Monday, May 24, 2010

Hot prices

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Just before I left Australia, I dashed around in search of a couple of polo shirts. I wanted good quality cotton ones that would hold their shape, with a breast pocket (I need somewhere to put my 11 year old phone so I can entertain myself when I bend over by seeing it slide out and bounce on concrete).

Prices were in the $20-$50 range but there wasn’t a decent polo shirt to be had in my XXL size.

Pottering around a store in Port Moresby the other day I also failed to find a polo shirt I liked. I did notice, though, that the stock looked very similar to what I has been looking at in Australia. Both came from the same place, China.

I also noticed the pricing. The figures looked much like the Australian figures, 20-45, but the prices were in kina, the Papua New Guinea dollar, so they were K20-K45.

Now let me translate that into Australian dollars for you. The current rate of exchange is about K2.50 = $1.00, so K20 is the same as $8 and K45 is the same as $18.

If the Papua New Guinea prices can be taken as a guide to what the prices of these goods in Australia could be, then someone is making a killing between the Chinese factory and the Australian consumer.

Looks like Australian consumers are being ripped off, doesn’t it?

Let’s also look at products locally grown in both places.

The excellent rump steak I bought in a Port Moresby supermarket the other day was K25/kg, that’s $10/kg, a price you haven’t seen in Australia for a long time. The top Continental Hot Dogs were K11.55/kg, $4.62/kg.

Bear in mind that these are premium products. Also bear in mind that the rump steak is not from some old cow grazing in a Port Moresby backyard. It comes from distant parts of Papua New Guinea so there are serious costs involved, including transport, before it hits Port Moresby’s cool counters.

Why is meat so much more expensive in Australia? One reason is that it is feedlot -- fed on grain -- an inherently expensive process. It is also poked full of hormones and antibiotics (which ought to be banned) at great expense. The Papua New Guinea cattle are grass-fed, which is inherently cheaper if you have lots of grass. Who wants grain-fed beef anyway? I repeat -- this beef beats anything I have had in Australia for tenderness and flavour for as long as I can remember.

I was asking my local butcher about grass-fed beef just before I left Australia. He told me he simply couldn’t get it -- there was a demand for it but little of it about. As a result, it had become a premium item with the concomitant inflated price!

Australia, do you get the feeling that you are being ripped off -- again?


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I break out!

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

15 May 2010

Last night I broke out of the prison of Port Moresby and the bonds the Australian High Commission and Australian Volunteers International have woven around me.

They have been telling me since before I arrived back in Papua New Guinea how important my “personal security” is. They are quite sure I am safest when in the city. Well, certain parts of the city. And at certain hours. I’ve been chafing at these bonds.

The chance to slip them for a night was too much of an opportunity to miss.

So it was that in tropical darkness at half-past-nine last night, my mate Lavui and I and a bunch of fellow Papuan desperadoes (a measure of our desperateness -- one was a girl aged only 12, but she had to escape too), boarded a Toyota Landcruiser ute to slip out of town for what amounted to a cannonball run to Lavui’s home village and back -- in darkness all the way.

We thought we might be in trouble before we had even got started when we were stopped at a police road block at 6 Mile, but they cleared us to go on. Routine license check, it turned out.

A few minutes later we were speeding east along the Magi Highway, the bar tread tyres howling on the bitumen, escaping towards tomorrow’s sunrise.

Free at last!

Free to drive and talk and share food and a tinny and a bottle of water. Free to chew betelnut and laugh and bounce over potholes. Free to joke, share intimacies and save the world.

Most of all, free to take a small risk and to be ready to rely on our own resources, friends and rat cunning if we ran into trouble, which might range from getting bogged on an untrafficked bush track in the middle of the night to encountering modern highway men.

As an Australian Volunteer, I have been warned against taking these clearly horrendous risks. I can only say thank God (or The Force or the rock in the back garden if you prefer) that today’s Papua New Guineans and their and our forefathers, and before them, the English, were a bit more open to a spot of risk than your average Australian abroad is these days.

If Papua New Guineans were as wimpy as today’s Australians this whole country would grind to a halt. If our forefathers, even the generation of Australians of which I am part, had been as wimpy as the current lot, none of us would exist, let alone live in Australia.

Or Papua New Guinea. Quite apart from the fact that there was the occasional hold-up on this very road back in the 1970s when it was a washboard corrugated dirt strip and I drove it in my VW Kombi half-cab, I’ve recently been reading a history of Tamate, the Rev. James Chambers, a London Missionary Society man who was one of the leading lights in bringing Christianity to this lovely land in the late 1800s.

After a life of incredible risk and adventure, even by the standards of the time, he was killed and eaten by the Goaribari people of the Gulf province. His fellows in a mission vessel escaped the Goaribari canoes due to caution on the part of their captain and a chance fair wind.

That happened not much more than 100 years ago today, and a touch over 60 years before I made my first acquaintance with a Goaribari man, who was an announcer at a radio station I was managing at Kerema in the Gulf. There could have been people still alive then who had had a slice of Tamate.

I’m told to avoid large gatherings of Papua New Guineans because something (like the assassination of the Emperor Franz Josef, perhaps?) might result in stuff going pear-shaped.

Yet this is a country where Australians are generally highly regarded and 99 percent of the population offer a smiling greeting on first acquaintance. Sure you might get the occasional troublesome drunk (try Paddy’s Bar any time after 9pm on Fridays) but if a jocular word doesn’t carry the day, the highly efficient bouncers will. Or you might run into someone with a genuine grievance, but concern and sympathy will carry you through.

Or if you get out of town, even in the outer suburbs, you might run into modern highwaymen. As we pounded down the highway last night, I recalled the opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities where the coach is struggling through foggy darkness up the muddy Shooters Hill, the armed guard alert to the danger of highwaymen who might attack at any second.

The story is fiction but the setting was reality. Nevertheless, life went on. Economic and social development took place, and Shooters’ Hill, now a hardly noticeable incline in south London, is infested with boutiques instead of highwaymen (it is probably a moot question which is worse).

Such, one hopes, will be the case with the Magi Highway in the not too distant future (preferably without the boutiques). In the meantime, life goes on, there is the occasional hold up, but car, truck and bus traffic pounds along the highway day (mostly) and night.

“So what do we do if the highway is blockaded by rascals?” I asked (all street criminals are called rascals here because the term has been adopted into Tok Pisin as "raskol").

“We slam on the brakes and chuck a bonnie,” replied Lavui. (This is a family euphemism for making a U-turn or U-ee, which Lavui adopted with glee after I accidentally came out with it when we were driving together. My daughter’s Year 7 Japanese teacher was named Bonnie Yue, so we adopted her first name to represent the sound of the second name, which in turn sounded like a U-turn).

Then what? Maybe head back to Moresby, maybe just wait a while for the bandits to get bored and go home. Or maybe wait until a big truck came along which would smash though the barricade, then follow it through.

No histrionics were required, and in truth, Lavui has never required them on this run, which he makes often enough if not exactly frequently.

We weren’t really desperadoes, of course, we were on a Mission of Mourning on this night, taking Lavui’s Uncle Male and a big bunch of food to his and Lavui’s home village ready for the feast he would make today to mark the end of a year after his wife’s passing.

The others in the back were a sundry mixture of younger brothers, nieces and nephews and a brother-in-law -- all good friends and all up at any time for a four-and-a-half hour trip to the old home village in the rugged mountains at the back of Rigo, and then back again.

All in a night.

It had to be there and back in a night for two reasons: Lavui needed to be back in Moresby today for his young son’s birthday party, and the ute had to be ready for another trip ... to pretty much the same destination. Why not roll the two trips into one? It would be much more efficient. I have a colleague much given to efficiency. We were having a discussion once, and I asserted that efficiency actually didn’t matter a damn.

And it doesn’t unless it delivers some superior social good.

In this case, Lavui had a family obligation he needed to fulfill. The others wanted a trip down to the old home village even if they would be there only 10 minutes -- just time for a quick chew of betelnut or perhaps, if someone still had a fire going, a cup of coffee or tea, and a catch-up with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

The other trip was another bloke from a nearby village with a different set of relationships and his own imperatives -- including delivering some roofing iron. Socially, it would have been quite bizarre for Lavui to off-load his uncle and the feast food on to the other bloke. Efficient, yes, social good, no.

So there we were, hammering down the highway in the velvety darkness, stopping a couple of times for betelnut refills from tiny, stick and thatch roadside stalls lit by a flickering hurricane lamp, until we were past Kwikila, and then we turned left, north, inland.

It is difficult to depict for you the suddenness of the transformation. At one moment we were on a highway, albeit of only two lanes but nevertheless, black top, and the next we were ploughing through a 50 metre wide ford with the water over the axles.

I’ve been on some pretty rugged “roads” in Papua New Guinea -- the early forms of the road to the Bougainville copper mine site in 1968, the Highlands Highway and the “coffee road” around Elimbari in the Chimbu District in 1970 spring to mind -- but this was as rugged as it gets.

This was genuine 4WD country. Not SUV country, Lavui was at pains to point out, as the ute bucked and bounced over rocks, climbed in and out of washaways and rivers, and slithered through muddy stretches where the wheel ruts were two feet deep. Lavui has a true belief about 4WDs. This place munches up your SUV and spits it out, Lavui averred, that’s why you needed a really serious 4WD. And for him, that meant a Toyota Landcruiser ute. He first drove one on this track when he was 13. That was when he passed his father’s examination -- he could start from a dead stop facing steeply uphill without using the handbrake and without rolling back a centimetre.

That was before power steering, too. This Lavui is no heavily muscled giant of a man, he’s built more on the lines of a cross between a garden rake and a whippet. He’s all bone and tough, stringy muscle; a modern man from Snowy River. And he sure knows how to put the Toyota to the test.

We bucked and slid and and rushed and ground upwards and downwards and across and upwards again for something over three hours. Fortunately, there had been no rain for a few days, so most of the run was pretty dry; we didn’t need to use the shovel Lavui’s mate had thrown in the back against the possibility of being bogged.

As we went, Lavui talked of his childhood in these mountains -- a childhood in which this road played a vital part as the link between the big, wide world and the tiny village where his ancestors were born, lived, loved, died and were buried for millennia. Lavui himself was actually born in New Zealand when his father was studying for his Masters in plant genetics (and suffered heart problems which required open-heart surgery and led, eventually, to his premature and tragic demise) -- but he grew up on this road and every twist and turn was a stepping stone in his life.

Despite hanging on grimly to the grips on the roof and dash, I was thrown around the cab like a pea in a pod. Heaven knows how the passengers survived in the back (actually, I’ve been there and done that 40 years ago, I just can’t remember how I survived and laughed and loved it) but I could hear them singing and joking and enjoying the ride. Enjoying it! Yes, and so was I! We were surviving every challenge!

Finally, a few minutes short of 2am, after four and a half hours on the road, we arrived. The track smoothed out and in the headlights I saw we were on a ridge, with the land falling away steeply on both sides. Small houses with round pole frames, thatched roofs and woven split bamboo walls crowded up to the road on both sides.

“Oooooo!” whooped Lavui, the local greeting, acknowledgement, alarm call.

He pulled up outside a family home. We climbed out, stiff, sore, but triumphant. The youngsters in the back bounced out. Damn! I envied them that resilience.

I sucked in the fresh, clean air, redolent of bush smells with a touch of village, just on the cool side of balmy. Real air - the air all other air should be like. The sky rose in a black vault that went on forever; there was no moon so the stars shone out sharply and the milky way was a mess of bright gossamer strewn across the arch.

I was welcomed with quiet words and transparent friendliness into this little Shangri La, Karai Komana, Cockatoo Mountain, a hamlet of perhaps 200 today, with a remarkable record of producing people of outstanding ability and talent who have served their emerging nation in a dozen fields.

It was too late for anyone to have a fire going, so after unloading Uncle Male and his feast ingredients, we had a quiet chat, a swig of water, and a chew of betelnut, and Lavui took a few steps into the night to commune at his father’s last resting place for a moment -- the father he loved so dearly who had tragically died at only 49.

Then Lavui started the engine, turned the car, the youngsters came bouncing out of the darkness and swarmed into the back, and we were off again.

“We’ll be in Moresby by six,” said Lavui confidently, “it’s faster on the return trip because we’re going downhill a lot of the time.”

Faster down those hills? OMG!

The horrendous climbs now turned into horrendous descents, and the horrendous descents turned into horrendous climbs. We bounced and swung and crashed through the night, the headlights leading us along the track whether it was shale or rock or gravel or mud or water. But Lavui was right, we waded through the last ford and hit the highway again in something under three hours. I saw the highway bridge 100 metres from the turn-off, then the thrum of the tyres rolled into my head and I went out like a light. Lavui woke me as we entered the city in the gray dawn a few minutes before six.

It had been a beautiful night. I made it to the shower, then fell into bed and slept like a babe until noon. I awoke feeling wonderfully refreshed, and got up and washed the clothes by hand (the washing machine has broken down) with a song in my heart.


While I was writing this, sitting in what I am assured is the safety of Port Moresby on Saturday night, I heard three quick reports. Bang, bang, bang. 9mm automatic, I would say. Later, there was another, heavier, shot.

I hear such things every couple of weeks or so. Mind you, most of the time it is just the police letting the rascals know that they're around and mean business. There really isn't that much shooting at people.

I went to bed hoping my friends the security guards were all okay. They are unarmed; they have radios, and at night, dogs. A couple of days ago, four men with guns held them up at the precinct gate and stole their vehicle. Sensibly, the security guys offered no resistance.

I’ve told them I don’t want them taking any risks on my behalf. Anyone burgling my house can have everything I own; I’ll help them carry it out if necessary. Life is too short to worry about possessions (although I would hate to lose my MacBook and old Kodak P880 camera).

But this is the situation in the town where my Australian guardians say I am safer than on the Magi Highway and the backwoods track to Lavui’s home village.

You be the judge. I know what I think. No, not think, know!


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Return to Lae

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Sunday 9 May, 2010

Hello, Lae, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, booming port and manufacturing centre (in a small way by Australian standards), after 35 years. I flew there yesterday (8 May) for an event I had helped (in a very small way) to organize from a distance, and flew back to Port Moresby today (9 May).

In the good old days (and they were good, although not old at the time), your plane -- a DC3 if you were coming from Rabaul, the Highlands or Madang, or a DC6B if you were coming from Port Moresby -- landed on the airstrip that began just behind the beach and ended in the middle of town.

To be precise, it began just behind the upthrust, rusting prow of a ship partially sunk during World War II, around 20 years before, just off the beach, which nobody had bothered to clean up. Wars are messy things. A bomb had broken its back, apparently, leaving the upthrust bow in a direct line with the middle of the airstrip.

I know that landing planes cleared this obstacle easily, but as the old kite circled over the harbour to make its approach, you couldn’t help conjuring up the ridiculous picture of your plane impaled on the steel spike while you and the rest of the passengers and crew, including a blushing and embarrassed pilot, dived into the sea off the wings.

“Keep your eye on the strip, don’t look at the ship,” I would silently beg the pilot as he made his approach, whilst also debating whether I should keep my pants on before diving into the water when the worst happened or remove them and to dive in wearing only my shorts. Clearly, there were advantages either way -- freer swimming in shorts, no embarrassment on landing in pants.

Whether my mental energy helped or not, no-one ever hit the ship so the pants/no pants debate was never tested.

Today that interesting approach and the convenience of a terminal in the middle of town are long gone. The old airstrip is littered with shipping containers on their way to “the LNG” -- the liquified natural gas project starting up in the Highlands. Semi-trailers roar and pound up and down the Highlands Highway 24/7.

The old strip couldn’t take the new planes, I am told, and in any case a screaming jet engine is not the best centre-of-city auditory experience, so booming Lae is now served by the revived WWII bomber strip at Nadzab about 40 kilometres out in the mighty Markham Valley (and it is mighty, look it up on Google Earth).

In the old days, even the DC6Bs paid homage to the massive upthrust of the Owen Stanley Ranges which separate Papua in the south from New Guinea in the north. To save time and fuel, your DC6B would fly through a saddle so at one point you could look at mountains passing beside the plane on both sides and rising above you. The Fokker F100 medium twin jet flying north from the capital, Port Moresby, today travels so high above the rugged Owen Stanleys that they look like molehills, before descending to land on Nadzab’s wside and handsome strip.

Having flown from Port Moresby in 45 minutes, you grab your luggage off the luggage trolley (the ground crew were a bit slow so the passengers helped themselves -- I bashfully received my bag from the hands of a delightful young lady who enhanced her considerable allure by kicking off her high heels to scramble out through the luggage port onto the trolley) then make a 50 minute trip to Lae along the Highlands Highway, a road far from perfect.

And there’s the rub.

Okay, so the old planes travelled at half to two-thirds of the speed of today’s jet, but they landed right in town. All the time saved in the air today, and more, is lost on the road trip.

In any case, as comfortable and convenient as today’s planes are, I still have a yen for the old rattle traps of yore. They had character. With their grunting and wheezing, their flapping, patched wings and popped rivets, their noise and the proximity of the ground, they continually reminded you of how intrinsically ridiculous it is to strap yourself into a cigar shaped cylinder made of flimsy aluminium and trust yourself to unnatural forces to avoid diving into the ground like a brick.

I mean, a beer can is a cylinder made of flimsy aluminium. Think about it.

And speaking of beer cans raises another objection. In the good old days, you could down your last drink, hard or soft, in the comfort of your hotel, on your back verandah, or wherever, potter over to the terminal and be boarding minutes later.

Today, the unfortunate traveller must lay in supplies for the trip to Nadzab. When departing Lae, as we were, on a quiet Sunday morning, this might be more difficult than you would at first expect. Without the support of your host with special local knowledge of bush bars, you might well arrive at the airport in a parched condition.

As it was, we drove up to Nadzab with time (and can) in hand and my fellow toiler in the vineyard, Lavui, in relaxed mode, only too happy to enliven the pre-flight wait by pointing out the spot where a Cessna had crashed some years ago shortly after he had made several trips on it.

Our plane for the return flight from Lae was a turboprop Dash-8, a bit more human than the F100. While it still cleared the Owen Stanleys with ease, it flew low enough for long enough for me to see the changes in the villages wrought by 35 years. Iron roofs were universal where thatched roofs had been unchallenged before; houses were bigger; and the roads -- they might be tough to drive over but there are certainly a lot more of them going a lot deeper into the mountains.

Unfortunately, Lavui and I were seated in the emergency exit row. This was great for the leg room but offered Lavui’s enhanced sense of humour freedom to range. It says something for the flight attendant’s attitude that she didn’t offer Lavui the inflight trial of the emergency exit he so clearly craved. Mind you, when Lavui focussed on her instead of the exit, he realized with some embarrassment that he knew her -- she had been a year behind him in high school.


But what of Lae without the airstrip in the middle of it?

I hardly saw it apart from the drive in from the airport, touring around on
Sunday morning looking for breakfast, and driving out again.

A few impressions for what they are worth. Lae is the wet tropics. Anywhere you look, there is green, punctuated by touches of brilliant colour. You feel wrapped in a mighty green envelope. It’s calming, like the blue of the sea. Then there’s the smell. In Lae, there’s a kind of background odour of rotting compost. And the sounds -- insects and birds rampant.

Port Moresby is green at the moment, just easing out of the wet season, but a score of little things and a couple of big ones, like the naked stone in road cuttings, tell you that Moresby’s green is only skin deep. In a few weeks, it will be gone, the grass on the hills will have dried out to a thin, yellow and brown straw, there will be the usual fires burning it off, and the traditional hungry time will have begun.

As a town, lots of Lae is old and run down, the roads in are awful, but I would prefer it to Port Moresby.

On a sad note, I missed the avenue of stately and massive rain trees that used to mark the entrance of the highway into Lae, providing much-needed shade in this tropical clime.

However, with the increase in travel on the highway and to and from Nadzab, the trees became the preferred habitat of “rascols” -- the universal Papua New Guinea word for street criminals. In this case, the rascols were modern highwaymen armed with shotguns and military carbines who would would pop out from behind their tree to hold up the travelling gentry.

The quick and sad solution of a provincial governor a few years ago was to chop down the grand old trees.

We stayed at the Lae International Hotel, an imposing place in a tropical sort of way, even if you do need a compass and a cut lunch to get from the lobby to your room. But in a town where it rains every second or third day, there was no water for a shower. The town water supply is overtaxed. The hotel has a reserve supply ... but the pump was broken. The room charges remained at full rate. Not good enough.

The hotel was enhanced, however, by pretty amazing pizzas in its Italian restaurant. The ingredients were of excellent quality and distributed with a most generous hand although the cheese was overdone to my taste (and I love cheese). An American couple on the next table was transfixed when our Supreme arrived -- I thought they were going to leap at us and gnaw off our arms to get at it.

Wanting a change of scenery, we went around to the International’s main rival, the Melanesian, for Sunday breakfast. The old Melanesian is a bit more relaxed in style, but don’t order special eggs for breakfast unless you are willing to wait.

And that’s it for Lae. I’ll visit it again another day.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Rabaul -- a great place to visit and I WOULD like to live there!

Rabaul from the Vulcanological Observatory
by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard
(Note: I wrote this piece in 2004; one or two things are dated. There are end notes.)

I would have had no-one to blame but myself if my return to Rabaul after more than three decades had turned to ashes on day two.

Overcome by a sense of nostalgia, perhaps, or disarmed by obvious friendliness everywhere, I carelessly leave my hire ca
r unlocked while I wander into the market. An hour later, I return clutching my purchases. Some tie-dyed laplaps, a bilum (string bag), a giant pawpaw (papaya) and some freshly-picked mangoes. Oh, and limes to go with the pawpaw.

A betel nut chewing trio lounging under a nearby tree flash me a collective crimson grin and a “Gutpela kaikai, laka?” (Good food, eh?). Unlike the old Rabaul, just about everyone speaks English today, but people often drop into Tok Pisin for banter or to use particularly apt expressions.

“Gutpela tiru, ia!” I grin back (my reply brings a chuckle; my southern pallor had fooled them into thinking they could flummox me by speaking in Tok Pisin),
then turn to the car. My cameras are on the back seat, sunglasses on the dash, other bits and pieces scattered about. Nothing disturbed, nothing missing.

They notice my quick scan. "Noken worit, poro, mipela lukautim gut, ia!" they say, "Sol gutpela sapos yu lokim do long narapela taim." (don’t worry, we looked after it well, but next time, it wouyld be better to lock the doors). 

I agree, I don’t recommend such casualness, obviously you should lock your doors as you would at home, there is some burglary and theft about, but clearly you don’t need to take extraordinary security measures in Rabaul. I felt a warm glow. Rabaul ha
d not let me down. Paradise lives.
Australia is talking about sending 300 police to Papua New Guinea for a year to help rebuilding the police force and establish law and order. Don’t bother sending them to Rabaul, is my advice, sent them to Port Moresby, Lae or somewhere else where they are needed.*
Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, is a superb destination, packed with interest, safe, and tourist friendly. And, yes, I would want to live there!

. . . . .

I first saw Rabaul in 1963, assigned by AAP-Reuters, to be their first (and last, it turned out) full time correspondent in the town. I cringe when I think of myself at that time — a wet-behind-the-ears 21 year old who thought he knew everything. Oddly, I did know a little about Papua New Guinea (but not nearly enough, of course), having been interested in it since my Grade 3 teacher at Cheltenham State School, the angelic Miss Burville (I’m not sure of the spelling), returned from a holiday cruise with interesting bits and pieces to spread around the class as prizes. I won a baler shell but missed out on the carved wooden axe I had set my heart on. Now I would have a second chance to get one!

The road to Rabaul from Australia in those days began with a midnight flight from Brisbane to Port Moresby in a four engined DC-6B, arriving at 6 am. Unglue the eyes, change from winter woollies into cottons, then back on the plane to fly north “over a saddle” between peaks in the Owen Stanley ranges to Lae.

Port Moresby’s dry season surrounds, brown hills dotted with gums stunted by thirst, could be somewhere in Australia. The near view of the Owen Stanleys, though, their height, steepness, wildness and sheer superabundance, ridge upon ridge upon ridge, were alien to Australian eyes. As was the approach to Lae, over the sea, seemingly on a collision course with the rusty bow of a war time ship wreck. Here, we switched to a DC-3, a twenty year old refurbished relic from World War II, for the flight across the Solomons Sea and the length of the New Britain Island to Rabaul, on its north-eastern tip.
Mt Uluwan in the early morning.
After the best part of a couple of hours droning low across reef-rich and island studded tropical seas and more ridges of jungle-clad mountains, of flying *around* Mt Uluwan (the Father) a volcano in West New Britain which surges in one mighty cone from sea level to 2300 meters (7,500 feet), topped by a plume so perfect it seems to have been painted in specifically to beguile the eye of the passing tourist, we new arrivals were in a surfeited daze. Blasé was our middle name. Another volcano? Another reef and island studded variegated seascape? Are we there yet?
It is midday with the sun high and bright as we track the coast again and begin a slow descent over the sparkling sea. Signs of habitation increase -- a village nestled in a space slashed out of the jungle along the beach, a fisherman on the reef; a plantation house and buildings set amidst an orderly grid of coconut palms; a road, more villages, more houses.

What looks like a headland juts out ahead, we jump it, roaring low over a small cluster of buildings on the ridge and suddenly, dramatically, the earth falls away and there is Rabaul spread out beneath us.
I am told I actually sobbed aloud at that moment as I desperately tried to assimilate a vision so bizarrely different from anything I had ever experienced that it simply did not compute.

The giant, breached caldera
like a great saucer, the looming volcanoes around the rim, the neatly laid out and compact town wedged between mountain and sea, the riot of growth, greenness and color, the indigo harbor dotted with scores of craft, international cargo ships, island tramps, yachts and canoes, the twin miniature peaks of the Beehive rocks jutting up in the middle.
Past the town, over the harbour, and past the airstrip on our left -- an emerald green and white grass and koronas (crushed coral) strip cut across a narrow isthmus so that it begins at the sea and ends at the sea like an aircraft carrier. The pilot drops the left wing for a tight u-turn above the rotten tooth of Tavurvur’s crater. For a moment we stare into its emptiness, hissing steam points and spreading sulphur stains, then the plane levels out and we glide in for a one bounce landing.

The ground crew fling open the doors and Rabaul rushes to embrace us. It is hot, humid, charged with sounds and fragrance -- friendly banter in a dozen tongues, a million insects clamoring for attention, the sweet fragrance of a billion flowers and rotting leaves, and a whiff of sulphur to remind us of the dormant threat of those rearing volcanoes.
Welcome to Rabaul.

. . . . .

Your arrival in Rabaul today is not nearly as dramatic and Rabaul itself is only half the town it once was. Less than half. The eruption in 1994 of what the head of the vulcanological observatory, Ima Itikarai, calls “the Rabaul Volcano”, saw to that. Minutes after 6 am on 16 September, 1994, just 10 years ago, the Tavurvur and Vulcan vents guarding the harbor mouth to the east of the town did a reprise with interest of their 1937 joint eruption. One thing that wasn’t repeated was the casualties of 1937; although this eruption was significantly larger, more prolonged and property damage was much greater, nobody was killed. A combination of long memories and close monitoring by and warnings from the observatory meant people in the town and surrounding villages were on the alert and ready to move out. In fact, many had moved to safety well before the eruptions began.**

Rebuilding the town, as was done in 1937, was not an option this time. Sterile, acidic, sharp-edged, irritating ash was everywhere, a meter to two meters thick in the most heavily hit northern and eastern sections of the inverted “L” of the town, on your skin, in your eyes and in every breath you took.

The solution was to clear the building wreckage then let nature take its slow course with regeneration. The port and associated light industrial area and a limited residential area in the southern part of the old town remained while the commercial center was moved to Kokopo, now dubbed new Rabaul, 30 kilometers to the east. The airport in the very shadow of Tavurvur was no longer viable so a new airport was built at Tokua, another 15 kilometers further east again.

Rabaul, once a pocket handkerchief of a town of spectacular beauty and great convenience, is now split into three well-separated parts -- a situation partly redeemed by the sealed road built by AusAID to connect them. The new Rabaul at Kokopo reflects the hasty resettlement of the commercial sector after the eruption; it is far from the planned elegance of the old Rabaul.

Plans are in hand, says Ezekiel ToLulu, head of the Restoration Authority, not only to keep developing the new Rabaul towards a more coherent and livable town structure but also to redevelop the old Rabaul in the volcano’s crater. Plantings are now assisting nature to reclaim the land, and in what may be a pointer to future directions, the old Queen Elizabeth Park, deep in the most eruption-affected area, was cleared and a pavilion built for the Warwagira and National Mask Festival in 2004.***

The dramatic DC-3 arrival, mountain hopping over the Bainings and chucking a u-ey over Tavurvur, is gone for good. If you fly in by Air Niugini these days, you are traveling in the comfort of a modern medium jet, a Fokker F-28-4000 or F-100 at around 26,000 feet (8,000 meters) and landing barely within sight of the Rabaul caldera. For something nearer the DC-3 experience of yore, try Airlink with its smaller aircraft providing a “milk run” service in and out of the regional airstrips as well as alternative flying times on some routes.

. . . . .

The returning old time resident will mourn the passing of the old Rabaul, but for the visitor, there are pluses in the new, three-part town. Truth to tell, old Rabaul was a smidge too self-contained, not to say a little self-satisfied, even smug. For a long time, this held back development of the area’s tourism potential and services -- why bother, when Rabaul was “Rabaul”? Three hotels, the Ascot, rebuilt and transformed to the Hamamas (Happy), at the western end of the main shopping street, Mango Avenue, near the Malaguna Road intersection, and the TraveLodge and the Kaivuna Motel, opposite each other at the eastern end of Mango Avenue and of the town, were the main facilities.

All three were located in the area hardest hit by the volcanoes erupting. Today, the Hamamas Hotel and the TraveLodge are open for business again after moving prodigious amounts of ash and achieving miracles of refurbishment. But along with New Britain Lodge, a couple of blocks back, they stand in virtual isolation -- the parentheses that emphasize the emptiness of the length of Mango Avenue between them. The angled car parking spaces you can still see on the sides of the road used to front on to shady trees and pleasant shops; now they front on to banks of black ash topped by scrappy vegetation. The white painted steel posts that carried electricity down the center of the road are still there; but bent and corroded.

Along with the shift of business and residential life to the new Rabaul at Kokopo has come a shift in focus for tourists — away from “Rabaul” towards the beach, the reef, the bush, and a relaxed lifestyle.

Kulau Lodge was opened 40 years ago with traditional style huts (now upgraded to bungalows) strung along the beach at Kabakada on the north-west coast about 15 kilometers outside the town, then stood alone for many years as the only serious beachfront resort in or near Rabaul.

After the 1994 eruption, with debate raging about the future of the old versus the new Rabaul, nobody was about to commit a large investment to a new major hotel in the new town location which many thought would be abandoned as the old Rabaul was reclaimed. However, people were pouring in to reconstruct, conduct business, or just look, and demanding bed and board. The result was some hasty upgrading of existing accommodation at Kokopo and a mini-boom in the development of beachside resorts that now seem to spring out at you at every turn of the road from the Tokua airport through the new Rabaul.

Between the old and the new Rabauls, tourists are offered a wide range of accommodation of varying levels of sophistication. The top of the line at the moment is probably the Kokopo Beach Bungalows development in the center of the new Rabaul by Taklam Lodge owners and old time Rabaul residents, Simon and Evelyn Foo. They have brought to the development the knowledge and expertise accumulated in Simon’s more than two and a half decades of marketing Air Niugini in tourist capitals around the world. Individual bungalows and a spacious “haus win” -- open air bar and lounge -- are strung along the top of the bluff overlooking St George’s Channel, the Duke of York Islands, and in the distance, the blue outline of New Ireland. Stone steps lead down to the beach where the hotel’s game fishing boat rocks gently at anchor.

Simon and Evelyn and their competitors share their expertise and knowledge through the East New Britain Tourist Bureau, the provincial tourism industry body, and the local Chamber of Commerce. The Bureau is promoting the relaxed island lifestyle and the amazing food of Rabaul, the culture, arts and crafts of the Province, the volcanoes, which have developed new appeal (their activity today is confined to releasing sulphurous vapor)****, the war history of the area, the unrivaled wreck and reef diving (you can just wade in right off the beach), all kinds of sea fishing, including game fishing (if the marlin and sailfish aren’t biting off Rabaul, they are sure to be active around the corner of Cape Gazelle only an hour or so away), mountain and bush trekking and caving.

The lifestyle has always been there, as have the culture, arts and crafts of the Tolai people who live in the Gazelle Peninsula, known for their Dukduk and Tubuan ceremonies, and the Bainings people living in the mountains behind, with their amazing night spectacle, the Fire Dance. Today it is better organized to ensure visitors get a more comprehensive but authentic experience. The peak attraction is the combined Warwagira and National Mask Festival held together annually in July (7-16 July, for 2005) which are attracting increasing interest both from participants from all over Papua New Guinea wishing to strut their traditional mask art and “singsings”, and from visitors, who enjoy two weekends and a week between of some of the very best traditional and contemporary performance, art and craft.

Rabaul’s war history is an old attraction too, but again it is now more accessible to visitors with the Kokopo Museum, signs along the road marking points of interest which often used to be kept secret, and tours of the multitudinous tunnels the Japanese dug to hide 100,000 troops as American and Australian bombs rained down on them.

Caving is a new attraction not even talked about thirty years ago. It is still only for serious cavers, but those with the interest and expertise can plumb the depths of the second deepest and longest limestone caves in the southern hemisphere. The depth and length claims may be understated; there is exploration work to be done.

. . . . .

Rabaul in the 1960s was very much a “foreigners town” -- completely dominated by expatriates -- Australians, Europeans, Chinese and Papua New Guineans not from the region. The 100,000 Tolais living in the Gazelle Peninsula were essentially visitors to the town then -- they came into Rabaul to sell produce, trade, hold Council meetings, meet with the “Gavman”, the administration. But few lived in the town itself.

This was still largely so in 1994, Dr Klaus Neumann notes in his excellent and highly readable book, Rabaul, Yu Swit Moa Yet: Surviving the 1994 Volcanic Eruption, but nevertheless, the Tolai people identified Rabaul as their own and were deeply affected by its destruction.

Just 10 years on, the three part Rabaul is a Tolai town. Tolais live and work in the town and use it in ways they never did in the past. They own, manage and run businesses, offices and enterprises. It starts with the woman who smilingly hires you a car and ends with the Air Niugini clerk who goes to seemingly infinite trouble rearranging your bookings so you can stay an extra day in Rabaul -- then comes up with a credit! Air Niugini is paying you to spend another day in paradise!

These days, most of the people you will meet in Rabaul are Tolais, all of those friendly people who give you a wave and a smile as your drive past, helpfully offer you directions or sell you mangoes, pawpaw and pineapples for pennies at roadside stalls outside town will be Tolais.*****

Lifted out of the caldera, Rabaul has become an integral part of the Gazelle Peninsula. It feels as comfortable as an old shoe.

. . . . .

I have been told I should take up a sport, golf, perhaps, or bowls, to prepare for my declining years, so since my mind was in a leisurely kind of hyperactive I-never-want-to-leave-here mode (I thinking about it all the time, but thinking very slowly) after a week in Rabaul, I visited the local golf course at the Ralum Club, on the edge of the new Rabaul at Kokopo.

There is a fence and a gate, and a sign carrying a stern message: “Members Only”. The gate man opens up with a smile. You can walk around the end of the fence, anyway.

The first tee is just out the front of the venerable Ralum Club itself, a slightly down at heel building, with dark, polished wood floors, and completely open on this north side in recognition of the fact that a breeze is welcome 99 days out of 100 in Rabaul, and that there are better ways of living than cooped up in an air-conditioned box cut off from the tropical warmth and atmosphere. Fans circle lazily.

A foursome is teeing off so I stroll over for a look and a word. Two Tolais, an Australian and a Chinese are chatting easily together -- old friends meeting for their weekly game. When I arrived in Rabaul in 1963, such a grouping was unheard of, the whites generally held themselves very much aloof, the Chinese were too busy making a place for themselves in the world (they were stateless at the time), and the Tolais weren’t interested in golf anyway. Now it is commonplace in this new Rabaul.

In a golfer’s terms, this is a 181 meter drive made tricky by the drop of about 30 meters right in front of the tee down to the level of the green and the rest of this nine hole course. Overshooting will land your ball with a splash in what the members are pleased to call “the biggest water hazard in the world”, St George’s Channel between New Britain and New Ireland, which opens at both ends into the Pacific Ocean.

In anyone else’s terms, these people are crazy. They are hitting off into one of the most beautiful views in the world. The coconut palms bend to the breeze, hibiscus, frangipani, flame trees and more flare in a score of colors against the emerald green of the land, the narrow, black strip of volcanic sand beach, and the hazy blue sea and sky. Giant rain trees drip with orchids. Around the tee, tiny black swifts flit and flash so fast they cheat the eye as they capture insects in flight. A storm head is building in the sky and tropical showers blot out parts of the jagged blue silhouette of the New Ireland mountains, and highlight the Duke of York Islands lying hull down in the channel.

It is a view of adventure and romance, and it ought to be. This is where the redoubtable Queen Emma, the renowned American-Samoan beauty, chose to set up her home and headquarters for a South Seas trading empire in the 1880s.

Our players shatter the romance with their drives, then clatter down Queen Emma’s steps to pursue their game below. I retire to the bar for a quiet gin-and-tonic while I seek and answer to the big question: how on earth can I organize my life so I can live here forever? The supplementary question is nearly as important: if I manage that, should I take up golf or simply sit in the haus win (the wind house) sipping a G&T?

. . . . .

Eager to attract tourists, Air Niugini offers generous discounts on fare plans booked from Australia and elsewhere outside Papua New Guinea. I was surprised at how economical visiting Rabaul was despite the advertised fare structure. In addition, while my discount excursion fare flying Air Niugini between Australia and Port Moresby allowed no change to the external sectors without penalty, change to the internal itinerary was free.

Once in Papua New Guinea, of course, your dollar goes further. The local currency, the kina, is about two and a half to the Aussie and with 100 toea to the kina, the money handles just like ours. It is even minted in Melbourne.

Air Niugini’s flight information is available at Information about accommodation and facilities in Rabaul and East New Britain generally is available at

. . . . .


* In preparation in 2004-5, this did not happen after the PNG Parliament refused to allow Australian police to operate without being subject to PNG law.
** The volcanoes erupted again in 2005 and continue to sporadically pump out ash.
*** With continuing ash emissions, this is now off the agenda.
**** And ash in varying quantities.
***** This is still generally true, but more Papua New Guineans from outside the province have migrated to Rabaul. They are particularly active selling crafts at the new Rabaul market, at Kokopo.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. He madee two brief private visits to PNG in 2004 and 2006. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.