Covid-19 offers the opportunity for Australian and PNG authorities to reevaluate the intrinsic value of our shared wartime heritage across the Kokoda Trail for future generations.
More than 50,000 Australians have trekked across it over the past decade – these include some of the wealthiest and smartest people in the country along with men, women and teenagers from across the social-economic spectrum. Unfortunately none have ever been canvassed to see why they chose to trek Kokoda or what they thought of their experience?
But a more important question to ask now is why have trekker numbers declined by 46 percent from 5600 in 2008 to 3300 in the decade since the Australian Government assumed responsibility for the trail?
According to Adventure Kokoda trek leaders, who have a combined total of 160 years military service and who have led more that 600 expeditions across the trail over the past 29 years, the decline relates to the lack of investment in campsite facilities and our shared wartime heritage.
They note that not a single dollar of the $50 million spent by the DFAT ‘Kokoda Initiative’ over the past decade has been allocated to either of these two areas since they assumed control of the Trail in 2009. Why?
In an attempt to reverse the decline of the dysfunctional management system put in place by Environment-DFAT officials they have allowed standards to drop to such an extent that its not uncommon to come across ragged groups chanting ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi-Oi-Oi’ and performing other bogan rituals to psyche themselves up for their daily bucket-list challenge. They know its a poor substitute for the history of the campaign but its obviously much cheaper!
The lack of a campsite booking system (a remarkable management omission after 10 years in situ) has resulted in disputes between trek groups and overcrowded campsites with inadequate toilet facilities during school holiday periods.
The lack of a Trail Maintenance Plan (another remarkable management omission) has resulted in the environmental degradation of the trail rather than its enhancement – there are no heritage markers for villages, creeks, rivers, vegetation or significant features. Nothing!
Kokoda is a high value wartime tourism asset that rates with Gallipoli, Mt Everest, Mt kilimanjaro, the Milford Track, Manchu Picchu and other premier adventure destinations. It is the complete adventure experience for Australian baby-boomers and young adventurers. It requires physical stamina and mental tenacity. The wartime history evokes strong emotions. The unconditional care and support of local PNG guides and villagers is humbling. The environment is rugged, remote and pristine.
It’s ironic that it has taken a bat-soup virus from Wuhan to create the breathing space we need to give it the attention it deserves – let’s hope we don’t waste the opportunity to take a step back and look over the horizon for future generations of Australians and Papua New Guineans who wish to participate in a pilgrimage that honours our shared wartime heritage.
The following images have been provided by Jonathon Lever, an associate of PNG architect, Derek Smith. Imagine what they could do if they were provided with an opportunity to visit campsites along the trail and develop a plan for each one! Some of the larger sites such as Myola and Isurava could provide for trekkers and visitors who could be flown in by aircraft or helicopter.
All we need is a vision to make it happen!