site. We stood on this ‘tongue’ of high land where the battle had been held and the memorials now stand for some time and reflected o the battle and Reg’s description of it.
At 1.30 pm. We picked up our packs and moved on to the village of Hoi where we would be spending our first night. Along the way, we followed the general route that the Australians used as they withdrew from the superior Japanese force through the rubber and cola bean plantations.
As in many tourist places, we found lots of small children, all curious about what we different people were doing. We exchanged waves and smiles as we moved past their houses. At 3.30 pm, we reached the guest house at Hoi. This had been an easy day of walking – more history than trekking and all along flat ground.
The guest house is about 5m x 6m with a thatched roof and roughly split floor boards. It had sides of patched palm leaves and was divided into three rooms. It is located near a pretty little stream with colourful plants. As it became dark we could see fireflies ‘floating’ from one bush to another. It is obvious that the women in this area don’t have an easy life. The stream is the source of water for the village. All their washing is done in it.
After the women had finished their work, we had a wash in the cool stream and then returned to the guest house for a cup of tea from water boiled by the porters who had a fire going in the cooking hut. We were all a bit intrigued by the ration packs that we were handed out for dinner – a sort of bean and vegetable hot pot with noodles. It was tasty and filling, although we were going to find that by our tenth day this food was becoming very boring. Our meal was preceded by a small nip of whisky from our duty free liquor supply.
I finished my journal for the day by torchlight and we were in bed by 7.00 pm as by then it was quite dark. We all woke on a few occasions during the night with the sounds of unfamiliar insects and noises from the tropical jungle surrounding us.
June 28, 2002
We woke at 5.30 am as it was getting light and had our first ration pack breakfast of muesli and coffee. We were on our way at 6.45am. the fist part of today’s trip was to walk though the village of Hoi and then up a very steep hill. One of the guidebooks told us not to panic yet as the steepness of this hill isn’t typical of every hill that we will encounter. We climbed seriously for an hour. It was very misty and cloudy which fortunately prevented the sun from belting down onto our back as it would have on any other day. Below us the Kokoda plateau was hidden somewhere in the mist.
Eventually we came to some old Choko gardens. The vines had gone wild and were growing up into the trees at the edge of the jungle clearing. This looked just as one might have expected a jungle to appear – vines, broad leaf trees and mist.
We continued for some way, walking around the contours of the hill and then climbed steadily again. (Overall, we climbed 875 metres on our trip from Hoi to Alola). I found walking along this track required continuous concentration. Every time that I forgot to look where I was placing every step, I invariably fell. The track is incredibly slippery and you can’t afford to step in the wrong place.
By lunch time we reached the village of Isurava. There was no one in the village. We learnt that all the villagers were another 2 km or so along the track at the site of the Battle of Isurava and working on a new memorial that was to be opened in August of this year.
While the porters were boiling the water, us trekkers moved back down the track and Bob led a small ceremony as we buried the ashes of Les Martorana. He had been a member of the 39th Batallion and his daughter wanted his remains spread along the Kokoda track.
Our lunch consisted of noodles, biscuits, cheese and jam and was washed down with a cup of coffee.
After finishing our meal, we continued along the track to the site of the original village of Isurava. Here was the construction site of a splendid memorial which was almost finished. The builders had dug the foundations and recovered a lot of old memorabilia and munitions – grenades, ammunition clips, magazines etc.
Reg gave us a vivid description of the battle and I must say that I am very glad that I wasn’t there. It sounded vary scary that a Battalion of 500 Australians held of a force of over 6000 Japanese before being reinforced only minutes before they would have been overrun. They had been fighting in this steep and close jungle environment for over six days.
Ivan, the head man from Isurava described the design of the monument to us and the building foreman showed us the site plans. We contributed by digging a couple of shovelfuls of soil before leaving. Just uphill from the site of the memorial was the original location of the old Isurava Guest House. The Neil family all left a coin under the bark of a tree – a memento originally established by Roy Neil who had always left a coin at each of the significant places to which he had been.
We arrived into Alola village by about 5.00 pm with me having another tumble because I was too interested in the scenery and not paying enough attention to the track. We visited the water point for a wash and clean-up. Some local people had left a bowl of bananas and oranges for us at the guest house which were very welcome indeed.
This was a very emotional day for us. Reg had made this day very special. I think that Bob and Alan had learned more from him today about a soldier’s life in this campaign, than they had from their dad over all the years that they had been alive Whilst we were tired from the walk, we finished the day by looking across the valley to where the ineffectively led 53rd Battalion had failed to hold the Japanese at Aborawei and reflecting on the difficulties and drama of fighting under these type of conditions.
June 29, 2002
Last night (as while we were in Hoi) it rained until the early hours of the morning. The roof in the guest house had a number of leaks and we had to watch that we didn’t end up being under a drip. Again, we were up at 5.30 am and packed up by torch light. By 6.00 am the porters had boiled some water for breakfast and we were on the track just before 7.00 am. We were seen off by almost all the women and children in the village. Francis told us that the men were at church. One of the comforting things about this trip is that whilst two or three generations ago, many of these people practiced cannibalism, they are now devout Seventh Day Adventists and as a result vegetarians!
The first part of the track to Eora creek was very slippery. This part of the track had not been ‘benched’ and the footpad sloped steeply to our left and downhill. At times, we could look back along the valley to see the battlefield on a steep ridge hanging above the valley.
The crossing at Eora Creek was really something! There was a raging torrent of water in the stream and the crossing was by way of a series of small logs that had been wedged into the rocks on either side and in the middle. It would have been quite possible to have been swept under one of the rocks and drowned if you had fallen in to the water. We proceeded very slowly with a lot of help from the porters as we crossed the slippery logs without incident. I took a phot from the same place that the famous war photographer Damien Parer had taken a picture of exhausted men from the 39th Battalion in retreat in 1942.
After a break for a snack, we began the climb up a steep spur. The ridge of the spur would have only been 10 metres across and both sides dropped at perhaps a 60 degree angle down into the valley. Along the tack we could find many old weapon pits used as the Australians withdrew in leap-frog fashion and defended every yard of the track. The track continued for a very long way on this tough climb. The forest was very thick with a dense jungle canopy. Staghorn ferns and giant pandana tress were plentiful.
All along, I had been a little doubtful about my physical ability and it was at the top of this hill that I knew that I would be able to make it to the finish of this trip. The track eventually sidled around a series of spurs and then back to the Eora Creek at a much higher elevation after a steep and slippery descent. . This was the site of Templeton’s Crossing Number 2 – another location of a fierce battle in 1942.
We stopped here and pitched our tents for the night. We are now at one of the highest points along the Kokoda track and as the air cools, clouds form and the rain appears, By 6.00 pm it was beginning to drizzle. By now my feet are getting very soggy. My toes are white and crinkly. My boots have been damp for three days and are beginning to smell. At least we can wash out our clothes in the creek and feel somewhat refreshed after our meal.
June 30, 2002
We were again up at 5.30 am, dressed and packed up in the dark while the porters prepared some boiling water. There was a heavy dew on the ground although the floor of my tent was quite dry as it had been set up on some of the vegetation that had bee chopped away to make a clearing in this small camping area.
The track continued to traverse the side of the creek valley until we came to Templeton’s Crossing No 1. This was a fairly easy crossing – half on logs and half wading. After the creek we climbed a really steep hill – at least as hard as the first on from Eora Creek. We passed a big clump of giant bamboo and eventually reached a lookout where we could see the general route that we had taken from the start of our walk – the flat area of Kokoda in the valley below as well as the locations of Deniki and Isuarava. Ahead of, we could see Kokoda Gap, a broad open valley on the ridge line. During the war, General Macarthur had mistakenly thought that this was a narrow gorge and had ordered it to be blown up in an attempt to halt the Japanese Advance. By the time that they had reached this point on the track, the Japanese were so malnourished that they had reportedly cannibalised some of their captives in an attempt to stave of starvation.
From here we had a period of fairly easy walking along an undulating track and across a couple of small streams. The forest here was very mossy and apparently up until the war years, the local people refused to enter this area for fear of the ‘ghosts’ that it contained. Eventually, we came across an aircraft propeller that marked the track junction to Myola. It was just after this turnoff that we stopped for lunch.
While the porters boiled water, we took a little side track to the site of a WW2 plane crash = either a Douglas Boston or a Mitchell Bomber. All that was left was a pile of twisted metal and a big hole that was about the size of a B52 bomb crater. This had been dug out by the authorities in an attempt to recover any remains for burial. The site was marked into grids with white tape. It was a peaceful place and it was easy to see how the thick jungle canopy would have concealed this crash site for many years.
After lunch we had a short climb of about 200 metres through the moss forest to a point here we could look out across Myola Lakes. This was a big area a bit reminiscent of Mustering Flat in Victoria. It was used during the war as a supply area with stores being dropped from slow, low flying aircraft. It took us about 30 minutes to cross the swampy flats and to reach the Myola Rest House.
Mark & Gabby (who run the guest house) had water heating for a hot shower which we thought after this time to be extremely decadent. After settling in and cleaning up, we sat down for a great meal of freshly baked bread, rice, vegetables, noodles, potatoes and chunks of meat. They even had jars of vegemite and peanut butter.
This is a very cold place at night. It is at an elevation of about 2000 metres. We wore every piece of clothing that we owned for dinner and by the time that we went to bed, the temperature was down to 4c degrees and a ground fog was settling on in the plain. Fortunately each of the beds in the guest house had a blanket that I could put over my sleeping bag. Somehow the porters survived with just a blanket each! It as a brilliantly clear night and the stars shone like diamonds.
July 1, 2002
We arranged breakfast for 8.00 am and enjoyed an extra few hours in bed this morning. The porters must have felt the cold as I could hear them chopping wood on more than one occasion during the night. Breakfast was cooked by Mark and consisted of toast, coffee and fresh oranges.
After breakfast we sat around in the warming sun. Some of us took the opportunity to wash out a few clothes and I had my first shave in four days. (I should have stuck with beard that I had grow over the last twenty years or so!). After coffee at 1.00 am, we walked across to a stream and into the jungle to see the wreck of a Kittyhawk fighter. On the way we came across a couple of snares that had been set to trap wild dogs that occasionally attack the flock of geriatric and unkempt sheep that are kept at Myola. The wreckage was fairly clear to see – two wings and some equipment. The fuselage and tail appeared to have been destroyed in the crash.
On the way back, Francis helped us back over the log crossing on the creek. He did this whole side trip in bare feet! Back at the guest house we had vegetable soup for lunch and pizza that had been made on the lid of an old vegetable oil drum.
During the afternoon, the wind began to pick up and it became chilly again. By late afternoon, the cloud had descended over the hills suggesting another cold night. We had some freshly caught trout with dinner. They were only about 40 cm long, but enough to have a taste and add some variety to the meal of noodles that we were finding very boring,
We were in bed by 8.00 pm after sitting around the table in the eating hut telling jokes by the light of a pressure lantern. It was indeed another cold night and the breeze that snuck through the gaps in the thatched bamboo walls of the hut added to the chill.
July 2, 2002
Today we are walking to the village of Kagi and began with a slightly later start to our trip, not having breakfast until 7.30 am. Once the sun rose, it became warm very quickly. We could see steam coming from the roof of the cookhouse as it first became touched by the rising sun. As we walked back along the track through the flower garden of variegated Impatiens towards the beginning of the swamp. It was quite warm and humid. It took about an hour to reach the rain forest on the other side.
We walked back to the track junction and this time we turned left to go to Kagi. Somewhere along the moss forest, we caught a distant glimpse of the smaller clearing of ‘Little Myola’ through the trees. Just before lunchtime, we stopped at a spectacular lookout where we could see right across the Owen Stanley Ranges to the places we would reach over the next couple of days – Kagi, Efogi and Brigade Hill. It was an unusually clear day and the view was stunning.
From this lookout, the track dropped 600 metres down to the village. Most of this section was through open grassland. It must have been ten degrees hotter than under the protection of the shade from the rainforest canopy. We had our normal lunch along the way under the shade of some trees.
We reached Kagi at about 2.30 pm and settled into the guest house owned by Mr Guy. The women of the village had cooked up a Hungi to welcome us. They had gone to a great length to show their hospitality. The table and the guest house were both decorated with fresh flowers. The meal that they had prepared consisted of earth baked potato, yams, choko leaves, tapioca along with mountains of fresh fruit. We could only eat a little as we had already had lunch less than an hour earlier. It did taste very good though.
Mr Guy then showed us where we could have a cold shower which was created from a bamboo tube with holes that ran from the nearest village tap. Mr Guy’s father had been a carrier during the war. He introduced us to his elderly mother who also helped the Australians. Both of them felt a strong affinity with Australia.
Dinner tonight was another variation on noodles, this time with chicken. We had been resupplied with an air drop of food for the second half of our trip. Francis and the porters spent a few hours unpacking boxes and sorting out the contents before distributing it amongst themselves to carry.
Because of the humidity, a number of our party’s cameras have failed, Bob and I have the last two still operating so we will have to make sure that we take lots of photos of the remainder of the trip an cove everyone’s needs.
It was dark at the usual time of 6.30 pm and we were in bed not long after that.
July 3, 2002
We were up bright and early today and left Kagi not long after dawn at 6.30 am. We left the village by waking down the airstrip, reputedly the steepest runway in the world. The top end of the runway nestles into the edge of the village, while the bottom end seems to hang perilously off a spur about seventy metres lower. The track dropped down a spur to the left of the runway (about half way along) and over the next 500 metres of horizontal distance, it dropped 320 vertically down to Main Creek.
We all crossed safely on another collection of logs and climbed another few hundred metres to the village of Efogi 2. We stoped here to catch our breath and looked back along to the track towards Kagi. Over a ridge and down a long hill is the main village of Efogi. It was down this hill that the Australian soldiers could see the Japanese advancing with lanterns from their dug in positions on Mission Hill on the other side of the village. Their problem was that none of their weapons were heavy enough to fire across to the Japanese that they could see.
Efogi is a large village with a central square that doubles as a Rugby Field. We met a trekker here from another party who was waiting for a plane because his knees had given up. We sat in the shade of some trees on the far side of the village eating some oranges that were given to us by a lady from a nearby house.
After crossing the airstrip, we began the climb up Brigade, or Mission Hill. At the site of the old mission house, Reg gave us a talk about the tough battle that took place there. It was much cooler when we eventually reached the shade of the rain forest canopy. We climbed steadily for an hour and at one stage passed a very craggy rock outcrop. As we scampered over it, we couldn’t help but think about how difficult it would have been for the Papuan ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ to carry wounded soldiers on stretchers over country like this.
We crossed another saddle and came across the place where Cpl Nishi Muru, the last survivor of his Japanes unit, hid. He has made it his life’s work to collect the remans of his countrymen and return them for a proper Shinto burial. He is still alive and living in New Guinea.
At the top of Brigade Hill, we could see the location of the Australian Brigade HQ. This was overrun by the Japanese and when it was eventually recaptured as the Japanese themselves retreated to the north, some 77 bodies were found in a mass grave. From here we could see down to the village of Menari and the surrounding area.
We reached Menari by walking down a long spur. It seemed to take hours and our knees were well and truly like jelly before we reached the bottom. (We had read about the soldiers referring to this condition as ‘Screaming Knees’). We were pleased to see that our walking guide book described this hill being renowned for producing shaky knees. We had a late lunch of – you guessed it – noodles which we ate by a creek and after a final 30 minute walk up to Menari Airstrip we reached the village.
We played with some of the local children for an hour or so and gave them some of the paper and pencils that we had bought with us to hand out as gifts. We had our usual pre dinner whisky under a coconut tree and reformed what had become well and truly known as the Gentlemen’s Club.
It rained heavily overnight, but as the guest house here had a metal roof, it did not really bother us. This place was a little unique as the guest house was located in the middle of the village. In the other places that we stayed, the guest house was always at the edge of the village. We enjoyed being able to watch more of the life of the local people here in Menari.
July 4, 2002
Up again at the usual time of 5.30 am and on the track by 6.00am.
We began the day by walking across the village square – the same one where Colonel Ralph Honor paraded the 39th Battalion and congratulated them on their work and efforts at Kokoda and along the track.
Every day seemed to begin with either a climb or a descent. Today it was a climb up to the notch in the high ridge that we could see from the village. After the overnight rain, the track was exceptionally slippery.. The ridge was deceptively distant. Whilst it looked to be about a 20 minute walk from the village, it actually took us an hour to reach the top. From here we descended down to the Brown River, dropping 480 metres. The track was steep and slippery. By the time that we reached the bottom, we well and truly knew about screaming knees.
The river was waist deep but only flowing relatively gently. With the help of a vine that had been strung across the river, we could manage to walk across without being bothered too much by the current. On the other side, we stopped to empty the water out of our boots and wring out our wet socks.
The next section of track took us through a few kilometres of very boggy ground and damp jungle. This was the flood plain of the river. The vegetation through this section of track was quite stunning – big fig trees with buttress roots, vines and ferns all over the place.
By early afternoon we reached the site of he now deserted Nauro village. The people have relocated their village to near the top of a spur in the Maguli Range to get away from the mosquitos and the sickness of this damp area. We erected our tents in the flat area outside the old church and some of the group slept in the old pastor’s house. The children of the last two remaining families bought us some raw peanuts which we found made quite a difference to our standard dinner of noodles.
July 5, 2002
Today will probably be the hardest day of our trip. We were woken by Francis at 4.40 am and were packed and ready to leave before 6.00 am. I’ve noticed that John Neil and I are generally always ready to go before any of the others. Perhaps that is a result of both of us having some experience in the army where it was essential to be ready to go at 10 minutes notice.
We were away at first light and after a few hundred metres of swampy ground we began the climb up the Maguli Range to the new Nauro Village. This is perched on a spur about 400 metres above the Brown River plain. At the time that we were there, we could see that some of the ground on nearby hills was being cleared in preparation for planting gardens. We could look back to the north and see the notch in the ridge near Menari. It’s always interesting to be able to places that you can recognise that we passed through on previous days.
The track continued its climb up nine false crests on the Maguli Range. As we approached each one, there was the expectation that we might be at the top , only to find out that there was still more hill in front of us. When we actually did reach the top we were not really ready to believe, it instead looking for the next false crest. We reached the summit at 8.30 am.
Now we had a long and tiresome descent into Ofi Creek. We passed a number of weapon pits and knew that the Australians had grimly fought to hold this stretch of hill, just like the others. We sat by the creek for thirty minutes drinking a cup of tea and watching some bright butterflies that flapped around in the shade.
After crossing the creek, we ha a very stiff climb – at some stages the slope was 45 degrees until we reached Iorabaiwa. This was the site where the Japanese realised that they could advance no further and ‘advanced to the rear’ back along the track to Gona on the north coast of PNG. From this time it would be the Australians turn to attack. We scratched around beside the track for memorabilia and found a couple of bullets to bring home as souvenirs.
By late afternoon we had descended down into Ua-Uli Creek. By this stage I was pretty tired and really looking forward to reaching our camp site. The track follows the creek for a couple of kilometres and we forded it through 21 creek crossings – each between ankle and thigh deep. We finally reached our clearing and were glad of the help from the porters in getting tents up and dinner cooked.
July 6, 2002
This was our last day on the track. We were up at 4,30 am and sitting by the track before 6.00 am waiting for first light so that we could get started.
The track followed along the creek for a little while and then began the steep ascent to Imita Ridge which was the last obstacle that the Japanese would have had to cross before reaching Port Moresby. We got to the top at 8.00 am and after a few hundred yards of very steep descent the track continued down a relatively easy slope down to the Goldie River which we reached at 10.40 am.
Francis had initially suggested that we have a swim when we got there, but when we arrived, we found a television film crew who were taking some initial footage to go with the report on the new Isurava memorial. We gave them some good footage as we emerged from the jungle and I think that they were grateful for having more than a just the river in their pictures.
We decided to push on as they told us the road to Owers Corner (where we would be picked up in the bus) was impassable and we were anticipating a long hot walk along the road.
The very last section of the track consisted of a steep section of zig-zags up from the river. It seemed as if it was almost vertical. Here, the track was in open grassland and it was very hot.
Finally we arrived at the memorial archway at 11.30 am and with a mixed set of emotions. We were mostly elated that we had finished such a gruelling walk, but in a sense also disappointed that our trek was now over. We spent some time taking all the obligatory photos before worrying about how we would get back to the nearest navigable road.
Someone had however organised help for us and a little blue four wheel-drive tip truck appeared. We all clambered into the tray and on the roof so that it could take us back to the bus. We passed the little villages of Uberi and Owers Corner, where the road stopped in WW2
Eventually we reached the bus which was waiting for us along with a cooler full of sandwiches and very welcome beers.
Our final task (which by this time we felt to be an obligation) was to visit the war cemetery at Bomana. We spent most of an hour quietly looking around this very moving place. This time helped us to deal with some of the pent-up emotions we had developed from experiencing the history of the track as this is the in this last resting place of those that died serving their country.
All that was left now was a final night at the hotel and the trip home by plane.