Pilgrimage to Rabaul: Aussie Col’s Legacy
For a Brisbane family, a cruise to Papua New Guinea’s Rabaul was not just a frivolous holiday, but a pilgrimage honouring memory, family and a father’s final wish.
Papua New Guinea has always held an incredibly special place in my heart. As a girl who grew up in the decidedly mundane suburbs of Brisbane, I was raised on stories of jungles, smiling faces and tropical scenes so vividly told by my mother and father that in many ways, I was in love with this tiny country despite having no memory of it. And when I finally did plant my feet on that verdant soil again in February 2020, a five-week-old baby strapped to my chest, it was one of the most poignant, saddest and yet loveliest moments of my life. But this story begins more than fifty years ago, before I was born and when the life of my father, Colin Host, stretched out endlessly before him, his enthusiasm for adventure leading him from the dry eucalypt forests and surf beaches of Australia to the stunning blue bays and green mountains of Papua New Guinea.
Like most great adventures, the call to PNG wasn’t from some grand gesture or romantic idea, but from the suggestion of opportunity. My father, Colin, had been sitting on a beach in Newcastle, just north of Sydney, reading through the newspaper and stumbled across an advertisement seeking football players who also held a qualified trade to work in PNG. Opportunity knocked, and he opened the door wide.
Colin arrived in 1966 working as a plumber and playing for the Hawks Rugby League Football Club in Port Moresby. As a young man enjoying the warm ocean breezes and a vibrant expatriate community, Col soon met Mavis, a pretty Australian lass of Irish descent who, at that time, was working for the Department of the Administrator. The pair returned briefly to Australia, were married in Warwick, Queensland in 1969 and returned to Port Moresby, finally beginning their love affair with Rabaul in 1971.
Moving into their teaching positions here, Colin taught plumbing at Malaguna Technical College, whilst Mavis was at the Tavui Secretarial School and then, in 1975, at the new Rabaul Secretarial College at the end of Malaguna Road.
It could hardly be called work though: eight idyllic years were spent in Rabaul, playing golf (and efficiently managing the bar at the Rabaul Golf Club!), fishing out on the water on Colin’s boat and spending precious time with the many friends they met whilst slowly adding to the family tree. My brother, Brendan, was born at Nonga Hospital in 1972, followed by a second boy, Nathan, in 1976.
In 1979 they moved to Madang where I was born in 1980, and both taught at Madang Technical College. This was just as idyllic as Rabaul, with the tropical life continuing whilst they enjoyed playing golf, boating and travelling in their little Gemini to Bogia, Lae, Wau, Bulolo and even as far as Mt Hagen. Colin’s fishing trips were close to his heart, but he also travelled in PNG to golf tournaments, which he greatly enjoyed. In 1981, Mavis and Colin returned to settle in Brisbane with their young family. Here, I was greeted with another brother Kieran in 1982 and my sister Tracey in 1986. Life took on the trappings of suburbia, with Mum continuing to teach and Dad running his own business.
Even though their PNG adventure had ended, that tropical heat had soaked into my father’s bones and infused the stories he would tell, lending everything to do with that era of his life a little extra warmth. Dad was a keen fisherman and to the day he passed away, one of his greatest fishing stories centred around PNG.
Whilst on a fishing trip in his boat, he caught a large marlin off Rabaul: it was his pride and joy. He even had it stuffed and brought back to Australia! That stuffed marlin wasn’t just a symbol of what he believed was his incredible fishing prowess or a record of achievement with a rod and reel. It became a symbol of the largesse of life in PNG, where every moment was lived brightly, full of colour and amongst the tropical smells of humidity and frangipani. For Colin, the marlin was PNG frozen in time, a reminder of those youthful, halcyon days spent in paradise.
Mavis and Col had returned to Brisbane, back to the crashing east coast beaches of Australia and had given themselves over to five children, and in turn, eleven grandchildren. But neither Mum nor Dad ever forgot Rabaul. For their fiftieth wedding anniversary, they devised a grand plan to take the entire family back to their paradise, to show them the place they loved so much and formed their young family’s life.
After much research, a P&O cruise that stopped in Rabaul was found and Mavis set about organising the trip for her clan, booking our tickets eighteen months before the departure date. Finn, my little boy, was yet to be conceived when the tickets were secured.
We were all excited but, of course, Dad most of all. He was looking forward to visiting his old fishing and golf haunts, showing off his knowledge of PNG and hopefully catching up with some of his students. However, about a year before the departure date, we were told of Dad’s dire cancer diagnosis. Mum, our family rock, was of course worried about Dad’s health, but also about his ability to return to PNG, to the place that symbolised their youth and was tattooed in their memory as one of the most idyllic periods of their life. This trip to Rabaul was not just a holiday, it was becoming their own private Mecca.
In the end, I advised her to push on with the cruise—I was now pregnant with Finn, and there was no way I could go on the boat with them. I would look after Dad if he couldn’t go. Dad’s feelings about the cruise were also clear when, during his first admission to Palliative Care, his biggest concern through the delirium and illness, was disappointing Mum—he already knew he would not be boarding that boat to Rabaul.
Sadly, he lost his battle to cancer, passing away in November 2019, a few months before we were due to go. Mum had clung to the idea of the cruise, praying his health would be good enough to allow the trip to go ahead, but as time went on, it was clear Dad could not and would not be sailing with us.
His final wish however, was for his ashes to be returned to Rabaul and spread in the harbour he loved to fish in so much. The poignancy that he would return to the paradise of his youth, not to reminisce, but to remain forever, was not lost on any of us. Just like the mackerel, the cruise had become more than a holiday, but rather symbolised a pilgrimage of honour for our father and the country he loved so deeply.
Five weeks before the cruise was due to depart, I gave birth to our son, Finn, and wasn’t permitted to join the family aboard the Pacific Dawn due to the age restrictions regarding infants. Missing this important day in Rabaul wasn’t an option for me or the memory of my father—I organised flights from Brisbane to Port Moresby, then onto Rabaul with Finn. We would land in time to meet my family when the cruise ship docked.
Organising this aspect of the trip was nothing short of Herculean—have you ever attempted to take an acceptable passport photo of a two-week-old baby? This in itself was a six-hour job spread over two separate attempts (the first photo was deemed unacceptable). But the flights were eventually organised, our accommodation at the Rabaul Hotel was booked, Finn’s passport arrived in time and my husband, two daughters and the rest of my family safely boarded their cruise a few days before we were due to fly. It seemed that despite the drama of an international trip with a newborn baby, this trip was going to go ahead.
I was still in Australia when, forty-eight hours before my flights, Susie McGrade, the owner of the Rabaul Hotel, contacted me to let me know that the QE2 cruise ship had arrived in Rabaul on Sunday and had not been allowed disembarkation. Fear of the COVID-19 virus, which was rapidly sweeping the world, had arrived in PNG. At this stage, my entire family was aboard the Pacific Dawn and were still under the impression they would dock at Rabaul.
I devoured the news reports coming in from all over the world, as ports began closing down to cruise ships, my frustration and concern steadily increasing. I boarded my flight to Port Moresby focused on ensuring Finn was comfortable, hopeful my family would make it to Rabaul, but knowing in my gut the likelihood was slim.
The day before its arrival, the Pacific Dawn was delivered the news that it would not be docking in Rabaul under the orders of the Governor of East New Britain. This news was absolutely devastating for Mum and my entire family. They had come so far and were so close to delivering Dad to his final resting place, only to be turned away by a virulent microbe. It was overwhelming and utterly disheartening, but I was already on a flight to Rabaul at this stage.
Strangely enough, the sibling in the most unfavourable position to commemorate their father, would be the only one able to do so. I couldn’t spread my father’s ashes out over Blanche Bay, but I could honour my Dad in the only way left to us. Represented by his eldest daughter and his youngest grandson, we could pay tribute to Aussie Col by experiencing his Rabaul in a way that was just as memorable as his time here over forty years ago. Sharing those experiences with Mum and my family on our return, would simply be another suite of stories to add to his legacy.
Of course, I never really signed up to honour Dad by travelling with a newborn baby completely on my own, but the people I met in Rabaul and just being in this truly magical place, made our adventure there so much more special.
I’ll give you the tip: travelling with a new born baby can be really, really tough and very unpredictable. You need a few angels on your side and Susie, the owner of the Rabaul Hotel, was one such beautiful soul who appeared and went out of her way to make the trip unforgettable. Generosity and kindness radiated from her from the moment she picked Finn and me up at the airport in Kokopo.
She chatted about points of interest as we drove along the water toward Rabaul. I listened, but the scenery was taking my breath away as well. I felt Dad’s presence and heard his voice telling his stories about this very road. The sway of palm trees, the azure blue water, the smell of ginger and frangipanis and the omnipresent smoking peaks in the distance. It felt truly surreal that I was here, far from the house I grew up in, but perhaps closer to the essence of my father than I’d ever been.
Under the gentle guiding hand of Susie, I would fall in love with Rabaul, just as both Mum and Dad had all those years ago. Through her, I had the privilege of meeting many of her visitors and guests at the hotel. Hearing their amazing stories and sharing a few of my own over a cool drink at the end of the day was a real highlight of being at the Rabaul Hotel—I felt comfortable and supported which, as a woman travelling alone with a newborn baby, became very, very important.
Finn and I settled in easily, and we immediately set out, keen to soak up as much of this beautiful and historic town as possible. Susie organised staff to take me to Rabaul’s Page Park Market and show me how to get around town on the PMVs (passenger motor vehicles). The market was an absolute delight. The array of the produce and crafts, the bright colours of the clothing worn by the people and the calm energy floating around this shady area was just incredible. Everything looked vibrant, clearer and brighter than ‘real life’ back in Queensland. Already, I could see why Dad loved this place.
Susie also took the time to show me around, starting with a trip down Mango Avenue, where the main town of Rabaul once stood before being destroyed in the 1994 volcanic eruption. She could describe everything so vividly—her knowledge and passion for the town was incredible and I came away with a very clear idea of how the once thriving Rabaul used to look. I couldn’t help but wonder what Mum and Dad’s tour of Mango Avenue would have been like in comparison; to have added their layer of memories to this place would have been wonderful.
As if I didn’t have enough clarity on how powerful the forces of nature boiling under the surface I was standing on were, the next stop was the Rabaul Vulcanological Observatory. Wow! Without doubt, this place has THE million-dollar views over Blanche Bay and the volcanos. We were lucky enough to visit when one of the local volcanologists was there, and since Susie knew him well, gave us an impromptu talk on the ‘character’ of the surrounding volcanoes. I was due to climb Mt Tavurvur the next day, but after listening to his description of the power and unpredictable nature of the volcano, I’ll admit that my resolve faltered a little!
Another aspect of this tropical paradise which I was completely unprepared for, was the Japanese tunnels and caverns in the hillsides around Rabaul. The Australian involvement in WWII in PNG has become a revered and solemn aspect of our history, with much of the focus in recent years on the Kokoda Track. Incredibly, Rabaul was the scene of Australia’s least publicised yet highest loss of life in WWII, with the killing of almost all of the town’s Australian civilian males and over 2,000 Australian soldiers. A Japanese prison ship, the Montevideo Maru, holding over 1000 military and civilians from Rabaul were also killed when it was sunk off the Philippines by an American submarine.
The history of Japanese atrocities here is simply horrific, but it is tempered by the beauty, solemnity and pure hope of forgiveness offered at the Japanese Peace Memorial. This is the main Japanese memorial in the Pacific and is a testament to the forgiveness of the local people upon whose land these terrible battles were fought. Yet again, Susie was the ultimate tour guide, giving historical fact and her passion for Rabaul in equal measure.
Our next step was slightly more uplifting, as we drove down to the New Guinea Club. Established in 1933, the New Guinea Club was a beautiful businessmen’s club which, through the horror of WWII and then a fire in 1993, has been badly damaged over the years despite attempts to restore it to its former glory.
The club was opened so we could see the amazing work of the Rabaul Historical Society, documenting the area’s rich history and housing, in particular, a large collection of relics from WWII. It still has that air of the forties though, with lots of wood panelling and the black and white photos of soldiers adorning the walls. The tables and chairs were handmade, each had its own New Guinea Club plaque and gave a brief glimpse into the air of opulence this once grand place must have had.
Without doubt, however, the most amazing experience was walking around a volcano with Albert Konie, one of the local tour guides introduced to me through Susie. This infamous volcano, Mt Tavurvur, sparked so much intrigue for me. It sits like a brooding presence over Rabaul, which was the provincial capital before 1994 when its eruption destroyed most of the town. With Albert’s guidance, we were able to climb to the top to see the almighty power of this active volcano and take in the panoramic views of Rabaul from the top. It really did feel like a sleeping giant, the area around the volcano so barren and inhospitable as it rose up into the sky.
Finn was too young to be left behind, and so had an easy ride strapped to my chest in the baby carrier as I scrambled up the often hair-raising, hot and slippery climb. At only five weeks of age, Finn became one of the youngest people to ever summit Mt Tavurvur! I was proud of myself, not only for overcoming so many obstacles to get here, but to bring along this newborn babe with Colin Host’s blood running through his veins. I think Dad was there with us, looking out over Rabaul and smiling.
Albert shepherded us back down the volcano, and was simply fantastic. He was very accommodating with the timing of our tour considering Finn was so young, and had us home before the heat of the tropics would have made the climb up Mt Tavurvur too difficult and oppressive.
We had time to rest, sleep, shower and change before we set off on an afternoon tour of Rabaul, which included Malaguna Technical School where Dad had taught. Walking around the school gave added weight to the stories we had grown up listening to, and I imagined Dad walking through the grounds as a young man, commanding the respect of his students through his no-nonsense yet generous manner. It was sad and wonderful.
Albert then took us to the old East New Britain Library as well as the St Francis Xavier Cathedral where my brother was baptised. I also felt sad for them—Rabaul is a part of their story too.
I was only one year old when we came back to Australia, and I have very few memories of PNG, but its people, its history and energy are so intertwined with my history, that I feel an affinity for this place that has only deepened and solidified after my time here with Finn.
I’d like to thank Susie in particular for making my time here so special, but also all the guides who were so passionate and happy to tell me anything and everything about their beloved Rabaul. Even the guests I met at the hotel seemed to gather around Finn and me, ensuring we were safe and comforted so that we never felt lonely, which, considering the circumstances, I easily could have.
And I’d like to thank my mother, Mavis, whose unwavering commitment to her husband and Rabaul meant we have all had a little of that tropical heat re-injected into our veins. Rabaul was just as important to her, but she knew perhaps, that for Dad, the thought of returning would set him at ease for the rest of his days.
Of course, I wish with all my heart that my family had docked and disembarked, that we had spread Dad’s ashes and explored this amazing area together … but I’m not disappointed that I did it alone. I had Finn, and I know Dad was there too, joy emanating from his core at being back in his paradise, Rabaul.
RIP Colin John Host
30 November 1943–8 November 2019