Much to Repent over the Kokoda Trail

While the arrival of half-a-dozen Australian Government Ministers in PNG during their annual ‘Repentance Day’ holiday is coincidental it does provide a timely opportunity to offer some repentance of our own for the past few decades of paternalism in our relationship with our closest neighbour, former territory, fellow Commonwealth Member and wartime ally.

The delegation is obviously an outcome of the recent visit to Australia by Prime Minister James Marape who was accorded VIP treatment by our PM, Scott Morrison. Indeed it was the highest profile visit by any PNG Prime Minister for at least three decades and there is no doubt the two leaders have developed a close friendship.

I would hope the Ministerial delegation will include a visit to Bomana War Cemetery to allow them to pay their respects to the thousands of young Australian and Papuan soldiers who gave their lives in defence of the freedom we enjoy in both countries today.

One cannot visit Bomana without feeling an intense sense of pride in the work the Office of Australian War Graves do in maintaining such a sacred site. It was therefore disappointing to see our Minister for Veterans Affairs was not part of the delegation in view of the fact that PNG is the custodian of land sacred to our shared wartime heritage.

Bomana is not only a sanctuary for reflection on past sacrifice it is also a gateway for relationship building as increasing numbers of Australians are seeking pilgrimages to battlefields in Kokoda, Buna, Gona, the Black Cat Track, Shaggy Ridge, Milne Bay, Lae and Rabaul. Over the past decade more than 50,000 Australians have trekked across the Kokoda Trail which has generated more than $150 million for tourism income.

Unfortunately the mood of the delegation will change if they are venture beyond Bomana.

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The Kokoda Trail:  Official Naming Rights

Ownership of the naming rights for the Kokoda Trail has been contested in Australia in recent years.

  • Do they belong to the nation which retains sovereign ownership of the land between Owers Corner and Kokoda i.e. Papua New Guinea?

  • Or to the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 10 Australian Battalions who were awarded the official battle honour ‘Kokoda Trail’?

  • Or to the custodians of political correctness amongst the Australian commentariat who dislike the name ‘trail’ because of its American connotation?

Over the past decade almost 45,000 Australians have trekked across the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea. Most trekkers are motivated by the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign. This this has led to a range of books and television stories on the subject. It has also led to some extensive debate about the official name of the trail.

Contemporary debate over the name evolved after former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating kissed the ground at Kokoda on the 50th anniversary of the campaign in April 1992. This was accompanied by much ‘talkback’ noise about ‘trail’ being an American term and ‘track’ being the language of the Australian bush (ignoring the fact that our bush is criss-crossed with fire-trails).  This suited Keating’s agenda for an Australian republic at the time.

The debate suited those in the Australian commentariat who harboured a strong anti-American bias over their engagement in Iraq around the time of the 60th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign. As most of the commentariat had never served in the regular armed forces they could be excused for not appreciating the esprit de corps associated with a battle honour. This, however, does not excuse them for ambushing a name that doesn’t reflect their political bias.

‘Kokoda Track’ has since emerged as the politically correct term in Australia in spite of the fact that the battle honour ‘Kokoda Trail’ was awarded to the Papuan Infantry Battalion and the 10 Australian battalions who fought in the Kokoda campaign and the name gazetted by the traditional owners of the land in 1972 i.e. the Government of Papua New Guinea. (more…)

Kokoda Conspiracy: World Heritage – Military Heritage?

In the world of commerce a 46 percent drop in profit would lead to serious analysis of cause and effect. Volatile AGMs would see Directors seeking to reassure shareholders of strategies to arrest the decline.

This is in stark contrast to Government which is unaccountable for results because of the craft of its practitioners and the complexity of its bureaucratic machinery.

Since Australian Environment officials assumed control of the Kokoda trekking industry in 2009 trekker numbers have declined by almost 50 percent from 5621 in 2008 to 3033 in 2018 – despite an injection of more than $50 million of Aid funding.

The official response to the decline inevitably refers to an aircraft crash in 2009 and a couple of deaths around the same period. The reality today is that whenever the scene of the crash-site is pointed out to trekkers the usual response is ‘what crash?’

Prior to the discovery of the $3billion Kodu gold and copper deposit on the southern slopes of the Kokoda Trail near Mt Bini there was no interest in the area or its people from either the PNG or Australian Governments.  The appearance of bulldozers from Frontier Resources in 2006 changed that. (more…)

KOKODA: Response to Class 4 Walking Trails Proposal

 

Hidden away in this newsletter, written by the Australian CEO assigned to the Kokoda Track Authority by the Department of Environment in Canberra, is the following innocuous paragraph:

Following are the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services specifications for Class 4 walking tracks and our response to each one.

Overview:
Opportunity for visitors with advanced outdoor knowledge to find their own way along often indistinct tracks in remote areas. Users can expect frequent opportunities for solitude with few encounters with others.
Response: This opportunity exists for eco- trekkers to use the Kapa Kapa track across the Owen Stanley Ranges to the east of the Kokoda Trail. Kokoda is not about ‘solitude’ and ‘few encounters’. It is a military historical pilgrimage that should not be restricted to elite bushwalking purists. (more…)

Marketing Kokoda’s Wartime Heritage

PNG has two choices for wartime tourism – it can continue to operate as a Third World destination with Third World management systems and Third World campsite facilities – or it can develop a marketing strategy aimed towards becoming the wartime destination of choice for First World international trekkers.

Executive Summary

The CEO of PNG Tourism requested feedback from Kokoda trek operators on issues discussed at a forum conducted by the Kokoda Track Authority in Brisbane on 28 November 2018.

One of the key topics covered at the forum was the subject of marketing Kokoda.

This response is based on the collective views of Adventure Kokoda trek leaders who have a combined total of 130 years professional army experience and who have led more than 520 expeditions across the trail over the past 28 years.

The response examines the potential of a wartime tourism industry based on the development of a successful management model for the Kokoda Trail. It examines the factors relevant to the Kokoda trekking industry over the past decade and suggests a marketing strategy based on Anzac Day, Kokoda Day, the development of Owers Corner, a Military Heritage Master Plan; and social media.

The response concludes that PNG can continue to operate as a Third World tourism destination with Third World management systems and Third World campsites/toilets – or it can develop a marketing strategy to become the wartime destination of choice for First World international trekkers.

It’s not about money – Kokoda is already sustainable. It’s not about meetings, forums and workshops – nothing has been achieved from these for more than a decade. It’s about vision, understanding, leadership and commitment. (more…)

Kokoda Day: A Tribute to Papua New Guinea’s Unsung Heroes

 

The bleached bones of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nameless PNG wartime carriers lie where they fell in unknown locations in swamps, jungles and formidable mountain ranges during the New Guinea campaigns. To this day we don’t know who they were. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know where they died. There is no record of their existence. No medals were ever struck to acknowledge their service towards the war effort.

It’s time to honour their sacrifice by providing a Spirit Haus for their souls and a day to commemorate their sacrifice.

Australia was unprepared for the war in the Pacific in 1942.  Our faith in ‘great and powerful friends’ coming to our aid in the event of Japan entering the war was shattered with the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse near Singapore on 10 December 1941 and the secret deal struck by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt for American aid to be directed to the European theatre of operations at the expense of the South West Pacific.

The defence of Australia and its mandated territory of Papua and New Guinea was dependent on untrained militia forces and a small band of New Guinea Rifles as our experienced AIF units were returning from Europe to meet the new threat.

Resources were so scarce in New Guinea that young males were forcibly recruited to support the war effort[i].  Many of these men from remote mountain villagers had no idea of the war and were conscripted against their will.  They were told that men from Japan were the enemy.  For many of these men other villagers living in remote tribal lands were also considered ‘enemy’.  One can only imagine the fear and uncertainty they felt as they were forcibly marched away from their families and clans to fight in ‘our’ war against Japan[ii].

It has been estimated that some 10,000 PNG nationals served as Carriers in support of the Australians during the Kokoda campaign in 1942. A further 42,000 are estimated to have been indentured to support Australian troops in the Milne Bay and the Buna/Gona campaigns.  They were paid 10 shillings per month.

The issue of compensation remains a vexed issue more than 70 years after the war.  While the Australian government paid some compensation for property damage to PNG nationals between 1944 and 1957 the wartime carriers were excluded from receiving any such benefits under the prevailing legislation. In 1980 they were also deemed to be ineligible for the PNG War Gratuity Scheme for ex-Servicemen.

And they were deemed to be ineligible for a medal.  In the eyes of post-war bureaucrats they were both nameless and invisible. (more…)