Flat White

The battle of Kokoda

27 May 2018

11:57 AM

27 May 2018

11:57 AM

Editor’s note: After publishing the Charlie Lynn article Losing Kokoda on May 14, we received a letter in response from Sue Fitcher, president of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association. Ms Fitcher did not respond to an offer from Flat White to author an item in reply, so we are publishing her correspondence in the interest of fairness, along with a follow-up comment from Charlie.

Do you have any sort of fact checker?

I write after reading an article published by and in my role as President of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA), an organisation representing just under 70 per cent of the Kokoda trekking industry.

My first question is, do you have any sort of fact checker on articles put to you before you publish? This is an article big on allegation and extremely short on substance. Where are the examples, where is the verification?

I agree with Mr Lynn in that prospective trekkers expect porters, guides and carriers will be appropriately cared for, equipped and paid. This is an expectation not only from trekkers, but from the many professional tour operators working in this space. It is also true that the management body, the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA), has been less than effective at many times over the years, a situation that has led to the currently underway review. This is a positive and proactive step which has the capacity to create an appropriately resourced and skilled body to take the industry forward.

The claims however regarding the state of the trail, are, from the first hand viewing by the KTOA members, largely incorrect. Portable toilets were delivered at the beginning of this season to a great number of guesthouse owners along the trail. Reports from our members indicate that although this is an area that requires continual scrutiny and feedback, the toilets – though undoubtedly basic – are relatively clean and well maintained.

We are aware that audited financial reports have not been produced, and this in large part, has led to the earlier mentioned review of the KTA, strongly encouraged and welcomed by the KTOA. Ranger training and management programs are ongoing, guesthouse owner training is ongoing and all along the trail there is evidence of investment, whether that be by the Kokoda Initiative, or by other Not for profit organisations. Did you check any of this before you published this article?

It is not my place to comment on behalf of the Australian government and I have no intention to do so. Readers of Mr Lynn’s article, however, may wish to ask who has funded the several medical clinics either built or refurbished and the vaccines they have administered, or the classrooms and staff houses that make education available to students.

On behalf of the KTOA, I am particularly affronted at the comments regarding the ‘shameless exploitation’ of the local guides and carriers. I cannot say categorically this never happens – all KTOA businesses are run from Australia; personally I am not on the trail more than two-three times a year. Indeed, in support of those comments, the attached photos were taken by one of our members within the last month. We have covered the logo as it is not our intention to publicly denigrate any operator; our interest and commitment is to the broader industry. I am affronted however, at a sweeping statement not supported by fact, when the evidence is that the vast majority of Kokoda trek operators do everything possible to ensure their teams are cared for in a professional and appropriate manner.

It must also be recorded that the current weight restriction for porters under KTA guidelines is 22.5kg, which is strictly adhered to by all KTOA members, and indeed, is one of our conditions of membership. Again, this could have been easily be verified, had you chosen to do so.

I would encourage any operator with concerns about the professionalism of the industry to work with one or more of the many stakeholders involved in progressing the Kokoda trekking industry, which provides income and opportunities for so many PNG nationals. It doesn’t have to be the KTOA. But if we are to truly move forward in a positive and professional manner, making this opportunity more available to the many Australians who would benefit from this experience, then it’s time for egos to be put aside and a collaborative approach taken.

Anyone can submit an article for publication with claims and allegations. Credible and responsible media organisations will conduct due diligence before that is published. I am disappointed this appears not to be the case on this occasion.

Charlie Lynn of Adventure Kokoda Pty Ltd responds

Thank you for forwarding the comments by Ms Sue Fitcher, President of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association.

My responses to each of the statements in Ms Fitcher’s email to you are detailed below.

But first let me address one of the most abhorrent practices adopted by a number of her KTOA members. It relates to a ‘Student Discount Rate’ which requires subsistence villagers along the Kokoda Trail to subsidise Australian school students which include some of our most wealthy private schools.

This discount was introduced when the KTA was established in 2004. In the lead-up to its establishment two of the major trek operators at the time, Niugini Holidays and South Pacific Tours unsuccessfully objected to the introduction of a trek fee. They then proposed a ‘Student Discount Fee’ of 50 percent as they were the only companies leading school groups at that time.

Whilst the discount was adopted by the KTA and is legal – it is immoral. Unfortunately the pressure on the KTA at the time – and the dysfunction of the organisation since – has seen the discount stand.

Trek operators who attended the KTA forum in Sydney on 17 March 2015 agreed that it should be removed.

Trek operators with a conscience have honoured that agreement however a number of KTOA members continue to claim it. This provides them with an unfair financial advantage and deprives subsistence villagers of their fair share of benefits from the Kokoda trekking industry.

According to the KTA the company that claimed the highest number of student discounts in 2017 was Getaway Trekking who claimed for 163 Australian student trekkers at a discounted rate of $70 each. This is not a lot of money for an Australian company that charges around $3900 (excluding international airfares) for a trek – but it is a significant amount for a subsistence villager.

Following are my specific responses to each of Ms Fitcher’s statements:

Ms Fitcher writes:

My first question is, do you have any sort of fact checker on articles put to you before you publish? This is an article big on allegation and extremely short on substance. Where are the examples, where is the verification?

I agree with Mr Lynn in that prospective trekkers expect porters, guides and carriers will be appropriately cared for, equipped and paid. This is an expectation not only from trekkers, but from the many professional tour operators working in this space. It is also true that the management body, the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA), has been less than effective at many times over the years, a situation that has led to the currently underway review. This is a positive and proactive step which has the capacity to create an appropriately resourced and skilled body to take the industry forward.

The Kokoda Track (Special Purpose) Authority (KTA) receives approximately $450,000 in income from trek fees per year. Under their original charter, outlined in their KTA Newsletter No 1 dated March 2005. 80 percent of this income was supposed to be distributed to village communities along the trail and 20 percent allocated to administration.

Unfortunately the KTA has not distributed any funds for at least three years and all of the money now seems to‘circulate’ in Port Moresby. The KTA has not produced an audited annual report for at least five years and they will not allow anybody to examine their books. This is why the PNG Prime Minister has called for a review. The Australian High Commission and the DFAT funded ‘Kokoda Initiative’ are aware of the situation but seem unable to do much about it because of the reluctance of the PNG authorities to demand a higher standard of accountability and governance from them.

It also seems the KTA is easily influenced by Ms Fitcher’s Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA).

On 8 November 2017 the KTA organised a forum for trek operators in Port Moresby. The forum unanimously agreed to the following motions:

  1. Lower the maximum backpack weight to 18 kg;
  2. Operators to provide a sleeping bag and groundsheet to each carrier they employ;
  3. Guides and carriers be paid a ‘take home travel allowance’ of K250 at the end of each trek; and
  4. Increase the minimum wage from K60 to K70 per day.

These motions were then taken to the Kokoda Tour Operators Forum in Cairns the following week, on 14 November 2017 – but they were never tabled or discussed.


An Australian government official assigned to the KTA, Mr Artie Jacobsen, attended this forum and took the minutes of the meeting. Six months have passed and the minutes have never been distributed. I am not aware of Ms Fitcher making any representation on behalf of the KTOA for the minutes to be finalised and distributed.

I have requested a copy of the minutes as Adventure Kokoda invested approximately $8,000 to attend both forums in Port Moresby and Cairns. We therefore believe we are entitled to a copy of the minutes of each one.

In view of the lack of any minutes from the forum I can only conclude that the motions passed at the Port Moresby forum were discussed ‘out of session’ by the KTOA leadership with the KTA delegation who were either ‘persuaded’ or bullied into not tabling them for discussion.

I would therefore appreciate Ms Fitcher’s response as to whether the issues were discussed ‘out of session’; why the Port Moresby motions were not tabled; and why the KTA has not demanded a copy of the minutes from the forum.

Ms Fitcher writes:

The claims however regarding the state of the trail, are, from the first hand viewing by the KTOA members, largely incorrect. Portable toilets were delivered at the beginning of this season to a great number of guesthouse owners along the trail. Reports from our members indicate that although this is an area that requires continual scrutiny and feedback, the toilets – though undoubtedly basic – are relatively clean and well maintained.

Sections of the trail are dangerously unsafe. For example a single misstep by a trekker on the northern edge of Belave Creek would see them plunge 30-40 meters onto rock at the bottom of the waterfall and result in their certain death. There are sections on the northern side of Brigade Hill that are clearly unsafe. There are numerous bridges along the trail that are unsafe. Anybody who thinks otherwise is in a state of denial.

Most of the toilets along the trail are putrid. None have a ventilation flue – they just comprise a pot over a large shitpit. Some do not have doors – none have privacy screens. None would meet the most basic of hygiene standards in any camping area in Australia.

We received the following quotes from a survey we conducted amongst our female trekkers:

I don’t know how I can be constructive in my criticism here, but the smell was appalling!! I’m sure you have considered it but don’t they use lime or something in the Army which is supposed to help? Other than that they were as expected…. I suppose they were better than having to squat behind a bush, but only marginally!

Ok, they really are they best they can be, and I have seen far worse. I was happy with no seat, but the smell was horrific in some of them. Seriously, it’s a horrible sensation vomiting while having a wee. I quick learnt to avoid the high usage ones. I don’t really see what more you can, other than have them relocated more frequently.

Well each site you could write a story on. The first one I made an attempt but gee whiz it didn’t happen for me, going bush was great, room with a view and fresh. Latrines were good when it was raining.

Ha Ha Ha… Never lost my stomach contents but it was close… gagged sometimes… But it was all about Kokoda. Some of the funniest laughs I had with the girls were standing with a snap lock bag full of Loo paper outside the toilets… (or smelly hole in the ground) with toilet paper up my nose… (yes I think I am a princess).

I now appreciate a white bowl with flushing water and a button… The funniest was when Cathy and Nicole had to do a Conga line to get me out of one of them. It’s a girl thing.

It is a third world country.

What else could you expect!

You are in a poor country so I would not expect flushing toilets but some of the sites I think it would be easier to use a shovel.

Some were better than others. Some were downright disgusting. Probably can expect too much more given they are shared with all and sundry.

Like I mentioned, I couldn’t bring myself to use the facilities at Kokoda, due to the smell.

They weren’t great, I always preferred ‘going bush’, less smell, and more solitude. Not sure if this is something that AK can really improve though.

Ms Fitcher writes:

We are aware that audited financial reports have not been produced, and this in large part, has led to the earlier mentioned review of the KTA, strongly encouraged and welcomed by the KTOA. Ranger training and management programs are ongoing, guesthouse owner training is ongoing and all along the trail there is evidence of investment, whether that be by the Kokoda Initiative, or by other Not for profit organisations. Did you check any of this before you published this article?

The KTA is currently dysfunctional. Not one person in a management role has trekked across the trail for at least three years. Not one of them has ever trekked with a professional trek operator. They therefore have no idea of the needs of the paying customer i.e. trekkers – or local village communities.

There is not a single management protocol in place for the Kokoda trekking industry.

There is no evidence of any ranger training, guesthouse owner training or ‘investment’ along the trail (apart from aid funded classrooms and health centres built without any consultation with local communities to determine their actual needs). If training was conducted there is no evidence of any outcomes.

The $1.5 million Village Livelihoods Project initiated by the Australian government has not generated a single vegetable from a village garden or a single dollar in additional income for local communities.

I believe Adventure Kokoda is the only trek operator to have established a Not for profit company, Network Kokoda, to provide philanthropic support to villagers along the trail.

Ms Fitcher writes:

It is not my place to comment on behalf of the Australian government and I have no intention to do so. Readers of Mr Lynn’s article, however, may wish to ask who has funded the several medical clinics either built or refurbished and the vaccines they have administered, or the classrooms and staff houses that make education available to students.

The Australian taxpayer has funded them. However it should be noted that none of the medical clinics or classrooms built along the trail since the Australian government assumed control in 2009 were developed in consultation with local village communities. There was no provision for the ongoing regular distribution of health and education supplies. As a result the medical centre at Efogi, which was opened by Sandy Hollway with great fanfare in 2010 was immediately closed for two years because there was no provision for a health worker. No medical supplies were delivered at all in 2016 – the nurse did not even have any disinfectant for her maternity room. We had to evacuate two families from two different villages last year because there was no health worker and no medicine available.

Distribution of Aid projects without community involvement or ownership has created a disturbing level of ‘Aid dependency and entitlement’ along the trail.

Ms Fitcher writes:

On behalf of the KTOA, I am particularly affronted at the comments regarding the ‘shameless exploitation’ of the local guides and carriers. I cannot say categorically this never happens – all KTOA businesses are run from Australia; personally I am not on the trail more than two – three times a year. Indeed, in support of those comments, the attached photos were taken by one of our members within the last month. We have covered the logo as it is not our intention to publicly denigrate any operator; our interest and commitment is to the broader industry. I am affrontedhowever, at a sweeping statement not supported by fact, when the evidence is that the vast majority of Kokoda trek operators do everything possible to ensure their teams are cared for in a professional and appropriate manner.

Local PNG guides and carriers are exploited when there is no provision for their personal welfare. They are subsistence villagers without any other form of income other than what they receive from eight to 10 treks per year. They cannot afford trekking boots or shoes and certainly can’t afford sleeping bags and mats. They are usually instructed by their Australian trek operator to ‘bring a blanket’!

Temperatures can drop to zero degrees in the Lake Myola area and the ground is wet or perpetually damp. Many campsites are not able to provide sheltered accommodation for all the guides and carriers in a large group which means that some have to sleep on wet ground.

Legitimate trek operators with an awareness of the reality of the conditions the guides and carriers have to work under – and with any sort of social conscience – would ensure that each guide and carrier they employ is provided with the basics which are:

  • A sleeping bag each;
  • A sleeping mat each; and
  • A trek uniform comprising a cap, shirt and shorts.

Those who don’t are guilty of shamelessly exploiting the guides and carriers they engage.

Ms Fitcher writes:

It must also be recorded that the current weight restriction for porters under KTA guidelines is 22.5kg, which is strictly adhered to by all KTOA members, and indeed, is one of our conditions of membership. Again, this could have been easily be verified, had you chosen to do so.

Adventure Kokoda trek leaders have a combined total of 130 years professional military service which includes active service in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In our opinion 22.5 kg is too heavy for anybody to have to carry across the Kokoda Trail. The local carriers can do it because they are strong and because they are desperate for work – but in the longer term they will have problems with knees and backs – and will be buggered forever!

Rod Hillman was appointed by the Australian government as CEO of the KTA in 2009. He never trekked across the trail until the end of his appointment in 2012. He had no idea of the conditions along the trail and would not take advice. He declared that the maximum weight to be carried would be 25 kg. Neither Hillman nor any of his staff would have been capable of carrying a 25 kg backpack across the trail.

Australian trek operators unanimously supported Hillman at the time because it meant they could keep their costs down by employing fewer carriers.

After some sustained objection Hillman lowered it to 22.5 kg which is still too heavy. There is still not an official in the KTA or the Australian funded Kokoda Initiative who would be capable of carrying a 22.5 kg backpack across the trail today.

Adventure Kokoda, has a maximum weight limit of 18 kg which was the maximum weight allowed by the Australian army for the PNG wartime carriers during the Kokoda campaign in 1942. This is supported by the following research:

One of Dr Vernon’s first actions was to have the carriers’ maximum load officially reduced from 50 lbs (23 kg), transferred from pre-war days, to 40 lbs (18 kg).

The maximum weight of 18 kg for wartime carriers is also referred to in a ‘The Third Force. ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-46’:

They and their native police recruited the carriers, organised loads of 40 lbs (18 kg) per man and sent them on their way.

Last year a PNG carrier Mr Winterford Tauno, engaged by a KTOA member died on the trail. According to the KTA Ranger at Owers Corner he was overloaded.

The KTOA responded by accusing the ranger of doctoring the weights. Sergeant Max Maso, who is in charge of the Sogeri Police Station was then asked to investigate the issue. In his report dated 21 January 2017 he concluded that Winterford Tauno was overloaded.

Ms Fitcher writes:

I would encourage any operator with concerns about the professionalism of the industry to work with one or more of the many stakeholders involved in progressing the Kokoda trekking industry, which provides income and opportunities for so many PNG nationals. It doesn’t have to be the KTOA. But if we are to truly move forward in a positive and professional manner, making this opportunity more available to the many Australians who would benefit from this experience, then it’s time for egos to be put aside and a collaborative approach taken.

If the KTOA wished to be a credible representative of Kokoda trek operators they would mandate the following:

  1. The maximum allowable weight to be carried by a PNG carrier is 18 kg;
  2. The ‘50per cent Student Discount’ rate be abolished;
  3. Each guide and carrier be issued with an individual sleeping bag and mat;
  4. Each guide and carrier be issued with a trek uniform comprising a cap, t-shirt and shorts;
  5. Each guide and carrier be paid a daily rate of K70;
  6. Each guide and carrier to receive a ‘walk-home allowance’ of K250; and
  7. Each guide and carrier to be engaged for the duration of their scheduled trek.

This would create a level playing field for all trek operators and put an end to the exploitation of local PNG guides and carriers.

I would appreciate Ms Fitcher’s response to these minimum standards for each licensed trek operator to subscribe to.

Ms Fitcher writes:

Anyone can submit an article for publication with claims and allegations. Credible and responsible media organisations will conduct due diligence before that is published. I am disappointed this appears not to be the case on this occasion.

I can provide further references to any facts Ms Fitcher would like checked if required.

Illustration: Australian War Memorial.

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