Rabaul—Humming with life post-eruption: Peter Routley

The first glimpse of Rabaul after an absence of 35 years was astonishing. Press reports and the occasional visitor had painted a picture of desolation, dust, and permanent destruction. The lovely Rabaul that we had known was, by report, gone. Yet, there it was. Seen from the deck of a very large ship, anchored in Simpson Harbour, Rabaul and the surrounding hills were green, lush and as beautiful as ever. There were buildings, too. Tavurvur, certainly was ash-coloured. Wisps of dust rose from fissures at its base, and in the crater a small white plume of steam lacked menace, but warned.  Mt Vulcan, which had erupted at the same time on the other side of the harbour, looked harmless.

In that magnificent harbour, the “Beehives” still loomed out of the water, dangerously. Houses and activity were visible in Matupit, and ten large mother-ship fishing boats lay at anchor. Several other vessels of various sizes were moored at the docks. There is now an important movement of coastal passenger ships around PNG. Without even going ashore, it was obvious that the harbour was still busy, and that the vegetation had recovered completely. Rabaul was still alive.

The ship’s tenders landed us at a little wharf at the site of the former Yacht Club. The black volcanic ash had been dampened for our arrival, there was a marquee and dozens of PMVs waited. Some were for pre-arranged tours, others took passengers on numbered routes round the Gazelle. Fares charged were opportunistic. Entrepreneurs sold bilums, shells, caps made in China, trinkets, fruit, flags, t-shirts, post-cards and books. Pikininis roamed around in their bilas of feathers, grass and shells, posing readily for photographs. Many children had taken the day off from school to enjoy the spectacle. That special Tolai welcoming friendliness was almost palpable.

The Press reports of the eruption damage were correct. There was the Kaivuna Motel still standing but deserted—and the Travelodge with a few squatters in it. The Rabaul Hotel functioned, but most of the buildings on the eastern part of the town no longer existed. The shops had gone along with the New Guinea Club, but a ten-minute walk along a very dusty Mango Avenue and a left turn into Malaguna Road revealed that Rabaul was far from dead.

A large new market replaced the old one: PMVs waited in an orderly manner to ply their numbered routes: #1 to Kokopo, #7 to Matupit, #6 in the direction of the vulcanological observatory. Various businesses appeared to be flourishing and the area thronged with people.

Around the corner, with a view of QM2 in the harbour, lay Mal Tech with 1000 students (300 boarders). Notices (ignored by the hopeful) on the Administration block asserted that no more students could be admitted. The compound had been re-furbished at a cost of several millions of dollars. Under the leadership of Mrs Eva Magaga it was conducting all of its normal courses as well as housing Keravat National High School students during the renovation of their compound. In an attempt to prepare young people for employment, short courses (6 months) in tourism/hospitality, computing, and auto mechanics amongst other things were also being offered. The school hummed with life.

From Mal Tech the Tolai “grape-vine” began operating (nowadays by mobile phone). In rapid succession I had the privilege of again seeing some of my former Keravat National High School students from 1975-1977. The first was Anthony Lilo (Manager of Bridgestone Tyres) then Frank Turpat, manager of Westpac Bank in Kopopo. Dulcie Wartovo (née Piniau) and Puline Puipui are now teaching at OLSH, Kokopo, another school with no vacancies, and as it always was, a model of effective teaching and learning: large classes but lovely girls.

Keravat town is growing in size and importance as an administrative centre for the Gazelle. The buildings of the National High School are under repair by a small army of tradesmen. The role of the school from 2013 will be the same as it was in the 70s: to educate exceptionally talented students from all parts of P.N.G.  En route to and at Keravat we met Isimal Puipui, Ehab Pidal and Philip Kapotis who are all typical of their generation of Keravat N.H. School students who have made significant contributions to an independent P.N.G. Not the least of these was a former School Captain, Akulia Tubal, Administrator for the East New Britain Provincial Government who nobly rose from his sick-bed to greet me at the Queen Emma International Hotel at Kokopo.

Eruptions notwithstanding, Rabaul is alive and well. Plans are being made to re-build at least parts of the town. Lacking only a couple of major bridges, the road from Kimbe, via Bialla to Kokopo and Rabaul—the New Britain Highway—is almost completed. Interestingly, this completion is not seen as a universal blessing in the Gazelle because it will facilitate movement of  “bad people” from Kimbe.

The Tolai “love for country” and progressive spirit are still strongly evident. The welcome which awaits visitors is as warm and genuine as it ever was. Excellent tourist accommodation is available on the Gazelle and cruise-ships call there regularly. The Rabaul renaissance is worth seeing.

 

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