5 deaths too many on Kokoda . . .

Five Australians have now died on the Kokoda Trail in recent years. Many more have been evacuated because they were not physically capable of completing the arduous and hazardous trek across the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea.

We do not the cause of death of those who died. We do not know how many have been evacuated, or why, because nobody keeps any records.

Perhaps it is time to question the effectiveness of the Kokoda Track Authority which is supposed to be the management agency for the Kokoda Trail. Australians have been in-situ for more than two years under a Joint Australian-PNG Agreement developed to protect the Kokoda Trail from mining and logging claims.

Since Australia signed the Joint Agreement in April last year there has been a veritable congo-line of consultants and bureaucrats visiting villages, some by foot and some by helicopter, to find out what the problems are and how they can be fixed. After two years and a couple of million dollars we are having about as much success as we are with our own indigenous communities.

‘Feel-good’ projects are the order of the day. We currently have ‘volunteer teams’ digging steps along the trail – unbelievable but true!

We are planning to build bridges across creeks for local people who have been building bridges for thousands of years – unbelievable but true!

We have developed an ineffectual and unenforceable ‘Code of Conduct’ for Trek Operators that looks great on paper – but that’s all! The list goes on.

Since the time Australia has had a presence in PNG under the Joint-Agreement there has not been a single survey to find out why trekkers go to Kokoda or to see how they would like it developed.

There has not been a single workshop in villages along the trail to see what local landowners and clan leaders like and dislike about the increasing numbers of trekkers passing through their villages – and what improvements they would like to see happen.

There is not a single management protocol yet in place for trekking Kokoda. For example an unfit, overweight smoker with a serious heart and lung condition could apply for a trek permit today and it would be granted – as long as he paid his $100 trek fee. He would not be required to provide a medical clearance, a trek itinerary or even engage a local guide. Unbelievable but true!

Any person can be a trek operator. There is no need for them to have any experience in expedition leadership, any qualifications in emergency First Aid, or to carry any medical or communications equipment. Unbelievable but true!

Any attempt to develop community enterprises along the Kokoda Trail should be done in partnership with the PNG Department of Community Development. Nobody has yet consulted with the Minister, Dame Carol Kidu MP, or her department to discuss the issue and opportunities for local community development.  Unbelievable but true!

The approach thus far seems to be based on the fact that Australian bureaucrats and consultants know best!

After the latest death on the trail this approach needs to be challenged and those who have been assigned to the Kokoda Track Authority should be charged with the responsibility for developing proper management systems for Kokoda Trail operations.

If trek operators were aware of the causes of recent deaths and evacuations along the trail they could develop protocols and procedures to minimise the risk of it happening again. They are currently unable to do this because they have never received any information.

The Australian Government should now instruct its representatives on the Kokoda Track Authority to withdraw from all ‘feel-good’ projects along the Kokoda Trail and indefinitely postpone any further ‘studies’ by consultants.

They should then focus on the immediate development of a proper management plan for Kokoda Trail operations and commit to a Master Memorial Plan to honour the military history of the Kokoda campaign.


  1. Fiona Foster says:

    All too sad the events unfolding, leave the track as it is for people to experience as it was during the time our fore fathers faught there.

    Condolences to the families of the tragic death within the Adventure Kokoda family. It must be heart wrenching for them, Charlie and most of all John- I have met this man and he is an inspirational person. Mandatory medical clearences are a must, anything to save heartache for all involved. The testing was simple, and if followed the fitness regieme was there to help make the experience a little less challenging.

    We all had hard days, but if you listened to the experienced guides and did as required and hydrated when told, you were fine. Not once did I feel like I was alone- I trekked with the lovely lady Anna who commented above and we all looked out for each other, but I thought Simon and Mel always knew how we were feeling and guaged our day well.

    As for surveys- the only one I filled out was for Adventure Kokoda – not once were we approached in PNG to fill one out for KTA. I applaude that finally some continuity will occur for trekking companies who use the track- but have doubts that it may be more of a money spinner for the authority – money that may not be used in the way we as trekkers would like to see it be used. I only hope this all gets sorted out so people are not frightened off from the best experience of their lives

  2. Kim Schneider says:

    It is quite ironic that this post was written just a few days prior to the death of an Adventure Kokoda trekker.

    And how did Adventure Kokoda respond to this tragedy? By focusing on covering their ass, using the media attention to promote Adventure Kokoda as being a superior tour company, and blaming the dead man for not being fit enough. The Herald Sun in ‘Aussies walk into danger’ 06 Oct 09 stated “At Adventure Kokoda we have mandatory health checks and three or four other credible operators require health checks, but too many don’t,” Mr Lynn said…..”Mr Lynn warned Australians to avoid cheap tour operators because they might not be properly equipped.” Multiple newspapers have also quoted Mr Lynn attacking the dead man’s preparation including the Brisbane Times 05 Oct 09 who quoted Charlie Lynn as saying “But he could not manage the first hour, the easy part. That doesn’t say to me that his fitness preparation was any good. He wasn’t physically prepared.” in the article ‘Kokoda Track kills within an hour’.

    This seems incredibly disrespectful to the poor man who has died and his family.

    There are any number of medical reasons that the man may have struggled within that first hour not related to his fitness but which may have made him look like he was unfit. He could have been suffering from reduced cardiac output or respiratory perfusion/ventilation mismatch (due to PE) – both of which could be caused by complications secondary to dehydration. Both these conditions could present with shortness of breath, fast heart rate and possibly sweating. These are purely hypotheticals but my point is it was far too premature for Adventure Kokoda to start publically criticizing and blaming the poor man who had died and was unable to defend himself.

    As it turns out the family have asserted that Mr Phillip Brunskill’s preparation was adequate, with 10 months of training involving gym work and regular pack marches.

    It is a shame that Adventure Kokoda have not publicly acted with more compassion in this terrible set of circumstances.

    My heartfelt and deepest sympathies go out to the family :((

  3. I have been an advocate of mandatory medical clearances for people wanting to trek Kokoda for many years – and will continue to do so.

    Phillip’s death was tragic and it was not easy to break the sad news to his family. I will not reveal the details of the conversation I had with his partner but it was my strong impression that neither she nor their sons wanted Phillip to trek Kokoda at this time.

    I am sorry that you interpreted my remarks the way you have but I can appreciate where you are coming from in view of your own recent experience with Kokoda.

    I met Phillip at our recent Kokoda reunion dinner and was impressed with his passion for the history of the campaign and his search for the link with his uncle who was shot down over New Guinea during the war. He was excited at the prospect of going onto Popondetta to search for a plane at the end of his trek.

    I accept the fact that there may have been a medical condition that was not detected during Phillips medical examination which, as you know, is very comprehensive. I also appreciate your hypotheticals but I would prefer to wait for the Coroner’s report to see if this was the case.

    I appreciate the issue is sensitive but I can only report on the facts I have at hand when answering calls to the media. In this case I was advised by his trek leader, Chad Sherrin, that he observed Phillip during the descent from Owers Corner to the Goldie River and during the short climb to the old Uberi village campsite. At this point he advised Phillip that he did not believe he was physically capable of completing the trek and instructed that he return to Owers Corner where he would arrange to have a vehicle waiting for him.

    According to Chad, Phillip agreed with both his assessment and his instruction.

    Chad then arranged for his PNG Head Guide, Medic and Phillip’s personal carrier to escort him back to Owers Corner.

    I fully support Chad’s decision and the plan he made for Phillip’s evacuation. His tragic death has had a profound impact on Jill and I, Chad, our other trek leaders, the members of his trek group and our PNG trek guides who were with him at the time.

    I am sure you will appreciate the media’s interest in Kokoda is fairly intense in view of the fact that four trekkers have died on the trail this year. They expect an immediate response and will not accept evasive answers or a refusal to comment.

    It has been a difficult time but, as I stated earlier, I could only deal with the facts I had at the time during the intense barrage of media calls in the 24 hours following Phillip’s tragic death.

    I certainly did not mean to be disrespectful and I’m sure the family will appreciate your condolences.

  4. David Sherry says:

    I’m deeply saddened by the death of Mr Pillip Brunskill and also by the loss of trekkers and locals along the track over the recent years. I did plan to add to this blog some of my observations of the areas with room for improvement that I’ve been thinking about, but I think I’ll wait for a more opportune time. I fully support Charlie and emphasize that with the three treks I have completed I couldn’t have asked for more professional leaders than those of AK.
    David Sherry.

  5. Charlie,

    I trekked with AK in June/July 2006 at age 56 and did all the right things – medical, plenty of preparation, good gear, and got myself as fit as a Mallee bull – and still ran into bad trouble – dehydrated Day 1, through not drinking enough in the stifling humidity – and can’t recollect too much about days 2 and 3.

    BUT Chad and Bernie kept a close eye on me to make sure things were not critical AND we had a doctor in our group who did the same. AND I knew that AK had the communications, manpower and organisation to get me out if things hadn’t improved – which is why I chose to tour with them, and not some cheaper but underprepared organisation. Had I not been able to secure that peace of mind, I would not have trekked.

    People doing the Track need to understand a) it’s not a gentle stroll, but a brutal mental and physical challenge (in our group, everyone I talked to admitted to at least one “REAL BAD DAY” on the Track); b) it’s in a Third World country and if things go wrong assistance is not guaranteed; so c) don’t go with unprepared cowboys, because you can bet everything will NOT be all right on the day!

    Moreover, as the many comments have indicated, if the Kokoda Track Authority really is an authority, it should have the power to insist on medical clearances; to license only tour operators who meet strict standards of care for the trekkers they take; and to liase meaningfully with all stakeholders (especially the villagers) so that consensus emerges about what development (if any) should take place re the Track.

    Nothing will remove all the risks attendant on trekking Kokoda, BUT it is only common sense to insist on measures which anticipate foreseeable problems and dangers and seek to minimise their impact. So KTA – off your arse and do it !


    Derek Cameron.

Speak Your Mind