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Kokoda: A beautiful culture has been misrepresented

Kokoda vista (Kokoda Track Foundation)GENEVIEVE NELSON

RECENTLY an alleged incident on the Kokoda Track was reported on by a number of local Papua New Guinea 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 PNG, 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 a PhD student at Western Sydney University and an avid trekker.

I have walked the Kokoda Track 19 times and have spent time living by myself in the communities along and around the Track. My husband and I were 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 PNG, my experiences have always been extremely positive, as any of the 20,000 plues 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 ( or by speaking with the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority ( 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 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 Kokoda Track Foundation, 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 daughter.



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John K Kamasua

More indiscretions by the couple surfaced in the paper today while they were on the trek....

Bernard Corden

I can still remember the uproar after the Gotcha headline on the Sun front page following the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano in the 1982 Falklands War.

This was followed by the false accusations immediately after the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989.

It really is a grubby paper which targets the trailer park trash and tattoos to teeth ratio brigade in the UK. It is littered with photographs of soft pornography because most of its readers are illiterate.

John K Kamasua

Good on you my friends. Please let the world know that Yes there are rape cases here, law and order corruption and other problems that any country is facing right now...except cannibals!

And thank you Dr Nelson.

There is no excuse for the alleged rape. Those who are found guilty will face the full force of the law.

But people with preconceived notions about who or what we are, and only enter the country for their personal glory and destroy us should stay in their own countries!

Paul Waugla Wii

The reporter of the UK Sun Tabloid or whatever should go back to school and learn his/her Geography.
We are living in the 21st century. There are no cannibals in PNG.

Thank you so much, Genevieve, for your heart warming report which is an entirely authentic information about Kokoda and its beautiful environs.

Chris Overland

Charlie Lynn's report says it all: a disgraceful and defamatory fraud. I wonder if The Sun will publish the truth and whether the Police will seek the extradition of the real offenders in this case?

Dave Ekins

Spot on, Raymond. A most disgraceful performance by two con artists.

Raymond Sigimet

This couple should be brought back and investigated properly by relevant authorities because two youths were arrested as a result of their claim of being attacked.

If it is a publicity stunt, they should be arrested and charged for defamation of the local people and the historical relevance of the Kokoda Track as well as court fined for causing international disrepute to the historical significance of the Kokoda Track as a war memorial pilgrim route and creating a crisis for our fledging tourism industry in PNG.

Peter Kranz

What makes me even more suspicious is the name of the American woman. Michelle Clemens. Mark Twain anyone? Known for his stunts and tall stories.

Peter Kranz

I foolishly went in search of the original story. It is far worse than any nonsense I have seen written about PNG. Here's a sample...

"A COUPLE last night spoke of their fears of being eaten by spear-waving tribesmen after they were captured while trekking in a jungle known for cannibalism.

Brit Matthew Iovane and American girlfriend Michelle Clemens, both 31, had been on the dream trip to Papua New Guinea when they were pounced on by painted men on Monday.

Two natives with machetes beat and stripped the terrified pair before blindfolding them and leading them into the jungle.

The couple said the tribesmen, one of whom wore a mask made from feathers and vines, were so primitive that they communicated in grunts.

But they said they knew enough English to issue the chilling warning: “We will kill you.”

But the key is this - "Brand consultant Matthew, who appeared in Channel 4 survival show Shipwrecked, was brutally beaten when the pair tried to escape."

Yep, it's a perverted publicity stunt for a TV show. I won't link to the story, but needless to say it is rife with descriptions of cannibals, torture and primitive natives, complete with a photo of Huli wigmen for some reason.

It is straight out of the pages of a GA Henty story. No, he reveals some narrative merit, the Sun is just plain s***.

Read Charlie Lynn's first rate analysis of the incident here. The conclusion is inescapable - it was an exploitative and reckless publicity stunt - KJ

Chris Overland

I was stationed at Kokoda as a Kiap during 1972/73.

At that time there were no organised tours across the Kokoda Track but a few intrepid individuals used to walk it on their own or in very small groups. These walkers had to be entirely self sufficient.

I think that the people living along the track tended to view these early walkers with a sense of bemusement: why on earth would anyone want to make the arduous trek between Moresby and Kokoda unless urgent pressing necessity required it?

Despite this, they treated the walkers courteously. There were no reported incidents of theft, assault or intimidation (let alone cannibalism) during my time at Kokoda nor, so far as I know, before that time.

I strongly endorse Dr Nelson's comments on the general habits and disposition of the Koiari and Orokaiva people living along the track.

I do not know the truth about the alleged attacks but, if it occurred as reported, it is the action of a few criminal idiots and not at all representative of the outlook or disposition of the local people.

As Dr Nelson rightly points out, the local people rely upon the walking "industry" as one of their few reliable sources of cash income and would certainly not wish to jeopardise this. Their eager cooperation with the RPNGC is clear testimony to their concern about the potential adverse effect this incident could have upon tourism.

The Sun's risible and irresponsible reporting is deplorable but typical of that type of rag: anything for a good story, even if this requires making up some spurious "facts" to give readers a more entertaining experience.

I just hope that Dr Nelson can get a right of reply in this case although I fear that The Sun will have now "moved on", as they say, to other stories.

It may be of some slight comfort to her that, in an age where the average reader's attention span is now measured in nano-seconds, the collateral damage in this case will probably be insignificant.

Peter Warwick

Dr Nelson, without prejudice, I suggest approaching the Australian Federal Police (whose intelligence network is very wide) to track down these two walkers with a view to answering a charge of "making a false statement" (or closest to that).

It does seem odd, as others have commented in various fora, that the clothing, footwear and baggage they were carrying on the medivac flight seemed to be in good order, and they seemed to be in high spirits.

I am sure the AFP or AusGOV would be willing to help in this case.

Australia has a vested and emotional interest in the Kokoda Track, it being a shrine for both Aussie soldiers and their PNG counterparts.

Peter Kranz

Dr Nelson, I wouldn't take anything that appears in the Sun seriously, apart from it showing the ignorance, bigotry and racism that pervades Rupert Murdoch's publications.

It is the worst of the worst and employs a vile racist, Katie Hopkins, as one of its 'writers' who has been the subject of many complaints.

Then of course there was the phone hacking scandal in which the Sun featured prominently. Its 'journalism' also includes photos of naked women on page 3 of every issue.

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