The recent Cook Islands News article has gone viral on social media.
Papua road gatekeeper Johnny Trego says he’s been thrust unwittingly in the spotlight and the unwelcome infamy at the outset has been “really upsetting.”
Trego says he was trying to do his job and was mindful of the safety of the two tourists. Instead, he was rewarded with unwanted publicity after a disagreement with the two female tourists who had ignored no entry signs and a blockade.
Trego is also caretaker of around 100 acres of inland Vaimaanga land traditionally known as Papua belonging to paramount chief Pa Ariki. It is on this land that one of Rarotonga’s most vital water sources is situated. It is also here that the island’s most beautiful and significant waterfall has cascaded over rocks into a pool for generations. It’s a popular place for visitors and locals alike.
For some weeks the road leading to Papua Waterfall has been closed as Infrastructure Cook Islands upgrades Papua road that winds 1.5kms through a valley to the water source. It is the only road accessing the intake, that which provides hundreds of homes with water.
Because of that Pa Ariki’s son, Sam Napa, says the government-funded upgrade is justified. So too, he says, is the $5.00 fee that each visitor to Papua Waterfall began to be charged late last year. He says the money is needed to maintain the road, keep roadsides clear and plant shrubs.
It’s been Trego’s job to collect the entry fee from visitors and more recently, to advise those wanting to see Papua Waterfall that the signs are accurate and “mean what they say”.
Two signs: “Closed to public” and “Waterfall road closed. STOP” are clearly evident at the entrance of Papua Road, as is a blockade and an orange road cone. Trego says he moves the cone from time to time to allow ICI machinery and trucks through.
What the 45-year old former New Zealand Army soldier says he can’t understand is why two female tourists who obviously can read English and saw the blockade totally ignored the cautions and “zoomed up the road.”
At the time the tourists manoeuvred past the blockade and cone, sped inland in their small car Trego was doing an everyday chore- feeding his pig tied to a bush on the side of the road. As is the norm here, Trego was using a machete to open coconuts, eating uto (coconut cotyledon) and happily going about his daily task not knowing he says, that a life-changing event was about to happen.
Still holding his machete, Trego jumped on his bike and followed the two women wanting to alert them of the hazard ahead – in action around a sharp bend were two road rollers, diggers and a grader. “It was very busy up there.”
He says he overtook the women, parked his bike in the middle of the road and raised his hand (without the knife), signalling them to stop “so I could talk to them and ask them if they had seen the signs because you can’t miss them.”
“I told them, there was a first sign and a second sign written in plain English, why don’t you understand, do you want me to write it in Chinese?”
“I said to them, this is private property and the sign is clear and it’s written in English.”
Trego says at no time did he threaten the women or use the machete in a menacing manner. “I wasn’t frothing at the mouth either, I had just been eating uto and some of it probably flew out of my mouth when I was talking to them.”
The women were told by Trego that they were trespassing on private land. Trego says he asked: “Would you do the same thing in your country – just ignore signs and blockades. If I came to your place, opened the gate, would you allow me to come through without an invitation? That would be trespassing wouldn’t it?”
Trego says the experience was very frustrating. “They were arrogant.”
“I was frustrated they didn’t take any notice of the sign, it was all about safety, the signs are there for a safety reason, Our local people know not to go up to the waterfall because it’s a hazard with all that machinery working at the same time. There’s machinery and trucks moving all the time, all the rain and wind we’ve had makes it even more dangerous.”
Trego says he found it annoying that the women refused to pay the $5 entry fee responding that they had no money.
“They said they were sorry, but it was easy to tell they weren’t genuinely sorry, they were fake.” The former Suwarrow park ranger says he felt the women were “talking down” to him and being condescending.
After reading their version of events, Trego admitted being devastated.
“I just wanted to kill myself, I wanted to go into a hole and die.”
“I felt like the whole island was against me.”
“I’m really upset with the way they exaggerated what happened there was never any threats made to them, I didn’t scream at them, I didn’t get out of control.”
Allegations have been made to CI News of a second bizarre incident claiming a man had chased a cameraman along Papua road with a machete. Napa says the cameraman had become irritated that he couldn’t go inland and film the road upgrading.
“But he was too late to report the start of the works.” And the alleged pursuit with a machete “definitely didn’t happen.”
Napa says they’ve been touched with the public support Trego has received.