(Original article written by Rory Callinan and posted January 19, 2016 12:00 AM via theaustralian.com.au, © 2018)
To the 3000 Australians who tackle the most famous battlefield trek in Papua New Guinea each year, they are the modern-day heroes of Kokoda.
Without the supremely fit local porters, who are renowned for humping trekkers’ backpacks along the gruelling 96km track, many hikers would go without basic comforts and struggle to complete a hike that can take up to 12 days.
The Kokoda Track has become something of a bucket list goal for Australians of all ages. Now the death of porter Winterford Tauno has sparked a police investigation and raised concerns about whether the PNG labour force is being exploited and overloaded by tour companies.
The Australian business that employed Tauno fears a forged document is being used to implicate the company in his alleged exploitation.
Papua New Guinea police yesterday confirmed an investigation was ongoing into the death of Tauno, who had been working for Getaway Trekking at the time of his death on the track in September.
Allegations were circulated by Governor Gary Juffa that Tauno had been found carrying an overloaded pack the day before he died. He alleged that Tauno’s pack had been weighed the day before his death at Ower’s Corner, the start point for the trek and found to be overweight. Mr Juffa alleged that the weight had been redistributed on the instructions of an official but then put back after the trek moved on, and that the tour group had ignored instructions to hire more porters.
Getaway Trekking has expressed outrage at the allegations, which they say are false and that a document has been tampered with to back up the overweight claims.
The company’s chief executive, Sue Fitcher, said yesterday Tauno’s and others’ packs were checked in Port Moresby before they left as part of normal procedures and found to be well below the allowed 22.5kg weight. Mrs Fitcher who also heads the Kokoda Tour Operators Association, said the group’s packs had not been weighed at Ower’s Corner but lifted up by a non-KTA person who did not have a problem with the weights.
She said that about a month after Tauno’s death, a pack register document had emerged that purportedly showed he had been carrying an overweight pack.
She said the document appeared to have been tampered with such that the weight amount for Tauno had been written over, turning what was 18kg into 28kg. “We have photos and video from day one and day two of the trek that demonstrate his pack was not full, as well as testimony from the participants on the trek,’’ Ms Fitcher said.
The death has sparked a call for porters’ pack weights to be reduced.
Veteran trek operator and former NSW state MP Charlie Lynn said yesterday: “The death is a wake-up call. The weights need to come down. I’ve done 11 treks across the trail in the last two years and I have come across groups where the porters are leaning up against the side of the mountain, exhausted.”
Mr Lynn said the maximum weights should be 18kg — a claim backed up by his trekking company’s head guide. Joe Uwea said porters working with other groups were often made to carry extreme weights. “We met some last year from one company coming on the track and one porter was complaining that he was carrying about 30kg pack — it’s not good,” Mr Uwea said. Mr Lynn said his porters carried only 18kg.
Ms Fitcher disputed that there were widespread concerns about pack weights and that any reduction in weights would lead to more employment.
“It is simplistic to point to one area and say this is what we need to do to create more jobs is reduce pack weights,’’ she said. Ms Fitcher said the KTA, which oversees track activities, held forums and operators were invited to attend. Issues were discussed including pack weights.
“Recommendations are made and taken to the board,” Ms Fitcher said. “It does appear that Charlie Lynn is going outside that process with his calls to reduce it down to 18kg.”
A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said yesterday the department was aware of the death of a Kokoda Track porter last September.
The spokesman said the KTA had responsibility for the regulation of tour operators along the Kokoda Track, including the issuing of guidelines for the weights of packs carried by porters.
“The Australian High Commission has engaged with relevant PNG bodies, including the KTA and Kokoda Track Porters and Guides Association, and tour operators, in support of standardising and enforcing pack weights,” the spokesman said.
Sogeri Police Sergeant Max Maso said yesterday an investigation into Tauno’s death was ongoing but further interviews needed to be conducted at his home village.
Efforts to contact KTA officials were unsuccessful yesterday.
Several years ago, the KTA ordered that porters’ backpack weights be reduced from 28kg to a maximum of 22.5kg.
Porters are hired from local villages and predominantly carry trekkers’ main backpacks stocked with items such as tents, sleeping bags, clothing and food.