Joan Stobo’s visit to Rabaul, April 2010 by Sally Stobo
In April 2010, Joan Stobo had the delight of returning to Rabaul with three of her children, and three grandchildren aboard MV Orion. ‘It had been 42 years since she lived there and her children were aged sixteen, seven and two when they had left to live in Australia. Much had changed with the ongoing eruption and Joan was keen to see if they could revisit the site of her home there.
Joan’s late husband, Montie, was employed by Burns Philp and spent nearly 30 years in PNG. When he married Joan in 1958 in Port Moresby, he was BP’s Chief Inspector and the newlyweds were posted to Madang (for 3 months), Lae (3 months) and then Rabaul (3 months). At each post Montie was relieving the manager who was then freed up to take his biennial leave in Australia. Following these three posts, and a six-month honeymoon to Europe, Joan and Montie returned to PNG to take up the Manager’s position in Rabaul, where they enjoyed the following nine years (1959-1968).
In Rabaul, Joan and Montie Stobo lived in the BP Manager’s home on Namanula. The land fell away sharply at both sides of a long narrow garden, with views across to the Simpson Harbour. The newly completed home was surrounded by overgrown thick vegetation especially in the valleys that bordered the rear garden. With native help Joan set about making a beautiful garden.
At the highest point at the end of the Namanula Road was the site of the old Government House built by the Germans, pre-World War 1, which was completely destroyed in World War 2. During our visit in April we could clearly see the stone gateposts that marked the drive entrance. This was one of the few remaining landmarks from which we could get our bearings, as the houses no longer remain.
Fortunately, at the time of our visit, the road had been freshly graded and was in good condition, though given the rain on the day we appreciated the 4WD kindly supplied by the Rabaul Hotel, with Susie Alexander giving us a personal tour. We had noticed many of the other roads in town around the port were washed out from all the recent rain making for circuitous drives.
Driving up the road on Namanula brought back to my mother’s mind the expat community who lived there in the 1960’s which included; Dulcie and Harry West (DC), Vera and John Foldi (DC), Freddie and June Kaad (DO), Margaret and Bill Kelly (DC), Gwen and Jack Read, the Husband family, Denise and Alec Kinnane (CDW), Phil Maguire (ABC), Anne and Sid Smith (DO), Laurie and Robin Stubbs (Shell Co) and later Jill and Kevan Gosper (Shell Co), and the Namanula (European) Hospital.
Now, on Namanula, the houses are all gone and their gardens are overgrown with tall grass and self-sown trees. The European hospital and the DC’s residency have also gone. The only indication there had been homes along the stretch were the foundation stumps rising a few feet above the ash. We discovered the site of the BP’s house where Joan had lived. Although due to the depth of the ash, the foundation stumps that were 8′ tall at the rear of the house would stand no more than 2’ tall now. There was also no sight of the enormous Rain tree that grew so majestically in the back garden. It was raining heavily when we visited the site and the weather matched the mood, as it was sad to see. However, we did see some beautiful multi-coloured frangipanis by the road’s edge, which looked to have survived from the original plantings.
Frangipanis do seem to be the main survivor from the gardens. Joan also recollected planting an avenue of Frangipanis up the road to Namanula with native help and the guidance of Harry West. We couldn’t see any of those remaining now.
We couldn’t be sure if any of the trees still survived in the Rabaul Orchid Park, established by the Horticultural Society in the 1960s, as we couldn’t see well due to the rain and limited time. It was originally located in the steep valley beside the BP Manager’s home. Joan recalled the generosity of Herman Slade who sent over orchid slips, which were then carefully bound to the Frangipani branches with the support of coconut husks and twine.
Seeing the frangipanis brought back memories to my mother of the Frangipani Ball, held in May each year. That was the month the first frangipani flowered after the 1937 eruption. It was held at the Kuo-min-tang Club with lots of bright music and dancing.
Once back down on the flats near the harbour we saw the Anglican Church where Peter and Richard were both baptised. It brought back fond memories of Father Albert Hayley and also Daphne Bridgland’s beautiful singing voice.
Joan also remembered making arrangements of hibiscus and frangipanis, threading them on long sticks of native broom to make beautiful displays for wedding receptions. Most days Joan would also take large Buka baskets full of hibiscus and frangipani to display in the foyer of the BP store. Extra special efforts were made when a BP ship was in port and the tourists loved them.
From the harbour we could see the volcano Matupit smoking and the streaks of Sulphur down its cone. Joan recalled climbing Matupit several times, often when visitors came and once when she was seven months pregnant with her eldest son Peter. They would leave the car at Matupit village, and crossed to the base of the volcano in small canoes. The water ran hot in the creek at the volcano base and Joan remembers having to cross it very quickly.
This visit we were also able to see the remains of Yamamoto’s bunker, which has an opening at the site of the Rabaul Hotel. We were amazed to read there had been 500 kms of such tunnels under the Rabaul and Kokopo area, including a hospital that was 4 km in length and accommodated 2500 beds. All dug by local natives and Indian POWs captured in Singapore.
Aboard MV Orion we had had the pleasure of meeting Dr Frank Stening and his son Michael, who had both worked at the Nonga Hospital. We were able to join them to visit the hospital where one of the orderlies warmly greeted Dr Frank.
We drove on to the Bita Paka War Cemetery and were so impressed how well it was maintained. It was raining torrentially as our car pulled up to visit, but with umbrellas loaned to us by gardeners who were at work, we could take a walk. We admired the care with which the gardens around the gravesites and the enormous rain trees were kept. It’s a beautiful place.
We made this trip back to Rabaul aboard the MV Orion. The cruise visited islands in the Bismarck Sea, including Wuvulu, where Fred Archer lived on his plantation. Orion organised a charter flight in and out of the airport at Kokopo from Cairns. This was a very comfortable way to revisit Rabaul and Joan especially appreciated not having to sail across the Coral Sea where she had often suffered from seasickness.
We encourage you to also visit Rabaul and stay at the Rabaul Hotel, as there is still much to see.