I really don’t think there is anywhere else on this planet that compares to Rabaul, it’s a town of such extremes.
At first you wonder if you have walked in on the aftermath of an apocalypse. Then you discover the beauty of the jungles and some of the best diving to be had around Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The township of Rabaul has had a hard life. Over the decades everybody has wanted to have a piece of her. German occupation prior to WWI, then the British Empire took over and Rabaul became an Australian mandated territory of New Guinea. WWII saw Rabaul being occupied by the Japanese as their main military and naval base in the South Pacific during the war until their defeat.
When Rabaul wasn’t playing the role of a strategic hub, it was playing host to volcanic eruptions. The last eruption was in 1994 from Mt Tavurvur, which completely buried Rabaul.
Rabaul is situated on the largest island in PNG, New Britain. When non locals talk about Rabaul, you can be pretty certain that they are talking about the East New Britain Province in general.
Today Rabaul is pretty non existent, except the port, some businesses still clinging to life and the local market. The township really didn’t recover from the last volcanic explosion. Instead you want to head up the road to Kokopo where local businesses re-established themselves.
Our visit to Rabaul and the East New Britain Province was a pretty whirlwind one as we were only there for the day. Rabaul was our third port of call, on our cruise around PNG on Princess Cruises’ Sea Princess, after Alotau and Kitava.
Josh and I were very lucky that we were traveling around the island with local historian Gideon Kakabin. Gideon is an absolute treasure trove of information and a very interesting man to spend the day with. I felt I had won the jackpot getting to spend time with him, and my knowledge of Rabaul and surrounds so much better for it.
Visiting Rabaul is quite a surreal experience. Two meters of ash covered the town in 1994 from Mt Tavurvur. As you walk the streets, what use to be is under your feet. As we drove to our first stop, Bitapaka War Cemetery, we were driving over the old town, palm trees, water tanks. Unless pointed out by Gideon we would not have had any clue except the dark ash like soil surrounding us.
There is ash everywhere!
Bitapaka War Cemetery
Bitapaka is located 48kms from Rabaul along one hell of a bumpy dusty road. This gave Gideon plenty of time to brush us up on local war history.
The war cemetery was established in 1945 and there are 1139 soldiers buried there. This includes the graves of 500 unknown Australian soldiers and 619 casualties of the Old Indian Army.
The memorial at the cemetery is for those missing. There are 1224 names on the bronze panelled pylons, 1216 of those names are Australians.
You really don’t expect to get emotional or shed a tear when visiting a war cemetery, especially for a war that wasn’t in my lifetime. I would be surprised if on visiting Bitapaka you weren’t stirred emotionally somehow.
We were there on a Sunday morning and the first to arrive from the Sea Princess. The day was sunny, and Bitapaka was quiet. All that could be heard was the breeze rustling the leaves from the trees above and singing. Beautiful singing softly penetrated the grounds, coming from a local church just beyond the cemetery.
I found my heart was aching as we walked around all those graves of unknown Australian soldiers, the soft hymns following us. Maybe it was being a mother and knowing how young most of those soldiers were, Josh’s age or even younger.
There is a guest book to sign on your visit, and if you wish to seek out the name of a relative on memorial there is a register to help you find them.
Kokopo War Museum
Even if you aren’t a big fan of war relics, Kokopo War Museum is worth a visit. It is packed with weapons, vehicles and other bits and bods from the Japanese forces during WWII. A pile of bombs here, a skeleton of a bomber there, a teeny tiny tank elsewhere.
Walk around the back of the premises and you will discover local cultural artefacts in a dusty hut. I was a little tentative on going in as I wasn’t sure if it was open to the general public, but it did say museum on the door. As far as I was concerned that was an open invitation and in I went.
Continue walking up the hill to the back of the property, and you will discover a rather sad looking alligator in a rather sad looking concrete enclosure. Why he is there? Your guess is as good as mine.
Admiral Yamamoto’s Bunker & New Guinea Club
Even though Admiral Yamamoto was stationed in Rabaul, this guy wasn’t small fry. Remember Pear Harbour? That was Yamamoto san. As mentioned above, Rabaul was the Japanese military and naval base for the South Pacific during WWII. This bunker was Yamamoto’s hidey-hole for strategic war planning.
There isn’t a great deal to see here, but it is quite surprising to know so much went on in these two small rooms. There is a map of the world on the ceiling of the bunker. Was this Yamamoto’s map for planning world domination?
Next door to the bunker is the New Guinea Club, which I have been advised is a museum of Rabaul’s colonial history. The club may not look like much from the outside, but is a very important part of Rabaul history.
The only building to survive the allied bombing of WWII, and it also survived the Mt Tavurvur’s hissy fit in 1994. The club is a reminder of 20’s and 30’s when Rabaul’s social life was dictated by clubs. Errol Flynn was even a member!
Yamamoto took over the club for his offices during WWII. The bunker was constructed on the clubs old tennis court site. Now partly restored and surrounded by miles of volcanic ash, it is one of the only buildings still standing in the area.
Rabaul Volcanological Observatory
This is a must stop on your visit to Rabaul. The views from the observatory are amazing. Your view extends over the volcanoes, the bay and the township.
The Volcanological Observatory isn’t always open to the public, but if you happen to be visiting on a day that it is, do pop in and have a look. It is the monitoring headquarters for seismic activity in the area.
Hot Springs & Mt Tavurvur
We visit the hot springs, which are across the water from Mt Tavurvur. It is a hot day in any case, but you really feel it when you reach the springs. Vegetation, there is none. There is ash, sulphur, water and the colourful splash of the stalls erected by locals for the day due to the Sea Princess being in port.
This area showcases the surreal moonscape of Rabaul perfectly. I feel like I have arrived on some alien planet. If R2-D2 was to roll past me, followed by C-3PO flaying his arms in a fluster behind him, it wouldn’t have looked out of place, nor would I have been surprised.
As we stood on what felt like the edge of hades, songs from a local choir filled the air. They ask for donations, donate!
What I did learn from Gideon is that the locals do benefit greatly from the tourist dollar. He was explaining that women/mothers that take on the roles of tour guides, when the cruise ships pull into port, bring in a very wanted extra income to the villages. This in turn helps educate the kids, supplies uniforms and learning materials. Of course the tourist dollar in general pushes up the lifestyle of those involved, and has created needed jobs.
I would have enjoyed spending more time in Rabaul and surrounds, as there is quite a bit to see and do if you love the outdoors. Diving, I have been told, is fantastic in the area. If you are heading to Rabaul to dive you will encounter some magical wreck diving. In fact it is one of PNG’s finest areas to do so. There are also lots of hiking options in the area that also includes Mt Tavurvur. Just make sure you are going with reputable guide, as the volcano is still active.
The above photos were taken during our 10 day cruise around Papua New Guinea. To read a day by day account of our experience, please click here. Want to know what we ate while cruising? You can find out here.
Belly Rumbles travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises.
Majority of the photos above were taken on the Canon EOS 7D Mark II using the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lenses
Sara did you go to the Tavui Japanese Submarine base on the north shore not far from Nonga base hospital?
A MOST fascinating place. There was a natural hilly ridge parallel and close to the shore, some 15 m? tunnels into it but were dead-end except for a small observation hole on the other side facing the sea. I found small Japanese aluminium coins and hexagonal pieces of cut aluminium (fake coins) the same size trickling down the pumice stone ash from a descending tunnel.
Apparently the locals in war time disregarded them because they virtually floated in water, so they "must have been worthless."
On top of the ridge/tunnel structure were 2? big guns on heavy concrete mounts. 4 ? inch guns facing of course over the strait between New Ireland. A very strategic vantage point. Someone took the bronze mounts later with the Jap writing, Shame. But I've got pics.
Some 30 ? metres below the tunnels was sea level and some 20m? tunnels into the cliff just above sea level for storage and loading of subs. There was a rusty metal crane about 10 ?metres long overhanging a most spectacular drop off in the sea. You could walk out in 2 metre water for about 8 metres and then the seabed became 100 metres deep. Ancient upheaval? Perfect for subs but almost as height-scary looking down as was the big shark below us one day. I have a pic of a barmana (teenage boy) fishing from that rusty crane but some time later it broke and fell to that extreme depth.
Unfortunatley we didn't get to the tunnels, they sound fascinating. Something to look forward to if I return one day.
One Saturday at 1pm about 1967 I was home in Wanliss St Rabaul, heard a big explosion from the harbour just as the daily DC3 was flying over that same area to land at Rabaul's now defunct airstrip near Matupit Island. Sounded like it lost a wheel or two. But in the news that night some Aussie divers were caught stealing the big bronze propeller from a sunken ship in the harbour. The explosives to break it free from its shaft were not masked by the supposedly clever timing of the DC3. They didn't have the salvage rights and got into big trouble.
Many years after the war finished a salvage businessman "Mr. Arthur Brown" ? had one of his TPNG local employees de activating a Japanese torpedo in his scrap yard on the opposite corner of the ABC studio in Malaguna Rd. Probably right between the two guys blocking the view of the harbour in your picture. The story goes he was given a 1/8 inch drill bit and hand drill to let the compressed air propellant out slowly. But as it broke through, the metal fractured and the out-rush killed the guy and the torpedo took off and ended it in 2/22nd street towards the towns mountainous caldera wall one very big block away.
Another very good radio ham friend Arnold Nunn from "Pal na Madaka furniture" (Originally "Nunn and Casey") (Jack Casey.) was asked not long after the war by a Catholic mission to check out some of the radio gear in a nearby tunnel with a view to using it. He gave the thumbs up and when talking with the Priest there was a huge explosion from that tunnel. It had been booby trapped by the surrendering Japanese.
Wow Frank the stories you have shared are fantastic. Thank you so much.
Sara you mentioned about limited access to the Volcanological observatory. Being a radio ham in my time there (1965 to 1971) a good friend Noel Myers was also, and also the senior tech of that place so I went many times and remember the wartime Japanese seismograph he had running and worked when the Gurias were too big for their modern equipment. It's recording drum was a sooty carbon-covered 5? litre drum with a nib scratching an ever increasing track 2mm between track. A tremor would shake the nib and record accordingly.
One sad Sunday evening the ABC radio announcer Grey Easterbrook was presenting the local news on the other side of the glass to me and the item was about the small plane that crashed within hours before, some 30 ? km from Rabaul town towards Vudal area. His girlfriend was a parachutist, one of about 3 plus pilot who were killed when he flew back to check the decent of the last jumper, but was unaware she had been suspended in an updraft and collided, and the plane came down. Grey played "The Carnival Is Over" by the Seekers. You mentioned the beautiful singing. Oh yes- I remember that well around Rabaul in their "pal na Lotu" (churches) and throughout the South Pacific I've heard their hauntingly beautiful 4 part? harmony. Well-- The local church village people had gathered at the crash site singing hymns. (Teary eyed even now. )
Lovely blog, very informative with great photos - do you know if is it possible to book Gideon in Rabaul? if so- any idea how?
We will be on the Sea Princes in Feb 2018 - can't wait.
So happy to hear you enjoyed my ravings on Rabaul. You will have a fantastic time in February.
I am not sure if you can book Gideon. The only contact I have for him is via his Facebook page, here is the link https://www.facebook.com/groups/ngihs
Get in touch with him there, and I am sure he will be willing to help you all he can.
Does Gideon work for a particular tour company, or does he do it by himself and should I contact him directly on FB.
Hi Ben, I would contact him directly via FB.