“In recent years the academics have discovered New Guinea. Grave, plump, portentous, they swarm north in their hundreds each winter, generally finishing somewhere near Goroka in the Eastern Highlands where at times they become so numerous that every bush and stone seems to conceal a lurking bureaucrat or anthropologist. After a few weeks or a few months they return home to prepare brisk solutions for all the problems which beset the land. Too often they see New Guinea coldly as an exercise in nation-building to be carried out as quickly as possible, with one eye on the taxpayer at home and the other on some ranting demagogue in the United Nations”.
Keith Wiley. Assignment New Guinea. 1965
We met 28 years ago when you welcomed me into your villages on my first trek with Alex Rama in 1991. At the time you told me that few people trekked across the trail – probably less than 100 each year – and you only made a few kina selling your vegetables at markets.
The following year Paul Keating put Kokoda on the map when he became the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the plateau since the war. He was moved by the experience and his words resonated throughout Australia.
The first 20 trekkers I led across the trail to honour the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in 1992 were also moved by the significance of the occasion; the traditional welcomes you provided; and the support of your guides and carriers.
Over the next couple of years more trekkers came and we started to get to know each other better. Sadly the interest created by the media during Keating’s historic visit – and the expectations they created – evaporated soon after they left.
Our next opportunity to showcase the the trail came with the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.
You will recall that we proposed the Olympic Torch be run across the trail on its way from Athens in Greece to Sydney. We knew it would take you less than 24 hours to get it across with the event being beamed to millions around the world.
Unfortunately it was not to be – you were conned by the Sydney Olympic organizers who only allowed you to run it from Owers Corner to Port Moresby.
Governor Siembo felt so aggrieved he closed the trail with a demand for compensation on your behalf. The Australian Government didn’t seem to care much as Kokoda was not on their radar at the time. However the closure had a negative impact on your village economies as you had no income for many months.
I made a visit to Port Moresby to meet with Governor Siembo in Parliament House at Waigani to discuss the issue.
I was unable to meet the demands he made on your behalf however I suggested he could impose a fee on trekkers which could be held by a management body similar to how our National Parks are run in Australia. A fee would ensure local village communities received shared benefits from trekkers.
He agreed and the trail was reopened.
After we rediscovered the original battlesite of Isurava Prime Minister John Howard commissioned a memorial for the site to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the campaign in 2002. This led to a continuing increase in the number of trekkers.
We then set about establishing a management body for the trail. You will recall that neither of our Governments were much interested in supporting it at the time although Sir Peter Barter, the Minister for Provincial and Local Level Government, did approve the establishment of a Special Purpose Authority and a former kiap, Mr Warren Bartlett, was appointed to manage it with a part-time assistant.
Unfortunately neither Government would provide any financial support at the time so our company, Adventure Kokoda, advanced K25,000 to Mr Bartlett to allow him to operate for the first few months until trek fees started to flow.
We copped a bit of flack for this at the time as other trek operators did not want to have to pay a fee but eventually they were made to do so.
Trekker numbers continued to increase under Warren Bartlett’s management of the new Kokoda Track (Special Purpose) Authority – which became known as the KTA – and benefits were returned to your villages as agreed.
The discovery of a large gold and copper deposit on the southern slopes of the trail emerged as a major threat to trekking when bulldozers appeared in the Ofi Creek area. Government intervention stopped the mine however it was soon to be replaced by another more insidious threat – Government bureaucracy!
The sudden rush of environmental officials from Canberra was reminiscent of author Keith Wileys’ quote from ‘Assignment in New Guinea’ in 1965‘:
‘In recent years the academics have discovered New Guinea. Grave, plump, portentous, they swarm north in their hundreds each winter, generally finishing somewhere near Goroka in the Eastern Highlands where at times they become so numerous that every bush and stone seems to conceal a lurking bureaucrat or anthropologist. After a few weeks or a few months they return home to prepare brisk solutions for all the problems which beset the land. Too often they see New Guinea coldly as an exercise in nation-building to be carried out as quickly as possible, with one eye on the taxpayer at home and the other on some ranting demagogue in the United Nations.
‘At times the maligned colonialists, who walked ever the country and fought for it, seem to come nearer the heart of the matter. Stripped of slogans and self-interest, New Guinea emerges not as a ‘problem’; to be ‘solved’, or assessed , but simply as a land, wild and beautiful, worthy to be loved for its own sake; with a people, backward, kindly, and in need of help’ .
A similar analogy could be drawn today between bureaucrats on secure incomes and trek operators who accept risk to create opportunities.
Since Australian officials, flush with Government money, arrived to ‘help’ you in 2009 trekker number have declined by 46 percent – the management system they put in place is now beyond dysfunctional and under review – and the value of our shared wartime heritage has been relegated.
This has resulted in a collective loss of millions of kina in income opportunities for your villagers along the trail and the loss of thousands of part-time jobs.
So, after 28 years trekking, I feel I need to make the following apologies to you in my capacity as the son of a soldier who fought in New Guinea; as a Vietnam veteran; and as a former Member of Parliament:
- I’m sorry that we refuse to acknowledge your sovereign right to name your own geographic features, and refuse to respect the name of the Battle Honour awarded to your Papuan Infantry Battalion, which is ‘Kokoda Trail’.
- I’m sorry we have failed to engage an accredited Military Heritage Architect to develop a Master Heritage Interpretation Plan to commemorate our shared wartime heritage across the trail – because our shared wartime heritage is the primary motivation for people who come to trek it.
- I’m sorry we failed to achieve any of the 5 key strategies or the 33 supporting objectives in our taxpayer-funded ‘Kokoda Trail Master Plan 2012-2015’.
- I’m sorry the million-dollar Village Livelihood Project, developed in Canberra without any consultation with you, failed so miserably.
- I’m sorry we have not conducted a single workshop in your villages to discuss your needs at the local level in the 10 years we have been in Port Moresby – it would have been a good way to get to know you.
- I’m sorry we have not been able to assist you in building a single hygienic toilet across the trail to meet the needs of your paying customers i.e. trekkers.
- I’m sorry we have failed to assist you to develop a system that allows trek operators to book campsites in advance.
- I’m sorry we haven’t developed a Trek Itinerary Management System to advise you how many trekkers will be arriving at your village, and when, so you can prepare food and souvenirs to sell.
- I’m sorry we have not taught you how to earn additional income from trekkers by providing local services to meet their needs.
- I’m sorry we have failed to provide any funds to assist you in developing campsites that meet the needs of trekkers.
- I’m sorry we continue to import Australian park rangers at considerable cost to do work you have been doing for centuries i.e. keeping the trail safe.
- I’m sorry we have not been able to help you develop a system to stop the exploitation of your local guides and carriers by unscrupulous trek operators.
- I’m sorry we have not been able to help you develop a system that provides for urgent medical evacuation from your villages to hospitals in Port Moresby.
Since the election of Prime Minister James Marape I have heard calls to ‘take back PNG’ from far and wide.
A good start for you, Olgeta, would be to show the Prime Minister how to do it by ‘taking back Kokoda’ – after all it’s your country – it’s your trail – it’s your name – and it’s a defining part or your history.
All you have to do to make it happen is establish your own management company to run the Kokoda trekking industry as a business and have responsibility for the trail transferred to the Minister for Tourism as it is PNGs most popular tourism asset.
Major Charlie Lynn
Officer of Logohu