Five Australians have now died on the Kokoda Trail in recent years. Many more have been evacuated because they were not physically capable of completing the arduous and hazardous trek across the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea.
We do not the cause of death of those who died. We do not know how many have been evacuated, or why, because nobody keeps any records.
Perhaps it is time to question the effectiveness of the Kokoda Track Authority which is supposed to be the management agency for the Kokoda Trail. Australians have been in-situ for more than two years under a Joint Australian-PNG Agreement developed to protect the Kokoda Trail from mining and logging claims.
Since Australia signed the Joint Agreement in April last year there has been a veritable congo-line of consultants and bureaucrats visiting villages, some by foot and some by helicopter, to find out what the problems are and how they can be fixed. After two years and a couple of million dollars we are having about as much success as we are with our own indigenous communities.
‘Feel-good’ projects are the order of the day. We currently have ‘volunteer teams’ digging steps along the trail – unbelievable but true!
We are planning to build bridges across creeks for local people who have been building bridges for thousands of years – unbelievable but true!
We have developed an ineffectual and unenforceable ‘Code of Conduct’ for Trek Operators that looks great on paper – but that’s all! The list goes on.
Since the time Australia has had a presence in PNG under the Joint-Agreement there has not been a single survey to find out why trekkers go to Kokoda or to see how they would like it developed.
There has not been a single workshop in villages along the trail to see what local landowners and clan leaders like and dislike about the increasing numbers of trekkers passing through their villages – and what improvements they would like to see happen.
There is not a single management protocol yet in place for trekking Kokoda. For example an unfit, overweight smoker with a serious heart and lung condition could apply for a trek permit today and it would be granted – as long as he paid his $100 trek fee. He would not be required to provide a medical clearance, a trek itinerary or even engage a local guide. Unbelievable but true!
Any person can be a trek operator. There is no need for them to have any experience in expedition leadership, any qualifications in emergency First Aid, or to carry any medical or communications equipment. Unbelievable but true!
Any attempt to develop community enterprises along the Kokoda Trail should be done in partnership with the PNG Department of Community Development. Nobody has yet consulted with the Minister, Dame Carol Kidu MP, or her department to discuss the issue and opportunities for local community development. Unbelievable but true!
The approach thus far seems to be based on the fact that Australian bureaucrats and consultants know best!
After the latest death on the trail this approach needs to be challenged and those who have been assigned to the Kokoda Track Authority should be charged with the responsibility for developing proper management systems for Kokoda Trail operations.
If trek operators were aware of the causes of recent deaths and evacuations along the trail they could develop protocols and procedures to minimise the risk of it happening again. They are currently unable to do this because they have never received any information.
The Australian Government should now instruct its representatives on the Kokoda Track Authority to withdraw from all ‘feel-good’ projects along the Kokoda Trail and indefinitely postpone any further ‘studies’ by consultants.
They should then focus on the immediate development of a proper management plan for Kokoda Trail operations and commit to a Master Memorial Plan to honour the military history of the Kokoda campaign.