Friday, March 6, 2009


5 March 2009 – Rabaul, New Britain Island, New Guinea -- We pulled into the harbor early this morning and the first thing I noticed after I got up was a bad smell. I opened the curtains, but could not see a source for it --- kind of like hydrogen sulfide. The town outside the window looked a bit bedraggled. Rabaul was hit with a volcanic eruption in 1994 that covered it with 6 feet of volcanic ash. Some of the buildings are still standing, but Rabaul has been mostly abandoned and a new provincial capital declared about 10 miles away.

When we went up to breakfast we discovered the source of the smell – Mt Vulcan only a couple miles away across the harbor belching big plumes of gray smoke from its top and small plumes of steam from its sides. Apparently there had been a significant ash fall overnight and they had plowed the streets to get it off the road. There were piles of gray ash along the roadsides much like there would be piles of snow at home after the roads had been plowed.

We went on a three-hour tour that was oriented towards Rabaul’s role in WW II. They have a huge protected harbor called Blue Lagoon that was used by the Japanese as a communications and resupply base and held hundreds of Jap ships at that time. This is where the famous “Tokyo Express” originated that resupplied the islands in the area that were fighting against the Allies. We visited a cave that was created by the Japanese to hide barges from bombardment and it still had the hulls of several barges in it. Mary was relieved to find that the darting shapes flitting in and out were swallows – not bats. We also visited a WW II museum with all sorts of salvaged military hardware and interesting photos. One of our stops was a memorial garden for Aussie and Indian troops that had been killed in WWII action in the area. It was beautifully landscaped and cared for (unlike anything else we saw on the island) and it was very affecting reading the ages and the brief inscriptions on the markers for these young men that died fighting for their countries.

We felt like visiting royalty. Everywhere we went in our little Toyota minibus people would wave, smile and call out greetings. It was the rare person who, upon seeing us, did not wave. Naturally, we obligingly waved all morning til our arms were falling off. At one point where we were going slowly and Brian had his hand out the window, a local man came up and briefly touched it palm to palm --- his was very rough presumably from hard labor. There is not much industry here – coconut plantations and related processing plants. The people are mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen, sometimes supplementing with jobs or by stripping the hulls of coconuts by hand and selling the resulting materials to the coconut processing plants. Everyone has a plot of banana trees and that is a staple of the local diet. Many foods are cooked with coconut milk – coconuts are everywhere. Homes were simple frame buildings usually covered with woven palm mats. People seemed very poor but surprisingly friendly and happy. We saw a lot of churches in a variety of denominations and encountered a loud demonstration by perhaps 150 well-dressed people in support of World Prayer Day. They gave us a rousing blessing as we passed.

The people of New Guinea have over 700 languages and they often use pidgin English to bridge language gaps. No McDonalds here! They are in the process of building a Ramada Hotel though and that will be, we think, their first modern hotel. The area is supposed to be great for snorkeling and scuba, but we did not get a chance to try it.

It was lush, green, and hot – but we were not bothered by bugs (a surprise). Most of the roads were very rough and coated with ash so as part of our ride we got a full body massage and a free coating of pumice everywhere.

Brian did see a golf course and took some snaps for his golfing buddies with the spouting volcano in the background.

We only stayed until 2 PM and we sailed out past the volcano on our way to Guam.

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