When I first trekked Kokoda in 1991 I was both surprised and disappointed at the neglect of such an important part of our military heritage. The track bypassed the famous ‘golden staircase’ on Imita Ridge; major battlesite had been reclaimed by the jungle; ordnance from the campaign lay rusting in the mud; no official monuments or memorials had been erected; and the people who had supported us so selflessly during our hour of need had been forgotten.
It was evident that the Kokoda Trail had been ignored by successive Australian governments since the end of the Pacific War in 1945.
In 1992 I submitted a paper calling for the PNG Government to recognise the benefit of developing Kokoda as an adventure destination:
‘In the short term PNG should focus its tourist development on its natural assets – the country and its people. And it should develop policies to cater for the niche adventure market.
‘The Kokoda Trail is an ideal model. The trail has a special aura because of its significance in the war. The rugged beauty of the Owen Stanley Range and the nature and disposition of the villagers along the trail are unique attractions to the adventure tourist.
‘Tourism along the trail will create social and economic benefits for the villagers. Local guides will be employed, food will be procured, accommodation will be used, and artefacts will be purchased.
‘The 50th anniversary of the campaign across the Owen Stanley Range is a unique opportunity to refocus international attention to the challenge, the rigours, and the people of the Kokoda Trail. It provides an opportunity for the government of PNG to establish a model for adventure tourism which would otherwise take many years to establish’.
In 1994 I submitted a paper calling on our Federal government to seek to proclaim the Kokoda Trail as a National Memorial Park:
‘Any plan that is developed should consider the fact that PNG does not have a welfare system and the Koiari and Orokaiva people who live along the track operate a subsistence economy. They are also the custodians of the land on which the battles that saved Australia were fought.
‘If we develop our long term plan around providing a regular source of income for them we can be assured that they will protect and honour the battlesite we restore, the interpretive memorials we build and the village museums we assist with.
‘The objective of the master plan should therefore be to develop a sustainable trekking industry based on the wartime history for the Koiari and Orokaiva people who live along the Kokoda Trail’.
Since then the Australian Government has invested more than $40 million into a Kokoda development program which has been micro-managed by the Department of Environment in Canberra via a conga-line of highly paid consultants. Seven years on there is nothing to show for this investment. Not a single Key Performance Objective has been achieved. There is not a single management protocol in place. Not a single cup of PNG coffee has been brewed and offered for sale as a result of their ‘capacity building programs’, not a single potato has been harvested from their multi-million dollar ‘village livelihoods’ program.
And the Master Plan I called for 21 years ago to protect and honour our military heritage along the Kokoda Trail has never happened.