Cruise to Rabaul: Bob Cleland

Despite a cancelled Air Niugini flight, we got to Alotau to join the Akademik Shokalskiy with only minutes to spare before she sailed on Saturday 14 April 2012. A converted Russian scientific research ship, she was comfortable in a basic sort of way. The crew looked after us well, fed us well and provided all we needed for shore visits by Zodiac, exploring in kayaks or snorkeling on the abundant reefs.

Rabaul on Anzac Day was our destination. Getting there from Alotau would take 11 days, via islands of the south east, the south coast of New Britain and briefly on the southern tip of New Ireland. All areas I’d not been to during my 23 years as a kiap in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Several places we were to visit had WW II history. It was a commemorative voyage for the 70th anniversary of Australia’s and PNG’s involvement in the Pacific war with Japan.

We were particularly well served by a cruise director, operators qualified in kayaking and snorkeling, specialists in bird life and sea life, and two hard-to-beat PNG specialists in PNG-born Soc Kienzle, son of Bert Kienzle of Kokoda Trail fame and his wife Robin.

Like most Australians with earlier PNG connections, I was tired of the Australian media’s mostly negative reporting of the country. I knew there would be good things going on, so I set out on this cruise to find them. I didn’t need to search: “good things” were all around me.

Dobu Island in the D’Entrecasteaux group was a case in point. As 26 of us, plus tour leaders, experts and advisers, came ashore in the Zodiacs. We were warmly and colourfully welcomed by dancing, comely damsels with most of the villagers backing up. The village was clean and well kept, the school freshly painted and the villagers smiling and alert. When Government services deteriorated, they had realised that they would have to fend for themselves. They had set up an incorporated body to manage and find funds for the school. A similar body kept the village economy buoyant. While critical of and disappointed with the National Government, they were happy with their self-helping lot.

It was good to see, with all the education and modernisation, that a major tradition with a history of hundreds of years was being maintained. The Kula Ring is a ceremonial system of exchange of valuable ornaments involving many villages in the D’Entrecasteaux, Louisiade, Woodlark and Trobriand island groups. The latest event had been completed just before we visited. Many of the necklaces and armshells, some of great age and value, were on display at several villages we visited.

Kitava village, in the Trobriands, was similar. A warm welcome, a well cared for village, and a display of carvings and artifacts for sale. The carvings, from ebony wood, were of excellent quality. Wild-grown ebony is becoming quite scarce so some families have planted mini ebony plantations to ensure future supply.

Sailing north from the Trobriands, our first landfall on New Britain was in Lindenhaven, near Gasmata. The ethnic difference between the south-eastern islands populations and the south coast New Britain people was immediately obvious. The Gasmata people accepted us in a neutral sort of way and I found it less easy to strike up a conversation in tok pisin with the older men. We were not imposing ourselves on the villagers. Our tour leader always preceded our landings and came to an agreement with village head men with a cash payment and a box of school books. I think it is just that these people are not as demonstrative.

The snorkelers enjoyed themselves here: good reefs and several wartime wrecks. And around Gasmata airstrip were several aeroplane wrecks and other rusting remains. The kayakers enjoyed exploring up the abundant small creeks flowing in to the sea. Here too, eight Australians fleeing from Rabaul in 1942 were captured and executed by the Japanese.

A highlight for most of us was a refreshing swim in cold, fresh water gushing from a spring in Jacquinot Bay. The volume made it dangerous to approach the source but the pool receiving the water was very welcome in the heat and humidity of the day.

Calling at Karlai Plantation was interesting. A singsing group welcomed us ashore and escorted us to an open area surrounded by the dilapidated buildings of the old plantation. It had been owned and operated by the Catholic Mission for many decades. When the Mission departed, they left the plantation in some sort of trust for four village groupings in the surrounding area. These people were spasmodically and half-heartedly working the plantation, but it seemed to me that it would take many millions of kina to return it to it’s former high-yielding position.

[Two weeks after I returned home, it was announced in PNG that the local Parliamentary Member was accused of “diverting” 3.5 million Kina earmarked for Karlai. The matter is still pending. In the meantime the member has been re-elected.]

From anchor in Wide Bay, we were out of bed and into the Zodiacs before dawn to be at Tol for a dawn remembrance service. This is the site of the infamous “Tol Massacre”. One hundred and sixty members of the Australian 2/22nd Battalion were murdered by the Japanese while prisoners of war. There’s a small cairn there now with a plaque erected in 1987 by members of the Australian army while on exercises in the area. A priest and a young choir joined us from the local church and held a simple, very moving ceremony in remembrance of those 160 soldiers.

A town is being built there now. The old Tol Plantation is no more. The old coconut economy of the area has been replaced by logging. We saw huge piles of logs stacked awaiting shipment to ports in southern Asia where conversion of those logs into lumbar will enhance a foreign economy. I wonder if the local village people have seen any benefit.

That small cairn and its plaque will probably disappear. Those murdered men deserve better.

At Lamassa village, close to the southern tip of New Ireland, we were met by a decorated canoe crewed by costumed men who escorted us to the landing beach. When clambering our inelegant way out of the Zodiacs, we were attacked by fearsome warriors thrusting spears and crocodile jaws at us. This surprised me. It was so like the “welcome” one receives in many highland areas. The warriors’ fake aggression soon turned to smiles of welcome amid peals of laughter from scores of children.

Once ashore I saw a tall, beefy, costumed and mud-painted man standing alone in the small clearing behind the beach. He had the bearing of a chief. Hanging around his neck, strap-like, was a length of short bamboo sticks fixed horizontally. Just like a Mount Hagen Moka. This man was indeed from Mount Hagen and he was very much the village chief. He had married into the village several decades ago and was now fully accepted. I chatted with him for some time.

We sailed up St George’s Channel to Mioki village, off the northern tip of the Duke of York islands, with the Gazelle Peninsula and the Rabaul volcanoes in clear sight. The snorkelers found Japanese tanks under water encrusted by spectacular coral with colourful fish darting through.  Ashore we were welcomed warmly and heard stories handed down of how the people in 1942 sheltered in caves when bombed  by the Japanese. One enterprising family offered a home stay for tourists in very acceptable accommodation. Others found an income from copra, cacao or fishing. Here, as in some other villages we’d visited, the preferred form of transport is the Banana Boat, a shapely, fibreglass, open hull driven by a modern outboard motor.

And so, on 24 April, we arrived in Rabaul, a bunch of happy, suntanned people, probably fitter from shore walks and clambering into and out of the Zodiacs. I found lots to interest me wherever we went. With the advantage of having still-passable but 35-years-outdated tok pisin, I would engage the older people in conversation and on some occasions reveal myself as an ex-kiap. Almost universally, I found nostalgia for the “good time before” or the “time belong kiap”, mild to deep resentment of the present government with special criticism of the general corruption, an eagerness for the upcoming elections and the hope that a new government could set PNG on a better, fairer path for the future.


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