Rabaul is a place that has been on my bucket list for years. Mainly because of the volcanic activity, but also because it’s in Papua New Guinea and because of where in the world it is. To me Rabaul is one of the ultimate exotic locations you can go to! The harbour is spectacular!
Rabaul was planned and built by the Germans in the late 1800’s until it was taken over by the British in e early days of WW I. Subsequently Rabaul became the capital of the Australian mandated Territory of New Guinea until 1937, when it was almost destroyed by a volcanic eruption (Tavurvur and Vulcan exploded simultaneously. More about volcanoes later). During WW II, it was captured by the Japanese and was was the main base for their military and naval activity in the South Pacific. After WW II, Rabaul grew as the principal city and important trading port of New Britain and the surrounding islands.
There are four active and three extinct volcanoes surrounding Rabaul – Tavurvur, Vulcan, Vulcan Island and Rabalanakaia (all active as of 2017) and Kombiu, Turanguna and Tovanumbatir (extinct). Simpson harbour was quite possibly formed by a huge explosion in either 535 or 636 AD, the ramifications of which could be felt in Europe. Rabaul sits right on the ‘Ring of Fire’ which extends all the way around the pacific and is a hot spot for volcanic activity. Beneath the harbour lies a huge magma chamber that connects all the volcanoes. It’s said that when Tavurvur erupts, so does Vulcan.
The first big eruption that rocked Rabaul was in May 1937, when both Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted at the same time. 507 people were killed and there was extensive damage to the town. During this eruption, Vulcan Island was lifted by about 2 metres.
The eruption that destroyed old Rabaul came in September 1994. Again, both Tavurvur and Vulcan went off, in a huge way. The ash kept falling until December 1994, and covered almost all of the old town of Rabaul in 4-6 metres of ash. Most of the buildings collapsed under the weight of the ash on their roofs. Surprisingly, unlike the 1937 eruption, although this eruption all but wiped out the town, only 5 people died. After this eruption, the town was rebuilt, further to the west and the original town area was abandoned.
Being the volcano nut I am (I once made Rosario drive me up to Etna 5 nights in a row to watch the lava!) there was only one choice of activity in Rabaul – the volcano tour! On the way in I was amazed by the beauty of Tavurvur and couldn’t wait to have the chance to see it up close!
As our tour was later on in the day, I spent the morning looking at the stalls just in front of the port. As I’ve said in my previous posts (OMG!! I’m in PNG! Part one, two, three and four) the people of PNG are very friendly, they want to know your name and they tell you theirs. I met many people and due to the influence of missionaries that came to Papua New Guinea and brought their religion to the people in the 1840’s you find that most people have biblical names. One person I met was a man called Eli, who was a taxi driver. I organised with him that Rosario and I would take a trip around town when Rosario came down in about an hour (I didn’t actually think he would be there later on, but he was). I walked down one side of the street and then the other (Today was our last port in PNG – I hadn’t actually bought anything yet!) looking for that special something to take home. Halfway down the street it jumped right out at me – a beautiful wood carving of birds of paradise holding a heart. This was one of a kind – I hadn’t seen anything like it in any of the other stalls! I bought it straight away.
Walking around with my rather large carving, and it being hot and sticky, I went back onto the ship. I love the heat but the humidity can really get to you. Not long after I got back Rosario was finished work and ready to go and experience Rabaul. Already in the morning I had seen the large pile of copra (semi dried coconut husks) in the shed at the port (It has a one of a kind smell – not unpleasant but you smell it long before you see it) so of course I showed Rosario – we weren’t actually sure what it was, but it looked and smelled interesting!
We had a ship’s tour booked, but we had about an hour before that and we like to see the local story – the tour for sure would show us the sights and the best of Rabaul, but we always like to see where and what the locals do. As we walked out of the port Eli, who I had met before was right there. He took us to his van, we agreed a price ($10 US each) and off we went. He told us a lot about the area, and the rebuilding of Rabaul after the 1994 eruption. A lot of the businesses had moved to Kokopo, a town about 10 km to the south east. In the years since the eruption, Kokopo has become the economic centre for the area. He took us to the old centre of town of which only a couple of walls remain – it’s mostly a wasteland now. Eli was really informative – he told us about the elections coming up and all about the life in Rabaul. Rosario asked about the nightlife and we were told that there once was, but the locals were not happy, so now for the disco or a nightclub, Kokopo is the place. I asked Eli about a community I had seen a 60 Minutes report about a couple of years ago that was very close to the volcano that the government wanted to people to move from. I was thrilled to learn that was where he lived! It’s the town of Matupit. I asked him all about it. Apparently they were only offered some building materials to make new houses somewhere else and that was it – now I understand why they stayed.
Our final destination with Eli before the ship was up to the volcanic observatory. On the way up there are lots of tunnels that the Japanese dug, stored things in and lived in during WW II. It’s estimated there are about 500km worth of tunnels around Rabaul – all dug and built by the Japanese! There are so many on this road that there is absolutely no way you can miss seeing them. Once up the top of the mountain behind Rabaul, the view of the harbour is one of the most beautiful sights I had ever come across. Time was of the essence now and we would come back here later with the ship’s tour, so we jumped out and took a few photos before heading back to the ship. If you ever go to Rabaul, wether on a tour or not, your trip is not complete until you have seen this view!
We said our good byes to Eli and went back to the ship, ready for our Volcano tour! This tour would take us through the ash covered old Rabaul, over the old airport, to see a Japanese plane wreck, the hot springs near Mt Tavurvur, Mapiuto, to a coconut oil factory and finally to the volcanic observatory. We were going to see a lot! First off we drove through old Rabaul which as I said previously is just a wasteland now. There are remnants of the town (like the wall of the bank) and you can make out where the streets used to be. Most of the buildings collapsed under the weight of the ash from the 1994 eruption (which lasted for 4 months!) however there are a few structures that remain. We continued on over the airport (Of which there is absolutely nothing left) and headed toward our first destination – the Japanese plain wreck.
This was a Japanese plane left behind after WW II. I’m not one hundred per cent sure why it is so significant (There are many wrecks of planes around Rabaul and also underwater) but it was interesting. During the war, Rabaul was a strategic base for the Japanese, allowing them to reach many other parts of the Pacific. The locals had some stalls and one family had the most beautiful parrot!
Back in the bus and on to the next destination – the hot springs under Mount Tavurvur. I’ve been close to many volcanoes on my travels, and know basically what to expect but every time the desolate landscape and the black sand is impressive! It’s said of these hot springs that if you bring a fish down here you can cook it in these springs (Had I known before I would have bought one with me!). The water comes straight out of the ground at an well over boiling point and travels down and out into the harbour. Apparently that area of the harbour under water is as desolate as above – due to the hot water, nothing grows or lives there and it’s too hot to go swimming. I was completely fascinated by the bright orange sulphur that surrounds the hot river.
This is one place I could have stayed all day! With many more stops to go on our tour we had to get moving though. The view of the volcano was spectacular! I can’t put into words how amazing the landscape actually is. The toilets I think must be the most scenic in the world. Looking at the outside though, I wasn’t game to go in!
The next stop was the village of Matupit. Originally it was an island in Simpson harbour, but an eruption joined it to the peninsula and in WW II it was a execution site for the allied forces (30 men were executed here. Some were beheaded, and some had gunshot wounds. Their bodies were exhumed in 1950). Today it’s the closest town to Mt Tavurvur (This is the town where Eli, our taxi driver from earlier lives) and the government would really like them to move due to possible future eruptions and health concerns.
The scenery once again is beautiful. Actually, everywhere I’ve been so far today has amazing views of the volcanoes and harbour! There we saw a traditional cooking demonstration (They were cooking vegetables) with hot rocks. The banana leaves were laid out over a small hole in the ground and the rocks were placed on them. Ladled into that hole was some sort of coconut milk thus creating a boiling/ steam situation on top of which the vegetables are placed. The banana leaves are folded over and it’s left to cook.
As with the rest of the area around Rabaul, there were Japanese tunnels. The difference in Matupit is that you can actually go in one! Of course I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity! The tunnel was pretty small, about 1 metre wide and less than 2 metres high. Of course it’s dark in there too. I followed the person in front and in I went. I found out when I was too far in that a couple of spiders also call the tunnels home – let’s just say I was happy to get out of there! After seeing the ‘Rat Hole’ as they call it, I really wonder how they managed to live in these during the war.
Once again we returned to the bus and took a trip back over the airport and through the old town, past the port and the new town to our next stop, the coconut oil factory. Here they explained how they make the oil from the coconuts, what you can do with it (the amount of uses is truly astounding – this is the original wonder oil! It’s the answer to almost everything!) and their plans for expanding an already thriving business. We each were given a small bottle to take home. Interestingly, and they told us this at the factory, that in the hot weather the coconut oil is very liquid and clear; however when the weather becomes cooler the consistency changes and it becomes white and more solid (Coconut oil is just like me – in the cold weather I become white and more solid too!). After the talk they took us through the factory, and they had fresh coconuts of we wanted them (We had one and a half each!)
We boarded the bus again to go to the final destination on the tour – the Volcanological Observatory, that was founded in the 1950’s to monitor the volcanoes and earthquakes around the Rabaul Caldera (aka Simpson Harbour) and other volcanoes on surrounding islands. It has one of the worlds’ most amazing views! From there you can see all of Simpson Harbour, Rabaul and the surrounding volcanoes.
Inside the observatory, one of the resident volcanologists gave us a talk about how they monitor the activity. They have seismic activity recorders on the volcanoes and at various strategic points that allow them to monitor the movement of the ground. Generally, before an eruption the earthquakes get more frequent and larger. They had photos and videos from the eruptions in 1994 and the most recent eruption of Mount Tavurvur in 2014. Everything is computerised today, but they have kept the previous pieces of equipment that they used to monitor the volcanoes since the observatory was established. It was truly amazing!
This was the last stop on our tour, and we had to start to return to the ship. On the way down from the observatory, our guide gave us an explanation of the famous betel nut. Where in Australia we have a coffee to get us through the day, the people of PNG choose to have a betel nut with lime powder and a mustard bean. I’d seen a lot of people with bright red mouths, and in the previous ports (Alotau, Doini Island and Kiriwina) in the markets there was betel nuts, mustard and lime powder everywhere for sale. Some people also had some pretty interesting dental situations (I originally thought it was just normal wear and tear and never visiting a dentist) and I was about to find out why. It wasn’t due to lack of dentists.
First you take your betel nut, crack it open and put the soft part in your mouth and chew it like gum until it becomes a squishy wad in your mouth. Don’t forget and swallow or you will most likely get a stomach ache. Then, you take the mustard bean, bite it and then dip it into the lime powder (In the other ports I was really confused as to why everyone had these little jars of white powder with them – now I know) and here comes the tricky bit: you need to put the mustard bean in your mouth, and bite a piece off directly into the wad of the betel nut. If you miss and get the lime either on your teeth or flesh you will feel a burning sensation and ultimately, if this happens repeatedly, your flesh and teeth will be eaten away by the lime (this is the same lime that is used to dispose of bodies after natural disasters – It’s seriously toxic stuff!) If you do it right and hit the betel nut wad with the lime you achieve a high (its been likened to drinking a few strong coffees one after the other) your mouth and the betel nut turns bright red and you produce more saliva. So, as this is something you don’t actually swallow, you spit. You keep repeating this until you have no mustard bean or betel nut left. I was interested in this and I was asking lots of questions about the taste, when do you do it etc…. The tour guide asked if I wanted to try (I thought she might have had a spare betel nut – I certainly wasn’t going to put lime powder in my mouth) and then invited me to a betel nut party with her and her friends! I politely declined, but it was nice to be invited.
I was totally right about putting PNG on the bucket list. It is one of the most interesting places I’ve been to (it’s said that they have some amazing, one of a kind snorkelling and diving, but I was too busy learning about the people and the culture) and although it is classified as part of Melanesia (an area of the pacific that also encompasses the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji) it has a totally different, one of a kind vibe. I hope very much that one day I go back there again and experience more of this amazing corner of our planet.
I hope you enjoyed my PNG series as much as I did writing it 🙂
Until next time on another Island in the Pacific,