Walking with Heroes at Kokoda

NESTS of long, slender bird-of-paradise plumes sway on bobbing heads above painted faces streaked in yellow, red and black.Kauri shell vests tinkle in the tide of sound and boars' tusk grins leer from decorated mouthpieces. It is a scene the ancient razorback ridges of the Owen Stanley Ranges of Papua New Guinea have witnessed countless times over the centuries as the sound of kundu drums thumps through the green cathedral of the surrounding jungle. Through dancers' movements, the vibrancy of life pays homage to the mystery of death. But this year it is more significant. Early next month, the people of the Owen Stanleys will gather at Kokoda to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Kokoda Campaign in World War II. In previous years it has been called Kokoda Day, but two years ago the PNG Government initiated National Fuzzy Wuzzy Day to commemorate not only the Australian soldiers who fought and died on the track in 1942 but also the native porters who helped them. On November 2, 1942, advance scouts from the Australian Army's Maroubra Force entered the Kokoda government station to discover the Japanese had retreated. By evening, Kokoda was occupied by the battalion. The next day, members of the Australian 25th Brigade stood in silence at a memorial service followed by a flag-raising ceremony in which General George Vasey marked the recapture of Kokoda after three months of bitter fighting. In Kokoda on November 2, Fuzzy Wuzzy Day celebrations will be a mass of feathers, face paint and possum fur cloaks as the locals gather for this special sing sing. The Koiari are proud of their forefathers, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, who were among more than 50,000 tribesmen who worked as porters for the Diggers in Papua New Guinea during World War II. The "angels" helped stretcher out wounded Australian soldiers over countless kilometres of steep, muddy, slippery track. In the week leading up to November 2, Koiari families and clan groups walk the rugged Owen Stanleys, sometimes for days, to reach Kokoda for the ceremony. The Australian and Papua New Guinea flags are raised in a sombre memorial service followed by a re-enactment of Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels carrying the wounded in stretchers made with blankets and sapling poles cut from the jungle, lashed together with vines. The dancing is held on Kokoda's oval, perched on the edge of a small, grassy plateau, less than 50m from the now-collapsed trenches desperately dug by the Australian militiamen of the 39th Battalion in July 1942. The dancers are crowned in spectacular headdresses, their faces painted in a rainbow of colours, their oiled bodies decorated with tropical flowers and draped in necklaces and vests of kauri shells. As a living, breathing war memorial, the Kokoda Track is unique. Trekking and tourism annually generate about $1.8 million, shared among the villages along the track. About 4000 Australians trek the Kokoda Track each year, says Professor Jack Carlsen from Curtin University's Sustainable Tourism Centre. When the young, untried soldiers of the 39th Battalion confronted the seemingly invincible forces of the Imperial Japanese Army on the Kokoda Track in 1942, little did they know the legacy they would leave for future generations. Like no other war memorial in the world, it is no sombre granite edifice, no sea of marble headstones or white crosses the Kokoda Track is 96km of mud and gnarled tree roots, hugged by dense, green jungle, blanketed by humidity and soaked by tropical rain. But there is also great beauty. In a high mountain village, trekkers are treated to the spectacle of the rising sun illuminating the cloud base far below as it makes islands of the mountain peaks. Looking like nature's avatars, vivid blue and yellow butterflies flit through the dense green of the jungle. They appear so sharp against the backdrop that they look out of place, as if they have been computer generated. Since the establishment of the Kokoda Track Authority in 2002, more than 30,000 trekkers have walked the track, their ages ranging from 12 years to more than 80. I walked it with 62-year-old trek leader Jim Drapes, of Brisbane-based Back Track Adventures. As a trek leader, Jim has crossed the track 28 times in the past decade and is on the track again next month to commemorate Kokoda's 70th anniversary. "The fitter you are, the better you are able to take in the experience, both at a historical and an environmental level," he says. "The track passes through a beautiful, dramatic landscape as you walk the ranges." --- The spirit lives on The Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF) is an Australian philanthropic organisation which aims to repay the help given to Australian soldiers during World War II by the people of the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea. Established in 2003, the KTF's goal is to improve the lives of the descendants of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. In the 70th anniversary year of the Kokoda Campaign, the KTF is expanding its programs in education, health, community development and micro-business training, working in 40 villages along the track. -- The work includes: Providing 3500 solar lights, one to every adult living along the track in 2012. Supporting more than 350 primary, secondary, and tertiary students on Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel Scholarships. Providing elementary, primary and secondary schools with educational resources and infrastructure support. Helping train 60 elementary school teachers and several primary teachers, in association with education authorities in PNG. With Rotary Australia, the foundation has delivered 80 classrooms' worth of furniture to 21 schools. Continuing the Archer Leadership Scholars Program, a scholarship awarded annually to six PNG tertiary students. Helping provide vital, village-based healthcare. In partnership with Rotary Australia, the KTF has provided 100 hospital beds to hospitals and health centres. -- For more information, visit kokodatrackfoundation.orOriginally published as

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