Kokoda: Track or Trail© Chris Woodland
The enigma of how the 240 kilometres-long jungle track between Port Moresby and Kokoda became known as a trail rather than a track has long been of interest to those who are aware of the Australian vernacular at the time of the great event. Indeed, today the language has not changed in that respect, with the exception of the inclusion of fire trails into our idiom in the 1960s or ’70s.
Today, much of the preservation of our parks and bushlands has been based on North American techniques and knowledge. Unfortunately, those who are responsible for importing these practices seem to be very removed from the language of their land and people and also introduce terms that are not used by any Australian who relates to their land, countrymen, idiom or folk lore. While protecting one part of our heritage they are, incongruously, but officially, destroying another! The relatively recent introduction of the term fire trail by our authorities is an example of this. Ironically, the Parks and Conservation Service of our Australian Capital Territory, at least, has the land under its control liberally festooned with walking trails.
Australian poets, under poetic licence, have, on occasions, understandably resorted to the use of trail, while very early Australian country music artists over-used the term until they adapted the genre to suit their native land. The word is not heard in the common language today, except for those involved with bushfire controls and our national parks, both having imported the word along with their studies in those areas. Neither group having the initiative nor appreciation of their own native language to use the idiom of either their current compatriots or forefathers. Of course there is the occasional entrepreneurial type who offers trail rides on their ranches.
My formative years as a child during World War II were spent mostly at Kempsey, on the mid-north coast of NSW. The flood-prone town on the Macleay River was a refreshment stop
-over for the many Australian and American troops heading north, and my father would take me to the railway station to see the ‘Yanks’ with their markedly different hats from those of the Australian troops with the slouch hat. I recall vividly the difference in the American Negro and our local Aborigines - the African-Americans being a very blue-black.
My uncle, a captain in the 7th Division AIF, twice visited us at Kempsey on his way to New Guinea. On his second visit, following his return south from illness, he told my parents an interesting anecdote from the Kokoda campaign. He said that he had heard that one brigade of Australian soldiers were so exhausted they were at the stage of lying down and giving up the battle, not caring what became of them. The officer in charge was considered an old man in that situation - he was 35 years-of-age. When the Japanese were threatening, this officer used a tirade of Australian colloquialisms to get his men on their feet, ready to face the enemy. He finally worked the totally exhausted men into a virtual frenzy, attacking the approaching enemy as madmen.
My uncle believed that this was the engagement that changed the tide of battle, resulting in the eventual re-claiming of Kokoda. Whether this was the actual battle that turned the tables is debatable as the Kokoda campaign was a series of small battles, however it was what the men wanted to believe at the time. The only expressions used by that unknown officer that I can recall from my parents telling were come in spinner and two bob in the guts.
Kokoda fell to the Japanese on 29 July 1942 and they pushed relentlessly toward Port Moresby, occupying Ioribaiwa on 17 September. The victories of the Japanese could not be maintained by their exhausted soldiers in such inhospitable country. With supply lines stretched beyond the limit and firm Australian opposition, Ioribaiwa was found abandoned on 28 September. The Japanese fought tenacious rear-guard actions at Templeton’s Crossing and Eora Creek in particular, but Kokoda was re-occupied by the Australians by 2 November.
How did this greatly commemorated Australian victory become known as a trail?
Searching through contemporary copies of the Sydney Morning Herald shows that the word trail was never used at the time of the successful campaign. The same pages disclosed only two examples of Kokoda track (note track, not Track), but many instances of the use of the word track unaccompanied by Kokoda:
- To-night our troops were through Kokoda and on their way to Oivi, along a well-defined track…
- 4 Nov 1942
- Twenty miles further along the track to Buna… - 4 Nov 1942
- Ten track miles from Kokoda… - 5 Nov 1942
- Oivi is nine miles along the track from Kokoda to Buna. - 6 Nov 1942
- The Australians, pushing the Japanese back along the Wairopi track… - 17 Nov 1942
Then the first mentions of the Kokoda Track appear, though not yet with proper noun status:
- The enemy in New Guinea is dropping back steadily before Australians advancing along the Kokoda track… - 18 Nov 1942
- Bottom right: Engineers build a bridge along the Kokoda track to Buna. - 24 Nov 1942(Photograph Caption)
An interesting half-page account sub-titled Fighting Through the Owen Stanley Range appeared in the 30 January 1943 edition of the Sydney-based broadsheet. Claimed to be “taken from the notes of a soldier”, the article mentions the word track on at least thirteen occasions, and the plural, tracks, twice. The word trail does not appear in that article, as it does not in any other.
Many, myself included, just assumed that the war propaganda machine of the United States later used a term common to them in a phrase to record and commemorate the Australian victory - not considering the idiom of their triumphant ally, the Australians. (Incidentally, commander of the Allied Land Forces, General Douglas McArthur, held the Australians’ fighting ability in very low respect. When the 21st Brigade was reviewed by Australia’s Commander-in-Chief at Koitaki shortly after the re-occupation of Kokoda, Blamey, on McArthur’s insistence, accused the heroes of having “run like rabbits”.)
Though the reason for the title Kokoda Trail was not as simple as previously thought, and time has clouded its origins, there have been some claims.
BRIAN MURRAY, President of the New Guinea Survey Section (8th Field Survey Section AIF) believes that Kokoda Trail is the correct term. Obviously possessing some knowledge of map-making, and some empathy with the craft, he gives the reason that the map used in Dudley McCarthy’s official history calls it the Kokoda Trail, even though McCarthy’s text refers to The Kokoda Track. Brian Murray says that the maps preceded the official history “by many years”. Further, he recalls that it was titled trail because it was found to be insufficiently defined to be called a track at that stage; an unusual statement considering Australians’ customary use of the latter for any pathway or pad carrying anything from bandicoots to buses. Brian Murray agrees that soldiers at the time spoke of going up or down the track, and it was known simply as The Kokoda. What Brian Murray overlooks is, that with the definite article attached to the noun, Australians commonly abbreviate the complete phrase by omitting the last word, the last word being understood. Some examples of this characteristic are The Murranji [track] or The Strezelecki [track], The Araluen [goldfield] or The Ophir [diggings], The Darling [River] or The Cooper [Creek] and The Simpson [Desert] or The Gibson [Desert].
AUTHOR PETER DORNAN says that both track and trail are “valid” as Australian journalist Geoff Reading used the term trail in an article to his editor in Sydney during September 1943. It is curious how any expression is legitimised merely because it is submitted by a war correspondent that sought a “generic term” for something that already existed in the Australian idiom. Interestingly, however, Kokoda Track is used throughout Peter Dornan’s book on the subject.
In a long and fascinating letter to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, BILL BANNER of Benalla thanks the publication for “trying to educate real Aussies on the Kokoda Track as it is a very sore point with those of us who served on it as there were no Yanks on the Track in those days”. Again there is the assumption that the Americans influenced the Kokoda Trail title.
JOHN KINGSMILL was not involved with the Kokoda campaign, only reaching the north coast of New Guinea during mopping-up operations. In correspondence with me John’s prose pays great tribute to “the nobility of such men as fought their way back across the Owen Stanley Range and, by so doing, weakened the Japanese thrust for Port Moresby - and Australia”. John also says, “I agree that ‘trail’ is wrong and ‘track’ is right”.
It has been refreshing to note that in recent times the Kokoda Track is the more common term in letters to newspapers, in press articles and periodicals, over radio and in everyday conversations. Frank Cranston, writer on defence matters for the Canberra Times says that the Kokoda Trail has been less used in the press since about 1995, the misnomer slipping away in favour of Kokoda Track.
Much-loved singer of Australian songs, Slim Dusty, sings a song concerning that memorable victory of early November 1942. Co-written with Tony Brooks, the title of the ballad is Kokoda Track. Though no stranger to the use of the trail word, particularly in his early days, Slim is now usually very selective with his use of words, ensuring that they reflect the language of his land.
I will probably never know with certainty how the word trail was conceived and became married to Kokoda for so long. However, I do believe its origin was parented by the Great Australian Cringe. The accepted understanding that language is a living entity, changing constantly, does not apply in this instance as the term was coined by someone who believed track was not as good as trail. To their shame, the Australian press supported its use until recently.
It matters little to Australians that the New Guinea Government in 1973 officially gave the name of Kokoda Trail to the historic track, or if it was American war propaganda, a mapmaker, or a journalist who was responsible for the appellation The Kokoda Trail. The Australians who fought that battle referred to such paths - whether they were little more than an animal pad or used for rough vehicular access - as tracks, as did the people they were fighting for, and as most still do.