Hiking the world-renowned Kokoda Track is an adventure in all senses of the word. At 96 kilometres long and up to 2,490 metres elevation (where the trail circumnavigates the peak of Mount Bellamy), it is undoubtedly a physical challenge for many.

But it is also a journey through Papua New Guinea’s culture and history, and an opportunity for connection with local people and their ancestors in a place unlike any other on Earth.

For the first time hikers and trekkers can experience the Kokoda Track in a truly authentic way while directly supporting local communities – with the first Indigenous owned, led and operated tour operator on the Track.

We caught up with the Founder and North American Representative of Indigenous Kokoda Adventures to learn more about their journey of creating an authentic, locally-owned and sustainable business that puts proceeds from tourism directly into the hands of local people.

Jesse Leta is the Founder of Indigenous Kokoda Adventures and the IKA Foundation. Born and raised in Naduri village, educated in a remote school of Kavovo primary school and currently residing in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, he is personally acquainted with the struggle of the local people along the Kokoda Track.

Deborah Campagnaro is the North American Representative (Canada) and currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Being of the Mohawk First Nation, she is well aware of the challenges facing Indigenous people today and understands the challenges faced by many Indigenous people around the world.

Where did the initial inspiration for Indigenous Kokoda Adventures come from? What sparked your vision?

J – After spending a year working for a local company on Kokoda Track, I left and worked for a mining company in Lihir Island. Every time while flying by plane over the villages along the Kokoda Track for field breaks, I couldn’t stop my mind from thinking about the struggle of how my people live. After all, these people are from my village where I was born and where I grew up. I began thinking of trying to help and change their lives in a little way especially the porters, guides and the children in their education. This thought kept coming into my mind and I could not let it go. Eventually Indigenous Kokoda Adventures came into establishment.

D – That is a good question Kristi – I will give you the abbreviated version. I completed the Kokoda Track in 2017 and once I got back home, I just could not get the struggle of the people there out of my mind. I became mildly obsessive about it and could not stop thinking of other ways of somehow generating revenue (other than portering and guiding) that might help end the cycle of poverty. I knew I had to do something to help make a change (and it probably by this point had become an obsession). Luckily my path soon crossed with Jesse’s and Indigenous Kokoda Adventures was born soon after.

Tell us about Kokoda – what makes it so special?

J – The Kokoda Track is a foot path that runs 96 km joining the villages from Kokoda through to Owers’ Corner. This path runs through the Owen Stanley Ranges, a difficult terrain that people can only get through on foot.  There is so much history that has taken place along the track. Our ancestors walked along this path and lived in these villages and as their descendants we feel them with us when we walk. We carry their spirit in our hearts and when we find it difficult to go on, we always remember how strong and brave they were and that gives us strength. We like to pass this on to our trekkers and hope that they feel and understand the importance of where they are and what they are doing – walking in our forefathers footsteps. Kokoda is a special place, there is no place like it on Earth.

D – From my perspective, Kokoda is particularly unique as it offers a glimpse into a culture that someone coming from other parts of the world wouldn’t normally have. It offers a unique history, amazing culture and adventure all in one package. Oh, and challenge, definitely challenge.

What types of people can come experience Kokoda with you?

J – Indigenous Kokoda Adventures operates moderately-paced treks suitable for everyone. This means we offer treks that are shorter in days but more intense trekking each day as well as longer trips with shorter daily trekking to accommodate those who may not want such an intense experience. We want everyone to enjoy their trek along Kokoda so we try to match our trekkers’ fitness abilities with our trip package lengths. Our guides set a steady, sustainable pace that trekkers with good physical fitness (who have done their training) can maintain without getting into difficulties.

D – Everybody can come and experience Kokoda with us! We welcome everyone regardless of age (underage children do need a parent with them) and gender and we make every effort to accommodate any special requirements our guests might have (although a piggy back along the track is not one of the options!) We offer a fully guided tour and all our trekkers will have an experience with us that they cannot possibly get from a non-local tour operator. We provide a trek that has history, culture, adventure and both physical and mental challenge. For people who are looking for an immersive look into a remote culture and a physical challenge at the same time this is the place to be. I speak from experience when I say, even if you don’t think Kokoda is a trek for you, you might surprise yourself. In fact, I know you will surprise yourself.

Indigenous Kokoda Adventures is the first wholly locally owned and operated tour operator on the Kokoda Track. Why was this important to you and what does it mean for local people?

J – This is a very interesting question. Speaking with all due respect to the other locals who have connections with other operators and the others who are based outside of Papua New Guinea but operate on Kokoda and other outlying parts of Papua New Guinea, yes, Indigenous Kokoda Adventure is a 100% wholly locally owned and managed tour operator on the Kokoda Track. There is no middle man nor any other layers of contractors or operators. This provides an example to locals and shows that we cannot depend on free hand outs and we must stand up and take responsibility for ourselves. We cannot rely on others any longer. We are Papua New Guinea’s first people and we are reclaiming our legacy.

D – Even though I am not from Papua New Guinea, I am fully aware of how important it is for a country’s first nations to take control of their lives. When you do have control you are in a better position to tell the world your story. Having local perspective offers so many more avenues for conversations and opportunities for connecting with someone from a culture completely different from your own. Papua New Guineans know their history best and they know their story best and no one can tell their story better. If you went to France, you wouldn’t expect someone from Italy to be leading your tour – you would want someone that knew France’s history and stories best. And that would be a person from France. Same with Papua New Guinea. How can a foreign guide possibly know the local story and perspective? It’s impossible. This is why I think it so important that Indigenous Kokoda Adventures is locally owned, led and operated. It also serves as a model for other Indigenous people and proves that all things are possible.

What are some of the biggest challenges locals face and how is Indigenous Kokoda Adventures helping?

J – As a local from Kokoda, supporting their children in education beyond primary school is one thing most locals cannot afford. Indigenous Kokoda Adventures believes that education is the key to a better standard of living and for reducing poverty. For these reasons, we have set up a charitable foundation to assist the children along the Kokoda Track in the furtherance of their education.

D – From my perspective, and I know I see things from a different perspective than Jesse, for most Indigenous people, I feel that being taken seriously and being given the respect that we inherently deserve as people and human beings (and that is so freely and automatically given in other parts of the world to non-Indigenous people) is one of the bigger challenges facing local Indigenous people not just in PNG, but in many parts of the world. Obviously there are the specific challenges – education, medical/dental etc. however, I feel it all comes down to respect. I think it’s fair to say that non-Indigenous people would not tolerate the treatment that many Indigenous people live with every day.

Indigenous Kokoda Adventures is helping to make a difference by leading by example. When local people see other local people standing up to take their rightful place in their society it instills hope and knowledge that this is possible. Eventually more and more local people will stand claiming their place and together they can affect the changes necessary to improve their lives, those of their children and future generations.

What challenges did you face as a young business and how did you overcome them?

J – The biggest challenge was the startup. But I am glad that we managed to overcome this and I am proud that the website is now up and running. The big challenge now is to connect with people who don’t know about Indigenous Kokoda Adventures. I am glad that we have established many connections with good people who have the same vision as Indigenous Kokoda Adventures and I know the word about what we are doing will spread.

D – For me, generally speaking, the time difference between Port Moresby and Vancouver is 18 hours which doesn’t allow for a very large window to converse and have e-meetings. This was a challenge trying to move forward on things and make decisions in a timely way. We overcame this by giving up sleeping!

Specifically speaking, Jesse is right – getting the website up and running was a big challenge. Connecting with people to talk about Kokoda and how beautiful Papua New Guinea is (and getting them to come and try their hand at trekking the Kokoda Track with us) is the next step, but I am confident that once more people recognize the importance of what we are doing is, Indigenous Kokoda Adventures and the IKA Foundation will become well known in the adventure travel world.

What are you most proud of achieving so far?

J – The most thing that I am proud of is having the Indigenous Kokoda Adventures website up and running.

D – Everything! Just the fact that Jesse and I started with an idea, a shared vision … and look at where we are now!  And we did it all with an 18 hour time difference and many miles between us!

Is there any advice you’d give to other locally owned and operated tour operators that are just starting out? 

J – Speaking from experience, stop and think if there are obstacles in your way. These obstacles are turning points where you will take your next step to the right direction.

D – Don’t rush. Everything takes time and when you rush you can overlook things that might be critical. And, when things go wrong or if something happens that you might think is an obstacle, it can actually turn out to be for the better. You just don’t know it at the time. Time gives you space and perspective to see the fallout from events and decisions (good and bad) and provides opportunity to move forward from there with a clearer eye. I admit, it is hard to see all this when you’re in the midst of a crisis but try to remember to be patient and just keep plugging away. One step at a time and one foot in front of the other. Just like completing the Kokoda!

Is there any advice you’d give to tourists to ensure their travel choices are more ethical ones?

J – There are many colorful things can be said and put on a website. Ensure these are fairly executed on the ground and the tour operators are doing what they said they would do. As a local operator, and speaking from a Kokoda viewpoint, I feel it is best to find out about and trek with the local operators because you are then directly supporting the locals and giving back to them in return for what their fathers and grandfathers sacrificed during the Kokoda campaign.

D – My advice would be to follow the trail of command and money. Find out who is leading the tour, if it’s being contracted out and if the guides are being paid a fair wage and being given the benefits of employment that so many of us take for granted. Find out what associations they belong to and what the criteria are for being a member. I had no idea when I started travelling so many years ago how important it is to ask these questions. I definitely know better now. Other good specific environment related questions to ask are: How do you dispose of garbage along the way? What do you do about disposable plastic water bottles? (Hopefully they will say we don’t tolerate them and make sure you bring your own water bottles etc.). How do you make sure you leave the places the tour visits in better shape than when we arrived? That sort of questioning. Let the tour operator know you are holding them accountable for making sure they take care of the people that are doing the grunt work for them as well as having a plan in place for our planet’s preservation for future generations.

What’s next for you?

J – Expansion to other tourism sites in our country. Papua New Guinea has so many beautiful places that most people don’t know about or take the time to see when they visit.

D – Good question!!! We have lots of plans for expansion but we don’t want to give away the recipe for our secret sauce so I guess your readers will just have to follow what we are doing or, even better, sign up for a trek and we can have a really good conversation in person about what we’re looking ahead to!

Visit Indigenous Kokoda Adventures’ tour page to learn more about The Kokoda Track and their commitment to communities and environment.