Treacherous trek

Normal, Weekender

The Kokoda Track killed a Sydney man within an hour, report RICK FENELEY and JONATHAN DART

PHILLIP BRUNSKILL had been training for the Kokoda Track since the start of the year. He was at the gym most days, his family says, and trekked around the Sydney suburb of Epping carrying a backpack and trailed by his dog, Moxon.
At 55, the accountant had taken the precaution of medical tests, including a heart check, and received the all-clear for Kokoda.
Yet one hour into a 10-day, 130km trek, Mr Brunskill said he was too weak to go on.
“And that one hour was downhill,” said Charlie Lynn, the NSW Liberal MP who runs Adventure Kokoda, the company Mr Brunskill chose.
Within three hours of his admission of defeat, Mr Brunskill was dead – the fourth Australian to die on the gruelling Kokoda Track this year. He collapsed 10 minutes into his uphill return hike to Owers Corner, outside Port Moresby, on Sunday, Oct 4.
Mr Brunskill’s guide was Chad Sherrin, a former army major awarded the Military Medal for his service in the Vietnam War. In his early 60s, he is very fit. So is Mr Lynn. At 64, the upper house MP has completed the trek 56 times in 18 years.
Mr Lynn says the first two days – in which hikers must acclimatise to the extreme tropical heat, risk dehydration and endure extreme stress on their bodies – are commonly referred to as the “death zone”.
“But he could not manage the first hour, the easy part. That doesn’t say to me that his fitness preparation was any good. He wasn’t physically prepared.”
A second trekker with the same tour, Shirley Seal, 60, of Tanilba Bay, near Newcastle, was flown out on Sunday with her son, 35, after she suffered nausea and elevated blood pressure.
Mr Lynn’s company insists on heart checks for all its trekkers aged over 40. But given that Mr Brunskill was cleared, he acknowledges there is no way of guaranteeing people will not come to grief.
Up to 6,000 people a year – almost all of them Australian – attempt the trail. Many are elderly, or baby boomers following the path their fathers trod in World War II. Some have little or no trekking experience.
Mr Lynn says walkers must take responsibility for their fitness. He is angry the Kokoda Track Authority has not made medical check-ups mandatory. “That’s a dereliction of duty.”
The authority’s Volker Scholz, in Port Moresby, would not respond to this but said the issue of mandatory medical testing would be discussed with tour operators at the end of the trekking season.
The authority already urged companies to advise trekkers to see a doctor before the trip, and most did so, he said.
The president of the Australian Medical Association, Andrew Pesce, said: “They won’t let you join a gym these days without a medical certificate, but they’ll let you do the Kokoda Track.”
But one of his colleagues, Gary Geelhoed, the AMA president for Western Australia, completed Kokoda with his wife and two sons this year and does not support compulsory check-ups or a mandatory age limit.
“People do all sorts of silly things without seeing a doctor first,” he said. They could be declared medically fit with no guarantee they would be “physically fit for Kokoda”.
At 59, Dr Geelhoed runs, cycles and plays tennis; he and his wife are serious walkers. After climbing in Spain and completing Machu Picchu in Peru, he knew Kokoda would be hard. In preparation, they climbed up and down a hill in Perth known as Kokoda Track about 10 times, three times a week. On the steepest inclines in PNG, he says, “it can be like climbing a ladder for three hours straight”, with slipping in mud and tripping on tree roots to boot.
Warren Bartlett, with Adventure Kokoda in PNG, suggested scaling 10 flights of stairs, with a pack, for half an hour a day. The PNG Government says at least three months’ training is needed.
Mr Brunskill was training for about 10 months. His family, waiting for the results of an autopsy, gathered at his Epping home. His partner of 21 years, Nikki Miani, defended his preparation. He was well known for training around the streets. His sons, Andrea and Stefano, said in a statement: “We are torn by the tragic loss of our father … He was a wonderful father, he was a very special person and his friends miss him. His death is deeply felt by us and his extended family and friends.”
After his collapse, Mr Brunskill was taken out on a stretcher. He died on the way to hospital.
Mr Lynn’s company now imposes an age limit of 69, but before that cut-off was introduced people in their 70s completed the trek while much younger hikers gave up, he said. Just last week, an 83-year-old Australian man is said to have completed the trail with another company.
On Sept 27, father of four Paul Bradfield, 38, died of a suspected heart attack. Another three who have died since May last year were aged 26 to 36. Nine Australians and four others died in a plane crash on their way to walk the track on Aug 11.
The former state Liberal leader, Kerry Chikarovski, did the trek with Mr Lynn when she was 42.
“I trained for eight months. I did a lot of jogging/walking, and I was on the step machine 45 minutes a day, every day. Charlie left me in no doubt: it would be tough, and if I wasn’t prepared to do the work I shouldn’t go.”  –