RASHMII AMOAH BELL
Sixth in a series of articles about the need to improve the 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
ON THE TRAIL – My guide and carrier DE and I have developed a vocabulary of sorts.
Extending his arm back toward me, low-slung and with fingers splayed, DE warns of a winding navigation of Emoo Creek.
At a standstill facing me, hand elevated and shoulders curled towards his chest, DE’s eye movements map out a path to safely manoeuvre the slime-coated incline of Nauro Lookout.
With short, clear instructions received from over my shoulder, he gently insists on my full concentration when clambering amongst floating logs in swamps and he steadies my balance through light pressure on the small backpack on my shoulders.
Here on the Kokoda Trail, the PNG-Australia management of the trek tourism industry seem to have put little thought into personal safety measures for trekkers, carriers and guides.
Along the 138 kilometres between Owers Corner and the Kokoda plateau, the absence of handrails, steps and secure footbridges raises many questions about the investment in safety.
In places, our lightweight trekking poles enable unsteady pivots and lunges. Crossing streams, the carriers line alongside impromptu handrails constructed with red rope, their bodies protecting us from razor-sharp rocks protruding from the white water gushing beneath felled logs.
DE and I co-exist in a relationship where my hesitant glances are reciprocated with empathy and a quiet dignity as he gently negotiates my journey throughout the ten days.
Images in the history textbook of ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ aiding Australian soldiers anchor the role DE and his colleagues continue to this day.
And yet, unlike the World War II military campaign, the modern-day enterprise of wartime tourism earns money; generated in most part by the labour provided by Papua New Guinean men.
DE’s earlier declaration of moral obligation for my safety seem grossly disproportionate for the returns invested in him by tourism management.
Moving along the ever-changing corridor floor of the Trail, I muster humility to entrust my welfare in DE’s professional judgment in this difficult environment. I admire his stoicism despite the hazards – but, at regular intervals during gruelling uphill climbs, I am visited by pangs of worry.
This is a clear dry-season day in August and it is easy to overlook DE’s offering of a helping hand along a well-trodden incline where no handrails are to be found.
But what about the wet season months of April onwards when the popularity of Anzac Day motivates pilgrims and Australian school students to flock in droves to the Trail? Does the laissez faire approach of PNG-Australia management continue, or are safety measures improved for carriers during this peak period for trekking?
I LEAN IN to shake hands with the elderly man and exchange morning pleasantries before stepping back to stand just behind DE’s shoulder. As DE continues conversation with his uncle, I scan the surrounding landscape. My mind working like a camera, I take shots of Efogi village.
To my right, red hibiscus shrubs border a pathway of short grass leading to a small health centre, Nearby are the community health worker’s house and a school.
Earlier that morning, trek leader Charlie, the trek Guide, DE and another carrier with me in attendance had ventured along this path to deliver Adventure Kokoda’s medical supplies donation to Efogi’s health centre.
Despite it being the Sabbath, the community health worker with three small children in tow kindly offered to show me her workplace. I moved across the timber-slat verandah and linoleum-covered floors and through the treatment rooms, freshly painted, clean and organised, the health worker very considerate in responding to all my questions.
I was particularly interested in maternal care, and was shown the maternity room. It was clean and tidy but my heart sank when I saw the out-dated delivery beds: unsuitable and extremely uncomfortable.
I felt sorry for the mothers whom had given birth on these beds, which reminded me of one on which I endured the traumatic delivery of my daughter at Lae’s Angau hospital in 2010.
The health worker told me that, most often at the seventh month of pregnancy, women walk to Efogi to stay with relatives. After delivery, they and their babies return to their villages to which the community health worker regularly patrols to administer immunisation and medical checks.
As I stepped outside, a flash of fluorescent pink and yellow appeared in my peripheral vision. On the wall was a neat, hand-drawn chart detailing the clinic’s daily schedules including sessions allocated for women to access family planning, antenatal and well-baby clinics.
Also along the same grass path were a drying house structure and a new-looking generator. Both were idle. When I asked passers-by, I was told that they were part of an Australian aid project and of little use to the community.
The generator looked large enough to run a compound of homes, if not the health centre I had just visited. Lacking the ability to purchase and transport fuel, the generator remains dormant except for special church celebrations or the arrival of important people on chartered flights.
To my left, across a football-sized field of slate-coloured soil, was a row of traditionally thatched timber homes raised on wooden stilts. At this distance, I am unable to make out any movement. The villagers were part way through their allocated time of holy worship.
I turned the other way to where an expanse of a stone and hardened-clay wall guarded one end of Efogi and stood in stark contrast to the lush, manicured lawn leading visitors to the village centre.
With dusk approaching I began the quiet walk to our campsite ten minutes past the main Efogi village tucked away in a back corner. Except for the soft glow from the small fires in the haus kuk and carriers’ quarters, we were in pitch darkness.
The carriers switched off their head torches off when transiting through villages on their Sabbath, echoing trek leader Charlie’s reminder to maintain respect. Walking sightless and in silence, I clung to DE’s arm and followed his heels through slight dips and a scattering of loose gravel as we made our way to the camp.
HAVING PAID the five kina fee to the campsite owner, I sat with a trek mate in the waiting area of the Bombers campsite riverside hot shower.
I picked away the dirt clinging to my trousers as we exchanged stories of how exhausting the day’s hike had been. But relief overshadowed this when I considered how I had bathed on the previous previous night.
Arriving at Efogi campsite after nightfall, I was again confronted with the sole option of bathing by the riverside. Fearful of what might have been in Kavai Creek and for my personal safety, my anger flared again at Trail management neglect of the investment to provide even minimal facilities and to work with the campsite owners to ensure the well-being and safety of trekkers and trek staff.
Two carriers on their way back to the camp stopped and offered to assist. With caution, I stepped into the ice-cold water, scanning for water snakes, leeches and other threats. It wasn’t until I heard DE’s familiar voice that I dared to partially immerse myself in the water.
ADVENTURE Kokoda has a long-established relationship with the owner and his family at Bombers campsite.
Through the company’s investment and support, the campsite offers foam mattresses and pillows for the overnighting trekker. The hot sower facility is an initiative of the owner; designed through experiment and skilful use of the nearby river.
As with the women’s group at Abuari village, the trek company had pledged the donation of a drum oven to encourage the inclusion of women as participants and direct beneficiaries of the Trail’s informal economy.
The PNG-Australia Trail management needs to work with these motivated campsite owners to provide basic but necessary facilities to trekkers and staff. A starting point would be to inject some capability into the appalling implementation of the toilet project, which campsite owners told me has been steered by the Australia-led Kokoda Initiative.
Pit latrines are the current standard and they are consistently unsafe, unclean and unhygienic, meaning that the trend is for trekkers to ‘go bush’ rather than put up with the foul stench and unsteady infrastructure of the pit.
So what does insufficient investment in the Trail’s infrastructure mean? Well it’s all tangible - added pressure on carriers to act as shield-guards in the absence safety handrails; the felling of trees because there are no fixed and secure footbridges; the practice of bathing directly in the rivers; going bush for toileting… and the rest.
It is of great concern that the ecosystems and livelihood of the Koiari and Orokaiva people continue to be degraded and exploited as a consequence of insufficient investment, weak regulation and a questionable sustainable development approach to the Trail’s wartime tourism industry.