By MALUM NALU
So much has happened over the last 16 years along the Black Cat Trail between Salamaua and Wau, Morobe, since 2003.
In July 2003, Heni Dembis of the then Morobe Tourism Bureau and myself of Tourism Promotion Authority then, made the walk that opened up the historic goldfields and World War II trail.
All our efforts, however, went up in smoke with the now infamous attack on local guides and porters, and international trekkers in September 2013.
Lionel Aigilo, one of the two men who took us across the Black Cat in 2003, was one of those killed in the 2013 attack near Wau.
The Black Cat has been closed to trekkers since, with villagers from Wau down to Salamaua, missing out on the regular income they received during the 10 years between 2003 and 2013.
The tourism industry is still reeling from that sad incident.
Dembis and I, however, still hold the hope that this iconic trail can be reopened again to trekkers.
Experienced trekking operator, Defol Jabbar, of Morobe Tourism Bureau, is planning a “peace walk” along the trail later this year in which government, tourism, police and military officers can talk to local villagers about reopening it.
This week, I talked to Dembis and Jabbar about the Black Cat Trail, and it can be reopened, however difficult it may be.
Dembis, now a senior manager with TPA, is optimistic of this.
“There are possibilities of this (reopening) happening,” he says.
“Because of the 2013 incident, we’ve decided not to go on with the track.
“For us at TPA, it’s ‘closed’, but there are people who are doing the track on an ad-hoc basis.”
Dembis says the signing of tourism memorandums of understanding recently with Huon Gulf and Menyamya districts of Morobe, as well as the provincial government, should help pave the way for this.
“We need to have consultations with villagers living along the track from Biaweng (Wau) all the way to Salamaua,” he says.
“The districts must go ahead and take the lead, we piggyback on that, and hopefully we can reopen the Black Cat.”
Dembis will be meeting with all stakeholders in Lae today in which reopening the Black Cat will be one of the issues discussed.
“I think it will take a long time because of the lives lost along the track,” he says.
“If these people agree, it is likely that the track will reopen, but again it is all dependent on communities living along the track.
“We want to facilitate the reopening, however, it all goes back to the local people living along the track, and the districts, to ensure that we don’t have issues.”
Dembis, who has singlehandedly raised the profile of the Black Cat since out 2013 trek, says it means so much to him.
“When we opened the track in 2004, it contributed a lot in terms of helping the livelihoods of people living along the track,” he says.
“The trekking industry has contributed in terms of employment, and improvement in living standards of people living along the track.
“It means a lot to me, because as soon as the track opened, the lives of people were transformed.
“Money was going into the villages.
“After the track was opened in 2004, TPA helped by installing radios all the way from Wau to Salamaua, connected to Lae.
“This was part of our contribution to the development of the track.
“The radios not only helped locals to inform them about trekkers, but also helped pregnant women and people who were very sick, being contacted to the Morobe health radio system.
“This, unfortunately, is no longer operational.
“If there are any means through which we can revive the track, by all means we should, which is why we are having ongoing discussions and meetings. “I hope that the meeting we will have on Friday (today) will contribute to the reopening of the track.
“It still has a lot of potential to draw in trekkers.”
Jabbar shares the same sentiments as Dembis, saying that reopening the Black Cat will really help the villagers along the trail.
“We experienced trekking operators can talk to the communities, just like we do on the Kokoda Trail,” he says.
“What we did along Kokoda is that we got youths and ex-criminals involved, and they talked to boys in the villages and in the communities not to disrupt trekking activities.
“The way to do it (reopen) is to have communities, law-and-order, local level governments and all stakeholders involved.
“There must be awareness programmes this year so that we can reopen the Black Cat by the end of this year. Sept 9 is the Liberation of Salamaua Day, so we are working on a major awareness for then.
“We are planning to mobilise disciplined forces, school kids, district administrations of Bulolo and Huon Gulf, LLGs, media and business houses for a ‘peace walk’
“We at Morobe Tourism Bureau are planning a peace and reconciliation walk to coincide with Salamaua Day in Sept.
“We go up to Wau a few days earlier and walk down to Salamaua, and we can declare the track open.
“That’s what we are planning to do. Between now and September, there must be awareness teams going in to talk to the villages.
“By next year, we can start taking bookings for the track.
“The Black Cat Trail is a very attractive tourism product that must be promoted.”
The Black Cat Trail makes the Kokoda Trail seem like a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.
This is because it is not an established trail like Kokoda, on which hundreds of trekkers regularly tread, but a forgotten World War II course that passes through some of the toughest and most-hazardous terrain in the world.
Leech and snake-infested jungle, moss-covered rocks and fallen tree stumps, precarious cliff crossings, and potentially-dangerous river crossings make the Black Cat arguably one of the toughest tracks in PNG and the world.
Start from Wau and end in beautiful Salamaua. The ultimate adventure.
By MALUM NALU