RASHMII AMOAH BELL
The seventh in a series of articles about the need to improve the conditions and sustainable development of the trek tourism industry along the Kokoda Trail. The articles are drawn from Rashmii’s observations and conversations with Papua New Guinean guides, carriers, campsite owners and communities as she trekked the Trail from 6 -17 August, 2018
ON THE TRAIL - Collapsing on top of the clay-baked ground, my trek group seeks refuge from the midday heat under the cool of an awning.
A stream of loose dust swirls past, dancing toward the row of aged banana trees bordering the edge of Menari village. I reach for the nozzle of my hydration bladder and take three appreciative sips.
Beside me, trek mates use the interval to rummage through their backpacks and Band-aid strips, jelly beans and small bottles of sunscreen are offered around – along with tips about redistributing weight in the packs.
I’ve been accompanying trekkers nominated by New South Wales RSL clubs who are participating in their annual Kokoda Youth Leadership Challenge in partnership with Adventure Kokoda.
Fourteen of the group are employees of RSL branches and two are soldiers serving with the Australian Army. Like trek leader Charlie and the trek guide, their daily khakis are enviably immaculate despite the daily grind of uphill climbs and unsteady clambering through swamps.
It is a multicultural group reflective of contemporary Australia and it is the first visit to Papua New Guinea for all 16 participants.
Our group has sought shelter under the eaves of a private home and, as we await Charlie’s arrival, my gaze drifts across the clay floor, freshly marked with broom strokes. Nearby split firewood is assembled in perfectly symmetrical pyramids.
Since departing Owers Corner, I have observed no effort has been made by landowners to distinguish or restrict personal property from that for public access. No signs, no barriers but an unheralded and hospitable blurring of boundaries.
My fellow trekkers and I chatter - still building rapport and navigating boundaries - while the constants in this tourism experience remain invisible: the villagers, home owner and occupants, listening in silence out of eyeshot.
As stillness is to movement, the communities of Kokoda Trail live in a parallel reality. To facilitate the multimillion-kina income generating industry, an inward-facing PNG-Australia management has found no certain means for the traditional landowners of this historic route, replete with battle sites, to extract their due benefits from wartime tourism.
There’s another gap. By the time I reach the Kokoda plateau, I will have observed management’s dismal efforts of commemoration and interpretation of the World War II Kokoda Campaign.
Along the entire Trail, the investment required to offer this flagship of PNG’s tourism industry is missing. Miserably so. My observation is echoed by an exasperated Australian trek mate who, early in the trek, remarks: “For all we know, we could be on an everyday hike in PNG.”
What is more evident is that the Papua New Guinea government has been complicit in not commemorating the PNG men who sacrificed their lives, especially, the wartime carriers. And more than this, there has been an exclusion of their descendants from interpreting the military history to foreigners who walked through their front and backyards.
As we sit in one of their houses, encroaching upon their personal living space, they squat under the floorboards, perhaps eavesdropping on our conversations.
“YOU HAVE seen things in this place that no man should witness, some of things you must forget, but none of will forget our fallen comrades. Your efforts have ensured they have not died in vain. History will remember you, and in the years to come others will wish that they had your conviction and determination…”
These historic words bring to a close trek leader Charlie’s talk as we sit heads bowed and with sagging shoulders in our sweat-stained shirts. They were the words of Lt Col Ralph Honner to a tired and diminished 39th Battalion given in this same location 76 years ago.
Charlie’s perfect recital is met with the prolonged silence of youth who in this place are now realising the magnitude of sacrifice made by their forefathers. Delivered with sparing glances at his mobile phone, Charlie imparts to us also his own momentous dedication.
It is difficult to not consider the reaction of Honner’s descendants who have stood in this village with no sign to mark its history. I only hope they felt a tribute more heartfelt than the shade of a private dwelling.
Moving on to address the program objective of preparing trekkers for leadership roles within the Australian community, Charlie builds on Honner’s encouragement of “man’s exultation” being made in “faithfulness and fortitude, gentleness and compassion”. These are words with universal meaning.
I survey the faces of my trek mates.
Stoic expressions and tear-streaked cheeks; eyes giving Charlie full attention. I notice a woman with bloodshot eyes settling her gaze on the village square. I fix my own eyes in the same direction, not wanting to invade her privacy but to also find a distant corner to offer my eternal gratitude. This is a sacred place.
I think back to motifs of the pre-trek briefing, the evenings at campsite tables and the nightly ritual huddled around the drying haus fireplace where trek mates and I are drawn to share our hopes for how this pilgrimage might develop us as people and lead us to devote time to serving our communities.
I reflect on the appreciation I have developed for my trek mates who have demonstrated a genuine interest to learn about Papua New Guinea, its history and present-day issues. I admire the friendliness, respect and rapport they have built with our team of carriers, our guide and the community members we have met along the way.
These long hours on the Trail sharing words of encouragement and exhibiting patience, compassion, kindness, resilience and humour have highlighted the leadership potential of each one of my 16 trek mates.
MENARI is near halfway along the 138-kilometre trek: a benchmark for us and the thousands of people who have been here before us; an achievement which signals there is still much to achieve.
In retracing the footsteps of the men who fought and died for the freedom of others, our first wartime briefing takes place at the sheer cliff face of Imita Ridge Gap. As Charlie explains that this was the final obstacle for the Japanese Army in its advance toward Port Moresby, we look upon the eye-straining letters of a dirt encased plaque cemented at ground level.
It’s a fixture exemplifying the pattern of commemoration and interpretation we encounter along the Trail. Tributes that are sporadic, weathered and seemingly half-hearted.
As we walk across the open fields of Lake Myola then descend alongside the cool of Eora Creek, I am deeply saddened by the lack of tributes and the failure to relate to the pilgrims the profound significance of these sites.
An uphill climbs takes us past vine-covered ammunition pits that would remain inconspicuous if not for Adventure Kokoda’s carriers motioning us to their position. Attempts to preserve mortar relics are apparent in the forest as we move towards Tovovo Ridge.
I inspect the neglected remnants of the wreckage of a US Army P40 Kittyhawk fighter plane. There is nothing to mark its story but shards of painted metal scattered and embedded in a floor covering of decomposing leaves, snapped twigs and unruly weeds.
And more oversight and neglect again when, just before the descent to Templeton’s Crossing, Charlie indicates a large rain tree that is the only reminder of the site of the Boili Mail Exchange Point, where mailbags from Port Moresby and Popondetta were exchanged between mail carriers.
The physical existence of the Kokoda Trail assures us of its place in world military history. Yet the lack of opportunities for learning, the lack of memorials and of places designed for quiet contemplation mean that the wartime tourism experience falls disturbingly short.
The recorded history of the Kokoda Campaign in the pages of textbooks, in libraries, on the internet and in the curated displays of museums has failed to be translated on the ground.
SEVENTY-TWO pickets stand in rectangular formation towards the back of the lawn. Pinned to the top of each is an artificial red poppy.
Some metres away, a weathered plaque sits near the edge of a steep cliff. At ground-level, a sign outlines briefly the events that took place there between 5 and 9 September 1942.
Sitting in a curved row, we trekkers form a low wall along the eastern face of the ridge. Wedged between trek mates and carriers, elbows resting on my bent knees, I cradle my face in my hands.
Charlie is midway through recital of NX 6925 Sapper Bert Beros’s poem, ‘A Soldier’s Farewell To His Son’: “I hope that you will never know, the dangers of the sea / And that is why I leave you now / To hold your liberty.”
The words echo around me as cold slices of air. They hover in the blurring focus as I stare at the short blades of grass at my feet. I’m unable to meet the gaze of those around me.
Charlie moves to a reading of ‘WX Unknown’. I offer a silent word of eternal thanks to each of the 72 Australian heroes each signified by a mere wooden picket inserted into PNG’s mountain soil. Through the eyes of a mother, this seems to slight a tribute of remembrance for such an irreplaceable loss.
A SEA of light from head torches guides me to the steps of the monument, its grandeur concealed in the pre-dawn darkness.
Whispers of ‘good morning’ float from trek mates already seated. Copies of Adventure Kokoda’s ‘Isurava Memorial Pre-Dawn Service’ are passed around. I scan the program and turn my head torch off before standing to full attention.
Against four granite pillars, three short lines are formed by our trek guide, Bos Kuk, Junior, trek medic and the carriers in their full uniform of red, black and gold. I sight DE in the back row, throw him a wave and his face breaks into its familiar shy grin. Trek leader Charlie signals the beginning of the commemoration.
On the staircase, I stand with Australian trekkers. On the other side of the monument DE and the modern-day Papua New Guinean carriers face us. Our trek group has temporarily divided so we can take turns paying respects by singing our respective national anthems.
My life of privilege is illuminated and I add my breaking voice to the soulful harmony of my countrymen a few metres opposite. Then in unison I add it to the singing of my trekker peers standing beside me, whose homeland has also been mine.
As the service draws to a close on my second-last morning on the Trail, those four granite pillars bearing the words Endurance, Courage, Mateship, Sacrifice stand tall in the background as the Papua New Guinean men, who are so deserving of respect and recognition, take turns shaking hands and exchanging warm words with the line of Australians.
On that morning, one day short of completing our ten days together, I know this feat was made possible by the leadership, selflessness and bravery of the generation who went before us 76 ago and in whose name we made our pilgrimage along the Kokoda Trail.
With deepest gratitude, I would like to thank Charlie Lynn OL OAM, Tracie and Donald Watson, the Adventure Kokoda Team of guides and carriers and my sixteen KYLC Trek 2018 Group 1 trek mates. It was an honour and privilege to have made the pilgrimage with you all. DE, my carrier and guide, forever in my heart and my dear mate; thank you for allowing me to share our story.
I extend my sincere appreciation and utmost respect to the custodians of the Kokoda Trail, the Koiari and Orokaiva peoples, for their faithfulness as leaders who, despite the ongoing failure of Papua New Guinea and Australia, continue to embrace visitors who walk their traditional land 76 years after the sacrifices made by so many to whom we are forever indebted. Lest We Forget.