Kokoda Trail: Who owns the naming rights?

The Kokoda Trail Book CoverDuring the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign, Prime Minister Paul Keating, kissed the ground at Kokoda and awakened Australians to the significance of the Kokoda campaign.  His action generated much talkback noise about whether it was a trail or a track.  The noise increased in as anti-American sentiment grew after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The voices eventually prevailed and on the 60th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign Prime Ministers’ John Howard and Sir Michael Somare opened the Isurava Memorial which had the word ‘Kokoda Track’ embedded into it. All signage between McDonald’s Corner and Kokoda referred to the ‘Kokoda Trail’ prior to this.

The 70th anniversary period offers an opportunity for a sober review of the debate.

The origin of the official name, ‘Kokoda Trail’, dates back to 1947 when an Australian Battles Nomenclature Committee was established to define the battles in the Pacific. Their final report in 1958 adopted ‘Kokoda Trail’ as the official Commonwealth battle honour which was awarded to 10 infantry battalions and the Papuan Infantry Regiment.

During the establishment of self-government in PNG in 1972, Australian administrators established a ‘Place Names Committee’ to examine the issue and recommended the official name be proclaimed ‘Kokoda Trail’.  One can assume they would have been influenced by the decision to award the official battle honour ‘Kokoda Trail’ to the battalions who fought in the Kokoda campaign 14 years earlier.  The PNG Chief Minister assumed office on 23 June 1972 when the nation achieved self-government as part of the process to independence in 1975. Somare accepted the recommendation of the Place Names Committee and the name ‘Kokoda Trail’ was gazetted four months later on 12 October 1972 (PNG Government Gazette No. 88 of 12 October 1972, page 1362, column 2. Notice 1972/28 of the PNG Place Names Committee refers).

The official name, ‘Kokoda Trail’, is recognised by:

1.         The National Government of Papua New Guinea

2.         The RSL of Australia

3.         The Australian War Memorial Second World War Galleries; and

4.         The official Battle Honours of the 10 Australian battalions and the Papuan Infantry Battalion who fought in the Kokoda campaign.

Wartime photographs at McDonalds Corner show a sign pointing towards the ‘Kokoda Trail’ (photographs on page 286 of the history of the 2/3rd Infantry Battalion titled ‘War Dance’ by Ken Clift and page 28 of ‘Sogeri During the War by Lance Taylor refer). The 39th Militia Battalion has two battle honours on their Battalion Colours: ‘Kokoda’ and ‘Kokoda Trail’. All signs between McDonald’s Corner and Kokoda read ‘Kokoda Trail – National Walking Track’ or ‘Kokoda Trail’.

The author of the most definitive history of the Kokoda Trail (Stuart Hawthorne, The Kokoda Trail – A History’ Central Queensland University Press, 2003) recently wrote on the Australian War Memorial blog:

‘Exploration and development of the early parts of the overland route near Port Moresby began about 130 years ago. In this light, the campaign constitutes a very small part of the track’s history (about a third of one percent) yet the importance ascribed to the WW2 period often assumes a considerably high significance.  Of course the Kokoda campaign is very important in Australia on many levels but notwithstanding this, I often wonder whether the presumption that our Australian perspective displaces all others and borders on the arrogant’.

A motion to have the National RSL lobby the Australian Government to have the Kokoda Trail renamed ‘Kokoda Track’ was defeated at the RSL National Congress held in Dubbo on 14-15 September 2010 (National Congress Resolution 6.1.2 refers).

In an address to 40 members of the 39th Battalion on the Kokoda plateau in 1972 Captain Bert Kienzle referred to the track Vs trail debate (The Architect of Kokoda p.311):
‘We, who fought and saved this nation, PNG, from defeat by a ruthless and determined enemy knew it as the Kokoda Trail not track. . . so I appeal to you and all of those who helped us defend this great country to revere and keep naming it the Kokoda Trail in memory of those great me who fought over it.  Lest we forget.’

The name ‘Kokoda Track’ evolved after former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating kissed the ground at Kokoda on the 5oth anniversary of the campaign in April 1992. This was accompanied by much ‘talkback’ noise about ‘trail’ being an American term and ‘track’ being the language of the Australian bush (the Larapinta Trail was conveniently left out of those conversations).  This suited Keating’s agenda for an Australian republic at the time.

‘Kokoda Track’ has since emerged as the politically correct term in Australia.

The debate suited those in the commentariat who harbour a strong anti-American bias.  It is interesting that none have served in the armed forces!  They can therefore be excused for not appreciating the esprit de corps associated with a battle honour but they cannot be excused for hijacking a name that does not suit their political bias. Dr Samuel Johnson’s observation that “every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier‘ may have some relevance to some of the proponents from the commentariat.

The decision of Australian government officials to now use the politically correct term ‘Kokoda Track’ as opposed to the official name ‘Kokoda Trail’ is a breach of international protocol and patronising.  It certainly does not reflect the historical development of the name or show any respect for the battle honour awarded to those who fought in the Kokoda campaign.
I appreciate the fact that there are other informal references to the trail being called the ‘Kokoda Track’ – and a couple that even refer to it as the ‘Kokoda road’.  I also appreciate that the debate will continue with strong arguments for both names.

Notwithstanding this we Australians should respect the sovereign right of the PNG National Government to name their own geographic features; respect the judgement the Pacific War veterans who deliberated over the title of the official Battle Honours of the units who fought in the Kokoda campaign; and respect the right of those battalions to retain the name on their battle honours.

It is somewhat ironic that the Australian Government is developing an ‘Australian Remembrance Trail’ in France and Belgium ‘to interpret the Australian experience of war on the Western Front’ in WW1 and yet they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the ‘Kokoda Trail’ as our WW2 interpretive experience.

For further information on the development of the Australian Remembrance Trail see:


Please do not pass the link onto any quack historians from the politically correct brigade lest they commence a campaign to have it rebadged as the ‘Australian Remembrance Track’

The following pictures depict signs across the Kokoda Trail since – I am now aware of a single sign that depicts ‘Kokoda Track’ however I am happy to be corrected and will publish a picture of any such sign that was taken between 1942 and 1992.


Kokoda Trail



Charlie Lynn Owers Corner 1992

Kokoda Village 1992


Charlie Lynn Owers Corner 2003


The Kokoda Trail Book Cover





  1. For what it is worth I thought I would add these few comments on the ‘Trail’ or ‘Track’ question.

    As a kid in Port Moresby in the mid 1950s I regularly attended Anzac Day marches there (from the then RSL to the little War Memorial opposite Ela Beach). Many veterans marched and a lot of them were still in the prime of life (in their 30s). I clearly remember it being constantly referred to as the Kokoda Trail. I never heard the term Kokoda Track being used.

    Kokoda Trail was so ingrained that it took decades for me to get used to the current term Kokoda Track.

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