September 14, 2013
IT was supposed to be an exhilarating trek across some of Papua New Guneas most unforgiving terrain to visit remote WWII battle sites.
But it ended with seven Australians and a New Zealander stumbling bloodied and terrified from the jungle, leaving behind two dead porters and seven critically injured after they were ambushed by a mob wielding machetes and guns.
Having trained for months to tackle the notorious Black Cat trail, a mountainous track in the island’s north, the group, led by tour guide Christiana King, originally from Bathurst, set off from their camp in the township of Wau about 4.30am on Tuesday.
They examined the wreckage of an American B17 bomber before a further 3 ½ hour walk through leech-infested jungle brought them to their first campsite.
As they took in the sites near an area called Banis-Donki, a crazed gang — thought to be three locals and three escapees from Wau police cells — burst from the bush about 2pm.
“They were basically set upon by the attackers and they started attacking them without warning,” PNG police spokesman Dominic Kakas said.
“One of the Australians was speared in the left leg. Another was slashed on his body ... on the left arm. And he has a cut on his back and bruises, and a head laceration.
Tour leader Christina King. In the background is the jungle area where the horror unfolded. (Digitally altered image)
“The rest have some bruises and small cuts.”
Two of the 12 porters were hacked to death while seven others needed urgent medical assistance.
“One of the men was armed with a .303 rifle and another one had a homemade gun. The other four had bush knives,” Mr Kakas said.
Having stolen passports and anything of value, the mob then disappeared back into the jungle. As darkness fell, Ms King, who lives in PNG with her husband Daniel and two children, led the injured back down the trail to Wau and raised the alarm.
Mr King said yesterday the survivors had “cuts and bruises and stitches” but were “OK”.
The Australian speared in the leg was yesteday named as Peter Stevens, 62, from Victoria, who was travelling with five friends, including Glenn Reiss and Rod Clarke.
“I only spoke with Peter very briefly,” his wife Dee Sheffrin said. “And he told me he had a spear wound to the leg.
Bandits have attacked a group of Australian and New Zealand trekkers in PNG, killing two local porters.
“It must have been terrible ... I am exhausted from worry.
“Peter’s pretty tough, he was a major in the army for 20 years.”
Fellow survivor, 55-year-old Queenslander Nick Bennett, suffered a machete wound to the head.
Mr Bennett’s wife said he had walked in the footsteps of WWII soldiers in 2006 when he took on Kokoda, but had wanted to see more on the riskier Black Cat.
While the group responsible have not been found MP Sam Basil — the local member for the area covering the Black Cat Trail — said he believed the group were made up of locals and escaped convicts. “Three of them are believed to be escapees from the Wau police cells and others from the local areas,” Mr Basil said. “ ... some of the people who attacked the trekkers are escapees and are known to the police.”
Mr Kakas said there were no reports anyone was shot before the group of bandits fled towards Wau with the groups passports and other personal items.
The men injured and in shock then walked for hours back to Wau in the dark led by trek leader Christiana King, orignially from Bathurst and now lives with her husband and two children in PNG - the only woman in the group.
The jungle terrain in which the attack took place.
The incident is thought to have been sparked by an ongoing fued between tribes fighting over lucrative work as porters and guides.
When the Australians, the Kiwi and the porters arrived back in Wau, they were taken to a medical clinic at a nearby mining camp, where they spent the night.
“The first village they went back to is quite some distance as well … they were met there at 8 o’clock at night,” Mark Hitchcock from PNG Trekking said. “We mobilised assistance from a nearby mining joint venture and they sent medics and security as well as local porters.”
“The group was taken down to a compound we have in a place called Wau,” Morobe Mining spokesman David Wissink said. “They came overnight and were treated by our medics before leaving.” The injured trekkers were airlifted to the capital Port Moresby yesterday afternoon and were expected to meet with the Australian High Commissioner before returning to Australia today.
The porters remained at Banis-Donki where they were assisted by staff, including a surgeon and a nurse from Lae International Hospital.
Helicopters were yesterday sent to flown the injured porters from the village to Lae.
Mr Kakas said a group of police “numbering about 11 travelled by foot towards the Donkey Track and arrived there about 8pm in the night” where they were assisted in hunting for the bandits by local villagers.
The old prospecting track is extremely remote.
They were joined yesterday by a group of four specialist police officers from Port Moresby who travelled to the area by helicopter.
PNG Prime Minister told parliament the incident was “totally unacceptable to our way of living in our society” and he had “directed the Commissioner to dispatch a mobile unit in there immediately to take control of policing, not only in the incident area but the greater Wau area so that law and order is restored”.
“It is important that the community work with the police to try and apprehend these people as quickly as possible,” he said.
Australia’s acting Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek said: “This was a savage and unprovoked assault by what may have been a gang of thieves.”
Kokoda Track trekking company operator and NSW Liberal MLC Charlie Lynn said he believed a serious attack on the Black Cat was “an inevitability”.
“I believe that what has happened is a direct result of the failure of the Australian government to appreciate that more Australians will want to follow the footsteps of our veterans in PNG,” Mr Lynn said. “They have a duty of care to ensure they can do it safely and that the wartime integrity of the places they will visit is protected.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has recommended trekkers avoid the Black Cat track. Read the advice on New Guinea here.
Christina King in a family picture.