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Published: March 11th 2008
Papua New Guinea (PNG)
New Britain Island - Rabaul
Arrived at the pilot station on time, 6:00 am. Waited 30 minutes for the pilot. I guess island time applies even to an island the size of New Britain, PNG. While we waited, I got a good look at Turvur-vur, one of the many active volcanoes in the area. We are on the Ring of Fire here and a caldera on the flank of Turvur-vur was spewing steam into the sky. In 1994, Turvur-vur and Vulcan on the other side of the harbor both erupted at the same time and blanked Rabaul with cinders and ash. The town is slowly rebuilding.
7:00 am. We are now drifting at the entrance of Simpson Harbor. We’re scheduled to dock at 8:00 am so I’m guessing that the authorities are reviewing our paper work. Except for whatever is coming out of Turvur-vur, the skies are clear. Temperature today is expected to be in the high 90’s with humidity at 80%.
It seemed that almost everyone took the morning tours so I had the Lido pool to myself! Literally! I enjoyed the quiet to catch up on my reading and take a dip when I started to feel the heat.
At 12:00 the Captain closed all outside decks because of the heavy ash fall. Today has been the most active day for Turvur-vur in many months. Those who were walking around the wharf came back covered with soot: faces, clothes, hair and shoes.
The allies did not invade Rabaul. It was a fortified Japanese stronghold and had a garrison of 100,000 men. It was believed that an invasion would be more bitterly fought than Guadalcanal and Allied losses would be unacceptable. Therefore, after capturing Guadalcanal, St. Georges Island and Bougainville, the allies bypassed Rabaul, limiting the action to bombing raids.
The Japanese expected an invasion and prepared accordingly. Using POW and conscripted natives they built an astonishing network of tunnels into the hills. Some were lined in concrete with built in furniture and electricity. They held food supplies, fuel, ammunition, and provided cover for the troops. And there they waited for the invasion that never came. By 1945 Rabaul had been bombed flat.
The people of PNG, like the folks on Guadalcanal seemed truly glad we were there. Everywhere we drove, children waved and called out to us. In many cases, so did the adults. The only surly looks were from the young teenage men. Just like home!
The island is lush. Copra is the main cash crop, bananas the staple food. In town the housing units are small and very shabby looking. However, in some areas of the countryside, the housing is small but neat and well maintained. I even saw a couple of traditional dwellings, thatched roofs and woven panels for walls.
Chinese merchants own most businesses. This is common in the South Pacific islands and creates a cultural clash. The Chinese were not popular with our guide Sami. He called them rude people.
The tunnels are everywhere. Many can be seen from the road. Some are large but many are smaller, the walls and floor natural rock. They are amazing. The one we visited was lined in concrete, floor, ceiling and walls. It was in amazing condition after 70 years. The rusted barges are another story. They were skeletal remains of the vessels that would be moved to the beach on rails and work carrying troops or goods and then be moved back to the tunnels for safety. (In the tunnel, there was a scaffold where we could view the barges from above. Shortly after we left, the scaffold collapsed, injuring eight, two seriously. I had noticed the rusted railing and thought nothing of it. I am a very lucky lady! )
This evening the outside decks remained closed and the mountain was very active. Large plumes of ash shot into the air at remarkable speed. Volcanoes have intrigued me all my life. I watch specials on Nature and PBS over and over. This evening I was glad to be sailing away from Turvur-vur. Give me Kilauea. I prefer lava to gas and ash any day. Tonight all available crew members from all departments will work through the night to clean the decks.
As we sailed out of the harbor, villages along coast lit fires to mark our passage and the bridge responded with a salute of the ship horn. It was a lovely farewell to an incredible day
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