Kokoda: World Heritage or Military Heritage?

Kokoda is a powerful word. According to the Orokaiva ‘koko’ means place of skulls – ‘da’ is village. The combination of syllables conjures up thoughts of ‘ adventure’ – mystery – danger’  in the minds of sedentary beings.

And no wonder.  Orokaiva warriors fearlessly resisted incursions into the Yodda valley when gold was discovered in the late 19th Century.  Many early explorers and missionaries ended up in village cooking pots as they were stalked in the remote jungle-clad mountain ranges.

Then came the war. Kokoda was the first pitched battle fought against the Japanese. It signaled the beginning of a campaign where Australia’s fate hung in the balance as our diggers fought a fanatical enemy, treacherous terrain, legions of deadly mites, malarial mosquitoes, venomous snakes – and cold fear.

But the enemy our commanders feared most was the ignorance of the armchair generals and bureaucrats. ‘Build a road!’ – ‘blow the Gap!’‘die at Imita!’ – they bellowed from the safety of  cocooned offices in their parallel universe back in Australia.  They didn’t appreciate, from their limited knowledge of the ground and its intricacies, just what was needed to do the important job at hand.

Some things never change.

After decades of neglect by successive Australian Governments Kokoda is beginning to stir in our national consciousness. Political correctness, ridiculous OH&S laws and layers of social safety nets have all but transformed Australians into a risk averse society.  ‘Koko’ ‘da’ now presents an opportunity for them to pay respect to the lives of our diggers – and give some meaning to their own.

Australians from all walks of life now want to walk in the footsteps of the brave and ‘do it tough’ as a mark of respect to a generation who grew from the challenge of adversity. 

A common theme among those who take up the challenge is ‘to do it like our diggers did it!’  They don’t want environmental boardwalks – they want mud. They don’t want an eco-evangelical levitation – they want the historical hardship of the track. They don’t want to be clean and green – they want to be dirty and sweaty. They don’t want Kakadu – they want Kokoda!  The Trek gives participants that special feeling that they are treading sacred ground, not without good reason!

But Kokoda is in danger of being transformed into a monument to environmentalism rather than a living memorial to our diggers.  It shouldn’t be “fenced off” but used in the proper way that befits its dedication to the memory of the brave sacrifices of the Australian and New Guinea defenders who trod this track during WWII.  The custodians of our military history seem to have been sidelined in the process of developing the track between Owers Corner and Kokoda as a memorial trail .

In last year’s five page ‘Joint Understanding between PNG and Australia on the Kokoda Track (sic) and Owen Stanley Ranges’ the word ‘memorial’ or ‘battlesite’ is not mentioned – once!

The document is peppered with the new language of the global warmers – ‘carbon partnerships’, ‘national forest carbon accounting systems’, ‘future international emissions trading’, ‘REDD demonstration activities and global climate stability underpinning global eco-systems, etc. etc. etc’.

‘Military heritage’ has been replaced by ‘World heritage’.

The Joint Understanding commits to ‘deploying experts to the PNG Department of the Environment and Conservation to facilitate PNG Government processes to enable identification and consideration of a proposed World Heritage Site, etc. etc’. No mention is made of deploying military historians to identify battlesites sacred to our heritage, to dispatch bomb disposal experts to assess the dangers of unexploded ordnance along the track, or experts from our War Memorial to establish a similar institution in Port Moresby. The preservation of our joint military heritage does not rate a mention.

It is easy to interpret ‘joint understandings’ between Australia and PNG as a euphemism for ‘big brother’. It’s OK for Australia to send ‘experts’ to PNG but we continue to deny them access to our seasonal markets even though our farmers have desperate labour shortages. It is easier for a PNG citizen to get a casual job in London than in Brisbane. Proper ‘joint understandings’ don’t have one-way valves!

This fact is not lost on leaders in PNG.

Trekker numbers have grown exponentially over the years – from 76 in 2001 to more than 6000 in 2008. We watched as an inexperienced and unqualified authority was established to manage our sacred ground along the track. We watched as it morphed into a self-indulgent system of corruption. We have calculated the benefits to the PNG economy to be around $15 million dollars in 2008 but we shy away from the fact that very little reaches the villages along the track. It is little wonder that landowners are attracted to mining and forestry opportunities.

The Australian – PNG Joint Understanding committed to ‘addressing immediate needs for the 2008 trekking season and create interim Kokoda Track management arrangements’. This is the most important priority when the froth and bubble has been cleared from the document. But as thousands of Australians make the pilgrimage across the track we failed to meet this key commitment. Nothing happened.

And as we are now well into the 2009 trekking season and still nothing has happened!

Two trekkers have died. The track has been closed at Kovello. There is no proper trek permit system. There is no campsite booking system – or accreditation system. There is no need for a medical clearance. No need to submit a trek itinerary. No need for qualified expedition leaders. No requirement to carry satellite phones. No co-ordinated medical evacuation system. No minimum pay and conditions for PNG guides and trekkers. No community development program for villagers. Nothing.

Rumour has it that there is much feverish activity in the parallel universe of the Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts in Canberra. This activity is obviously directed towards the application for a World Heritage Listing for the area. 

It is time we said good bye to this well intentioned but misguided concept.

It’s time we refocused on the need to preserve and honour the military historical integrity of the Kokoda Trail. There are plenty of other areas in Papua New Guinea where eco-evangelists can get their rocks off. They should be encouraged to go and find them.

We need to take the following actions steps to ensure Kokoda takes its proper place as a jungle shrine. We need to understand that it is the most significant pilgrimage an Australian can make in search of the qualities that define our national character.

We need to ensure departments entrusted with the preservation of our military heritage such as the Australian War Graves Commission, the Australian War Memorial, Defence and our ex-Service community have input into assisting our Papua New Guinean cousins to care for our sacred sites from the Pacific War.

We need to demonstrate that villages along the Kokoda Trail, and other battlesites throughout Papua New Guinea, will have a sustainable economic future as a result of our emerging interest in the Pacific War. This is key to the future of the track!

Kokoda is a pilgrimage for those who had a relative serve in the war. It is a ‘rite of passage’ for young Australians from different lands and cultures. It is a bridge for those who want to learn more about our military history and our Melanesian neighbours.

In the recent budget the Government announced $10 million dollars to develop an interpretive trail in France and Belgium so that visitors to the area can understand the contribution and the sacrifice Australians made for freedom.

In the same budget absolutely nothing was allocated towards the development of an interpretive trail between Owers Corner and Kokoda!

For this reason alone the responsibility for the development of the Kokoda Trail as a National Memorial Trail should be transferred to the Australian War Graves Commission.

The Department of Environment, Heritage and the Arts should continue with their assistance to achieve World Heritage listings in partnership with their Papua New Guinea counterparts. There is much to be done to provide a sustainable alternative to the ravages of the logging and mining industries in the country. A review of Ministerial Media Releases indicates that these areas are their raison d’être – of the 340 media releases issued over the past 12 months only one refers to Kokoda!

Now we understand why the words ‘military heritage’ and ‘memorials’ were not included in the Joint Understanding signed over 12 months ago.

Now we understand why nothing has been done – apart from a few smoke and mirror demonstrations – across the Kokoda Trail during the past two trekking seasons.

Now we understand why the responsibility for the preservation of our military heritage along the Kokoda Trail has not been given the due attention it urgently needs it must be reallocated to the Office of the Australian War Graves Commission as a matter of priority.

Lest we Forget!

Comments

  1. email post from Paul Howison:

    Hi Charlie,

    I walked the track with 2 of my adult sons in August 2007. There are 4 reasons why I walked the track.

    1 The significant military heritage & to gain a greater understanding of our war history.

    2 To gain some appreciation of the landscape the diggers trekked & fought.

    3 The physical challenge. I was still recovering from recent cancer treatment.

    4 It gave me a unique experience to celebrate my 60th birthday on the track.

    I have had the opportunity to visit Anzac Cove on Anzac Day in 2003 & view the wonderful work the Australian War Graves Commission has done.

    In my opinion the Australian War Graves Commission must be assigned the responsibility for the track to ensure the Australian Military Heritage becomes the priority for such an important area of Australian & Papua & New Guinea history.

    Kind Regards

  2. In my opinion and speaking as a former Australian soldier who served with the now famous 39th Battalion, I must say that I believe that the Kokoda Track, as well as all other appropriate war battle sites, should be primarily viewed as Military Heritage sites. The environment is important but that is a much wider issue than this. Military Heritage can be preserved simply by maintaining these sites with respect and honour for those who fought and died on them during war time. If that is done in the proper manner then automatically the environment will be preserved. We in Victoria know only too well what happens when these environmental freaks take charge and as a result of their actions thousands of people are homeless and almost 200 have lost their lives. They have much tp answer for and I would hate to see this happen any where else in the world.
    The governments of both Papua New Guinea and Australia must be pressured to the utmost to ensure that the real reason for our concern is not only recognised but also answered in an approprtiate way. Gallipoli has been preserved; Flanders sites are truly honoured and so must those of our nearest neighbours.

  3. Paul Henderson says:

    Hi Charlie

    I walked the track in July 2004 & also explored Buna, Gona & Sannananda, since i was about 5 years old it had been a debt i needed to repay to the 2 young men whose photos adorned my Grandparents lounge room.

    My Uncle Bill fought at Gona & Sannananda with the 36th Battalion and his younger brother Frank fought at Wau through to being wounded at Komiatum and later dying from wounds and sickness (he is at rest in Bomana).

    You have my 100% backing to educate the Kaftan wearing, Mung Bean eating Pinko Grubs exactly who sacrificed their lives to give them their “FREEDOM”

    Preserve the Kokoda Track as a memorial to our diggers and proceeds from trekkers to be distributed in the rightful percentages to the wonderful people of PNG.

    Regards

    Paul

  4. Paul,
    Whenever I get a response like this I picks meself up, dusts meself off, and says
    to meself – OK mumblef#*kers – Kokoda’s all about our Diggers and their PNG Wartime Carriers. Do-gooders, basket-weavers, doctors’ wives and mung-bean munchers should now find their own utopia and drawback whoopee weed they might have otherwise inhaled!

  5. Christine Hay says:

    I walked Kokoda in 2007 as a daughter of a veteran of the New Guinea campaign – not Kokoda, but Milne Bay, Goroka, Madang and surrounding areas. My father returned from the war suffering severe debilitating malaria for many years and then eventually died of a brain tumour in 1981, but he is not recognised as dying from a war-related condition as the type of brain tumour he had is not on the list of “accepted” war-related conditions so my mother gets no support at all from Veterans Affairs, so why then am I not surprised by the bureaucratic-riddled problems being experienced with the Kokoda track.

    I attended the Anzac dawn service at Bomana in 2007 and was appalled at the lack of Australian government representation to commemorate those who fought for Australia in PNG. Gallipoli, the Somme, Villers-Bretonneux, etc. are revered (as they rightly should be), but PNG seems to be ignored – why? Is it not “fashionable” enough?

    I am equally as appalled that the proceeds from Kokoda trekkers are not distributed as appropriate to the villagers along the track, many of whom are descendants of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who contributed significantly to the successful outcome of the PNG campaign.

    I walked Kokoda to experience a little of what my father went through, to challenge myself and to gain a greater understanding of the military history along the track. Like many, I was not prepared for the emotion walking the track invoked and believe the experience was the most challenging, humbling and inspiring thing I have ever done.

    I would not like to see the track turned into a sanitised trail; part of the challenge is to be placed out of your comfort zone – it’s good for the soul and really makes one appreciate the sacrifices others made so that we are able to reap the benefits.

    I support Paul’s comments – preserve the Kokoda Track as a memorial to our diggers and proceeds from trekkers to be distributed in the rightful percentages to the wonderful people of PNG.

    Chris

  6. email post from Brian McBain:

    Hi Charlie,

    I trust you are well.

    My motivation for walking the trail back in 93 was due to the military significance the trail held in the first instance, with the physical challenge being a natural part of that. I would of thought that the military significance would be the main driver of any “heritage” label that the govt may wish to place upon it, because without the military significance, it would be just another trail/track/trek somewhere in the world that presented a physical challenge.

    The kokoda trail is no less signficant than any other theatre of war (more significant in a lot of cases), and I believe needs to be recognised as such.

    Keep well,

    Cheers for now,

  7. Charlie,

    I am a grandson of late Batia Oagi Lega of Efogi village.The first Koiarian Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel to be awarded a BEM medal by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for his war services as a carrier.

    I support your contributions and the initiatives you have initiated over these years for the Fuzzy Wuzzy generations.

    You have touched a lot of lives along the Kokoda track and left a legacy.The name “Charlie Lynn” or “Taubada” is a house-hold name.

    All the best.

    GN Batia
    RPNGC
    Special Services Division HQ
    McGregor Barracks

  8. Jim Duffield says:

    Yes!

    With one exception “experts from our War Memorial.” My recent experience shows there are few and the leadership of that place is only interested in maintaining the staus quo. What is needed are competent international personalities who owe loyalty to no particular polity.

    Perhaps, second, is a need for HM QEII to recognise the native carriers and their families with a unit citation so that families might wear a decoration down through the generations, unlike what has been patronisingly handed from DVA.

    Thanks for hosting the debate, we should hang our collective national heads in shame for being 67 years too late? How many have died whom served our Diggers?

    jim

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