Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Leadership lessons from the Black Cat Trail

An Australian CA caught up in an attack on the Black Cat Trail in Papua New Guinea explains how a trust is helping local victims and their families

In brief

  • The people are so friendly and were so shocked, embarrassed and upset for us, we wanted to do something in return
  • In 2015, tour leader of PNG Trekking Adventures Christy King's leadership was recognised with a Star of Courage, the second highest decoration recognising conspicuous acts of bravery in extremely dangerous situations
  • We’ve all got skills in different ways and we are all pretty passionate about making sure that the money isn’t wasted

“You certainly did think you could be killed. None of us did anything stupid, no-one tried to argue or fight with them, but if someone had mucked up I’m absolutely certain that we would all be dead,” says Gary Essex CA, remembering the terrifying events of the 2013 attack on the Black Cat Trail in the remote wilderness of Papua New Guinea.

“I didn’t know that was happening. If you lifted up your head you got whacked,” he says reliving the moments when he the other Australians were lying face down in the dirt. “You heard lots of noise, no screams, more groans. Eventually after about 15 minutes which felt more like 30 minutes we got up to see a devastating scene.”

In front of them was savage butchery. Seven of their porters had severe gashes to their body and legs; two were cut up so badly they were killed at the scene and another died later from his injuries. The tour leader of PNG Trekking Adventures, Christy King, an emergency nurse, immediately went to work.

“I was in a bit of a haze. You couldn’t comprehend how something like that happened. Christy was amazing in how she tended to everyone in such a quick fashion,” says Essex, partner with Johnsons MME in Albury. Among the maimed were several of the Australians. Nick Bennett, who put his head out of the tent, was hit with a rifle butt; Glen Reiss suffered head injuries and Peter Stevens from Melbourne had his leg slashed by a bush knife. Essex was one of only two not hurt.

When most people experience something as traumatic as this, the usual response is to try and forget about it. But the group decided to raise money for the families of the injured and deceased porters. Within a few days of launching the Black Cat Porters Trust $180,000 was raised and while “not a lot” has been raised since, says Essex, “we’ve applied for a fundraising licence, which we got, and have been managing the money through a three-stage process … The people are so friendly and were so shocked, embarrassed and upset for us, we wanted to do something in return.”

The first day of the trek had started ordinarily enough with no expectation that anything this brutal would happen. All of the group were fit, five ex-army, and had made good progress that day. Unlike the well-worn Kokoda Trail, which Essex had walked in 2010, the Black Cat in Morobe province was considered “virgin country and more raw.” Still, Essex had done his research beforehand. A few months prior, politicians Scott Morrison and Jason Clare, then serving in the Gillard government, had both trekked it.

“That was good enough for me.”

Starting at dawn, the group had walked up a mountain for about seven hours in the rain passing evidence of World War II history. As they’d made good progress King decided they would set up camp earlier than expected rather than go on to the next campsite. A wise decision as it would turn out. The 19 porters rigged up a tarpaulin and started a fire; the trekkers set up their tents and had a rest.

“When it stopped raining, five of us were standing around having a cup of tea when suddenly these guys came out from the  jungle. We still don’t know if there were three or four of them [accounts differ]. Most of the porters took off. One of the guys had a rifle and came straight to us. Others smashed the sticks of the porters’ tarpaulin. They yelled at us to lie down and said they wanted to talk to the boss. When Christy offered herself up, they ridiculed her, they couldn’t believe she was the boss.”

As King lives in PNG, she was able to speak to them in Tok Pisin (New Guinean pidgin) and confirmed she was in charge.

“Christy stood up to them and showed real courage.”

Hoping they just wanted money, she gave them the porters’ wages from her tent and pleaded with the attackers to leave. This wasn’t enough. The balaclava-wearing men slashed all the tents looking for money and anything else they could seize including satellite phones, cameras, torches and smart phones, injuring some of the trekkers in the process. Then they turned on the porters before fleeing back into the jungle.

Fortunately three of the Australians still had their phones, including Essex and King. As they were reasonably near Wau, where there are gold mines, there was coverage. King managed to get through to her employer who told her “once she had done as much as she could, to get the group out of there.”

But what this meant was the tough decision of leaving the porters too injured to move and walking back down the mountain — along the exact same track as the attackers had taken. Meanwhile a support crew with chainsaws to widen the path and medical supplies was on its way. A helicopter would arrive the next morning to airlift the wounded out.

Before they set off, Essex managed to speak to his brother to say they’d been an incident but they were okay; the tour company also started to ring the trekkers’ families and alerted the Australian government.

It was 5pm by the time they left and started walking in single file.

“We were a pretty motley crew. Two guys had concussion, another tough old army guy had a trekking pole through the leg but nothing was going to stop him… The injured guys were in the middle and Christy was at the back.”

In 2015 King’s leadership was recognised with a Star of Courage, the second highest decoration recognising conspicuous acts of bravery in extremely dangerous situations.

Ahead of them, the group could see the footprints of the attackers who they would later find out were hardened criminals who had just escaped from jail. By 6pm it was dark and between them they only had a couple of torches left.

“Then we could see their footprints had left the path and gone into the jungle. About ten minutes later – you don’t know if your mind is playing tricks on you — we were certain we could smell fire. Then we were panicking a bit that they were nearby.”

We decided we were not going to let these blokes kill us.
Gary Essex CA

The fear factor was there when we smelt the smoke, says Essex.

“We decided we were not going to let these blokes kill us. If they come we are going to fight them — we had poles.”

Initially King was in contact with her support crew but when fixing a bandage, she lost her phone in the darkness.

What kept them going was that they knew people were coming to help. When they met up with the group — some “self-appointed police with machine guns on their hips”, others carrying medical packs — “that was the first time we really felt safe.”

It was after the trekkers received medical care back in Wau that the idea of a fund for the porters’ families was mooted.

“Everyone was pretty hyped up. As we sat around and talked, someone said — it was a silly comment — ‘I’ll have to apply for travel insurance.’ Another guy said, ‘I’ll just be giving my money to the porters.’

“Some of the guys saw what was happening to the porters more vividly than me,” he says.

“It was where they were positioned at the time of the attack. We got out of it relatively unscathed and some of the guys had very strong feelings about that. We’ve all got skills in different ways and we are all pretty passionate about making sure that the money isn’t wasted.”

After providing initial monies for medical assistance, the group are now working with Westpac and lawyers to set up bank accounts for the families to provide ongoing assistance every six months. The final stage, which is more difficult to execute, is to create industry in each of the villages along the way. This could be as simple as buying a chainsaw for them so they can cut down trees.

So did the experience change Essex?

“I’ve been able to move on. Rationalise isn’t the right word — what happened to us was totally irrational but I feel that bad things happen whether you’re in a jungle in Papua New Guinea or on the streets of America; you get back to work. It’s just the bad things that get all the publicity.”

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

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