skull Susan vs. The Volcano skull
skull Rabaul, Papua New Guinea skull

James captuing the scale of the landscape. That's our giude and boatman ahead of us.

November 13

Our ride to the airport left at 5 am and I was actually on it. We were on our way to Rabaul, a city famous for its active volcanoes. (I just read back what I wrote, and combined with the last few weeks think my mother, and maybe James’, might now have a heart attack – active volcanos – sorry.) Our flight went via Lae and I kept a close eye on the surrounding bushes when we were there. The riots were all but over, but you never know. By 10:30 we were landing in Rabaul and we had no shuttle booked. The hotel shuttle was crazy expensive and we hoped to catch a PMV. It was Sunday so they were charging 4 times the rate our hotel would have charged and 36 times what the normal PMV rate is. $90 CAD per person. So we were kind of stuck. We were discussing our options when an airport employee offered us a ride for less than what the hotel would have charged so took it. He reminded me of Norm, from Cheers, because everyone we passed waved at him and he shouted to a few. He chatted the whole way giving us history and tales of his personal experiences in this city full of disaster.

Rabaul has had bad luck, almost from the beginning. The island of New Britain was settled around 30,000 years ago. Around 1874 German traders and foreign missionaries arrived. The area was renowned for cannibalism and more missionaries were eaten than heathens converted in some areas. Germans and then Australians tried their best to get control of this wild country until in 1937 Mount Vulcan and Tavurvur erupted. Unprepared and no warnings the area was devastated and 500+ people died. In 1941 the Japanese landed and the fight for control resulted in the area being bombed by more than 20,000 tons of allied bombs. When the war ended the Japanese were chased out.

September 1994 Vulcan and Tavurvur re-awoke but “Norm” explained that this time the old people recognized the warning signs and everyone was evacuated. Only 2 people died but 50,000 people lost their homes and once again Rabaul was flattened. For two days Vulcan and Tavurvur and battled it out and for several more days the area was hit by severe earthquakes. Vulcan finally ran out of steam and went to sleep while Tavurvur would cough and choke up smoke, ash and rocks until two years ago. Vulcan woke up and the two went at it again. This time it wasn’t nearly as bad but it was enough to cover Rabual in more volcanic rocks, sand and ash. Today Vulcan sleeps peacefully and Tavurvur still holds a grudge – coughing, chocking and spewing smoke and ash as he wishes. The two remind me of James and I fighting – I (Vulcan) get mad, blow my steam off hot and loud and it’s done, gone – I go to sleep. James (Tavurvur) gets mad and holds a grudge for days, weeks, years… Haha. Not sure the dates but there was also a tsunami or two in there somewhere.

Sand piled like snow on the side of the road. Swim anyone?

After the 1994 eruptions pretty much everyone and everything was moved to the town of Kokopo, about 30 minutes east of Rabual. Thankfully due to wind this area was spared and almost no damage was done. Rabaul only stays on the map because its port is deep enough for the large ships to get into and Kokopo is too shallow; otherwise it might have just stayed buried.

We pulled up to the Rabaul Hotel, after passing some nice, newer looking hotels in Kokopo, and had to remind myself how much I love James. He really wanted to stay “at ground zero” and Rabaul Hotel was smack dab in the middle. Days after the eruptions, as earth quakes hit, you could hear the buildings (not compplelty covered) groaning with the weight of ash as it finally gave up and would collapse. Not the Rabaul hotel. Family and staff worked around the clock shoveling the roofs to keep the buildings standing and saved it. Three months later it re-opened. Pretty amazing I admit, but even after 17 years (and then the eruptions 2 years ago) it was surrounded with black, blowing sand. Most of the windows were covered with plastic to keep the sand out and the pool was a funky green. A quick look around as we drove in showed we were indeed in the middle of “it”. Abandoned buildings were half buried in the sand, the roads were blowing black sand (it reminded me of how snow blows across the roads in the winter), there were very few plants and flowers and everything had a coating of ash on it – including my teeth already.

The hotel had a variety of rooms and we, of course, choose the backpackers section. It was where some of the staff lived and a few workers from the area and it had a trailer park feel to it, and not the one our parents flee to every winter. James says it was Glen Cairn-esque. It wasn’t too bad, but as James was explaining – my nerves were carrying over into everything and I was a bit of a basket case. And here I thought I was hiding it so well. We tried to book some tours but the lady at the desk was insisting we had to have transfers everywhere, day time even. We’d read it was much better here and looking forward to doing some exploring so we were not impressed. We booked our stuff but decided to get a second opinion. James went looking for a grocery store (alone) and I hid in the room. When he got back we went to the museum, it was just down the street and we were told we could walk alone.

Map for plotting world domination, kinda small.

The museum had been used for a variety of reasons before a group of dedicated locals dug it out and filled it with the sad history of Rabaul. Originally it was built as a gentlemen’s club by the Germans, then used for similar reasons by the Australians and at one point by Admiral Yamamoto as a base. It was a big, dusty room covered with newspaper clippings, photos and what looked like school projects. It also had some war memorabilia that had been recovered in the area. Across the dirt yard was a bunker used by Admiral Yamamoto; it was here he supposedly was planning world domination. It was hot and smelly.

After getting out fill of history we wandered back to the hotel for pb sandwiches. At about 9 pm we heard a knock on the door and I perked up. James answered the door and a young guy went to step in. It was at this exact moment I realized how tense I was (I had been in denial). I was sitting at the desk blogging and jumped up with a grunt that resembled a “NO!” and “Close the Door!” at the same time. He had the wrong room and when James opened the door just started to walk in…he apologized and even came back a second later to apologize again. I was shaking a bit and decided to crawl into bed with a movie. I needed to stop thinking about PNG and blogging wasn’t the way.

Cue Rockey Balboa theme song! Hundreds of tree trunks with tops scorched off.

See the middle picture? That's me sitting on the edge, I felt very small and insignifcant.

The boat is so small you can't see it for my fat ass.

November 14

We met our guide in the lobby at 8 am and climbed into the van that we were told we still had to take. We drove to Matupit ( a tiny island a few minutes from the hotel) that, thankfully due to the wind, almost got off scot free when the volcanoes erupted. From the centre of the tiny town we walked to the ocean. As we walked locals joined us so by the time we climbed into our small banana boat we had a crowd of spectators. All friendly and just curious. The boat ride was peaceful and did offer specular views of the cranky Tavurvur Volcano but watching our guide walk along the shore and beat us to the other side made James a little cranky as well. We were advised (by the hotel staff and the guide book) not to climb the volcano but our guide (and his brother and the boat man) just started to hike up…so we followed. Now it was my turn to be cranky. I thought we were doing a nice easy walk around the base and skipped breakfast; not the smartest thing before hiking up a volcano! It wasn’t far, just really hot, and seeing the crater was worth it. What a sight. A steamy, stinky, massive crater that was about a half mile across. We hung out and took it all in while our guide told us the story of the Japanese man who fell in and boiled, there used to be a boiling lake in it. Regardless, I moved a bit back from the edge. The view of the surrounding area was just as amazing. Leading away from the volcano was a black sand “desert” zone that had a few trees and green spots. In the distance lush green mountains, including 4 other volcanoes, surround the tiny town of Rabaul.

360 view from the top

Seeing how tiny I look on the crater's edge gives some idea of the size

Amazing, thanks James!

Steaming crater
(Click on picture for link to videos, appx. 1MB and 3MB)

Bubbling hot spring. I had to include the picture, it cost us $2.50.

We slid down the soft sanded slope and asked the guide if we could walk back. He said we’d get the boat to the hot spring and then could walk. So we climbed in and were paddled slowly around the bay as our guide walked again…and beat us there again. Too funny. The hot spring was hot, boiling hot, so James just snapped a few pictures and we walked on. And on, and on, and on…it felt like we were walking through a black sand desert. I know it was only about 15 or so minutes but the sun was high and hot and it bounced off the sand getting us from the top and bottom. The wind also whipped a blast of the hot stuff in your face every now and then. There were a few bamboo lean-tos with a guy in them. We were told they were the land owners and charged $2.50 to take pictures of “their” hot spring. Hmmm…would have been nice to know before we took them. The guide said to lie and say we didn’t but we couldn’t. If he owned the land (we gave him the benefit of the doubt) and sat all day under a bamboo lean-to for the few tourists a day…then all the power to him. It was very obvious this land wasn’t good for anything, and wouldn’t be anytime soon.

The guide pointed out a bush off to the side and said that was where the Rabaul airport terminal building was, buried down about 12 feet. He also explained that a whole village was down there; huts, stores, roads. It was a bit surreal.

As the “desert” came to an end we decided it was to hot to walk but to take a PMV instead of calling the $35 hotel shuttle. Walking into the hotel we were hot, sweaty, and dirty and would have loved a swim. We skipped it and had cold showers. We treated ourselves to lunch in the restaurant and crossed our fingers our afternoon tour would be a go. The area is packed full of coconut trees and just down the road there was a plant. I love seeing how things are made. We waited all day only to be told there were too busy for the rest of the week. While we waited the staff did find us a tv that worked so at least we had something to do while we hid from the sun and sand.

November 15

Today was a floater day and we didn’t have much planned. We caught a PMV to Kokopo and reconfirmed our flights, stopped by the market (that was too expensive for us), stopped at the Kokopo Beach Resort for a few beers and then stopped by the grocery store for fried chicken & chips and snacks. As we walked to the market to catch a PMV back to our hotel I was feeling more relaxed than I had in a long time; maybe I should have had two beers (yes, I’ve become an easy drunk) a day every day in PNG!

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