The DFAT-PNG strategy to shield Prime Ministers’ Albanese and Marape from their failures to manage Kokoda tourism over the past 15 years was evident in their choice of a self-proclaimed ‘military historian’ to accompany them, and the route they chose.

They could hardly have used Australia’s National Military Heritage Advisor in PNG because the media entourage would surely have questioned how an American anthropologist with no qualification in military history or any previous military service got such a plum job. They would then have learned that the process used to recruit him was dodgy.  DFAT PNG could therefore not afford to have this exposed so it was best for them to keep him in the back office for the duration of their trek.

If expressions of interest had been called to lead such an important entourage the following Kokoda historians should have been considered:

  • Lieutenant Colonel Rowan Tracey LLB BA who has served with the PNG Defence Force, is fluent in Tok Pisin, has been trekking and studying the Kokoda campaign since the late 1980s. He served in the regular army for 21 years and is the author of the Official History of the 2nd Division AIF;
  • Major Chad Sherrin MM who was awarded the Military Medal for his leadership in combat during the Vietnam War. He is a former jungle training instructor at Canungra, has trekked Kokoda 96 times over 20 years and has studied the campaign from a regular soldiers’ perspective;
  • Captain Frank Taylor, former WA Police Inspector and army reservist who has also trekked Kokoda since the 1980s, and
  • Captain Reg Yates who has also trekked Kokoda since the 1990s and has been visiting and recording battlesites throughout PNG since the 1980s. He wrote the ‘Army Guide to Adventure Training in PNG’.

Mr. Mark Nizette MBE, the DFAT Strategic Advisor in PNG was well aware of their credentials but would have been concerned they may have exposed the many failures of Kokoda tourism management  under his watch since he was assigned from Canberra 13 years ago in 2011.

So, David Howell, owner of the Business Name ‘Kokoda Historical’, who is associated with Nizette due to his role as Secretary of the shameless Australian Kokoda Tour Operators Association was chosen despite the fact he has operated illegally in PNG for most of the time since he first started leading treks in 2006.

Prime Minister Marape inadvertently ‘belled the cat’ on the integrity of their trek when he advised Governor Gary Juffa would be assisting with its operation.

Juffa is the mixed-race Governor of Oro Province – a gifted orator who conveniently downplays his Irish ancestry to take on the guise of an Orokaiva leader.

Juffa’s words, however, are rarely matched by action – back in 2013 he boasted he had a plan for Kokoda – but like most of Juffa’s boasts which have earned him the nickname ‘distant thunder’ – nothing ever happened!

The only ‘museum’ and monuments on the plateau were built privately by the Kienzle family.

The potential of building a commemorative centre in the vicinity of the old wartime administrative building (all that remains of it are the concrete steps) with a cultural performance area where the Australian flag was raised in 1942, along with a cultural archway onto the plateau, has been consistently ignored by Juffa and the DFAT Kokoda Initiative.

After exiting the plateau Juffa would have led them through the unsightly steel girders forming what is now known as ‘the McArches’, an unofficial and inappropriate structure in the wrong location, and onto Deniki.

It’s not known how he would have explained the lack of ablution facilities at the Deniki campsite – or why the DFAT Kokoda Initiative has failed to invest in a single hygienic toilet for trekkers anywhere along the 138 km Trail since they took control of it 15 years ago.

The route he took followed the post-war track through long abandoned cattle yard sites which are now overgrown with choko vines planted after the war by Captain Bert Kienzle’s wife, Meryl Holliday, a former opera singer and nurse he had courted while on leave in Sydney in 1935.

Bert’s son, Soc Kienzle, remembers the method they used to carry calves tied to stretchers beyond Deniki on the current track to the cattle yards.

We can only wonder why DFAT PNG did not engage Soc Kienzle as a historical advisor for the entourage as he is the most knowledgeable expert on the post-war history of the area. His wife Robyn is the author of ‘The Architect of Kokoda’ which tells the remarkable story of Captain Bert Kienzle and his role in the command and control of thousands of wartime carriers across the Trail during the campaign. The book would have been a meaningful gift to each member of the entourage at the end of their trek.

Soc would have advised them of the location of the junction of the wartime trail with today’s track via  the village of Isurava which relocated to the current site after the war.

The stories along this section cover one of the most heroic fighting withdrawals during the war in Papua and New Guinea and the later attacks from Templeton’s Crossing through to Eora Creek. An area that would have taken them perhaps half a day to trek through took 13 days for the Australians to fight through and another four days to finally capture the Eora Creek position.

This route, which is almost four kilometres shorter than the one they took from Kokoda to the Isurava Memorial, is littered with stories of endurance, courage, sacrifice and mateship and would have made their arrival at Isurava much more meaningful. While the terrain is more rugged in nature it is not as steep and includes the spectacular (but safe) crossing over the raging waters of Eora Creek.

‘At Eora I saw a 20 year old redheaded boy with shrapnel in his stomach.  He kept muttering to himself about not being able to see the blasted Japs.  When Eora was to be evacuated, he knew he had very little chance of being shifted back up the line.  He called to me, confidentially: “Hey dig, bend down a minute.  Listen … I think us blokes are going to be left when they pull out.  Will you do us a favour?  Scrounge us a tommy gun from somewhere will you?”

‘It was not bravado.  You could see that by looking in his eyes.  He just wanted to see a Jap before he died.  That was all.  Such things should have been appalling.  They were not appalling.  One accepted them calmly.  This was jungle war – the most merciless war of all.

They missed one of the finest tributes ever to the gallantry of our Kokoda troops.

Both Prime Ministers and their media entourage would have also noted that the only marker to this historic site is place is a small, bronze plaque. There is nothing to interpret either the fighting withdrawal or the later attack that led to the Japanese finally being driven off the Trail and across the Kumusi River.

If they had questioned why the DFAT Kokoda Initiative has not developed a memorial plan for a site of such significance they would have learned DFAT PNG has diverted their resources to the research of a ‘Lost Battlefield’ that does not exist – an aid-funded folly that was never a ‘battlefield‘ and has never been ‘lost’!

Heads would surely have rolled in Port Moresby if this had been brought to the Prime Ministers’ attention however DFAT PNG dodged a bullet by arranging for them to spend most of their time off the original Trail between Deniki and Isurava.

Warm greeting from Prime Minister Marape to Albo on arrival at Kokoda

Oro Governor Juffa curtseys before Albo on arrival at Kokoda

Traditional Orokaiva welcome for Albo on arrival at Kokoda

Prime Ministers Marape and Albanese leading off on their Kokoda Trek

Prime Ministers’ Marape and Albanese on the post-war trek through old cattle yards covered in choko vines

Adventure Kokoda guides and porters forming a guard of honour for Prime Ministers’ Marape and Albanese at Kokoda

Prime Minister Marape greeting our Adventure Kokoda guides and porters at Kokoda

Prime Ministers’ James Marape and Anthony Albanese with Adventure Kokoda Trek Leader, Peter Morrison at Deniki