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.