“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.
Network Kokoda was established by Adventure Kokoda who specialise in the wartime history of the Kokoda campaign. Their trek leaders have a combined total of 160 years professional military experience ranging from the Vietnam war to Iraq and Afghanistan. They have worn the uniform and are committed to the legacy of our Kokoda military heritage.
Our community projects across the Kokoda Trail continue to improve the livelihoods of the subsistence villages who live along it.
Our objective, as the major
philanthropic organization on the trail today, is to earn the respect of local
landowners who are the custodians of land sacred to our shared wartime
We exist to honour the legacy
of our Kokoda veterans the PNG wartime carriers.
As a result we have a different approach to normal civilian NGOs in PNG in that we use our networks to establish local partnerships. We don’t hand out funds on behalf of Government or other well-intentioned individuals as this inevitably leads to an attitude of Aid dependency.
Early this year we were alerted to the plight of a 14-year old Kokoda schoolgirl who needed a a lifesaving heart operation – one that had to be performed overseas due to the medical complexity of her condition.
‘Our daughter’s health is our priority and the further delay of her operation has been a concern for us which is becoming desperate, thereby resulting in our plea for your assistance’ wrote Mrs Doreen Dumu, a nurse at the Kokoda Hospital on 29 January 2019.
Her daughter, Freda, has a ‘tetralogy Fallot‘ which is a serious congenital heart defect. The surgery she requires is not available in PNG and the cost of the operation and rehabilitation in Australia was in excess of $100,000.
We contacted the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) and suggested that they get every trek operator to submit the name and contact details of each of the trekkers they would be leading across the trail during the Anzac period – a practice that should have been put in place a decade ago to capture the contact details of the 50,000 Australians who have trekked Kokoda since then. Unfortunately numerous requests to establish such a database for fundraising purposes over the years have been ignored.
Their refusal to assist Freda was perplexing in view of an earlier decision by their Acting CEO to ‘donate’ $150,000 to an Australian NGO to hand-out as ‘educational supplements‘ to local villagers on and beyond the Kokoda Trail. Calls for those funds to be reimbursed have been ignored.
We also sought assistance from a close friend and supporter, Jeff Hudson, a Director of the Children’s First Foundation. Jeff worked tirelessly to help ‘create the miracle‘ for Freda but as it transpired it was beyond their resources.
We then tried Rotary Oceana Medical Aid for Children (ROMAC). They were also keen to assist but there seemed to be an issue with Children’s Hospitals in NSW accepting patients from the Pacific.
We wrote to the Minister for Health to see if he could check it out on our behalf but didn’t receive a response.
We also arranged for Emily Kleing from the Oro Community Development Project to assist us with any liaison necessary as she is now residing in Port Moresby, We had previously worked with Emily to help build a TB Isolation Ward at the Popondetta Hospital,
Just as we neared the edge of desperation an ‘Angel’ emerged from PNG:
Dear Charlie, I am so very pleased to inform you that Pastor Dr Kirk head of our Paediatric cardiology partners “ For Hearts and Souls” will be organizing free surgery for Freda in San Antonio, Texas USA.!! Dr Kirk and team have successfully provided minimal invasive approach to repairing congenital heart defect for 13 PNG children at our PIH cath lab and arranged treatment for 2 very complicated children at the Mayo clinic in the US. Freda‘s family prayers ensured that I read your post on FB ( I don’t do FB regularly anymore) and was able to contact Dr Kirk before he and his team left Moresby this afternoon, upon completion of their second mission at PIH. We will contact the patient and you once we receive more information from US. I trust the Kokoda track foundation will be able support the travel expenses for the girl and a guardian. FB has received bad press recently for invasion if privacy and manipulations etc but I am glad it connected us to help this girl and hopefully save her life! God bless Dr Amyna
‘I cannot say enough kind words about them. Throughout the entire trek I felt supported and knew that I could turn to them for help at any time. They were always in the right spot at the right time. They were so encouraging and only wanted to see me succeed. They have so much patience, I never felt rushed or scared because I knew they’d be there to help. They would encourage me to walk at my own pace and take as many breaks as I needed to succeed. Without them I would not have gotten as far as I did. I enjoyed listening to their stories about their families and knowledge of the trek and country.’
‘All of the Adventure Kokoda team where extremely professional. The boys worked so hard to make sure we always felt safe in situations that could sometimes feel scary. Our shovel man Nelson was just incredible, always checking to make sure everyone was okay. It was amazing to witness a group of people work so hard and efficiently as a team to get all of us (the trekkers) across the finish line.
‘Overall an amazing group of people and when they all sung their National anthem …chills and tears!! I miss them already.’
Up to 600 trekkers will be on the Kokoda Trail during the Anzac period over the next fortnight.
The Australian Tour Operators Association (KTOA) , established to protect the interests of their members, has refused to adopt the WW2 army standard of 18 kg as the maximum weight to be carried by the PNG wartime carriers in 1942. Instead, the KTOA has adopted a weight of 22.5 kg established by an Australian bureaucrat who had never trekked across the trail.
The 4.5 kg difference will lead to the loss of 150 jobs for local Koiari and Orokaiva villagers during the Anzac period (4.5 kg X 600 = 2700 kg ÷ 18 kg = 150).
Porters required to carry 22.5 kg by the KTOA for 138 km over some of the most rugged terrain on the planet will have a limited trekking career due to the heavy physical impact on their backs, hips and knees. Unlike professional footballers who have similar career limitations due to the physical impact on their bodies there is no post-playing career for them for Kokoda porters – just a lifetime dependency on their fellow subsistence villagers for physical assistance.
Shameless exploitation of vulnerable native populations used to be referred to as ‘blackbirding ‘ – a practice that was eventually outlawed in the early part of the 20th Century – it seems the KTOA is shamefully introducing a new strain of this abhorrent practice.
Air Niugini’s Paradise magazine describes a visit to Ower’s Corner, where ‘the road the road becomes a footpath that connects the start of the Kokoda Trail . . . just an hour and a half from downtown Port Moresby’.
Visitors who make the journey are bound to be disappointed. Rather than looking down on a traditional village with interpretive signage, maps and a local market they are confronted with memorial graffiti.