Trail of Woe: Wartime gratitude morphs into a troubled present
08 October 2018
RASHMII AMOAH BELL
The fourth in a series of articles about issues of the trek tourism industry on 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 - BOSKUK and Junior emerge from the haus kuk section of the trekkers’ dining hut with two stainless steel bowls of warm rinsing water and another filled with warm soapy water.
Taking turns, my fellow trekkers and I line up against the hand-built dining table chattering about the afternoon’s descent into this campsite at Ofi Creek as we wash our individual dishes and cutlery.
A pile of striped purple cleaning cloths are laid out for us to dry our implements before heading to our tents for the night.
I sit easily on the table’s bench seat, comfortably content after my meal of French onion soup, instant potato mash and tinned bully beef and hear DE’s gentle call from outside the hut’s thatched frame.
It’s the signal that he and the other carriers, as well as the trek guide, boskuk and Junior, are ready for me to sit with them and talk. I gather my belongings, switch on my headtorch and walk towards the carriers’ sleeping quarters.
DE and I sit on the lawn near the entrance alongside a handful of carriers who have arrived late to the evening’s devotion. Inside, a text from Scripture is cited, moving on to a closing Seventh Day Adventist hymn. DE softly hums the melody whilst his colleagues with steady voice and pitch-perfect harmony sing along.
THE Ofi Creek campsite owner offers one of the better accommodation facilities for carriers on the Trail.
These quarters have four walls and a small doorway, the raised timber platform inside serving as a clean, warm and safe enclave to rest.
In here, the trek guide has cleared a spot for me. I take a panoramic view of the torch-lit room and see a few carriers already in their sleeping bags, dozing off for the night. But the majority are seated, exchanging brief, shy glances with me before looking away. It is the first opportunity since leaving Owers Corner that I will listen to the collective voices of these men.
The air rich with anticipation, I nervously turn to DE and ask him to open the evening’s discussion. Clearing his throat, DE embarks on facilitating a 90 minute discussion.
DE opens in Tok Pisin by explaining why I am trekking the Trail and shares his thoughts about our conversation after I had asked him about Winterford Tauno, a carrier who died on the Trail last September.
There are murmurs of agreement and I observe men whispering to each other. A brief silence ensues before the trek’s medic addresses the group in Motu. It is a language I am unable to understand but, glancing at DE, his relaxed facial expression reassures me that the medic is encouraging dialogue.
A senior carrier moves onto the earthen floor to address the group and begins to delve into a myriad of issues.
Most of them are problems seemingly fostered by the PNG-Australian Trail management’s weak regulation of trek operators and its lack of interest in advocating and enforcing the rights of carriers.
LET me be clear: without the Papua New Guinean carriers, there is no Kokoda Trail trek tourism industry.
Subsequently, there would be no need for the many people – bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, aid personnel – who rely on this industry for all or part of their livelihood. My guess is that most of them get paid more than carriers.
Our carriers tell me the industry daily rate is K60 but working for Adventure Kokoda they are paid K70 a day. It is just one of a long list of items where trek leader Charlie’s company differs from other predominantly Australian-owned trek operators.
For a 10-day trek, with all the hazards and hardships endured, carriers are paid K700. Upon reaching the Trail’s end, they are paid an allowance of K250 to walk-back to their village.
They tell me they are satisfied with their company issued uniforms of shirts, shorts and caps. All the carriers in this trek group wear enclosed shoes suitable for hazardous terrain. Rice, tinned meat and hard breakfast biscuits form the staples of their trek diet. When available, Adventure Kokoda purchases cooked garden food (corn, taro and the like) from communities for carriers’ meals.
They are issued with zippered sleeping bags and foam sleeping mats. They support the company’s strict policy to enforce across the industry an 18-kilogram pack weight limit. But they avoid discussing the death of Winterford Tauno.
Adventure Kokoda is also innovative in sourcing additional income for carriers. Trekkers are encouraged to pay a gratuity of K80 to them. At the Trail’s end, the gratuity from each trekker is pooled and distributed amongst carriers.
Trekkers are encouraged to purchase a Trail memento hand-carved by Adventure Kokoda carriers, ranging in price from K50 to K80.
In the end, a carrier completes a 10-day trek with between K981 and K1,081 in his pocket. That’s about $460 maximum. With added responsibilities and longer workdays, the trek guide, bos kuk, Junior, DE and the medic receive a slightly higher amount.
It’s not much of a reward in the context of the millions of kina generated by the trekking industry. In 2011, the most recent year for which I am able to find figures, the Trail generated $15.3 million in revenue.
I cannot help but ask the question, “Are the carriers upon whom this industry depends treated and rewarded fairly?”
Across the industry, carriers have two demands when it comes to remuneration: that the daily pay rate be increased to K100 or that they be paid an all-inclusive flat fee of K2,000 for the 10 day trek.
Furthermore, carriers have requested: assistance to access savings and loan facilities; and the establishment of a PNG Guide and Carriers Association, independent and free of any involvement by the current PNG-Australian managers.
A WEAK regulatory body means not all trek operators function in the same way as Adventure Kokoda.
Rampant inconsistencies were reported to me by carriers. The issuing of blankets instead of sleeping bags, day packs exceeding 18 kilograms, and inconsistencies in walk-back allowance (not K250 but K50–K100.
As we crossed Efogi Creek, DE and I encountered carriers working for another trek operator. Shouldering larger backpacks, the three young men wore slippers. It was one of many occasions that I witnessed inappropriate footwear.
Of all the concerns raised by carriers, the lack of medical insurance and life insurance causes them the most anxiety.
Having immersed myself in the wretched terrain and struggled with the lack of safe footbridges, I cannot accept what I believe to be the negligence by Trail management in ensuring such protections against harm. I wonder whether any measures were implemented following Winterford Tauno’s death.
The carriers’ uncertainty over workplace injury and death extends to their recruitment.
Carriers describe a robust trek tourism industry that takes on young Koiari and Orokaiva men who need to be employed. However, questionable practices by trek operators fuel a disturbing imbalance.
For example, not all Australian-based registered operators undertake tours year-round. Some operators undertake tours only at peak times (Anzac Day and school holidays). Unfortunately, such profit-driven choices have a devastating impact on employment for the Papua New Guineans who rely on the treks as a source of income. Unstable work means unstable income.
Carriers also report inconsistency in the selection process used by several trek operators. Adventure Kokoda’s carriers are recruited from every village along the Trail. This is advantageous not only for the carriers (and their dependants) but for the trek groups passing through communities.
However, some trek operators employ from just a single village while using all Trail villages for their passage on the land of the Koiari and Orokaiva people.
These issues cause much anger to be directed at Kokoda Initiative (KI) which the majority of carriers identify as having little impact. They say they are frustrated that, while carriers’ pay rates remain low, little attempt has been made by Australia’s DFAT-funded agency to deliver human resource development in which girls and women participate.
The carriers’ frustration extends to those Australian-steered, funded and based organisations that affix ‘Kokoda’ to their titles but do little to serve the needs of the marginalised Kokoda Trail communities. The carriers also express concern about the deteriorating ecosystem through littering, erosion and unnecessary felling of trees.
WALKING in silence back to my tent, I struggle to fathom the charm and stoicism carriers are forced to muster each day they are on the Trail.
Beside me, DE, with tired eyes, carries my washed plate and cutlery. His insistence on ensuring he accompany to return safely to my tent struck me as an embarrassing reflection on the managing body of his industry.
The carriers of the Kokoda Trail, seemingly forgotten by those in Port Moresby and Canberra, are relentless in their duty of care to trekkers.
The spirit of their World War II forefathers still resides in them, but the gratitude of those weary troops they served does not seem to have survived the journey to the present.
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