Call Your Closest Clinic, Australia-Wide
Call Your Closest Clinic, Australia-Wide

Waterways at the Centre of the Earth – From Panama to Darien

TMA Member Goondiwindi : Dr Rowena Sheppard

The 77 kilometre long engineering feat known as the Panama Canal, is truly awe inspiring - a testimony to foresight and imagination, and to man's ability to literally move mountains and to overcome the diverse obstacles of politics, finance, weather, landslides and tropical disease. The story of the canal, is also the story of yellow fever to which over 22,000 canal workers succumbed. Through the astute observations and efforts by Dr William Gorgas our first understanding of mosquitoes as a vector of diseases came into being. Even today Yellow Fever has case fatality rates of up to 50% in some parts of the world, but the canal itself has been declared Yellow Fever free.

It is astounding to see a 50,000 tonne steel ship rise above you as water fills the lock ahead, to watch the sun rise over the Caribbean and set over the Pacific. A maze of quaint "mechanical mules" haul the ships along through the locks, keeping them within feet of the sides, co-ordinated by a thousand eyes and voices, mingling with the groan of metal and the sounds of the jungle just beyond. A bustling and booming Panama city abuts the western verge of the canal.


Less than 400 km South of the highly trafficked Panama canal, lies one of the worlds most inaccessible waterways, in the hot humid, and heavily forested Darien jungle, a travellers journey backwards in time, in dugout canoes, into the sparsely villaged homelands of the Embera Indians.

Panama's legendary Darien jungle and the 50 km wide delta of the Atrato river has defeated the Pan-American Highway and numerous attempts to tame and "civilize" its pristine wilds. This has largely protected the natural and cultural heritage in the area.

The Darien jungle has never taken kindly to drop-ins. In 1699, 900 Scottish settlers rushed headlong into the jungle. Indians or malaria killed most within months. In 1854, an American expedition began hacking through the tangle of deadly snakes and Gordian roots in search of a canal route. They wound up lost and so hungry they ate their dead. The Darien province can still play host to malaria and yellow fever, though the incidences are now much lower than that faced by our forebears.

Given this history, it is perhaps unsurprising that fewer than 700 DEET soaked tourists visit Darien province's rain forests each year, bringing meager income to the locals. One is statistically more likely to meet a mercenary, narcotic trafficker or a logger than a camera toting tourist, but I was fortunate to be in the latter group and to be introduced to its gentle and still naïve peoples. Let us hope the eco-tourists prevail to help preserve this "soul" of Panama.

... Prepared by Dr Rowena Sheppard, Goondiwindi TMA

Goondiwindi TMA Clinic

Cressy Clinic is a truly country practice, situated 5 km out of Goondiwindi, across a couple of grids, and often with a few roos outside in the paddock!

Dr Rowena Sheppard has been a general practitioner in Goondiwindi for 23 years, with one of her many hats being the ability to provide accessible travel related medical services to the local community.