Tank
A rusting WWII Japanese tank at the Kokopo Museum. Photo / Andrew Stone

As the godwit flies, Rabaul, a South Pacific town of many stories, is about 4300km northwest of Auckland.

That’s about the same distance as Tahiti. Although it’s a breeze to get to French Polynesia, reaching Rabaul in Papua New Guinea requires jumping through a few hoops. It’s a day and a night to get there and to get home, which cuts into holiday time.

However, a bit of effort delivers rewards. When you reach this tropical outpost, nestled in a cradle of volcanic venom, you can be certain to satisfy your senses. Culture – plenty of that. History – rich, exotic and unexpected, both indigenous and colonial. Heat – 30C most days, a typical tropical town. Here is a diary of a recce of Rabaul.

DAY ONE

Sauna-like air pours into the aircraft cabin when the door opens. Out the windows rows of swaying coconut palms line the Tokua Airport landing strip, which ends abruptly where the crescent of Blanche Bay rubs the shoreline.

Seventy-five years ago, the runway was under the control of occupying Japanese forces. In the shallows beyond the tarmac, marine life is slowly reclaiming a single-engined Zero, a Japanese wartime fighter aircraft which failed to land. The sea floor around here is littered with war relics. In Simpson Harbour, Rabaul’s deepwater port, there are 50 wrecks, many of them accessible to confident divers.

Dave McCosker, an affable Aussie, drives us 10kms up the road to Rapopo Plantation Resort, a laid-back waterfront destination. At 3pm it’s straight to the pool, which is more of a warm bath. At the shallow end you can paddle to a bar. The beer, unlike the pool water, is frosty.

At dusk Rapopo manager Dave, in the expat dress code of tropical shirt, baggy shorts and flip flops, gestures as the sun dips low in the west over Blanche Bay. “What more could you want?” he asks. “What more?”

DAY TWO

We jump in a sturdy banana boat which has pulled ashore below the resort. Lawrence, our guide, offers lifejackets. “Where are we headed?” someone wonders. “That way,” gestures Lawrence, waving at the faint island outlines on the horizon. Half an hour into our trip we encounter a big pod of bottlenose dolphins. Alvis, the skipper, throttles back and the dolphins reward us with a playful display, twisting in the air and surging five aside in the bow wave. Leaving the circus, we head for Kabakon Island, a low lying atoll and part of the Duke of York group.

Bottlenose dolphins in clear tropical waters. Photo / Andrew Stone
Bottlenose dolphins in clear tropical waters. Photo / Andrew Stone

Tropical bush has swamped what a century ago was a thriving part of the German empire with coconut plantations used to produce copra. A flattened World War II landing strip cuts a swathe through an adjacent atoll. Lawrence gives us masks and flippers and tells us to flop overboard into St George’s Channel, which surges between the Solomon and Bismarck Seas. The tidal current is like a swift flowing river, carrying us over clumps of coral and darting schools of fish.

With a kick of the flippers we leave the channel and haul up on Kabakon. From nowhere youngsters appear and perch in a tree which drapes over the shore. I offer sandwiches from my lunch. They smile winningly and tell me in halting pidgin that they live across a shallow bar on a neighbouring atoll. It’s the weekend, there’s no school – just a visiting runabout and maybe some food.

Back on the boat Alvis heads for Mioko Island. The island welcome sign features a giant octopus, which are plentiful here. Three villages are hidden in the jungle. There’s a school, bush gardens, loads of kids. The community gets by on very little – a few places have solar panels but food is cooked over fires.

Our place for the night is a thatched hut, with a thin padded mat, a torn mosquito net, a long-drop loo and a water-filled drum for washing. Our friendly host, father-of-six Simon Robina, sets out a filling dinner of local greens, chicken (he calls it “protein”) and steamed plantain. We fall asleep tired and complete and dreaming of Queen Emma, who lived here 135 years ago.

Born Emma Coe in Samoa, the self-styled queen built a copra empire in the 19th century which at its peak had 1000 workers. Emma surrounded herself with bodyguards and lovers. From Mioko, she moved to a mansion near Rabaul, where she partied with German traders and military officers visiting what was then shown on maps as New Pomerania. One smitten admirer claimed Emma could accomplish miracles “in lovemaking and drinking”.

Our departure the next morning is delayed when a thief nicks the smartphone of one of our party. She had gone for a dip and emerged from the lagoon as a light-fingered lad bolted with the booty. A small posse set off for the village where the miscreant headed and returned in 20 minutes, waving the phone like a trophy. The perpetrator, we were told, had recently spent a stretch inside. For his foolishness, which embarrassed our hosts no end, he got a bit of “village justice”.

Greeting sign on Mioko Island. Photo / Andrew Stone
Greeting sign on Mioko Island. Photo / Andrew Stone

DAY THREE

Today, I learn to dive. Lloyd, my instructor, takes me through the basics. Once I’ve sorted the various mouthpieces and strapped weights round my middle, we head down below. The sights are arresting: iridescent fish dart away from my mask, soft corals sway in the current. The sea floor drops away, the light dims and colour drains until the depths turn black. It is tempting to push deeper. Lloyd, suspended just a few metres away, shakes his finger. It’s not, he is telling me, a good idea.

Back on the boat we encounter our dolphin friends. This time we join them. Paul, today’s skipper, throws a short rope over the side and we take towrides as the boat does lazy circles. In effect you become a dolphin: the real things slice through the bow wave while you bounce along behind them, their tail fins cutting the water in front of your mask. Man and mammal, sharing a piece of the Bismarck Sea.

Once back on land we head for the hills for a ceremony of fire and sorcery and men’s secret rituals. It is the domain of the Bainings people, who were driven to the East New Britain highlands by waves of Tolai invaders who swept over the Gazelle Peninsula from New Ireland. The fire show captures the elemental power of the Rabaul volcanoes and the spirits which inhabit their new mountain home.

The active volcano Mt Tavurvur buried Rabaul in ash in 1994. Photo / Andrew Stone
The active volcano Mt Tavurvur buried Rabaul in ash in 1994. Photo / Andrew Stone

After a 45-minute drive in the dark we arrive at a village clearing. Beside a blazing fire a handful of young men sit on planks, chanting a sweet melody and tapping bamboo tubes in a hypnotic rhythm. From the darkness masked figures emerge, stomping in time to the night sounds. The masks have giant beaks and whirling designs which reflect the creatures who inhabit this mysterious land. The dancers kick at burning branches, stomp on glowing embers or stand briefly on top of the flaming pile, swaying in time to the forest sounds and sending sparks into the blackness.

The ritual place the men prepare for the ritual is off limits to all but the initiated, and especially to women.

DAY FOUR

Both world wars washed up on the shores of Rabaul. The scars of World War II are easiest to find, but first it is appropriate to honour the memory of a New Zealand casualty of the Great War.

Kaikoura-born John “Rosy” Reardon was one of the first Kiwis to die in World War I. A seaman on AE1, a pioneering 54m submarine serving the Royal Australian Navy, Reardon was one of 35 on board the vessel when it disappeared on September 14, 1914, around the Duke of York group. Despite exhaustive searches, the 800-tonne sub has never been found. Bita Paka Cemetery, 20 minutes from Kokopo, is a beautiful memorial to Allied casualties of both wars.

At the entrance, bronze plaques tell the sad story of AE1, whose crew lie “entombed but not forgotten” on the nearby ocean floor. Rows of neat low headstones stretch across the tranquil cemetery lawns, bearing the names of hundreds of Commonwealth soldiers and prisoners of war.

Happy youngsters on an atoll in the Duke of York Islands. Photo / Supplied
Happy youngsters on an atoll in the Duke of York Islands. Photo / Supplied

Back in Kokopo, we visit the museum. It has a dated feel, rusting World War II weapons in its grounds and a crocodile in a cage. The croc snaps when prodded. We are grateful for the mesh which keeps him at bay.

Leaving Kokopo, the road to Rabaul follows the edge of Simpson Harbour where 75 years ago the Japanese invasion forces ruled supreme. The legacy of the occupation remains in the tunnels and caves which riddle the hills. Hacked out of volcanic rock by Indian slave labourers, the underground shelters protected Japan’s war machinery and kept its vast forces safe from Allied bombing raids.

As many as 100,000 Japanese were stationed in Rabaul. The generals kept the troops happy with 3000 comfort women.

In one deep dampish tunnel five rusting barges lie end to end. In the war the heavy steel units rolled down tracks into the sea, unloading cargo from the battle fleet moored in the bay.

On the east of town a reinforced concrete bunker used by Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbour, lies far enough underground to withstand the most powerful bombs. In one of the rooms, the fading outlines of a wartime map covers the curved ceiling.

Rabaul deals daily with another war – one constantly threatened by nature. In 1994 the town was almost obliterated when Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes let loose. Ash buried much of the place, though the landmark Rabaul Hotel in the old part of town survived the assault by sweeping the dust off its roof as fast as it fell.

Fine grit still seems to be everywhere and the tallest bits of buildings poke out of the thick dark blanket on roads closest to Tavurvur. Susie McGrade, the energetic hotel owner, has hung on despite the brooding cone just a few kilometres from her front door. Her chef serves us a splendid Chinese feast. In the pool room, a 50-calibre machine gun hangs on the wall and a defused bomb dangles off a chain. Declares Susie, whose father was a local malaria control officer: “Just make sure you say that we’re open for business.”

Before we leave town, we drive out to Tavurvur, 15 minutes away. The sea here is warm and full of plum-sized pumice balls. At the base of the mountain, heat seeps through your shoes. Steam rises from cracks on the slopes and smoke billows from the summit. It is a scene which requires respect. Nearby an elderly man sells volcanic rocks to heat in cooking fires. He has piled the stones into cairns. He’s also paying respect to the forces of nature which shape his land.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Niugini flies daily between Brisbane and Port Moresby. The airline has daily flights between Port Moresby and Tokua Airport, near Kokopo, the town which serves Rabaul.

For more information: Visit papuanewguinea.travel

The writer went to Rabaul as a guest of the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.

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