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Last week an alleged incident on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was reported on by a number of local PNG as well as international media outlets. One media outlet in particular, made bold assertions about the conditions and communities along the Kokoda Track that have threatened the reputation of not only the tourism and trekking industry in PNG, but have defamed the character of some of the most trustworthy and generous people you will ever have the privilege to meet.
Whilst speculation about the incident should be left to the PNG authorities (who are currently undertaking their investigation), it is important to refute the grossly inaccurate representations of Papua New Guinea, Kokoda and its people as reported by, in all its sensationalised glory, the UK’s Sun Newspaper.
I have been travelling to Papua New Guinea for over 15 years in my role as director and CEO of the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), and previously as an avid trekker, and PhD student at the Western Sydney University. I have walked the Kokoda Track 19 times and have spent time living by myself in the communities along and around the Kokoda Track. My husband and I were even married in a traditional Kou Kou ceremony in a small village near Kokoda.
In my work with KTF, I have overseen the delivery of aid programs to over 45 villages across the region in the areas of education, health, livelihoods and leadership and have a firm grasp on community life, local customs, and the attitudes of villagers towards the trekking industry.
In all of my time in Papua New Guinea, my experiences have always been extremely positive, as any of the 20,000+ Australians who have walked the Kokoda Track will attest to. Despite the challenges many of them face, my interactions with the local people have been warm, generous, and mutually respectful.
The Koiari and Orokaiva people who live in the remote villages along the Track are predominantly subsistence farmers, who live off the land and practice the Seventh Day Adventist faith. The women spend their days tending to the food gardens, looking after their children, participating in community events and attending local Church services; the men these days are often engaged in portering and guiding services for local and international trekking companies. During the wet season, the men return to their home villages and prepare new food gardens, build houses for their families, and participate in Christmas and New Year festivities. Young children attend village elementary and primary schools whilst older children will often board at high schools and universities away from the Track. On the weekends, you will find the kids playing a game of footy which they follow with more enthusiasm than your most avid State of Origin fan in Australia.
The raw beauty of the environment combined with the friendly welcomes from its people make walking Kokoda one of the most extraordinary experiences you will ever have. I have never met anyone who has trekked Kokoda whose life hasn’t been greatly enhanced as a result of their experiences with the local people. I have heard countless stories of the great lengths the local porters will go to for their international guests that would make their ancestors, the great Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, proud. The local communities have embraced this industry that rapidly emerged in the mid 2000s with nothing but enthusiasm, entrepreneurial spirit, and generosity.
Trekking Kokoda is arduous and should only be undertaken by those up to the physical challenge and those who have invested in the correct resources and booked with a licensed tour operator. These can easily be found via the Kokoda Track Authority’s website (www.kokodatrackauthority.org) or by speaking with the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (www.papuanewguinea.travel/Australia) or the recently formed Kokoda Tour Operators Association.
There are no wild dogs on Kokoda, there are no cannibals, and there is no poison ivy. What you will find is a breathtaking scenery, a culture that will enchant and a history that will intrigue, and some of the most wonderful people on the planet who will give their all to protect their visitors.
Dr Genevieve Nelson is the Chief Executive Officer of the KTF, an international aid organisation that seeks to improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of PNG. She has walked the Kokoda Track 19 times. She is a mother of two young daughters.