Sweet, beautiful, historic Finschhafen
07 April 2021
| Sipikriva Girl
FINSCHHAFEN - I always considered doing rural medicine after 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 theatre that smelt of time and old medicine, I seriously pondered the idea. I was twenty-one.
Fast forward to residency, I looked at obstetrics and gynecology and emergency medicine, and weighed the possibilities of going down either pathway.
However, a good friend sold me the idea of Etep Rural hospital in the 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 was no doctor. I also needed a getaway.
When I was almost done with my residency at Angau Memorial Hospital, on an off day I visited the Lutheran Health Services Office in Lae.
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 that, I got two job offers – as an emergency medicine registrar position at Nonga Base Hospital in Rabaul and in a rural medicine position at one of the two Lutheran Hospitals in Morobe.
I changed my mind on Etep Rural Hospital, which seemed too far from everything, and asked the HR officer if I could just go to Braun Hospital in Finscjhafen.
Today I live in Finschjafen, and I love it. I love the laid back pace of the outback and the absence of the hustle in larger centres.
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 during the day, and on call at other times.
I question myself 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.
Finscjhafen holds so much history not known by many people today.
It was the German New Guinea Company’s first attempt at colonising New Guinea – but the original settlement is non–existent today.
The main settlement still is Gagidu station, 3km from Buki wharf and 30km from Maneba wharf. Toward the end of World War II, the station served as a staging post for United States troops.
At the end of the war, aircraft and other equipment deemed useless were bulldozed into a large hole in Dregerhafen, which is 4km south of Gagidu station.
Dregerhafen occupies a peninsula, Cape Cretin, which juts out into the Vitiaz Strait. The harbour is formed by a number of islands which have barrier reefs in between.
The late Sir Michael Somare completed some of his education at Dregerhafen Secondary School (called Dregerhafen Education Centre before independence).
Gagidu station is three hours on a banana boat from Lae’s Voco Point. On the trip, the entire coastline takes your breath away. The sea off Bukawa is green, moody and still in certain places. And the forest encroaches upon the water.
Parts of the coastline are made up of black and white pebbled beaches. Villages are far apart and, as you pass by, fishermen and villagers wave excitedly at the sight of travellers.
Finally you disembark at a small beach, boats lining the waterfront. From the boat stop, it’s a three minute car ride to Gagidu station. The road is unpaved but very smooth white karanas.
At the station, there’s a small market, three large shops, police station, primary school, courthouse, jail and the Works Department, PNG Water and PNG Power. The secondary school lies just beyond the town centre. Government workers live in old, colonial style houses lining the seafront.
I live in Butaweng, a small community 10 minutes away by car. The 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 and the canteens are quite pricy. The local market sells greens, fruit and nuts from Monday to Saturday.
Butaweng community life revolves around the Butaweng and Mape rivers. Butaweng River is a cascading series of falls. My house is next to the final wara kalap.
The singer O-shen, a Hawai’i-based reggae musician raised in PNG and who sings most of his songs in Tok Pisin, often describes it in social media posts. His video clip of his famous song ‘Meri Lewa’ was filmed here.
The Butaweng River 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 Mape River is wide, deep, moody and silent with only the slightest hint of a current underneath which flows 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.
Butaweng Hospital was a chest hospital from 1958-74 and its six wards housed only chest patients including those with tuberculosis.
From 1974-97, it served as a general hospital and, since 1997, 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 for 42 years before retiring in 1972. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese along with his wife, a nurse, in 1943 and they were badly mistreated.
Today Butaweng is a general rural hospital, its six wards catering for TB, internal medicine, surgery, paediatric, and obstetric and gynaecology units.
Other services include doctors’ consultation clinics, child and maternal clinics, an STI and HIV clinic, a TB clinic, dental services and eye clinics. There is also a physiotherapist.
There are currently three doctors here, two national and one international. There is also a health education officer and nursing and support staff. Ultrasound, X-rays, and laboratory services are also available.
Over Christmas and New Year periods, people come in throngs to Butaweng. Annoyingly, despite a sign that says ‘NOKEN TROMOI PIPIA LONG WARA’ [Don’t throw rubbish in the river], people still do. Recently, a team of doctors did a clean-up, removing food and soap wrappers, used diapers and empty plastic bags. For now it is clean – and I am at peace.
You drive past Butaweng and the roads branch out to the hinterland of Finschhafen 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 is very little economic activity. Some blame the roads and how the district is cut off from Lae, only accessible by boat. The price of fuel for outboard motors is quite high and there would be 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 training college graduations, where a singsing group travels all the way from Pindiu to perform.
As I said, I am still wondering why people have not thought of tourism. Is it because of petty crime? Phone snatching? 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:
* There are two guest houses in Gagidu
* 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 buai has come back to Finschafen
* You can go swimming in one of the Butaweng River’s crystal clear pools
* You can borrow canoes and go paddling around the villages surrounding Butaweng
* You can take a million instagrammable photos
* And most importantly, you get to grab a break from city life
Trust me, this will pump 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 Finschhafen 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 K100.
Meanwhile, I am expecting a group of soon to be university graduates. Apparently they heard of Finschhafen and want to see it.
Since they have still to find jobs, I told them not to worry about meals, but maybe they need to bring a bit of extra cash to buy those Finschhafen bilums or cowhide cowboy hats from Sialum to take back as souvenirs.
Hi Hazel, as a former kiap stationed at both Sialum and Finschhafen, I agree with your views about how beautiful the region is.
Did you know that those lovely clear blue swimming pools at Butaweng were reputedly made by the American soldiers letting off unexploded ordinance towards the end of the war?
I shared some of my experiences of where you live in my small book that can be downloaded from this website.
Please write more about how the place is now. There are many others like me who served there who would love to go back and meet the people and see where they used to live.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 07 April 2021 at 08:37 AM