Trail of Woe: Disregard & mismanagement blight an iconic trek
03 October 2018
RASHMII AMOAH BELL
Second in a series of articles about the need to improve the conditions and sustainable development of the trek tourism industry on the Kokoda Trail. The articles document 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 - IT is just on dusk at Agulogo campsite when an impromptu meeting takes place inside the trekkers’ dining hut.
A hand-built and much weathered column table flanked by snake-length benches sit on the earthen floor. Seated across from me in the candle light are three Papua New Guineans: one from Kokoda Initiative (KI) funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs; the other two from PNG’s Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA).
To my left is Adventure Kokoda trek leader Charlie Lynn and, at his suggestion, our trek guide and my carrier, DE. The sound of Brown River, in which I had bathed earlier, echoes around us.
TPA and KI are just two of the multiple agencies involved in joint PNG-Australia management of the Trail. Their overnight stay at the same campsite as Adventure Kokoda is an opportune encounter since our respective departures from Owers Corner.
In Agulogo, we are deep in the reality of the trek tourism industry. Out here our unfiltered dialogue is a welcome contrast to the characteristic theoretical musing and roundtable bureaucratic chat of Port Moresby.
The agency staff are undertaking campsite checks and we exchange our assessments of the current state of the Trail’s tourism activities.
We agree about the rapidly declining physical state of the Trail but the staff are visibly uncomfortable when management’s effectiveness is critiqued. From my side of the table, frustrations are aired about the lack of community participation in Trail tourism, especially by women and girls.
The KI person quizzes Charlie for his suggestions on campsite improvement. Charlie pauses for thought and the ensuing lull allows me to ask a question weighing heavily on my mind.
Turning to TPA staff, I enquire how tourists are encouraged to walk the Trail? What words, what imagery are used? I’m told it’s the story of the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’.
I struggle to contain my irritation.
SINCE first stepping on the Trail, I have observed nothing to indicate an effort by TPA to acknowledge, preserve or commemorate the 49,500 Papua New Guinean men who, using crude stretchers, assisted Allied forces by carrying to safety injured and wounded troops during the Kokoda battles of World War II.
I have seen no form of tribute through statue, monument, memorial garden or simple information board solely dedicated to the contribution of those carriers.
And I have a fast-growing list of concerns about the disregard shown to today’s carriers, including an absence of safety measures in the hazardous work environment, poor sleeping quarters at campsites and the lack of en route storage to minimise the weight of the packs they carry.
The PNG Tourism Promotion Authority draws international tourists on the basis of wartime history and yet, 76 years on, there is little to acknowledge or improve conditions for the men who, as did their predecessors, guide those who walk the Trail.
The TPA staffer responds, her words slow and considered as she describes that, like me, this is her (and her male colleague’s) first time on the Trail. Her voice breaks as she reflects on my concerns about the carriers.
Tears rolling down her face, she expresses concern and a deep sorrow at having witnessed the unnecessary harsh realities the carriers endure. It is the one thing on which we are in open and mutual agreement.
IN two days, the agencies’ personnel will end their trek at Kagi village, from where a charter flight will return them to Port Moresby.
We in the Adventure Kokoda trek will continue for another seven days to Kokoda. My guide DE’s warm comradeship will enable me to speak to the guides and carriers of other trek operators who we pass on the Trail. And, as we enter villages, DE’s facilitation allows me to have brief discussions with the people.
I am fortunate to have this conduit to the village people’s personal accounts, feedback and concerns with trek tourism. The first-hand information is crucial in any assessment of the impact, issues and benefits from the tourism occurring in their front and back yards.
In hindsight, I puzzle as to why the agency staff had not mentioned the inclusion of carriers as facilitators for their field work. DE has highlighted for me that carriers are integral to bridging communication between trekkers and the communities they meet along the way.
The carriers could play a similar role in communication between Trail communities and management. But this opportunity has been overlooked – or, like the best interests of the carriers themselves, perhaps disregarded.
THE recorded sound of a bugle from the direction of Charlie’s tent slices through the pre-dawn silence, a cheerful morning reveille – ‘wake up!’.
It’s the third morning of the trek and we’re at Ofi Creek; the site of a successful Australian ambush in World War II. We passed through Iorabaiwa village the previous day and the previous 24 hours have been themed with bouts of gruelling climbs overlayed by a scorching sun. Finally, there was a steep 35-minute descent into camp and the soothing cool of a creek.
The campsite itself is nestled atop a small hill. On this morning its manicured lawn are illuminated by the lights inside Adventure Kokoda’s orange tents. Some tents remain unlit as trekkers continue to sleep off the previous day’s fatigue. Eventually I stretch out my hand to reunite with my headtorch.
Bleary eyed, I unzip the tent’s two screens and peer out into pitch black. I heave my main backpack and smaller backpack onto the damp grass. Days before, at our departure point, I had weighed both in the presence of my trek mates. Adventure Kokoda insists trekkers carry their own backpacks which are limited to 12 kilograms. If you opt for a personal carrier, the pack is restricted to 18 kilograms.
Mine weighed in at 9.5 kilograms, so there was ample capacity for my carrier to add his personal belongings, a sleeping bag and a mat.
As early as the first day of the trek, I would come to understand why Adventure Kokoda’s continual advocacy for the 18 kilogram weight restriction for all carriers is a necessity for ethical and humane tourism.
MY tired feet slide into sturdy, well-designed sandals and my attention turns to the purposeful footsteps with which I have become familiar. Many more will be required this day.
DE arrives outside my tent in his usual quiet manner and, guided by a head torch, swiftly moves to rearrange my backpack to include his belongings.
I crawl out of the tent, rolled sleeping mat in hand but sleeping bag unravelled, and exchange morning greetings, sheepishly motioning to the remaining contents of my tent. He grins and takes the rolled mat from me and motioning to my smaller backpack, a reminder to leave out the hydration bladder and water bottle for him to refill from the creek.
Having suffered enough of my repeated clumsiness, DE has relegated administering the water purifying solution to my abbreviated short list of morning tasks.
Now in the tent to wrangle my sleeping bag, DE leans out and advises me to keep my sandals on. After breakfast, our group will make a short walk through the waters of the creek before beginning the grinding climb to the Maguli Range.
He tells me that, after packing my tent, he will take both backpacks and my hiking boots and meet me on the other side of creek.
Farewelling DE, I place some mocha sachets on his uniform cap and head toward the source of the wafting aroma of freshly brewed Goroka coffee and the hot breakfast being prepared by the trek group’s bos kuk.
IN early 2017, carrier Winterford Tauno died on Iorabaiwa Ridge.
He was employed by an Australian trek tour operator and it was reported that, despite instructions by a ranger, Tauno’s backpack remained overloaded. No investigation nor corrective action was demanded of the trek operator. Nor have I observed any monument for Tauno’s service.
It saddens me that the life of a Papua New Guinean of our generation could be so soon forgotten by the management that benefited from his service to commemorate the lives of those generations who served on the Trail before him.
GUIDE and carrier DE has been my lifeline on the Trail.
Just into his thirties, his lineage is from both the Koiari and Orokaiva sides of the Trail. As we trek, I listen to him weave in out of conversations in Motu and his mother’s tokples as he chats with fellow carriers.
Speaking to me, he opts for English, occasionally switching into Tok Pisin to draw the attention of other carriers to my awkwardness with the outdoors.
Unaided by safety measures like handrails or timber steps, our steep descent from Owers Corner on the first day of trekking was cause to establish our mateship. With trembling knees and a racing heart, I clung to DE to guide me to the flatter parts of terrain.
He ensured I was always within range of his watchful eye, providing words of encouragement and an ever-ready grip to guide my hand and small backpack.
Now, as we reach more manageable sections of the Trail, the relaxed pace prompts a good-natured humour; a welcome distraction for me from the harsh realities of the trek. It was on the second day of trekking that I asked DE about his life as a carrier.
He got the job in 2012 and is the only personal carrier on our trek. Unlike the other 34 carriers, DE is not shouldering tents, cooking equipment or the packaged-food supply we will consume over the 10 days.
He tells me ensuring my safety and well-being is his responsibility, and I also admire the way he moves about supporting his colleagues who, I observe, even while managing their backpacks, keep a close eye on trekkers, ready to offer help as required.
DE and I are following the Trail down to Diagiri Creek when, taking in the hazardous terrain around us, so absent of safety infrastructure, I ask him about the death of Winterford Tauno.
He delays his response, keeping his back to me and reverting to a habit of mimicking bird calls. I have empathy for his apprehension. A few minutes pass before he turns to answer my question but avoids mentioning Tauno.
DE describes an industry that is failing the men integral to the survival of trek tourism. He tells me that the poor regulation of Australian trek operators means that, unlike Adventure Kokoda, he has witnessed and heard of extreme cases of exploitation of carriers.
He suggests that when we reach camp at Ofi Creek, he will organise our trek guide and the carrier team to meet with me together.
That evening I hear the long list of issues reported by these 36 Papua New Guinean men who, as a result of dismal PNG-Australian management of Trail tourism, have benefited little as key contributors and stakeholders in the experience.
There are many matters requiring immediate attention by Trail management if Kokoda trek tourism is to emerge as an ethical, humane and well managed operation in Papua New Guinea.
To be continued…..
Feedback received for this article, via my Twitter account (@amoahfive_oh):
1. "Thanks so much for this. I've been keen to look at a Kokoda trek before (I get too old!) but, while I have a few contacts in Port Moresby from a couple of brief stints working there, I'd always worried about how the locals are treated by guiding companies" - Steve Milburn. @Styvo51
2. "Great piece. Reinforced (and explained) what we had been told by our guide a few months ago" - Dr Anna Powles @AnnaPowles
Posted by: Rashmii Bell | 04 October 2018 at 09:05 AM
Thank you for sharing such an honest account of the reality these brave carriers face.
If it wasn't for these individuals, how many would be able to complete this amazing and life changing trek at all?
If more is written and more open discussions are facilitated allowing the carriers to find their voice and share their experiences openly, then positive change will surely follow.
Posted by: Gita Raikar | 03 October 2018 at 06:22 PM
A postal run it ain't. Scramble is of ridges and bridges and midges.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 03 October 2018 at 08:03 AM