I’ve never been to a friendlier town than Rabaul, once one of Papua New Guineas most developed and vibrant towns. Everybody said hello, good afternoon, asked us what we were doing there, helped us flag down buses, got out of buses to make way for us, took us to shops, gave us directions, it was an amazing feeling after some warnings about theft from boats and watching our backs.
Sadly Rabaul was mostly destroyed in 1994 when two nearby volcanoes Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted. Two to three meters of ash was dumped on top of all the buildings most of which collapsed under the shear weight. Some buildings survived like the Rabual hotel as they feverishly shovelled the ash from the roof tops. They say many more could have been saved if others had done the same but it was all too late, most people had left town.
The grey area in the foreground of the smaller volcano was the once busy town of Rabaul –
We anchored outside the Rabaul Yacht club, once a thriving place it now caters for just a few people at a time if they are lucky. Pictures adorn the walls of lots of white faces and long lists of Commodores past and present (mostly past) it now sadly seems to get 1 or 2 visitors a day.
The nearby Travel Lodge survived the volcanic blast but has cleary seen better days, it now seems to cater for locals who require longer term accomodation.
The once tree lined avenues are now black ash roads with what looks likes large grassy banks to the side, they are simply huge piles of ash which the grass has taken to over the years. All the shops have gone, peoples homes have gone, the town basically had to relocate a few kilometers away to Kokopo and start again.
Talking to the locals they all seem to believe that their local town will quite literally rise from the ashes and become the thriving place it once was. Sadly its now 20 years on and one of the volcanos Tavurvur is still smouldering just letting people know that it could all happen again so easily.
On our third day in Rabaul we went and did a bit sightseeing and first up was the Japanese war memorial, one of the few things left standing amongst the empty ash filled streets.
I was surprised that there was a Japanese memorial there as they were the ones who invaded and treated everybody so badly. It was in fact a Japanese Peace memorial dedicated to all those who lost their lives in World War II.
Next we kicked up the ash dust to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s bunker, this is the guy who planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour with devastating results. He was actually opposed to war with the USA as he had studied at Harvard University and twice been posted as naval attache at Washington DC. This is where Admiral Yamamoto hid and did his war planning, only a small bunker but two small rooms still had paintings of PNG on the walls along with one ceiling showing a map of the world, wonder what he was planning here ?
Map of Rabaul and top north east corner of New Britain –
Map of New Britain and New Ireland –
Next door was the members club, twice restored after fires and earthquakes it now houses a museum showing the history of Rabaul through colonialism, war, volcanoes and earthquakes, its had it all.
The place is still surrounded by deep compacted ash –
If this was how the rest of our stay in PNG was going to be like then I was looking forward it. The very friendly residents of Rabaul had given us a great welcome and start to PNG !!