BRISBANE, DECEMBER 2018 - His question came as I expected it would and as it echoed through the earpiece, I felt a movement of the boulders of anxiety wedged in my chest.
Shifting from one heel to the other, leaning back against the kitchen countertop to steady myself, I proceeded with the conversation.
DE was calling from somewhere along the road that snakes it way up to Sogeri. His calls were irregular but always brief and purposeful.
Seconds passed as my mind quickly arranged a response of uninspiring words. Words unworthy of the travel DE had undertaken from his village and his effort in borrowing a mobile phone from his cousin.
Unlike several of his Adventure Kokoda counterparts whom I ‘friended’ online, my trek carrier’s resistance to social media meant that I received a phone call. The boulders settled uneasily in the pit of my stomach.
Sensing my unease, DE’s kind nature moved him to banter. With Christmas approaching, he humoured me with instruction to not get carried away with indulgences and I playfully interrogated him about the shenanigans of his recent birthday in November.
DE told me of the ginger and corn he and his widowed mother had planted. We spoke for just a few minutes before we agree that, in March when the trek season resumed, he would call again.
Last March was seven months since our August 2018 trek and six months since PNG Attitude published the first of the seven articles of my carrier and guide-centred Trail of Woe series. The timeframe seemed more than ample to have received a response from Kokoda Trail management.
DE and I agreed that I would private brief updates to his colleague in Sogeri, then we lingered over farewells before the phone call ended in unsettling silence.
MARCH 2019 - Early in the month, Governor Gary Juffa of Oro Province informed a wide audience on Twitter of the building distrust and unrest among communities between Isurava and Kokoda Station.
The people wanted to close the Kokoda Trail at the onset of the 2019 trek season.
“The community of Kokoda realise closure of trail interrupts tourism trekking industry but are doing so to demonstrate their anger and frustration what they consider an illegal act by their Open Member,” Juffa wrote.
And he summarised allegations that the Sohe District Development Authority had misused funds intended for Trail development.
Juffa continued: “Kokoda community leaders have confirmed their intentions to keep the Trail closed until their concerns are met. (1) MP to return K500,000. (2) Forums to consult them on their needs. (3) Review Kokoda Initiative to be more consultative.”
Just a few months after a previous protest, it was yet another incident revealing the darker side of the wartime trek tourism industry, which is supervised by a multi-tentacled management operation.
The frustrated tone of community leaders was hardly new, nor their demands unknown. Hey ahd been raised before often enough.
In Trail of Woe I had highlighted that, in the absence of a representative body within the industry, carriers and guides had requested inclusion in the forums that discussed matters affecting them, and that might resolve the many issues that worried them.
It was what DE had called me about, and me so unable to deal with.
APRIL 2019 - My unsuccessful advocacy for improved conditions for Kokoda guides and carriers and the phone calls from DE left me feeling inept and unable to reciprocate the excellence of DE the guide, who had so skilfully looked after me on the Trail.
The more than 12,000 words of Trail of Woe detailed numerous concerns of inadequate management, absent or dilapidated infrastructure, ineffective investment and exploitative industry practice had gained traction and stirred outrage amongst a wide readership.
But it had not stirred the Trail managers who remained remained nonchalant and unmoved, seemingly unwilling to engage in dialogue about how conditions on the Trail and amongst its workers might be improved.
My relaying the case for Papua New Guinean carriers, guides and Trail communities had attracted a spray of counter-argument but no wave of reform. Just an underlying rebuttal of observed reality that stopped just short of calling me a liar.
Hope had glimmered (but only momentarily) when I received a response to my January 2019 open letter to the Kokoda Track Authority’s interim CEO.
But it turned out to be correspondence of a mere five words and what seemed a wilful absence of email etiquette which obliterated the miniscule reservoir of faith I had retained in the decision-maker.
OUR last afternoon on the Trail was spent in Hoi village where, having purchased a small pineapple, I listened as DE narrated to the vendor a comical version of my trek experience.
There had been bursts of laughter and a pronounced rolling of the young woman’s eyes as DE’s exaggerations became wilder and she stripped away the rough orange jacket to lay out thick full moon slices of yellow fruit on a tin plate.
As I shifted along the rotting trunk of a coconut palm towards the plate, I saw concern in her eyes. “What would I do now? What would I be saying? Who could I get to help to make things better?”
Familiar questions I had been repeatedly asked across nine days on the Trail. Yet with Kokoda airstrip just a few hours away, I felt slight panic set in as I grasped the enormity of the challenge to which I would add my voice.
As I rattled off a mental checklist of tasks to be directed to the myriad offices of Trail management, DE interjected compassionately, “It’s OK”.
It’s OK. DE had explained to me many times that he understood that I was merely one person and the torrent of dissatisfaction raging towards Port Moresby over many years was huge and complex.
“It’s OK” because if even he and his colleagues in their strikingly significant roles within the industry could not have their concerns addressed, my input as a passing tourist was unlikely to gain the interest of Trail management to implement policies for change.
And yet I am not convinced.
It angers me that the burden and privations imposed on these Papua New Guinean guides and carriers whilst management stares past their request for improved welfare is an iniquity.
DE’s “It’s OK” is no satisfactory response to the coalition of Papua New Guinean and Australian industry decision-makers and trek tour operators who, despite so many reasonable requests, have floundered and failed year after year to improve the working conditions of Papua New Guinean labour.
With Anzac Day just past, Instagram is burgeoning with photos of the moving ceremonies and tributes that took place on “the one day of the year” in Papua New Guinea.
The Kokoda Trail tourists and trekkers have shared their pilgrimage in a bevy of hash-tags - #kokodatrail #kokoda #kokoda2019 to show that they too walked, or at least viewed, the 138-kilometre wartime route.
Commonplace are images of trekkers posing with small children in villages, the joyous smiles and impromptu games with trekker-donated footballs.
But far more common are the accolades, the heartfelt expressions of gratitude, respect, admiration, and pledges of lifetime memory to the Papua New Guinean men – the guides and carriers - who were their constant companions and escorts through the rugged terrain.
And the Kokoda Trail trek operators feature those same Papua New Guinean men in their marketing- activity on social media. There is a harsh irony about that.
Ethical, responsible and sustainable wartime trek activity is the direction Kokoda Trail tourism must take. And in the lead must be Trail management. But first there is an urgent need to implement fairer industry policies that enforce improved welfare conditions for carriers and guides.
To help drive this reform, one would hope that those same trek operators who adulate their company’s guides and carriers would ensure that these men are represented at the Tour Operators Forum this coming Wednesday 8 May in Port Moresby.
Is it too much to hope for?