Return to New Ireland: Leen van Lien

In 1963 I qualified as a health inspector but did not get a job until a year later with the NSW Government. As a newly appointed officer I had to go through an office bound “learning the ropes” period which was boring.

In 1965 a colleague referred an advertisement to me calling for health inspectors in PNG. A couple of weeks later my wife and I, with a little  book on Pidgin in my pocket,  were on our way as I had scored the job in New Ireland on secondment for two years. After brief stop-overs in Port Moresby and Rabaul we arrived in Kavieng. The first sight on the airport was a fairly complete Japanese Zero plane which I believe finished up in the good old U.S of A.

It wasn’t too difficult to get to like New Ireland and its inhabitants. It was a quiet place with little traffic. As far as the job was concerned there were big challenges for a person recently qualified in environmental and public health. I did not attend the ASOPA orientation course as they were in a hurry to get me on the job.  My assistant and crew were willing (most of the time) and the villagers pleasant and cooperative, after some motivation, to get involved in village projects. The town residents were an interesting lot and I could tell many a juicy tale but I won’t. In any case they were nice people and easy to get on with (most of the time). I did however get into trouble with the bureaucracy from time to time. All-in-all Kavieng was a nice place where one could walk about in safety.

I went on many health patrols and also attended many council meetings usually without conflict. and sometimes with good results. We dealt with waste disposal, water supplies, village hygiene and of course diseases. Malaria was a big problem but we did have an effective mosquito control programme. Unfortunately DDT was found to be an environmental chemical hazard and was abandoned a few years later severely limiting the mosquito control methods.

I was never sorry for the decision to have accepted the job in Kavieng as it was the most rewarding and challenging job I ever had. I liked it that much that I actually went back in 1969 for another two years in Daru and Bougainville but that is another story.

When Heron Airlines recently put on an air tour of PNG it included a one day stop-over (two nights) in Kavieng we jumped at the chance to join. The whirlwind tour took in quite a few places and it was interesting to see the situation after some 40 years’ absence. This fantastic country offers beautiful scenery with a wealth of unusual things and uniquely interesting people. Unfortunately there are some difficult and disturbing issues which do affect its standard of health care and tourism and that is a shame.

The brief visit to Kavieng was a huge success and I think the highlight of the tour. But then to be fair I am biased. The first impression wasn’t much different from our first visit all those years ago. The place was quiet, little traffic and compared with the other towns we visited quite the cleanest. It also felt perfectly safe. The 60 km of road that we travelled on was good. Due to unforeseen circumstances the tour arrangements for the visit had somewhat fallen apart. The people however were friendly and eager to be helpful, and an interesting day was organised. The accommodation was good with good meals provided.

New Ireland is in fact quite an interesting place which offers great diving and fishing but it has also an amazing history which includes cannibalism, blackbirding, missionaries and the colourful Baron Boluminsky who worked for the administrat1on during the German period. This was followed by the Australian period from 1918, then the WW2 Japanese occupation, the subsequent return to the Australians in 1945 and finally Independence in 1975.

There were two Australian WW1 soldiers who were stationed on New Ireland and died due to accidents shortly after the end of WW1. They are buried right next to the German Baron. Kavieng has quite a few reminders of the Pacific war with wrecks and remains of structures which once were parts of water supply systems, underground power generators and a Japanese naval gun.

There was even a more recent plane “parked” in the middle of town, a Cessna “Skymaster” 337 with a faded American registration number.

Anyway, check the Internet and Lonely Planet for more complete information.

Unfortunately there are serious health problems with diseases such as malaria, TB and HIV aids. New Ireland is the subject of an “Australian Doctors International” Project. They provide a number of doctors who donate their time for no pay and spend some months at the Kavieng Hospital and on patrol. In return they get to deal with diseases and adverse conditions they would not normally encounter. Total population of the New Ireland District is in excess of 165 000. There are aid-posts and there is a Catholic Mission at Lemakot some 60 km from Kavieng. At short notice a visit was arranged to Lemakot Health Centre which provides health services to some 20 000 people.

During WW 2 and into 1960s the Mission also ran a leper colony which was situated on the water front where all the passing ships could be observed. The Mother Superior told me that for the first part of the war the Japanese left the colony alone as they were not keen to get too close to the lepers. At one stage they must have decided that it was a risk that the shipping movements could be reported to the enemy. A warning from a friendly source was received at the mission that the Japanese were going to move the colony to another location, virtually as POWs. The friendly source also had a plan that involved evacuating the nuns by an American PT boat whilst the lepers were going to be collected by their relatives and taken back to their respective villages. The event went as planned and when the Japanese arrived to move the lot they found an empty camp.

Anyway back to the diseases. The doctors can treat the diseases but that must be followed up by public health action and this requires trained local people which must be rewarded. There is obviously inadequate funding. “Australian Doctors International” depends entirely on donations which can be made to support a particular project e.g. New Ireland. The postal address is PO Box 954, Manly NSW 1655.

The visit to the Lemakot Health Centre was a big success as it demonstrated the problems with providing health care in PNG. Matron received only 5000 kina (approx. $2500) per month to run the place. Power was only available 2 hours per day. The old treadle sewing machine used to do all the sewing repairs was of no use as the old leather belt had broken. A replacement was not available. The good news is that I found a new belt in Sydney and it should have been fitted by now. After the inspection tour members donated spontaneously a considerable amount of money which was gratefully received.

As I mentioned previously New Ireland is known as an attraction for divers and fishing. Many other interesting aspects, including a better understanding of health care problems, are not on the general tour itineraries.  Best of all it is in a friendly and safe environment, provided you take your malaria pills. The area has an interesting past, but I would like it to have a healthier and a more prosperous future. So here is a hint for tour operators and generous people: “Give New Ireland a go”.


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