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.


  1. Beautiful blog and photos. Have a nice day Radka.

  2. I first arrived in Rabaul in 1961 and clearly recall flying around a tall mountain or some sort of rock in the Dc3 en route to Rabaul. Others I have talked to about this cannot recall it. I am now sure it was Mt Uluwan as you described and yes the pilot actually circled it.

    I was on the second E Course at Malaguna.

    Kevin Lock

  3. Great post! I was working in Rabaul in 1968 and have fond memories of the place and the people.

  4. Thanks, Radka, glad you enjoyed it. Nice to hear from you two old blokes; you realize we are now B-4s (B-4 Independence)!

    Cheers, geoff

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