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!