Matthew Iovane, of Shoreditch, East London, met restaurant hostess Michelle Clemens last year while he was visiting her native Los Angeles.
The adventure holiday regulars agreed to meet in Sydney, Australia, and then fly to Papua New Guinea together.
They planned to tackle the arduous Kokoda Trail, a 60-mile hike through one of the last great unexplored wildernesses on Earth.[i]
On Wednesday, 6 January, Mr Iovane called Sogeri Lodge from the Port Moresby airport to book transport and accommodation for one night for him and Ms Clemens. They had sourced the contact details for Sogeri Lodge from their Lonely Planet book on Papua New Guinea.
The Lonely Planet guide contains the following warning in regard to trekking across the Kokoda Trail:
‘The Kokoda Track is not PNG’s most difficult trek but it’s no walk in the park. You must be pretty fit and, if in doubt, aid to do it in nine days, not six. Be sure to use local guides and carriers and never walk with less than four people. If there is an accident two can get help and one can stay with the injured. Most trekking companies carry a satellite phone or a two-way radio. If you don’t have one and there’s a problem, no-one will hear the screams. Most villages have radios but it could be a long walk to the nearest one. Conflicts among traditional landowners have led to the track’s closure in the past, but in recent years the situation has been fairly calm. Still, it’s worth keeping an ear open.
‘When to Trek
‘It could rain at anytime of the year, but between November and February it will rain, and most companies don’t operate because it is too dangerous and uncomfortable.
‘Guides and Carriers
‘If you’re trekking independently, don’t do it without a good guide.’
The Kokoda Track Authority website states:
‘Choosing the right group to travel with is an important decision, as you will be relying on them to guide you through the preparation, the experience and safety procedures.’
In addition to these references a Google search of the ‘Kokoda Trail’ will reveal countless pages of references relating to trekking Kokoda.
On arrival the couple asked the driver, Mr Alfie Jack, who was accompanied by Mr Dick Elulu from Vesilogo, to take them to the KTA office to obtain a trekking permit as advised in the Lonely Planet book.
When they advised Mr Michael O’Kave, Operations and Safety Manager at the KTA, that they intended to trek alone without a guide the permit was refused. After some discussion the trekkers advised they would engage Mr Dick Elule as their guide. Mr Elule is an experienced Adventure Kokoda trek guide. Mr O’Kave then issued them with two trek permits on that basis.
According to Mr Alfie Jack, the driver who collected them at the airport, the couple were very amorous towards each other to the extent that he felt uncomfortable.
When he checked them into Sogeri Lodge they bargained strongly for a reduced room rate.
Mr Jack then learned that they had no clothing or gear suitable for trekking. He advised them of the basics they would need but they replied that they had trekked in other places around the world and were satisfied with what they had.
Mr Jack also advised them to be more discreet in their amorous behaviour as it would not be appreciated by villagers along the trail as they are strict Seventh Day Adventists.
The next morning the owner of Sogeri Lodge, Mr Warren Bartlett, met with the couple. Mr Bartlett is a former Kiap, has lived in PNG for the past 50 years and was the inaugural CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority. He advised that it was the wet season along the trail and the experienced trekking companies do not trek at this time of the year. Mr Bartlett:
‘I asked them what trekking provisions they had and they advised it was snacks and they would stay in guest houses supplying beds, washing facilities and meals. I advised them that this was not available and they could stay in campsite or village bush huts at K20.00 per person per night and to pay the campsite owner each night as well as villagers who may supply them with local vegetables and fruits. They did not have any sleeping bags, tents or tarpaulins so we hired them two sleeping bags and ground sheets to be returned at trek end. They were not prepared to pay for a guide or porter at between K600 and K800 each including repatriation to Port Moresby as they had insufficient funds and they believed this was an unnecessary expense. They would pay for their PNP-POM ticket on PNG Air in Popondetta.
‘They told me they would board a spare seat on any charter flight from Kokoda to Port Moresby on Tuesday 12 January. I told them there were normally charter flights POM-KKD-POM during the trekking season from March – November and no regular flights. They would need to be at Kokoda by Monday evening 11 January, overnight, catch an early morn PMV to Popondetta and board a PNG Air flight PNP-POM at 2.30pm on Tuesday 12 January so they could overnight at Sogeri Lodge Tues 12 and fly out of PNG on their confirmed flight Wednesday afternoon 13 January. They were supposedly at Templeton 2 Crossing at 8.00am on Monday 11 January, so there was no chance they would have made Kokoda that night, even if the attack had not taken place.
When Mr Bartlett asked them if they had a map of the Trail they produced a copy of a brochure they had torn out of a magazine. He then provided them with a 1:50 000 topographical map which they agreed to pay for when they returned to the lodge at the end of the trek. He also hired sleeping bags for them on the same basis.
The couple made no further effort to engage Mr Dick Elulu as their guide despite the assurance they gave to Mr O’Kave at the KTA.
Before departing the Sogeri Lodge they advised Mr Jack that ‘if they had not called in by Day 4 he was to sound the alarm’. Mr Jack was perplexed by this request because they did not have a satellite phone or a VHF radio.
Mr George Kanana was assigned to drive them to the beginning of the trail at Owers Corner. When he saw they had no gear he drove them to a shop at Sogeri and suggested they buy basic items such as a torch, machete, matches, food, etc. They refused and he drove them to Owers Corner where they began their six day trek at 10.30 am WITHOUT:
- a PNG guide;
- trekking boots (they wore sneakers);
- a satellite phone or VHF radio;
- a tent;
- a torch;
- a knife;
- matches or a lighter;
- adequate rations;
- a medical kit; or
- any knowledge of the dangers of the terrain.
If it had not been for their chance meeting with Mr Bartlett they would also have trekked without a proper map or sleeping bags.
“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” Benjamin Franklin
A serious misadventure was in the making when the hapless duo stepped onto the trail at Owers Corner and disappeared into the jungle with the aim of flying out of Popondetta six days later to allow them to connect to their scheduled return flight to Australia on the 13 January.
They were never going to make it. In view of the fact that they departed Owers Corner on Thursday, 7 January and were evacuated from Alola village on 12 January, their estimated trek itinerary would have been[ii]:
- 7 January: Departed Owers Corner at 10.30 AM – trek to Va Ule Creek via Imita Ridge.
- 8 January: Va Ule Creek to Menari village via Ioribaiwa Ridge, Ofi Creek, the Maguli Range, the Nauro swamp and the Ladavi Saddle
- 9 January: Menari village to Crossing 1 (also known as Templeton’s Crossing No 1) via Vabulagi River, Brigade Hill, Efogi village, Launumu village, Efogi Creek, Kagi village, the Kagi Gap, 1900 Crossing, Mt Bellamy and the Kokoda Gap
- 10 January: Crossing 1 to Alola via Templeton’s Crossing (known as Templeton’s Crossing No 2), Vabula Ridge, Eora Creek, and Lala creek.
- 11 January: Alola to Kokoda via Isurava, Deniki, Hoi and Kovello – PMV to Popondetta – scheduled flight to Port Moresby – Sogeri Lodge
- 12 January: Kokoda – PMV to Popondetta – flight to Port Moresby
- 13 January: Port Moresby – Australia
According to Assistant Commissioner Sylvester Kalaut, Mr Iovane and Ms Clemens were attacked around 8 AM on Monday, 11 January.
This would indicate that they were 24 hours behind schedule if they were to make the flight out of Popondetta on 12 January in order to connect with their pre-booked international flight to Australia on 13 January.
After the attack the couple trekked from the vicinity of Templeton’s Crossing to Alola village and were evacuated by helicopter to the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby on 12 January.
Within 24 hours the English Sun newspaper published a headline article:
‘Kidnapped by cannibals: Brit and girlfriend stripped, beaten and tortured by Papua New Guinea tribe[iii]’
The article quoted Mr Iovane:
‘The first five days were among the most amazing of our lives. We lived like Tarzan and Jane on nuts packed into our rucksacks and bananas, papaya, wild spinach and exotic ‘tree tomatoes’ found only in this jungle. . .
This does not accord with the facts. If the trekkers departed Owers Corner on 7 January, as advised by Warren Bartlett, and were attacked at approximately 8.00 AM on 11 January as reported by Assistant Police Commissioner Sylvester Kalaut in an interview with the ABC[iv] – then it is clear they had only been trekking for four days – not five as stated by Mr Iovane.
Experienced trekkers will attest to the fact that there would have been no time to forage for ‘bananas, papaya, wild spinach and exotic ‘tree tomatoes’ during a three day itinerary between Owers Corner and Templeton’s Crossing. The reality is that fruit and vegetables are only available in villages and do not grow wild in the jungle along the trail. There would have been no fresh fruit or vegetables in Menari, Efogi, Launumu or Kagi villages on Saturday, 9 January because local villages along trail strictly observe the Sabbath.
Mr Iovane went on to describe the circumstances of the attack:
‘Then one turned on me, swinging his machete and began tearing at my clothes until I was stripped virtually naked.
‘I could hear Michelle was putting up a fight, but when they brought us back together I could tell she was hurt and heard her crying in pain. She said to me, ‘We have to get away, I have to get to hospital.
‘They took our belongings. I was naked in the most remote jungle on Earth with no shoes and Michelle was bleeding buckets beside me in her underwear.’
There was no mention of a sexual assault or rape in the English Sun newspaper article. Nor was there any mention of the loss of any money.
On the same day The PNG National Newspaper quoted NCD-Central Assistant Police Commissioner Sylvester Kalaut:
‘Two expatriate tourists, a male and female, both 31, were tracking the Kokoda Track and heading towards Templeton Two (a campsite) when they were ambushed by armed men.
‘The male trekker was tied to a tree and the female trekker was repeatedly raped before three of her fingers were chopped.
‘She and her London-based male companion were tortured and robbed of items such as mobile phones, shoes, backpacks and clothing and cash worth K15,000 before being released.’
‘She and her London-based male companion were tortured and robbed of items such as mobile phones, shoes, backpacks and clothing and cash worth K15,000 before being released.’
The trekkers were then released by, or escaped from their captors and, according to their own account, trekked semi-naked without shoes to Alola village – a trekking distance of 15.5 kilometres from Templeton’s Crossing. This would have been a difficult and painful trek for semi-naked expatriates without shoes. Their feet would have been seriously lacerated during the 8 – 12 hours it would have taken them to complete it under the conditions they described.
On their arrival in Alola village the local VHF radio operator contacted the KTA and arranged for an emergency helicopter evacuation.
A photograph of the two trekkers in the helicopter at Alola shows them dressed in fashionable western clothing with Mr Iovane wearing a backpack. Mr Alfie Jack and Mr George Kavana have confirmed that this was the same clothing they were wearing when they departed from Owers Corner.
This begs the question as to how the clothing they were wearing on the helicopter at Alola village miraculously reappeared after their semi-naked trek from Templeton’s Crossing when, according to their own account, all their possessions had been stolen.
There are also serious questions in regard to the alleged rape of Ms Clemens.
According to published reports the couple were attacked at around 8.00 AM on 11 January. The attack lasted for about an hour before they escaped or were set free. They would therefore have departed Templeton’s Crossing for the 15.5 kilometre trek around 9.00 AM. The earliest they would have arrived in Alola village under the circumstances would have been around sunset at 6.00 PM. There would have been much excitement and confusion amongst villagers who would have automatically focused on the immediate welfare of the couple who would have been limping on severely lacerated feet as their shoes had been stolen according to their account of the attack. They would have also been seriously dis tressed as a result of the machete threats and gang rape as reported by them.
The couple were evacuated by helicopter from Alola at around 2.30 PM and admitted to the Pacific International Hospital at approximately 3.30 PM.
Photographs of the couple in the helicopter are not indicative of two people who had suffered such a traumatic experience involving pack rape, assault and a semi-naked 15.5 kilometre trek across such forbidding jungle terrain just 24 hours earlier. They are well-dressed and appear relaxed.
The pictures were published in the English Sun newspaper on 15 January. This raises the question as to who owned the camera that took the picture. If the couple had lost ‘all of their possessions’ as reported then it must be assumed that the pilot of the evacuation helicopter took the pictures and passed a copy onto them at the hospital or later at their accommodation at the Holiday Inn.
If the picture was taken with a camera belonging to the couple it further jeopardises the integrity of their story.
Mr Iovane would then have conducted his interview with the English Sun newspaper in the early afternoon of 12 January. He was interviewed by Assistant Police Commissioner Sylvester Kalaut soon after. This would have allowed both the English Sun and the PNG National newspapers to meet their editorial deadlines for publication on 13 January.
The following statements by Mr Iovane need to be clarified.
It seems that Mr Iovane was the direct source of the information published in the English Sun newspaper on 13 January. The report made no mention of Ms Clemens being raped by her attackers. Mr Iovane, who had allegedly been blindfolded told the reporter, ‘I could hear Michele was putting up a fight , but when they brought us back together I could tell she was hurt and heard her crying in pain. She said to me, ‘We have to get away, I have to get to hospital.’
He went on to say ‘They took our belongings. I was naked in the most remote jungle on Earth with no shoes and Michelle was bleeding buckets beside me in her underwear’. But nothing mattered except getting away, so we ran.’
Comment: While the statements by Mr Iovane indicate Ms Clemens had been sexually assaulted it begs the question as to why he did not mention this to the English Sun reporter or, if he did, why the reporter did not include it in the article. One can only wonder if the reporter began to have some doubts about the validity of the claim after hearing about their experiences with cannibals, wild dogs, machete wielding tribesmen, etc..It is also interesting that the report did not make any mention of the loss of any substantial sum of money.
The English Sun newspaper reported:‘The couple had hired a native to carry a heavy bag early in the trip, but he had peeled off before the final day. They are convinced he betrayed them’.CommentThe normal protocol for engaging carriers is to agree to pay them a rate of pay per day as advised by the KTA. The engagement must include provision for their food, medical, shelter, an allowance for ‘walk-home pay’ and a small bonus. The weight of their pack must not exceed 22.5 kilograms.There is some dispute as to how much money the couple had with them. Mr Bartlett had advised that ‘They cried poor at Sogeri Lodge so possibly they lost a credit card with little cash in their possession!?’ Newspaper reports claimed they were carrying up to K15,000. If the carrier engaged by the couple sensed he was not going to be adequately compensated it is most likely that he would have left them with bad feelings. It is not the first time this is happened to local villagers along trail.
Mr Iovane told the English Sun that ‘they took our belongings’ but he made no mention of any money being stolen. But he did tell the PNG National newspaper that they were ‘robbed of such items as mobile phones, shoes, backpacks and clothing and cash worth K15,000 before being released.’
Comment: Mr Iovane bargained to get a reduced room rate at the Sogeri Lodge. He also gave Mr Bartlett the impression they were short of money because the baulked at the cost of hiring a guide or carrier and asked if they could settle their account when they returned to the lodge at the end of their trek.There is no reason why two trekkers would carry up to K15,000 along the Kokoda Trail. This amount of money would normally cover the total cost of a group of 20 trekkers supported by 35 guides and carriers.The only possible explanation is a probable claim for travel insurance.
The English Sun reported that the couples escape from their attackers ‘was not straightforward as they encountered a pack of wild dogs.’
Comment: There are no wild dogs on the Kokoda Trail because there is nothing for them to eat. There are small dogs in villages along the trail which are kept as domestic pets. There has never been an incident of anybody being bitten by a dog along the trail.
References to ‘cannibals’ and ‘spear-waving tribesmen’ among the Kioari people along the Kokoda Trail is the stuff of fantasy. The Koiari are vegetarian and known for their hospitality – as Mr Iovane admitted when he was quoted as saying ‘Villagers we met along the way were wonderfully welcoming and rushed out to greet us . . .’
When the couple arrived in Alola after their semi-naked trek in bare feet they were greeted by Orokaiva people who, according to Mr Iovane ‘ran to their aid with blankets . . .’
More than 40 000 Australians who have trekked Kokoda over the past decade have experienced similar unconditional hospitality from the Koiari and Orokaiva people along the trail.
And before them, in 1942, thousands of our veterans had similar experiences. They expressed their appreciation in a three word slogan ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’!
PNG Post Courier Newspaper
On 28 January the PNG Post Courier published an article headed ‘Kokoda couple ‘lacked respect” by Miriam Zarriga:
‘Villagers and two other porters along the Kokoda Trail beginning at Owers Corner to Templeton’s Crssing were not interviewed by police.
‘Two weeks after the assault of a US woman and her male companion, the people of Kokoda have now complained on the lack of respect the two showed to the people while walking the trail. Kokoda Corridor Central side Chairman Philip Batia said that the lack of respect by the two had the villagers along the trail hiding their face in shame and village elders referring to the two as spirits. “Yupla haitim pes blo yupla ol tewel kam stap (hide your faces, the spirits are coming), the elders of the villages shouted this at all villagers because the two were carrying on as if we were primitives.”
“They kissed, hugged and at times walked half-naked on the trail in the presence of their porter.” Mr Batia said that although they condoned the attack (sic), they wanted wanted everyone to know the truth as to how the two were treating the villagers along the trail.
“At Efogi village, they were caught getting very sexual and were asked by a church youth leader to use a house if they were feeling the need to have sex.”
“They were touching and holding each other in front of the villagers, including children, and then they moved behind a house before they were asked to use a house at the village.”
‘Mr Batia said on two sections of the village, the pair had sex and walked naked from Efogi to the 1900 campsite.
Their acts are considered abusive and are contrary to the cultural beliefs the locals on the trail are used to. I can honestly say they were acting like dogs.”
My conclusions are based on my experience from 79 crossings of the Kokoda Trail over the past 25 years and my close association with the Koiari and Orokaiva villagers along the way. They are also influenced by the occasionss I have been personally evacuated from the trail and had to rely on the compassion and commitment of our guides and carriers to get me to safety.
They are also based on the fact that Mr Iovana and Ms Clemens were not ignorant of the difficulties of trekking across the Kokoda Trail in the wet season. They were in possession of the Lonely Planet guide which contains all the necessary warnings; they had been personally warned by Mr Warren Bartlett, a former Patrol Officer (Kiap) and former CEO of the KTA; and two local Papua New Guineans, Mr Alfie Jack and Mr George Kavana.
In my opinion the couple were deliberately unprepared. It is as if they wanted to create an ‘incident’ that they could ‘escape’ from to market their story of ‘survival in a remote cannibal infested jungle’!
A Google search of Matthew Iovane reveals that he already has a reputation as a ‘reality TV star’.
On the other hand they could well have fabricated an ‘emergency’ when they realised they were 24 hours behind schedule to connect with their international flight on 13 January. If they had brought a sale-price international air ticket there would be no option for them to change the date they were scheduled to fly back to Australia. By staging an ‘incident’ (that could easily have got out of control) they would be able to trigger an emergency evacuation; fabricate a story which they could sell; and connect with their international flight as planned.
Their photographs in fashionable clothes at the evacuation point in Alola is not indicative of a couple who had experienced such a traumatic experience a little more than 24 hours previously.
If it was a scam it worked.
Sogeri Lodge has not been paid for their transport, accommodation and equipment they provided.
Mr Iovane sent an email to Mr Alfie Jack and advised him that the KTA would pay for their costs. Mr James Enage, CEO of the KTA, has advised that no such commitment was ever made.
The KTA covered the cost of the evacuation by helicopter, the cost of their medical treatment at the Pacific International Hospital and their accommodation at the Holiday Inn – and did not seek cost recovery before allowing the couple to leave PNG!
Mr Iovane’s final shameless act was to request a refund of their trek permit fees because they did not complete their trek!
Prior to their departure from PNG Ms Clemens refused a request from the Oro Provincial Governor, Gary Juffa, to release her medical report.
This was an incident waiting to happen because of the lack of governance within the management authority. The Australian Department of Environment has been responsible for the management of the Kokoda trekking industry since 2008. Unfortunately they have never developed any legislation to support the authority of the management body; they never developed any management systems (no database, no campsite booking system, no itinerary management); and they have not trained the responsible PNG staff in effective business practices.
A similar incident could have happened in late 2013 when a wannabee reporter set out to be a hero with minimal support. Once again the management authority was negligent in issuing the couple with a trek permit but they got away with it on this occasion. Click here to read the hero’s Trip Advisor report.
Other reports and submissions made over since the Australian Government assumed control of the Kokoda trekking industry in 2008 have been ignored:
- May 2009: Kokoda: World Heritage or Military Heritage?
- June 2009: Kokoda: Stop the bloody rot on the bloody track
- June 2009: Kokoda: Response and Recommendations
- August 2009: Owers Corner Desecration
- August 2009: Don’t vandalise Kokoda with wire bridges
- August 2009: Urgent need to re-think Kokoda
- September 2009: Five deaths too many on Kokoda
- October 2009: Consultants killing Kokoda
- June 2012: Trekkers heap praise on outgoing chief (see comments section)
- September 2012: A Paper on the Kokoda Trekking Industry
- May 2013: Government desecration of Kokoda battlesite condemned
None of these submissions were acknowledged – all were ignored!
Two young villagers from Efogi are currently in custody.
The circumstances indicate that they are either victims of the crass stupidity of Mr Iovane and Ms Clemens- or victims of a dumb scam.
They should therefore be deemed to be innocent until proved guilty; they should be provided with legal representation by the KTA; and should be released on bail until the charges are brought before the court.
[ii] This schedule is based on my personal experience which involves 79 crossings of the Kokoda Trail over the past 25 years.