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MARK RILEY: Anthony Albanese’s Kokoda Track trek with PNG PM James Marape a reminder of nations’ sacred bond

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Papua New Guineawith PNG PM James Marape.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Papua New Guineawith PNG PM James Marape. Credit: Unknown/Prime Minister's Office

A fallen tree trunk halfway up a vertiginous mountain in the crippling heat and humidity of the PNG jungle turns out to be the perfect place to engage in a bit of a deep and meaningful with two prime ministers.

James Marape, the ebullient PNG PM, cut quite the figure perched on one side of the log in singlet and shorts and a pair of shoes that appeared to be of curious provenance.

“Are they golf shoes, PM?”

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I asked as we took one of our many breathers on a two-day trek up, up and ever up the Kokoda Track to the WWII battlefield of Isurava.

“Yes,” he said, flashing a smile as wide as a split watermelon.

“My staff tried to buy me new hiking boots, but I told them they wouldn’t be as comfortable as these!

“I have highlands feet. They’re big and flat and wide from walking tracks like this. I didn’t even wear shoes until I was 10.”

The impact of his disclosure was instantly apparent as I shuffled nervously in my brand new trekking boots and suspected that at the other end of the log Anthony Albanese was doing the same.

“Did you hear that bird back there?” Marape asked, changing the subject ever so diplomatically.

We said we had. Though it’s a miracle that we heard anything over the constant chorus of huffing and puffing from our 40-strong horde of hikers.

“That was the bird of paradise — our national bird,” Marape said proudly.

“We have 32 varieties on this side of the mountains. There are a couple of dozen on the other side.”

The Governor of “this side of the mountains”, otherwise known as Oro province, is Gary Jaffa, a man of imposing frame and intellect and a refreshingly direct variety of charm.

“This is what life is all about to our people,” he said as he plonked himself on the log, casting his arm over the endless gorges of treacherous scale and beauty that stretched out before us.

“Our people don’t live in your kind of built environment with all the concrete and steel and the constant pressure of false expectations that you push onto each.

“We are a spiritual people. A people of peace. These trees are our world. Those birds are our world. We are quiet. But we are strong and we are loyal friends to those like Australia who treat us like equals.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese commemorates Anzac Day with a dawn service in Papua New Guinea after walking the Kokoda Track.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese commemorates Anzac Day with a dawn service in Papua New Guinea after walking the Kokoda Track. Credit: Anthony Albanese/X

Marape nods in furious agreement, adding: “We love having you here because what happened along this track is also part of your world.”

And he was right. Two worlds were colliding right there on the log in the jungle.

The track we were struggling along connects our two countries in a way that goes beyond physical bonds.

It is a long, muddy, perilous thread that binds the Australian and PNG narratives through the spirit of Anzac.

Surely there could be no tighter bond.

“Papua, of course, was part of Australia at the time of the WWII,” Albanese said as he and I take another break a bit further along.

“The thought of people fighting in this very thick jungle under these circumstances carrying weapons. We owe them so much.”

But fight they did. Truly heroically. Against a well-armed, fanatical, often inhumanely brutal enemy.

“Six hundred and twenty-five Aussie diggers lost their lives along this track,” Albanese said.

“They paid for our freedom with their lives.”

On another log at the top of another hill, I suggested: “There’s a lot to see here, but for Aussies it’s also a place where you can feel something.”

“It certainly is,” Albanese said.

“We are literally walking along the most historic and sacred of places for Australians.”

It is a track that once shuddered to the constant crack of machine gun fire.

Now the only sounds are those of near-exhaustion from our group.

And as hard as it was to slog that 15 kilometres up and over two of the steepest escarpments in the Owen Stanley Range to the Isurava Battlefield, it was nothing like what those diggers had faced.

And both prime ministers were determined to get there.

“We’d talked about it for a while,” Albanese told me, revealing he and the PNG PM are in constant WhatsApp communication.

“But when James came over to deliver that terrific speech to our Parliament we just decided: let’s do it!”

At this point, James Marape appeared, having just masterfully split open a coconut with a machete.

“Drink this, my brother,” he said to Albanese.

“It will give you good energy for the next climb.”

And off they go. The two prime ministers, talking and laughing while gulping from the same coconut.

All the while, they are trudging up the hill in the spirit of Anzac, one foot after the other — two of those feet in brand new hiking boots, the others in five-year-old golf shoes.

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