Following in the footsteps of heroes

Back Track Adventures, Kokoda Trail, Papua New Guinea.
Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Guided walks along the Kokoda Trail, a central part of Australia's World War II history, continue to grow in popularity.  

While the participants and their reasons for hiking the Kokoda Trail have changed in the past 15 years, the sense of achievement when they drop their packs at Owers’ Corner is just the same.

Back Track Adventures director Jim Drapes has seen the evolution of the famous Papua New Guinean track since its tourism beginnings. He completed his first Kokoda trek in 2002 about the time it was opened to commercial operators. He’s now done the trek more than 40 times.

Jim, along with others, saw the potential for trail tourism in the mid-80s but, despite placing newspaper advertisements, Jim said there was little interest. According to Jim, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a combination of a rise in nationalism, an increase in people attending Anzac ceremonies and a number of high-profile people walking the track, including members of the Sydney Swans Football Club, that the trail really got traction.

“There was a groundswell in 2002 on the first year and it’s built since then,” Jim says.

For Jim, the reasons people hike have evolved. Initially it was most popular with those interested in history.

“What I really liked about it in 2002 was it was all about the history, walking in the footsteps of heroes. In the early days the people that walked with us were the ones that really wanted to do the track who had fathers or grandfathers who fought.

“Plus it had all the adventure, it wasn’t in as good a nick as it is today. A lot of work has been done on the track, it’s not a National Park highway or anything but now it’s properly defined.”

While there are still many that want to walk for its importance to Australia during World War II, some with family that fought, nowadays there are many that are fundraising or setting it as a fitness challenge. 

“What I got out of it in the early days was this whole pioneering sort of thing with all these old diggers, nowadays it’s a whole new generation and it’s great to share it with them.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand the real significance of Kokoda and what it means. To walk over it is very humbling, it gives you a bit of time to actually sort out in your own mind about nationalism...and people come back with a whole different attitude. They learn a lot about themselves, and our history.”

Jim still gets a buzz from seeing the accomplishment on people’s faces when they reach the end of the trail and the part his expedition and local guides have played in getting them there.

During the trekking he imparts what it was like as a 19-year-old man on the track in 1942 with the belief that if they “did not stop the Japanese Army on the track the Japanese would end up in their mums’ and dads’ lounge rooms”. 

“On Kokoda, that was the first time we were defending Australia, this was fighting for your mum and dad.”

The traits the Australian soldiers showed in Gallipoli — courage, mateship, endurance and sacrifice — were exactly the same traits they show on Kokoda, Jim says. “There are no four better words,” he adds.

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