In the land of crocodiles: a photo essay

by The Listener / 09 June, 2013
A journey to Papua New Guinea's remote Western Province with writer Catherine Woulfe and photographer Hugh Rutherford.
Read the companion story in this week's Listener: The return of the crocodile hunter. Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content

Photos by Hugh Rutherford. Captions by Catherine Woulfe.

In April, Catherine Woulfe travelled to the tiny island of Daru with a surgical eye-care team from the Fred Hollows Foundation. Daru is the capital of Papua New Guinea’s Western Province. It has a population of roughly 25,000.

Most of Daru’s people live in crowded shacks built on stilts. But hundreds are stuck in slums at the waterfront, where the sea acts as toilet, bath, laundry, pantry…

…and playground.

The mainland is 3.5km from Daru but fuel for dinghies costs up to NZ$10 per litre. Many people use dugout canoes instead.

The team pays armed policemen to accompany them on visits to villages.

At the village of Old Mawata, “dinosaur” bones dug up from the beach are stacked up next to a water tank. The skull was apparently shaped like a crocodile’s, while the flipper bones were like the rudder of a boat. Each vertebra is the size of a footstool.

At Old Mawata the crayfish are free and plentiful. The people are excellent gardeners, and they eat well.

Back in Daru fish is bought at muddy markets.

Daru’s hospital is the pinnacle of the province’s health service, but has no staff trained in eye care.

New acting CEO Sister Joseph Taylor says the hospital was “incredibly rundown” when she took over in November. Locals say she’s quickly pulling the place into line.

People flocked in from surrounding villages when they heard the team was in Daru. Some travelled for days, slept in the slums, and waited patiently outside the clinic in 30 degree heat.

Over the week the two surgeons and three theatre nurses, who had all trained at the Foundation’s PNG base in Nadang, operate on 76 people.

Most patients are elderly men, and most have cataracts. It’s thought many women had to stay home to care for children.

19 year-old Maria presents with a fig-size cyst on her left eye. Before the operation she is cowed and quiet, and keeps her left side to the wall.

The day after her operation, Maria sees what she looks like without the cyst.

It hurt her to smile, but she couldn’t help it.

Maria’s been home for the night and come back for a check-up. She is a different person: loud and tall and laughing. She says that as she walked home, people ran out from their houses and crowded around her, amazed at the change.

Sister Joseph says thanks to game-changing elections last year, Daru’s children will inherit a healthier, happier island.

Read the companion story in this week's Listener: The return of the crocodile hunter. Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
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