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Trail of Woe: Dispossession – no joy for women in Kokoda tourism

Kokoda - Lunch of baked goods and fruit prepared by women of Abuari village
A treat of baked goods and fruit prepared by women of Abuari village - part of a project supported by Adventure Kokoda


Fifth in a series of articles about the need to improve trek tourism 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 - Atop a moss-covered fallen tree trunk bananas speckled with brown spots lie next to bundles of light globe-sized passionfruit.

A baby blue shawl thrown across an elderly woman’s bony frame complements the deep orange sweet jelly produce positioned beside her. She lowers her eyes as the trek group edges past her towards the forest border.

Standing a few metres away, trek leader Charlie Lynn rehashes his presentation as I tap my fingers across the keypad of my phone. I note details of mortar relics resting in an open, rusting cage in the forest bordering Myola 1 village.

An absence of information boards on the Trail means Charlie’s thorough knowledge of World War II’s Kokoda campaign is crucial. Today is the sixth day I’ve been learning about the military history behind our long 10-day pilgrimage.

This day we are privileged to have the campsite owner of our previous night’s stay at Bombers) as our tour guide. To acknowledge his time and knowledge, donations from the group are collected by Charlie and presented to him.

Trek tourism not only seems unable to benefit from signage, the villages along the Trail are not benefiting much either. Providing fixed shelters would encourage interaction with and sales to passing trekkers.

The elderly woman I’d seen had resorted to assembling her impromptu market on a fallen log. My trek mates walked past showing little interest and otherwise absorbed I, too, did not make a purchase.

Not until walking onto the prairie-like landscape of Myola 2 village did I remember, with a pang of regret, the lone woman in the forest hoping for a kina or two.

Kokoda - Inspecting wreckage of US Army P40 Kittyhawk fighter plane at Lake Myola
Inspecting the wreck of a US Army P40 Kittyhawk fighter plane at Lake Myola

ON the eighth day a mid-morning venture off the Trail down to Maeaka Falls has my trekking pace slow to a daydreaming stroll.

The roar of the majestic waterfall is softened by the tranquillity of sunlight filtering through the tree canopy. Light sprays of water land on my face.

There’s no signage to educate trekkers of the site’s wartime significance, so we rely on Charlie’s account of the devastating ambush and the deaths of Lt Col Ward and troops of his 53rd Battalion.

A sombre mood cloaks our group’s short climb back to the main Trail where we reunite with our backpacks and the rest of the carriers.

Back on the Trail heading toward Abuari village, I enjoy a relatively easier climb and manage to appreciate more of the natural splendour of my surrounds where lilac flowers are scattered among the wild shrubs.

My trance is interrupted when ahead of me by loud laughter and a playful exchange between my carrier DE and the medic. The two young men trigger a recurring thought - How are the women and girls of the Trail communities benefiting from trek tourism? I think of the old woman on the log.

Kokoda - Wreckage of US Army P40 Kittyhawk fighter plane at Lake Myola
The Kittyhawk wreck

FOUR days earlier I had stood at the women’s tabol maket, scanning bundles of over-ripe bananas, small pineapples, pyramids of wrinkled Twisties packets and dishes housing an assortment of soft drink cans.

Opposite me, four women of various ages stood at intervals along the table. I enquired about the price of three pineapples: “K15, K12 and K20.

I’m conflicted about how to efficiently spend K40 so as to share snacks with the carriers and offer a token of my thanks to the group of Menari villagers whom DE has organised to speak with me.

Eventually, I buy some packaged food, bananas and a few cans of drink, making an effort to purchase from each of the four women. Only one or two other trekkers purchase drinks and bananas from the women whilst we await boskuk and Junior who busily prepare the group’s lunch in the midday heat.

I move to one end of the table where bilums [string bags] are on sale. They depict nothing unique, being the rather generic styles sold in Port Moresby.

Then, remembering an earlier conversation with one of the female trekkers, I ask the women about the sale of sanitary products. Stone wall. Eye contact lost. Worried at their discomfort, I ask if there are small trade stores nearby where I may purchase them. I am told a curt “no”.  

Only later as I sit with a few female trekkers, a young woman from the maket approaches to inform me that sanitary products are sold but only from individual homes. She offers to go to one and make a purchase, for which my fellow trekker is grateful.

Days later, back in Port Moresby, I am concerned when I hear about a proposed Kokoda Initative-funded program aiming to encourage economic participation by women in Trail villages producing and selling re-usable sanitary products.

The proposed model, trialled in another region of PNG and now to be replicated, is that they be sold in market places. Afterwards, citing the incident at Menari, I let it be known through other channels that the public sale of these products on the Trail is likely to be culturally unacceptable and meet with resistance from the women.

UPON arrival in Abuari, DE directs me straight to the haus kuk to talk with Junior.

Dodging a low beam, I enter the haus kuk. Junior is nowhere to be seen. Hunched over a simmering cauldron, boskuk points to a covered dish on the narrow platform. Lifting its lid, I see a mound of boiled corn and taro.

In my eight days on the Trail, it’s the first time I’ve been offered or even seen the organic produce, a staple in the diet of remote Papua New Guinean communities.

As part of the trek tourism experience, I had expected to regularly consume local cuisine. It was a disappointment for me and fellow trekkers that, during the 10 days between Owers Corner and Kokoda, we had not seen a mumu. Trail communities were again missing an opportunity to earn some money.

Adventure Kokoda’s established rapport and direct investment in the women and girls of Abuari village means today’s lunch consists of two meals: the hearty, fire-cooked meal prepared by boskuk and Junior plus an assortment of baked treats prepared by the women’s group.

In the cool of an elevated hauswin [gazebo], sugar donuts, slabs of butter cake and fresh bread rolls are laid out alongside platters of passionfruit and bananas. There are also trays of fried kaukau, a favourite amongst the Australian trekkers. At the end of the meal, a payment of K15 from each trekker is collected by the guide and given to the women.

Away from the lunch table, the women offer cold cans of soft drink and packaged chips for sale, which members of my trek group purchase enthusiastically.

Later, speaking to a representative of the women’s group, she describes how Adventure Kokoda’s provision of drum ovens and essential baking supplies has fostered a system where meals are prepared for the company’s trek groups. The company has also donated hand-operated sewing machines that are used to make goods for sale by this community and the people of nearby villages.

Unfortunately, this was the only time on the Trail I observed women engaged in sustainable development activity; one example only of active participation in and direct benefit from trek tourism.

Kokoda - Women and children sitting beside their market in Isurava Village
Women and children sit beside their market - and unsold goods - at Isurava village

WE have just finished the descent from the Isurava Memorial - a site so grand and fitting as a monument honouring the courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice of the brave men of the Kokoda campaign.

The morning fog has still not lifted when we descend into Isurava village to stop for morning tea.

I sit on a log next to trek mate, exchanging comments of delight about the neatly-kept rose garden beside us.

As we much on packaged cream biscuits, Junior moves about preparing the beverages. The air is still cool and we look forward wrapping our hands around warm mugs of milo, coffee and tea.

Just metres away, two middle-aged women sit. Near them, small children amuse themselves. In front of them stainless steel and floral design tin dishes have been placed on a clean white sheet. The usual cans of Coke, bundles of Twisties and ripe bananas fill the dishes. By the time our group is ready to move on, no one has moved towards the women and their small market.

WITH this final observation of a pattern of failed enterprise, I am overcome with inconsolable grief in front of Charlie and DE.

I struggle to articulate my despair at seeing the unrewarded effort and dashed expectations of women and girls seeking to benefit from the tourism through their land.

Just as I turn away from Charlie and DE to head off and collect my backpack, a senior carrier hurries towards me with a small bunch of bananas.

Handing them to me, he says the women, still seated with their unsold wares, have asked him to bring the fruit to me as a gift.


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