By Hazel Kutkue
I have always considered doing rural medicine since Dr. David Mills gave a talk to us at the University of Papua New Guinea’s Taurama Campus in 2016. Sitting in the old lecture theater that smelt of time and old medicine, I seriously pondered on the idea. I was twenty-one.
Fast forward to residency, I looked to Obstetrics and Gynecology and Emergency Medicine – weighing out the possibilities of going down either one of those pathways.
However, a good friend of mine sold me the idea of a Etep Rural hospital in Tewae-Siassi District of Morobe. Since rural medicine always lurked at the back of my mind, I decided to give it a try.
I loved the idea of living in the outback, and being a doctor amongst miles and miles of wild, wild geography and. I liked the idea of being a doctor where there is no doctor. I also needed a getaway.
When I was almost done with my residency at the Angau Memorial Hospital, I visited the Lutheran Health Services Office in Lae on an off day. The Human Resource Officer got my details and told me to get in touch with him when I acquired my license to practice medicine.
After acquiring my license, I got two job offers – an Emergency Medicine Registrar position at Nonga Base Hospital and a Rural Medicine Position at one of the two Lutheran Hospitals in Morobe. I changed my mind on Etep Rural Hospital and asked the HR officer if I could just go to Braun Hospital in Finschafen. Etep Rural Hospital seemed too far from everything.
Ariel view of Etep Rural Hospital in Nearby Tewae-Siassi District.
Today I live in Finschafen, and I love it. I love the laid back pace of the outback and the absence of the hustle in larger centers. I love the fact that I am surrounded by forest and that my backyard ends on the banks of a waterfall. I love the quiet, the solitude and the work – a leisurely eight to five, and on calls.
But what is Finschafen really like? I cannot answer this question given the fact that it is now 2nd of April, 2021 and I am approaching just my fifth month out here.
I question myself and everything else about why tourism is not big for a place like this. It is breathtakingly beautiful and very rich in history. If you choose to ignore the normal daytime weather, it is perfect.
Finschafen holds so much history that is not commonly known by a lot of people today. It was the German New Guinea Company’s first attempt at colonizing New Guinea – but the original settlement is non – existent today. The main settlement was and still is Gagidu station, lying 3km from the Buki wharf and 30km from the Maneba wharf. Toward the end of the 2nd world war, the station served as a staging post for the United States troops, seeing large numbers of GIs passing through. At the end of the war, aircraft and other equipment deemed useless were bulldozed into a large hole in Dregerhafen, which lies 4km south of Gagidu station. More details can be found on http://www.lonelyplanet.com/papuanewguinea.
Dregerhafen occupies a peninsula, officially called Cape Cretin, which juts out into the Vitiaz Strait. The harbor is formed by a number of islands which have barrier reefs in between. Dregerhafen Secondary School used to be called Dregerhafen Education Centre in the pre-independence days and the late Sir Michael Somare was educated there. A more detailed account of the school can be found on this blogging site betourism.blogspot.com where a former teacher describes his days in Finschafen.
Gagidu station is three hours on a banana boat from Lae’s Voco Point. The entire coastline will take your breath away on the ride. You should see how the sea in Bukawa in nearby Nawaeb District is green, moody and still in certain places and how the forest encroaches upon the water. Parts of the coastline in is made up of black and white pebbled beaches. Villages are far apart, and passing by, fisherman or villagers at the shore would wave, excited at the site of travelers.
Moody Waters in Bukawa
At the final stop, you disembark on a small beach, boats lined up on the waterfront. From the boat stop, it is a three minute car ride to the station. The road even though unpaved, is smooth, smooth, white karanas. At the station, there is a small market, three large shops, a police station, a primary school, a courthouse, a local jailhouse, and a works department the PNG Water office and the PNG Power Office. The secondary school lies slightly away from the town centre. Government workers live in old, colonial style housing that line the seafront.
I live in Butaweng, a small community ten minutes by car on smooth, karanas roads. Forest frames the two-lane road, almost swallowing it. There are local canteens at Butaweng and a local market but nothing more. It is a hospital community. The canteens are quite pricey. The local market sells greens, fruits and nuts on Mondays through to Saturdays.
The Butaweng community life revolves around the Butaweng River and the Mape River. Butaweng River is a cascading affair of serial falls. My house is next to the final wara kalap as the singer O-shen often describes it in social media posts. O-Shen’s locally famous song ‘Meri Lewa’ video clip was filmed here. Butaweng cascades into large blue-green pools which sparkle in the tropical sunshine. The sound of Butaweng at night is like rain, a perfect sleep soundtrack.
The last of the cascading affairs before Butaweng River meets Mape River
Mape River differs from Butaweng, it is wide, deep, green and moody and silent with only the slightest hint of the current underneath which flows out to the sea.It is tropical hot out here, and thunderstorms often surprise us in the middle of the day. What better way to cool off than in Butaweng, with a kulau for the thirst later on.
The first missionary who provided medical care in Finschafen was a male nurse Johann Stoessel who worked amongst the people from 1911 to 1922.
The Butaweng Hospital, as if was formerly named was opened in 1958 by the then Territories Minister of Australia.
It was initially a chest hospital from 1958 to 1974. All of its existing 6 wards in the past housed only chest patients including those with Tuberculosis. From 1974 to 1997, it served as a general hospital. Since 1997, it has assumed the name Braun Memorial Rural Hospital in honor of Dr. Braun the first doctor at Butaweng.
Dr. Braun served in Finschafen and Madang and totaled 42 years in the country before retiring in 1972. His colorful career in PNG even saw him being captured by the Japanese as a POW with his wife a nurse and mistreated for weeks in 1943.
For a more detailed history, click here http://braunmemorialhospitaltest.blogspot.com/p/detailed-history.html?m=1
Today BMRH it is a general rural hospital, with 6 wards catering for TB, Internal Medicine, Surgery, Paediatric, and Obstetric and Gynaecology Units.
Other services also provided includes doctors consultation clinics, child and maternal clinics, STI and HIV clinic, TB clinic, dental services and eye clinics. A physiotherapist also conducts services. There are currently three doctors stationed here, two national and one international doctor. There is one HEO and nursing and support staff. Ultrasound, X-rays, and laboratory services are also available.
Over the Christmas and New Year periods, people came in throngs to swim in Butaweng. Annoyingly, despite a sign that says: NOKEN TROMOI PIPIA LONG WARA, people still do. Recently, our team of visiting resident doctors did a clean up, removing food and soap wrappers, used disposable diapers and empty plastic bags. For now it is clean – and I am at peace.
The main swimming area at Butaweng
You drive past Butaweng and the roads branches further on to the hinterlands of Finschafen and onwards to Sialum in Tewae-Siassi. The road also eventually crosses the Mape Bridge and then ends at the Maneba wharf where all good things come from, including cake mix.
Life is difficult for people out here. There are very little economic activities. Some blame the roads and how the district is totally cut off from Lae, and only accessible by boat. The price of fuel for the outboard motor is quite high and there are very low returns if cash crops were to be actively farmed.
Everything has a laid back pace out here. It is after all the ‘bush’. Every now and then there is a big thing, like the Braun CHW Training College Graduation in early March, where a singsing group travelled all the way from Pindiu to perform.
As I have said, I wondered and I am still wondering why people have not thought of tourism. Is it because of petty crimes? Phone snatchings? Harassment? We will never know. We have had our fair share of bad days, but all communities have their fair share of hooligans and petty criminals. All I know is this place can be great again.
For nationals who like to travel, as a good geologist friend of mine did over the Christmas period last year, here are some helpful hints:
* here are guest houses in Gagidu, two to be exact
* You can hitch a ride on the trucks that travel the karanas roads.
* You can spin yarns with the locals and ask them to tell stories of life out here,
* You can chew some kavivi, but turns out Buai has come back to Finschafen. 😁
* You can go swimming in one of Butaweng Rivers’s crystal clear pools,
* You can borrow villagers canoes and go paddling in villages surrounding Butaweng, as I’ve learnt from visiting resident doctors
* You can take a million instagrammable photos
* And most importantly, you get to grab a break from city life.
Trust me it goes a long way in pumping money into a small outback town that is almost dying with so many economic setbacks. Then you can go back to your life and tell stories of what an amazing place Finschafen is and how it really is sweet.
If you are ever coming, hop on a boat at Voco Point, it is just three hours and a hundred bucks.
Meanwhile, I am expecting a group of soon to be university graduates next week. Apparently they heard of Finschafen and want to see it. Since they have still to land jobs, I told them not to worry about meals, but maybe they need to bring a bit of extra cash to buy those Finschafen Bilums or cow hide cowboy hats from Sialum to take back as souvenirs.