It’s January 1996 and a young fresh-faced recruit stands outside the firing range of the West Australian Police Academy. He is just one of 32 recruits all perfectly lined up in two even rows, each with a gnawing sense of trepidation that has been building during the previous 8 weeks of basic training. Grey squad has commenced- otherwise known as “Weapons Training”. The intimidatory reputation of this 2-week course was legendary as the brutal stories of yesteryear become embellished with every passing recruit school.
The thick-set, black T-shirt-clad Senior Instructor stares at the recruits as the sun begins to set over the Perth CBD. It’s an ominous backdrop for the young men and women who are about to learn how to shoot and fight their way out of any trouble that may come their way once they graduate.
The instructor booms: “The 7 Ps… Never forget the 7 P’s … this is what will save you.”
“What the hell is he talking about?”, wondered just about every recruit.
He booms again: “Proper Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
Although not an uncommon phrase – certainly amongst those recruits with a military background – for yours truly (a former university student and backpacker), it was the first of many brilliant catchphrases and learning points I would absorb during a 16-year police career that included time spent in the WA Police Tactical Response Group, the Australian Federal Police Air Marshal program and also the crazy streets of Baghdad during 2004.
Little did I know it, but this simple lesson (and many others) would provide me with a bedrock of risk aversion that would allow me to run a successful business, doing what I love!
After first trekking the Kokoda Track in September 2009 and falling in love with both the country and the incredible story, I began working as a trekking guide for an established trekking company in 2011. In late 2017 – after seven years of guiding – the time had come for me to blaze my trail, with the formation of Kokoda Crossing.
As I began to construct my business, the “7 P’s” were to become the backbone of my operations and the underpinnings of my three main areas of focus:
- Accurate historical content
- Local population support through employment and (where possible) medical assistance
- The safest possible operation for both my clients and local porter operations team
Successfully conducting expeditions along the Kokoda Track requires the ultimate in professional planning. Anyone who has travelled to Papua New Guinea will tell you that the country is disorganised, challenging and generally a difficult place to do business…on a good day!
To mitigate potential incidents and injuries, I identified a few key areas that I thought the business should focus on:
- Client training and physical preparation
- Rigorous and honest medical screening
- Mental preparedness
- Specialized equipment (e.g. footwear, safety ropes and tents designed for tropical environments)
- Empowering clients with risk management strategies and medical knowledge before departure
- Exemplary personal and food preparation hygiene standards
- Comprehensive travel insurance for all clients
- Exceptional emergency communication capability
Of course, these key areas have further evolved, however, they remain constant throughout the operation.
I put an equally important emphasis on Kokoda Crossing’s response capability IF things go wrong. The primary way we tackle this eventuality is to ensure the compulsory presence on every trek of a dedicated doctor or paramedic.
This is not simply a “higher-end” offering for my clients, but an important risk mitigation initiative and (as it has turned out!), a major point of difference compared to almost all the other trekking companies currently operating.
I would like to emphasize that not everyone will become injured or suffer an illness whilst on the Kokoda Track, so don’t be discouraged from tackling this famous journey. However, if we do encounter a medical situation requiring significant attention, being stuck in the middle of the Owen Stanley Range is a lonely place to be! If we can respond quickly and appropriately, we can prevent small problems from becoming big ones.
On average the Kokoda Track has around 60 evacuations per season. Some of these can be attributed to bad luck but many are as a result of inadequate preparation by the client or limited response capacity when an injury/illness occurs.
For my initial few treks, I was fortunate to engage the services of a GP from Geelong, Dr. Joe Virgona (who has completed Kokoda 8 times!) and Perth-based Paramedic, Ken Foster. Both are top quality individuals who are not only brilliant at what they do but have immense respect for the military aspect of the journey and the welfare of the clients, local villagers, and porters.
As Kokoda Crossing has continued to grow, so have our requirements for medical services. In November 2018, I chose to complete my Wilderness First Aid course under the stewardship of highly regarded training provider, Survive First Aid. Not only was I instructed by the extremely knowledgeable Nathan Burns, Dave Berry, and Joe Knight, I established a fabulous rapport with these professionals who shared similar values to myself.
Nathan and Joe also taught me about their affiliated charity Backpacker Medics, and the incredible work they do during times of need in remote areas around the world. Having explained to him my philosophies and requirements for medical response during my expeditions, Nathan literally selected himself as my next trek medic!
As we planned for several 2019 treks, we formed a relationship with Austere Risk Management who helped introduce significant preparatory measures across our expeditions. One particular challenge was preparing for the particular needs of a group of 13 women. After reviewing the medical clearance documents of our trekkers, the Austere crew was available to discuss with all ladies their requirements and potential medical issues that could compromise their journey- all the time done thoroughly and respectfully.
In the six months leading up to the trek, Austere also began disseminating information to our group on the most likely medical ailments they could face and what mitigating measures they could take to prevent occurrence. (Incidentally, his led to Nathan earning the highly appropriate nickname “Bristol”- in honor of his fascination with the Bristol Stool Chart!).
The proof was in the pudding, as the feedback from our clients was extraordinary in that they felt their preparation was as good as they could have possibly hoped for.
During this particular trek, Nathan was constantly on the go with care and attention for both our trekking clients and our Porter Operations Team. Preventative measures take up much mental energy as we constantly remind our clients of the “dos” and “donts”.
Like a pesky Drill Sergeant, he was constantly assessing trekker’s feet and even the most minor of cuts and abrasions (which if not attended to can flourish into a major problem). He was fastidious with their handwashing and reducing the chances of encountering gastrointestinal problems.
It gives me great pride to say our magnificent porters receive the same medical care as our trekking clients. Although extremely tough and resilient after being brought up in this remote and austere environment, our team may suffer from long term illnesses they don’t have the means to treat.
During our August trek, one of our porters presented with symptoms that resembled malaria, however, we were unable to offer an accurate diagnosis given our location and equipment. Following a few days of constant vigilance and symptomatic management, our team member took a turn for the worse and lost consciousness during our last night on the track.
The response from the Kokoda Crossing team impressed all those who were present that stressful morning next to the Goldie River. In a flash, assessments were complete, IV lines inserted and our other porters swung into action by constructing a bush stretcher made from local tree branches and the rescue ropes we carry. We called our Operations Base in Port Moresby via one of the two INMARSAT satellite phones we carry on all expeditions, who in turn called for an ambulance from Port Moresby General Hospital. With an experienced medic around and a well-equipped medical kit, we were able to stabilise the patient before having him transported to more thorough medical care.
Although this is an extreme example of what can occur during remote expeditions, it gives us great satisfaction and confidence that we have a solid capability for emergency medical care.
For 24 years, the “7 P’s” has been at the forefront of both my personal and professional life. Some would say (and have said), that I need to relax more! They could be right. But when these principles become ingrained, your subconscious locks down and dictates your actions.
There’s no doubt that medical, outdoor and other industry professionals know the feeling.