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Trail of Woe: Carrier welfare & poor practice on the Kokoda trek

Carriers' quarters
Carriers' quarter on the Kokoda Trail


The third in a series of articles about the need to improve conditions and sustainable development of the trek tourism industry along the Kokoda Trail. The articles are drawn from Rashmii’s observations and conversations with Papua New Guinean guides, carriers, campsite owners and communities as she trekked the Trail from 6 -17 August, 2018

ON THE TRAIL - Empty cans of chicken soup sit beside a small open fire, their metal charring slowly as flames flicker around them.

Boskuk moves about busily clearing the other end of a timber platform on which his assistant, Junior, and I recline.

He throws scraps of onion peel and ripped pasta packets into a garbage disposal bag as he makes his way towards us to inspect the evening’s dish washing efforts.

The various cauldrons that earlier held the trek group’s two-course dinner, have now been washed by Junior and a few carriers, their head torches guiding them at Lubu Creek nearby.

Visibly satisfied, boskuk moves back to the fire to remove the blackened tins, crushing them easily under his feet before placing them in a separate garbage bag.

With no waste disposal system implemented by the Trail’s PNG-Australian management, Adventure Kokoda adheres to strict company policy that rubbish produced by the group is taken when departing campsites and rest stops.

Haus Kuk (camp kitchen)
Boskuk prepares a meal in the haus kuk (camp kitchen)

FOLLOWING the steep descent from Owers Corner, our first day of trekking brought us through the abandoned Uberi village, then across Goldie River before arrival at Imita base campsite.

Lagging behind with my guide and carrier, DE, I had not seen boskuk [head cook] or most of the carriers during those few hours. It was only when I sighted orange tents dotted across an expansive lawn and movement in the open-sided hauskuk [kitchen] did I understand the reason for their rapid pace over the day.

The group would move swiftly from campsite to campsite, where they would construct makeshift tables or lay out a tarpaulin on the leaf-layered jungle floor.

It was all well organised. Boskuk, Junior and the carriers ensured we trekkers could enjoy our refreshment breaks in a timely and hygienic way. Along the Trail, even the most basic facilities for the comfort of trekkers and carriers have been ignored by the Port Moresby-based management.

Over subsequent days, as my fellow trekkers and I heaped spoonfuls of energy-sustaining milo and sugar-laden instant coffee into individual mugs, I thought about the burden placed on Junior. Without the provision of elevated outdoor cooking facilities between villages, making and containing the small open fires fell to Adventure Kokoda.

A little matter, perhaps, but one of many deficiencies – large and small – which added up to a fundamental neglect of Papua New Guinea’s premier, money-making tourism lure oversighted by no less than five organisations: PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA); Kokoda Track Authority (KTA); Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA); and the Australian-steered Kokoda Tours Operators Association (KTOA) and Kokoda Initiative (KI).

With all the funding available, mostly Australian taxpayers’ money, what consideration does this cumbersome management give to the well-being of Papua New Guinean carriers engaging in their hazardous work.

The Trail, although well-trod, is no walk in the park. It can endanger life and limb. Trekkers like me are privileged to have travel insurance. But what support is available to carriers should they sustain injury?

The conspicuous absence of safety measures such as hand-rails and barriers means that trekkers instinctively rely upon carriers for support as well as labour. They need breaks and rest-time just like those Trail managers back in Port Moresby.

My thoughts extend to the danger of open fires as an accelerant of environmental degradation. The Kokoda Trail is a vital component of the ecosystem of the Koiari and Orokaiva people.

Knowing how vigilant (to the extent of criminal sanctions) Australian society is about fires in forest areas, the seemingly lax approach to fire regulation of the Australian agencies that co-manage the Trail irritates me.

This pattern of management’s dismal commitment to environment sustainability and lack of interest in carrier welfare is no more evident than in the work and living conditions at campsites.

Self-made camp table
Quickly constructed camp table avoids the need to carry more gear

IMITA base is one of the easier campsites for the novice trekker to reach.

The flat terrain surrounded by short, sloping hills makes for a leisurely stroll down to Lubu Creek to bathe. Outdoor bathing is of course a routine challenge for trekkers but, given the popularity of the Trail, I am mystified by the absence of simple outdoor shower facilities.

With the exception of the Bombers and Isurava sites, each afternoon at respective camps our group shuffles across moss-coated boulders and warily traverses razor-edged rocks for a three-second rinse in ice-cold water – which at least has the benefit of jolting fatigued bodies back to exhausted life. The drudgery of changing clothes inside a two-person tent is equally unkind.

Half an hour after unsteadily negotiating a fallen tree trunk leading trekkers out of the creek, I emerge from my tent and head towards an impromptu tabol maket [table market] set up by local landowners. My trek mates proclaimed there were K8 cans of Coke and K3 packets of Twisties on sale.

At the tabol maket, I purchase three lukewarm soft drinks, taking one and leaving the others for DE and another carrier who had been gracious in lending his hand when DE’s two weren’t sufficient for my height-fearing brain.

I then saunter across the lawn passing the carriers’ sleeping quarters, a three-walled structure with an open front for all eyes to peer through. Scattered across the timber floor are rolls of red-cover encased zippered sleeping bags. Blue foam sleeping mats lie alongside bilums and discarded uniform shirts hang on the palm-thatched wall.

But the ghastly stench seeping from nearby camp toilets propels me straight back to the other side of camp, and into the haus kuk.

MOVING between the haus kuk and the neighbouring shelter structure, boskuk issues instructions to Junior before doing the same to a handful of nearby carriers.

I quiz Junior about the shelter’s tarpaulin roof and the company’s rope now strung into clothes lines across its length. I’m told this is the campsite owner’s offering of a drying haus. Adventure Kokoda supplies its own rope, purchases firewood from landowners and makes small fires to improvise a heating facility for trekkers to hand wash their damp clothes.

Boskuk reappears and rations out pasta spirals for the group’s evening meal. As Junior moves a water-filled cauldron off the platform, multiple one kilogram bags of rice come into view. I am told they are to be cooked for the carriers’ dinner. As boskuk moves forward, bending to empty the packets of pasta into the now-boiling water, I divert my eyes to the orange tents ahead of me to conceal my reaction.

I am embarrassed to be sitting idly whilst an older man moves about to prepare a meal for us and but most of all I feel irritated that Papua New Guinean men like boskuk are employed to create a tourism ‘experience’ struggling with primitive infrastructure.

As night falls, my irritation turns to anger the only source of light for boskuk and Junior as they move about with meal preparation, service and cleaning are our fire and their head torches.

Boskuk tells me he has worked in the industry for nearly 16 years and in all that time work conditions, have changed little. He points out that, with the first night’s meal eaten and breakfast tomorrow, the carriers’ pack weights will be lighter, but only slightly. I am bewildered that there is no en-route storage system at campsites for food, tents and other gear.

THAT evening, and in the days and nights thereafter, I continue to feel the same, distressing emotional outrage at the alphabet soup of KTA, CEPA, TPA, KI and KTOA which promote Kokoda as an icon but do so little for the men struggling on the Trail.

The lack of proper waste disposal systems, the absence of outdoor showers and fixed waist-level cooking facilities, poor drying houses, unsatisfactory toilet facilities, inadequate sleeping quarters for carriers and insufficient lighting….

All indicate a lack of communication, caring and action on the part of the management soup, which should be engaging with local campsite owners and trek companies to provide humane, safe and otherwise reasonable facilities for carriers, guides, trekkers and Trail communities.


Bush camp
Sleeping mat and clothes are aired at a bush camp

THE issues I’ve described cause me to consider whether, in striving to achieve the ‘wartime experience’, Kokoda Trail management is either ignorant of or unconcerned about the shifting tectonic plates of modern-day standards and expectations.

If it is felt that Papua New Guinean carriers represent some kind of emulation of wartime Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, this is a totally misconceived attitude.

It is one thing for trekkers to voluntarily embark on the challenges of Kokoda; quite another to expect that the workers who make this possible have to endure the poor conditions they do.

Not for them the return to a Port Moresby hotel and a comfortable life in Australia.

They’re back on the Trail.

Surely the PNG-Australian management of the Trail is not deliberately capitalising on the historical juxtaposition of troops and carriers, consciously limiting its investment in the welfare of carriers and advertently fostering poor practices in Kokoda Trail trek tourism?


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Rashmii Bell

Robin and Michael - thank you.

Last night on Twitter, I was blocked by trek tour operator Kokoda Trail Expeditions. This came after I tweeted them asking questions about an image they had used to promote their Anzac Day 2019 trek tour.

The image was concerning to me, and I expressed that the PNG carrier looked to be carrying a pack that looked much too large/heavy for his stature. And he was wearing what I consider inappropriate footwear (slippers) for the hazardous terrain of the Trail.

The trek operator was swift to delete the image/tweet, then proceeded to block me.

You may view this interaction via my Twitter account: @amoahfive_oh

Michael Dom

Good expose, Rashmii.

Your concluding rhetorical question is spot on.

Australian government and the alphabet soup organizations are exploiting Kokoda Trail and the people.

Robin Lillicrapp

Rashmii - a great effort of passing on your well articulated observations.

They are all the more relevant coming from your pen leavened by the realisations of genuine inequity displayed by many toward the PNG carriers and overall management of the industry.

May your comments result in a turnaround of present circumstances before the complete erosion of this iconic operation.

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