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Pacific News Minute: Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track Reopens to Hikers

Luke Brindley
Wikimedia Commons

Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track is open again, after local landowners ended a protest that closed the famous trail for three weeks. According to RNZ Pacific, the government agreed to review the joint aid program with Australia, which manages the track. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.

Every year, thousands of tourists make the difficult hike over the Owen Stanley Mountains on the route of a military campaign that’s taken on mythological status in Australia. 

In the spring of 1942, Japanese forces surged across the South Pacific in an effort to cut supply lines between Australia and the United States. One key target: Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea.

The Japanese army marched over land from the north coast. What started as a road soon turned into a single file jungle track that ran sixty miles over the mountains. Both Japanese and Australian troops suffered from heat, rain, malaria, dengue fever and, on high mountain slopes, from cold, too. The Japanese pushed close enough to see Port Moresby, but the Australians dug in, supplies ran out and then the Australians chased the starving Japanese all the way back.

Credit Damien Peter Parer / Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Some members of D Company, 39th Battalion, returning to their base camp after a battle at Isurava. Right to left: Warrant Officer 2 R. Marsh, Privates G. Palmer, J. Manol, J. Tonkins, A. Forrester and Gallipoli veteran Staff Sergeant J. Long. Their shoes sink deep in the mud on the hilly jungle track. September, 1942.

Brutal treatment of the Papuan tribesmen they used as laborers made Japanese supply problems even worse. Reduced to eating grass and roots, some Japanese troops resorted to cannibalism. Australians treated Papuans much better, but even so, the tribesmen who ferried supplies up the trail and carried wounded back down suffered from exhaustion, hunger, exposure and disease.

In Australia, the Kokoda Track is often portrayed as an epic victory against impossible odds. Long after historians pointed out that the numbers were actually on Australia’s side. 

Over 36 years with National Public Radio, Neal Conan worked as a correspondent based in New York, Washington, and London; covered wars in the Middle East and Northern Ireland; Olympic Games in Lake Placid and Sarajevo; and a presidential impeachment. He served, at various times, as editor, producer, and executive producer of All Things Considered and may be best known as the long-time host of Talk of the Nation. Now a macadamia nut farmer on Hawaiʻi Island, his "Pacific News Minute" can be heard on HPR Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.
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