The facts thus far . . .
As we approached the 2023 Anzac trekking period we were concerned because the PNG management body, the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA), seemed to have been in a coma throughout the three years of the Covid pandemic.
I was concerned because I had committed to lead a group of 35 trekkers supported by almost a crew of 80 guides, porters, and advance campsite parties on our Anzac trek in April.
I therefore wrote to the Acting CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority on 2 February 2023, expressing my concern over having to pay $22,000 (K52,000) in trek fees for our scheduled treks in April as we had not received any information from him regarding ‘the condition of campsites, toilets, or the Trail itself’.
I reminded him that Adventure Kokoda had previously paid a total of $125,000 (292,500) for trek permits in 2019 and 2022 but there was ‘no evidence of any of these funds being invested to improve campsites or even provide hygienic facilities for the trekkers who pay their fees in the expectation that adequate facilities will be provided to meet their needs across the Trail.’
I also advised that there had been ‘no investment to improve safety in some of the dangerous sections of the Trail’ and we had no idea what the KTA had done with the funds as he had not published a financial report since he was seconded to the office in 2018.
I was also concerned that there was no evidence of any work being done in the KTA office as we had not had a newsletter or any form of update on the management of the Trail over the previous five months.
As our company has a duty of care for the safety and welfare of our trekkers, I suggested that we be permitted to pay our trek permit fees directly to campsite owners to provide them with an incentive to have their sites ready to meet the needs of our trekkers. We knew they were hurting because they had not received any financial support from the KTA during Covid and therefore had no incentive to maintain their sites.
There was a precedent for this proposal as trekking companies who had previously committed to improving facilities across the Trail had received exemptions for their trek permit fees from the former CEO of the KTA.
Mr. Wargirai, a former Deputy Secretary with the Department of Provincial and Local Level Government Affairs, who was seconded to the KTA as CEO in an ‘acting’ capacity five years ago, rarely responds to emails that require a decision – and this was no exception.
I then followed up with an email on 10 February and advised that on my last trek in July 2022 ‘we had to engage additional porters to carry canvas tarps so the guides and porters would have some form of shelter to sleep under – as well as providing shelter for the trekkers to eat their meals.’
I advised him that we had received ‘no word from the KTA since then regarding the adequacy of campsites across the Trail to accommodate the large number of trek groups expected during the Anzac trekking period in April 2023’.
I reminded him of the duty of care the KTA has to their paying customers regarding the adequacy of campsites, the condition of toilets, and the safety of the Trail.
I suggested that the only option we had to meet our duty of care to our trekkers was to pay our trek permit fees directly to campsite owners and that all payments would be receipted for his records.
I concluded that if we did not receive a response ‘we will assume that you concur with our proposal to pay our trek permit fees directly to the campsite owners’.
He failed to respond again!
On 3 March 2023 I reminded him that ‘we are less than 4 weeks away from the peak Anzac trekking season and the situation is now urgent’.
I remined him that ‘campsite owners have been unable to improve their sites as they have earned virtually no income over the past three years due to Covid.’
I also informed him that, as a result of his failure to respond to our two previous emails ‘we now have to make a commercial decision to employ additional campsite crews to work ahead of our groups to prepare the sites we will be camping at as best they can’, and that ‘we would also have to purchase additional tarpaulins for our guides and carriers to sleep and cook under’.
I advised that ‘if I have not received any notification from you withing 48 hours I will assume that you concur with our proposal’.
He failed to respond for the third time.
On 20 March 2023 Mr. Wargirai finally broke his silence and advised:
‘KTA’s Constitution in Clause 3 (2)(a)(b), which empowers KTA to impose fees on Tourist Operators and Trekkers and issuance of Trekking Permits to Tourism Operators and Trekkers using the Track (refer to Attachment) in light of these provisions, your intention not to pay Trek Fees direct to KTA and instead distribute them direct to the campsite owners through other interest groups not legitimised by law to administer these powers and functions would constitute a breach of these provisions, and considered an illegal act on your part. Further, as foreigner investing in PNG, you are subject to abide by PNG Laws, and NOT undermining them as you intentionally threatened in your article.’
There was no assurance that the Trail would be safe for trekkers or that campsites and toilets would be adequate to meet the needs of their paying customers. It was simply a bureaucratic warning to pay the amounts due even though he has since acknowledged that his office now absorbs 100% of trek permit fee income administering itself and nothing gets through to the village communities who were the intended recipients when it was first established. We are not aware of the details as he has never published a financial report since he was seconded in 2018
FACTS RE TREK PERMIT PAYMENTS
On 14 April 2023 I arrived with a group of 35 trekkers at Owers Corner. Our porters’ backpacks were duly weighed by the KTA rangers who then asked for a copy of our trek permit.
I advised them that the Acting CEO had not responded to my requests for information on the safety of the Trail and the adequacy of campsites to meet the needs of our group. I further advised that I was carrying extra cash to pay directly to the campsite owners we planned to use to assist them to carry out the necessary improvements. We then departed on our trek.
The following day, Saturday, 15 April 2023, Mr. Wargirai finally extracted himself from his swivel chair and drove to Owers Corner with a police contingent to stop any further Adventure Kokoda treks from proceeding.
On arrival he met with our Adventure Kokoda manager, Mr. Donald Watson, who agreed to pay trek permits for the two treks led by myself and Reg Yates. He then presented Mr. Wargirai with cheques for the following:
- Charlie Lynn’s Group: 14-23 April – 36 trekkers and 76 guides and porters: K12,425.00; and
- Reg Yates Group: 15-24 April – 28 trekkers and 59 guides and porters: K9,800.00.
Mr. Wargirai (left-holding cheques), Mr. Tau Maguli, PNG Police contingent, Mr. Donald Watson, Mr. Kila Sibolo, President KTTDA,(holding bag) and a Local Councillor
Mr. Wargari then visited the TropicAir terminal the next morning (Sunday) where our Adventure Kokoda Logistics Manager, Mr. Tau Maguli, paid him for the following groups leaving from Owers Corner and Kokoda later that day:
- Scott Babbington’s Group: 16-24 April – 25 trekkers and 49 guides and porters: K8,575.00;
- Peter Morrison’s Group: 16-24 April – 30 trekkers and 61 guides and porters: K10,325.00.
All cheques were dated 11 April 2023 as part of normal logistic planning and preparation by Donald Watson for the Anzac trekking period.
The payments were in accordance with Section 9 of the Koiari and Kokoda Local Level Government Trek Permit Law 2005 which state:
‘A trekker without permit shall be required to return to the office of the Kokoda Track Authority or approved licencee or authorized agent or officer of the Authority and make arrangement for payment of such permit, plus any imposed penalty.’
No penalty was levied by Mr. Wargari for my group which had departed the previous day when he accepted the cheque for his trek permits.
On Monday morning (17 April 2023) the Adventure Kokoda Logistics Manager, Mr. Tau Maguli, visited Mr. Wargari’s KTA office and received the following receipts for the above payments:
More than a week later, on 24 April 2023, The Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change, the Hon Simo Kilepa MP, announced the cancellation of our Adventure Kokoda’s Commercial Tour Operator’s licence without warning.
The Minister, who is Chairman of a Kokoda Initiative Committee (KIC) advised:
‘The committee heard very disturbing reports from the Acting CEO of the KTA, Mr. Julius Wargirai, that on four occasions recently Adventure Kokoda deliberately attempted to evade payment of trekking permit fees to the KTA as required under PNG law.’
It seems Mr. Wargari forgot to advise the Minister and his Kokoda Initiative Committee that Adventure Kokoda had paid all trek fees owing directly to him the previous week. The Minister continued:
‘The Committee further heard that a trekking group arrived at Owers Corner on Friday 14ᵗʰ this month without any application for permits, or any notification to the KTA. Mr. Lynn announced to the KTA ranger that they would trek to Kokoda without the lawful KTA trekking permits. Despite being previously warned in writing by the CEO, and again advised by the KTA ranger at Owers Corner, Mr. Lynn lead (sic) the trek onto the Kokoda Track after continual refusals to pay KTA trekking permit fees.
The Minister, and his Kokoda Initiative Committee, seemed to have been misled by Mr. Wargari who was aware that we had been communicating with him for two months prior to our trek to seek an assurance that the trek would be safe, and campsites would be adequate to meet the needs of our trekkers who paid for trek permits in good faith.
The Minister further advised:
‘This action was attempted again over the next three days by the same company, resulting in more than 100 tourists trekking without a valid permit from KTA. It is reported that cheques were eventually paid to the KTA after the groups had commenced trekking.’
This is simply untrue. The Minister and his Kokoda Initiative Committee were obviously misled by Mr. Wargari who had received cheques for all trek permits due for the Anzac trekking period at Owers Corner on 15 April 2003, and at the TropicAir terminal the following day on 16 April 2003.
According to our Adventure Kokoda bank statements the cheques were not deposited into the KTA bank account for a further two months – until 13 June 2023!
We would now hope the Minister will seek to ascertain why Mr. Wargari withheld these cheques for two months before depositing them in the KTA bank account – and why he misled his Ministerial committee.
On the Trail
We were not surprised to find that sections of the Trail were dangerously unsafe and had to be negotiated with great care; that the campsites were not adequate to meet the needs of our group; and that nothing had been done to improve the toilets which are a 3rd World disgrace.
We therefore inspected each site with each landowner and advised what needed to be done to meet the basic needs of trekkers. We then paid each one K1200 for the nights’ accommodation then added an additional ‘incentive donation’ of K2000 each for them to get to work on their sites. They advised they had not received a single kina from the KTA since Australian officials took control of it in 2009. They were obviously grateful and promised to start immediately to improve their sites.
Former NBN television presenter, Ms. Hennah Joku, who was trekking with us witnessed all the payments and co-signed each receipt.
We then engaged our PNG lawyers to seek an injunction against the revocation of our tour operators license by the Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change.
The Minister heads up a Kokoda Initiative Committee within his Conservation Environment Protection Authority (CEPA). The committee is an advisory body however and so the Minister does not have any legal jurisdiction over the management of Kokoda Trail tourism – this rests with the Minister for Provincial and Local-Level Government Affairs.
This legal aberration should have been rectified by Australian officials when they took control of the management of the Kokoda Trail under a Joint Agreement with PNG in 2009 as it was then emerging as PNGs most popular tourism destination.
We have been arguing for many years that the Trail should be managed as a tourism enterprise responsible to the Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture and not as an environment issue responsible to the Minister for Environment, Conservation, and Climate Change.
However, a subtle power shift saw the Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change assume control through his DFAT funded Kokoda Initiative Committee. He appointed the DFAT ‘Strategic Management Advisor’, a former Assistant Secretary for International Heritage at the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPC), as Secretary to the Committee – a canny move given the flow of aid funding into environment as opposed to tourism or Provincial and Local Level Government in PNG.
The Board of Directors for the Kokoda Track Authority appointed by the Minister for Provincial and Local Level Government Affairs withered on the vine due to allegations of corruption, incompetence, and a lack of funding. This made it easy for the Kokoda Initiative Committee to become the unofficial authority for the management of the Kokoda Trail.
It is possible that environment officials in CEPA would also like to see Kokoda tourism wither on the vine as they have not introduced any management systems; they have not invested in any significant military heritage sites; or campsites; or even toilets. As a result, the number of trekkers has fallen by 46 percent under their watch.
Our criticism of their management dysfunction and their neglect of our military heritage along with our advocacy for the Kokoda Trail to be transferred from environment to tourism has not endeared us to them,
However, we plan to pursue our objective of supporting the Kokoda Trail to achieve its potential as a world-class pilgrimage destination for the economic benefit of the people who own the land sacred to our shared military heritage.
We are presently navigating the legal processes of the PNG National Court – we have been represented six times thus far but have not been able to proceed on a couple of occasions because the court couldn’t find the paperwork, on another the judge did not get around to hearing it, on another the Judge did not arrive, and more recently it was adjourned until October to give the Minister and his legal team more time to produce the financial reports we have requested.
Until then the Court has granted a stay on our request for an injunction which allows Adventure Kokoda PNG to continue to operate.
 Legal responsibility for the management of the Kokoda Trail rests with the Minister for Provincial and Local Level Government Affairs. The Kokoda Initiative Committee is an environmental advisory committee established by the Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change.