Thursday, May 15, 2008

The smothered city


I wasn’t optimistic about Rabaul. My memories of the Papua-New Guinea (Port Moresby) of thirty-five years ago, other folks’ more recent comments, and the guide-book’s tales of desolation following the eruption of two of the local volcanoes in 1994 all combined to present a pretty bleak prospect.
It was like having a horse come in at 100-1. The less you expect, the more pleasant the surprise: and can tell you, I liked Rabaul. I was fascinated by it. I was interested in it.
Miles before you sail into Simpson Harbour, you can see where you are going. One of the two offensive craters of 1994 is still at it, smoking sometimes whitely and gently, the next minute belching boiling black. Our second officer, who did late watch, says that at night it even glows red. As you sail by, you can see where the lava flowed towards the sea during the last eruption, you can see the smoke twisting up from a hundred fumaroles, and you can see the flattened dome of the ‘mountain’ with its torn away mouth … you can also feel the prickle of the ever-present ash in the air, and taste in on your lips. Uncomfortable it may be, but impressive and wonderful as well.

Our time in Rabaul was limited as we are port hopping, trying to fit into wharfing schedules and get our cargo loaded as quickly as possible. Not an easy thing in an area where an understanding of urgency is about as well developed as a notion of honesty.
The local Rabaul Hotel, an establishment with a wonderfully colourful past, sent a minibus for our valiant ten, and we were given a 4-hour potted Rabul tour. There isn’t too much to see in the way of ‘tourist attractions’. The town (which was, anyway, virtually destroyed in both World Wars) has been more or less rebuilt since the eruption, but you can’t recreate history, and the local government actually went out of its way, in the aftermath of the blast, to destroy it.
The lava from the mountains did not touch Rabaul. But the wind was blowing the wrong way, and it was simply smothered under a metre and sometimes two of black volcanic ash. Buildings collapsed under the ashen weight, the airport, the golf course, Chinatown, and all that part of Rabaul closest to the crater were irretrievably drowned. Mango Avenue, once a tree-lined boulevard with three hotels, was barely saved. Everything beyond was condemned, and the government bulldozers finished the job the mountain had begun. What might have been a modern Pompeii was flattened. Today it is a desolation of ash, which the lush local greenery has only begun to reclaim.
We drove down Mango Avenue, past a bulldozer pounding the metres deep ash into a road-surface, through cuts in deep walls of ash, to the local museum. It consists of one room, filled with fabulous photos and documents from earlier times – the area has been French, German, Australian and British during the last century and a bit – plus some less fascinating (to me) bric a brac from the various wartime occupations.
From there – via some wasted time (for me) at a souvenir shop -- we scaled the edge of the original crater (now largely the harbour), past some of the 60 kilometres of underground tunnels built during the Japanese occupation, to the site of the local volcanic institute, from where the whole vista of Rabaul, its volcanos and its harbour could be seen

And finally, the best bit. Our bus bumped its way off the end of Mango Avenue, onto the fields of black ash, deeply runnelled by the rains of the recently ended wet season, and headed us toward the smoking Tuvurvur. A little shelter has been put up amongst the deep folds of ash, on the edge of the bay, and from there we had a splendid close-up view of the smoking blister. Some of our team paddled in the hot waters of the bay, dipped fingers in the almost boiling sulphurous water that runs coursing through the runnels, perforated by what looked like tiny geysers, bursting from under the ashy surface...

Back to the Hotel Rabaul for an iced beer and more history, and then ‘home’ to an air conditioned cabin. Ten very weary people. No-one who’d been out in the gritty, breezeless heat of the day went out after dinner. And I suspect that – as I closed my eyes at 8pm – I was amongst the last of our little band to call it a day.

A splendid day.

And now, it is 9am, and we are sailing out of the harbour, the volcano smoking us goodbye (and ‘hello’ to a Holland American cruise ship bearing 1,200 tourists to a hive of minibuses waiting eagerly at the port gates) on our way to Lae. The guide book makes Lae sound a stab-you-in-the-back nightmare. So maybe I’ll like it, too. I hope so.

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