Imagine if your job required you to lace up your hiking boots, pull on your pack and head off into the rugged mountains and valleys over which Papua New Guinea’s infamous Kokoda Track claws its way – this is just how Evans Head man Troy Irwin earns a living.
Troy works for AusAID, the Australian Government’s overseas aid agency, and until recently – along with wife Jody and sons Riley (7) and Lewis (4) – was based in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
Troy continues to play an integral part in an Australian-Papua New Guinean Government initiative called the Kokoda Development Program (KDP), which aims to help improve the lives of the people living along the 90km Kokoda Track.
“Australia has a strong link to the people living along the Kokoda,” says Troy.
“The bonds forged along the Track and other parts of PNG in World War Two ensure that Australia and Papua New Guinea share a long and enduring friendship.
“And quite rightly, Australia is working with its close friend and closest neighbour to help improve the lives of its people.”
The KDP aims to improve the lives and livelihoods of people living in the Track corridor and focuses on key areas such as water and sanitation, health, education and communications.
Troy has been involved in it since the KDP’s inception last year.
One of the first things that had to be done was to go out and consult with the communities about what they needed and wanted.
And of course, there are no roads out there in the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges so the only way to get out and talk to people is to walk.
Ask any of the 5000 or so trekkers who make the pilgrimage between the village of Kokoda and Owers Corner each year and they will tell you heading off into this country is not something to be taken lightly.
“It didn’t matter that I might have had a big blister brewing on my foot or that it was pelting down rain as I tried to balance on a slippery log over a fast-flowing mountain river, here I was out on the Kokoda Track and I certainly wasn’t going to swap this for a chair and a desk,” Troy said.
Troy covered the whole track over a period of weeks, meeting with the 12 communities along the track to talk to them about what it was they needed to improve their lot and the state of existing facilities.
“It didn’t take long to realise that we could make a fairly big impact in some significant areas,” he said.
“The obvious things were health and education. And starting last year, we opened the program by repairing and reopening the Efogi Health Centre which sits about half-way along the track.”
Efogi is a key staging point for the work along the track. It has the added bonus of having an airfield – a typical bush strip cut out of the wilderness on the side of a hill – which means that supplies and people can be taken in and out.
The centre was opened late last year by Sandy Hollway, Prime Minister Rudd’s Special Envoy on Kokoda.
“Efogi was an important beginning for the project,” says Troy.
“The health centre was rundown and had been closed for many years. During one of my visits to Efogi I spoke to a pregnant lady who was planning to walk about 40km to Port Moresby to have her baby.
“Now that the health centre is open with new staff and new equipment, she will be able to have her baby in her home village.”
The newly refurbished centre not only provides better health services for the area but training programs are run to train local volunteers who travel from village to village as health workers.
“Centres like Efogi with dedicated health workers mean the people along the track now have access to an increasing level of health service,” Troy said.
“A facility and staff like this can often mean the difference between life and death for these people.”
The KDP is also focused on getting more kids into better schools which are supported by much better resources.
“In the past many children walked a long way to attend schools with dirt floors, no chalk, no writing materials, and often no teacher – not an environment that encourages good learning,” Troy said.
“This year we arranged for school materials to be delivered to each school along the Track corridor and will maintain buildings and teachers’ houses.
“This will provide the next generation of community leaders with better education opportunities, which ultimately improves the lives of all people along the track.”
And then there are the new toilets and water systems which make life a lot better for a number of communities.
“This is a great initiative for the people of this area,” Troy said.
“While Australia’s aid program works across a wide range of areas around PNG, there is something particularly poignant about Australians working alongside Papua New Guineans in this place (Kokoda).”
Troy is now settled with his family in Evans Head after three years with AusAID in PNG. He still works with AusAID on a part-time basis travelling back to PNG when required but is essentially a house husband looking after the kids and supporting his wife, Jody, as she and her business partner build up their local family operated training and consulting business.