The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) was established by a small group of Australian travel operators to protect their financial interests along the Kokoda Trail in PNG.

The welfare of local PNG porters and villagers is obviously not part of their agenda and their use of fake research to justify their exploitation is contrary to the spirit of Kokoda.

This exploitation includes the overloading of porters; abuse of their welfare; and the claiming of shameful student discounts on trek fees.

Fake Information

The KTOA website advises that ‘Members of the association collectively represent more than 75% of trekker number across Kokoda’.

This is fake information. The KTOA membership represents just 30 percent of the 36 trek operators licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA). Three of the 11 KTOA members appear to be inactive.

According to KTA records a total of 3267 trekkers crossed the trail in 2017 – 2053 (62%) went with KTOA members.

Overloading of PNG Porters

The most abhorrent practice the KTOA advocates is the overloading of porters by its members and their use of fake research to justify it.

In September 2017 a PNG porter engaged by a member of the KTOA died on the trail – according to the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) Ranger at Owers Corner he was overloaded with a 28 kg backpack. Rather than addressing the problem the KTOA accused the KTA Ranger of altering his records without providing any evidence to support their claim. A preliminary investigation by PNG Police Sergeant, Max Maso contradicts their claim:

‘It is evident that the group on this particular trip . . . engaged by . . . (KTOA tour operator) . . . were all overloaded in breach to Code of Conduct stipulated under this code’.

Rather than accepting that there is a problem with the overloading of porters the KTOA went into damage control after Adventure Kokoda advised that the maximum weight allowed for the PNG wartime carriers in 1942 was 18 kg.

On 26 February 2018 the KTOA posted an irrational response to this fact on Facebook:

‘Any operator[i] continuing to use references to conditions and weights carried by carriers on the Kokoda Track in 1942 is still living in the dark colonial days long past. Clearly the welfare of the carriers of the Kokoda campaign was not of primary concern of their colonial masters.

‘Suggestions made recently that the carriers during the war were restricted to carrying 18kgs is a gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked.’

The reference KTOA quoted to justify their exploitation of PNG porters was an unofficial essay written by a junior summer vacation student at the Australian War Memorial!![ii].

The facts are anything but a ‘gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked’ as stated by the KTOA.

The most authentic research on the history of the Kokoda Trail was published by Stuart Hawthorne in 2003[iii]. Hawthorne provides a detailed assessment of the reality of the conditions under which the wartime carriers worked and noted that:

‘One of Dr Vernon’s[iv] 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 book titled ‘The Third Force. ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-46’[v]:

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

The KTOA was not deterred by these facts and responded with more fake research on 10 March 2018:

‘In the Kokoda Museum we read that during the war Porters had to carry up to 27kg. So someone must be right (obviously the KTOA) and someone must be wrong (obviously Adventure Kokoda) about what porters carried.’

The reference they relied upon for this revelation was a photographed extract attributed to Major H.D. (‘Blue’) Steward, Regimental Medical Officer, 2/16 Australian Infantry Battalion which read:

‘The Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) recruited carriers for the Australian Army. Although better treated, these ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, as they were affectionately known, worked long hours in tortuous conditions, often carrying loads of 60lb (27 kg).’

This is a fake reference – there is no record of this statement in Major Steward’s book ‘Recollections of a Regimental Medical Officer’. In his published recollections Major Steward wrote:

‘Medical care for the people of Papua and New Guinea was usually not a direct responsibility of mine, close though I was to them in their gallant work of carrying out our wounded on the Kokoda Trail. In those days they were grossly overworked and overloaded, as well as being underfed and ill-clothed. It was largely through medical advice – including that of old Dr Vernon – that their lot improved. The carriers had their burdens reduced to a maximum of 40 lbs (18 kg), hours of work were reduced to something approaching reason, rest days were provided, and blankets and sweaters were issued to protect them in the cold mountains.’[vi]

Major Steward’s recollections are supported by Australia’s official war historian, Dudley McCarthy, who wrote:

‘General Rowell soon afterwards told General Blamey that, at 29th August, the daily maintenance requirements of Maroubra Force was 15,000 pounds (and that of Kanga Force 5.000 pounds). To meet the Maroubra Force requirements , with native carriers on the basis of a six- to eight-day carry of 40 pounds (18 kilograms) a native, would necessitate the use of at least 3,000 carriers, without allowing for the porterage of their own rations, wastage among them and other possibilities.’[vii]

These historical facts are a matter of record and any attempt by the KTOA to reinterpret them to justify their ongoing exploitation of PNG porters on the Kokoda Trail is a disgrace.

Their defiance is evident in the following statement on their recent Facebook post of 10 March 2018:

‘One thing is for sure that the KTOA have all agreed to have a maximum total weight of 22.5 kg.’

Well of course they would. That means they do not have to employ as many porters as they should and they get to pocket more money for themselves.

Perhaps somebody should inform them that ‘blackbirding’ – an abhorrent practice involving the recruitment of Melanesian islanders to work as slave labour on Australian farms – was abolished at the turn of the last century. According to a book titled ‘The Blackbirders’ the recruiters were ‘a tough band of international adventurers on the whole brutal, callous and completely unscrupulous in the their methods of recruiting, concerned only with fulfilling a contract or supplying virtual slaves to whoever was prepared to buy them’.[viii]

The KTOA use of selective comparisons with other countries to justify their exploitation of PNG porters is akin to a modern form of blackbirding. According to the KTOA Facebook post of 10 March 2018:

 ‘This weight (22.5 kg) is often less but as a maximum this is a weight that is not just set by the KTA but also the International Porters Protection Group IPPG. On Kilimanjaro the limit is 20kg, in Peru it is 25kg and in Nepal it is 30kg.’

This is misleading. Trekking Ethic No 5 of the International Porters Protection Group puts the above reference into proper perspective:

‘No porter should be asked to carry a load that is too heavy for their physical abilities (maximum: 20 kg on Kilimanjaro, 25 kg in Peru and Pakistan, 30 kg in Nepal). Weight limits may need to be adjusted for altitude, trail and weather conditions; experience[ix] is needed to make this decision. Child porters should not be employed’.[x]

The KTA is not a legitimate authority on this issue. The original maximum weight of 25 kg was established in 2009 by the Australian CEO of the KTA who had recently arrived in PNG and had not trekked Kokoda. The CEO accepted the advice of Australian tour operators who were aware of the commercial opportunities of leading treks across the trail and who obviously wanted to minimise their costs. The advice of experienced operators who had been leading treks across the trail for more than a decade prior to his arrival was ignored.

The maximum weight was later reduced to 22.5 kg after it was evident that the original 25 kg limit was just too heavy – as is 22.5 kg! It is interesting to note that none of the management staff of the KTA would be capable of carrying a 22.5 kg backpack across the Kokoda Trail – and not one of them has trekked across it for more than two years!

Welfare of PNG Porters

KTOA members are not required to provide their PNG porters with sleeping bags and mats. These items are essential for protection from the cold and wet conditions that prevail across the Owen Stanley Ranges. This neglect contravenes Guideline 2 of the Trekking Ethics of the International Porters Association[xi] which states:

‘Above the tree line porters should have . . . a sleeping mat and a decent blanket or sleeping bag.’[xii]

PNG porters come from subsistence villages along the trail. Those lucky enough to get a job in Port Moresby are paid the basic rate of 60 cents an hour. This means they would have to work for 7 X 40 hour weeks to be able to afford a basic sleeping bag and mat of their own. This is an unrealistic expectation which means they often have to huddle together to endure wet ground and freezing temperatures in the mountain Koiari area of the Owen Stanley Ranges while the Australian trekkers they are supporting enjoy the warmth of a sleeping bag in a sheltered area.

Australian Student Discount

A number of KTOA members claim a 50% student discount rate for trek fees. As a result, wealthy private school students from Australia are subsidised by subsistence villagers along the trail.

This shameful subsidy was put in place by an Australian tour operator when the KTA was first established in 2004. It has never been rescinded because of ‘pressure’ applied by some Australian tour operators to retain it to minimise their costs.

According to KTA records Australian tour operators were able to pocket $26,205.74 by claiming this shameful subsidy in 2017.

PNG is the only country in the world that requires subsistence villagers to subsidise wealthy private school students.

Conclusion

The KTOA is shameless in their ongoing attempts to use fake research to justify their exploitation of PNG porters.

If they are not prepared to adopt the following minimum standards for their operations on the Kokoda Trail they should be regarded as a fake association:

  1. Provision of the following for each guide and carrier they engage:
    a.  maximum weight of 18 kg to be carried;
    b.  provision of a sleeping bag and sleeping mat;
    c.  provision of a shirt with the logo of the trekking company;
    d. minimum payment of K70 per day;
    e.  ‘Walk-Home’ allowance of K250;
    f.  pay to be provided at the conclusion of each trek.
  2. All claims for Australian student discounts to be abolished.

Until then use of the KTOA logo by members should be regarded as a badge of dishonour.

Em tasol.

Major Charlie Lynn OL
Adventure Kokoda

[i] Obviously a reference to Adventure Kokoda who provided research to verify the claim that 18 kg was the maximum weight recommended by Dr Vernon in 1942.

[ii] The AWM IS careful to include the following footnote to ensure their historical integrity is protected through their summer vacation scheme: ‘The opinions expressed in the papers are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian War Memorial’.

[iii] The Kokoda Trail – a History. Stuart Hawthorne. Central Queensland University Press. 2003. P 193.

[iv] Dr Geoffrey Vernon was assigned to ensure the health and welfare of the wartime carriers on the Kokoda Trail was provided for to the best of their ability in the conditions at the time.

[v] The Third Force – ANGAU’s New Guinea War, 1942-46. Oxford Press 2003. P34

[vi] Australia in the War of 0f 1939-45. Army. South-West Pacific Area. First Year: Kokoda to Wau. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Dudley McCarthy. P197

[vii] Our Adventure Kokoda trek leaders have a combined total of 130 years professional army experience. We have led more than 520 expeditions across the trail over the past 27 years. Our ‘experience’ is in line with the conclusions reached by Dr Vernon during the Kokoda campaign.

[viii] The Blackbirders. Edward Wyberch Docker. Angus and Robertson, 1970.

[ix] http://www.ippg.net/trekking-ethics/

[x] http://www.ippg.net/trekking-ethics/

[xii] http://www.ippg.net/trekking-ethics/