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Trip Report - One Day in Rabaul

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23 posts
190 reviews
129 helpful votes
Trip Report - One Day in Rabaul

Since there are very few posts about PNG, I’ve provided a detailed report on my one day in Rabaul, which was a port on a cruise. Weather was off & on sun/clouds; humid; mid-upper 80’s. I put on sunscreen and bug spray before I got off the ship and re-applied both during the day.

It was a great day; I didn’t have any preset expectations other than PNG is still a bit of a frontier. My mind was open to learning and seeing different ways of living.

Since there are various levels of unrest in the country and state/foreign office warnings, I decided to book a third-party excursion instead of exploring on my own, which was a smart decision. The other passengers who walked around on their own were uniformly negative about the town and the people – that’s because they only saw a limited port area. Based on a recommendation from someone else on a cruise forum, I found the tour company and signed up – a six hour tour for US$65 which seemed like a fair deal to me (payment in cash upon arrival using AUD$100). I booked with Judith who runs Rabaul Scenic Tours; I researched tour companies on Facebook and TA and the positive reviews and photos convinced me. They offer 3 tour options – one 2 hr tour, one 5 hr tour and one 6 hr tour that focus various topics, so I chose “Cruiser 3 – Rabaul and Kokopo”. The tour company’s tent was just beyond the port gates and employees were holding signs with our names, they brought us to the tent for payment and escorted us to our air-conditioned van. There were 12 people, our guide Rose, our driver July, and another guy named Sylvester whose purpose was never made clear.

Rabaul is on the island province of East Britain, PNG. The town is fairly large and was the Japanese HQ for their South Pacific operations since the harbor is sheltered, safe and large so their claim to tourism fame revolves around the war. Apparently there are more shipwrecks here than anywhere else in the world, so divers love it; I also think it’s near some reefs. There are many war sites to see including tunnels the Japanese had their POWs dig into the mountains and cliffs; memorials; war relic museums; and bunkers. Their other claim to fame is lots of volcanic activity and in 1994 there was a double volcano eruption in Rabaul and the town was covered with feet of ash. It was so deep that it couldn’t be swept or easily shoveled away; plus lots of toxicity in the air; therefore the government said you can’t rebuild the city where it was. Rabaul had been a very cosmopolitan commercial city with shops, movie, theaters, clothing, stores, etc. it was well-known and a tourism destination for Europeans in the South Pacific and Asia, but after the eruption it was rebuilt slightly further away. It is now a very bustling commercial spot – lots of large stores for hardware, building supplies, marine equipment, and supermarkets. The buildings are new, say within the last 15 or 20 years and there are no palm fronds to be seen. This is not a sleepy rural area.

Overall it was a good tour, but a bit overwhelming since we went to nine stops and the heat & humidity was enervating. We ended up covering a fair amount of territory; the countryside was mountainous from dormant and active volcanoes so there weren’t large areas of palm plantations. And of course the volcanic ash from 1994 that covered everything isn’t very good for growing so nature has not overwhelmed these bare spots. Went to a hot springs, meh. It is kind of cool to see the little bubbles coming up all over the place and the steam, but it’s of brief interest to me.

Then off to a village for a local celebration. Note that today is a Sunday so no one is working today and people are around. This event was a bit difficult for me because it was very lengthy, there was barely any seating and I had to let the really old people take that, the ladies cooked and offered food, a bunch of kids sang, and there was another very lengthy dance. Singing was by a local school’s rugby team and they really weren’t very into it; they seemed to be 12 to 15 year-old boys and were chivvied along by one of the elders who had coordinated this event with our tour guide. Then a group of boys dancing with impressive outfits and headdresses and feathers, leaves and wood bits that they held and gestured with. About five older men were drumming and this dance lasted at least 30 minutes; a lot of stamina shown by the dancers and intricate steps with arm gestures, and head movements that clearly were telling a story.

The food preparation was interesting: sliced paw paw (which I think is papaya) and pineapple spread on banana leaves, unfortunately flies were landing on it. Fresh coconut was shredded and squeezed until coconut milk was created that was dribbled into a stainless steel bowl and blazing hot rocks, which had been cooking in fires were doused in water to remove the ash and then put into the bowl with the coconut milk (using wooden tongs, a.k.a. branches). Into the bowl of coconut milk and hot rocks was added some kind of green leaves, like dandelions, and chicken drumsticks. The whole bowl was covered in banana leaves & it steamed using the heat from the rocks. While that was cooking, a 13 yo boy climbed a palm tree to knock down coconuts – just like the telephone repair guys climb the poles. Kerplunk, they smacked onto the ground, but if they were the right degree of ripeness, they didn’t smash open. A man with the machete cut into them and a woman holding a fistful of plastic straws walked around to all of us, offering us a straw to drink from the coconut. Luckily, I was the first person she approached so at least I had fresh coconut juice but the straw seemed a little suspect to me… couldn’t say or do anything except drink the coconut water. It was slightly sweet, but had a bit of a tang and I could see could be refreshing if I wanted more than one swallow. I wasn’t going to touch that chicken with a 10 foot pole, but our guide kept encouraging me to try some food and I didn’t want to be rude, so when she offered cooked banana, I said sure. I thought it was roasted banana, and might be like a sweet potato, but it was a boiled banana and was not sweet, a little bitter and quite grainy. I ended up taking one mouthful and surreptitiously leaving the other half on a table. I had changed some dollars into local currency that morning and they had a donation box so was happy to give them some money.

We went to various wars sites – landing barge tunnels into the caves where the Japanese stored five landing barges high in this mountainside tunnel, created by POW’s, which were taken in and out of the water via a railway built by POW’s. A concrete Bunker where the Japanese general sheltered for seven days, the Japanese fleet was sunk before he would surrender (I couldn’t hear the caretaker’s talk very well, so I may have gotten parts of that wrong, but at this point it was all blurring together). Went to a war relic museum, which was amazing in that there were so many of these relics – Jeeps, airplane engines, wings, propellers, tanks, machine gun emplacements and others. The guide said locals brought these relics from all over the area to this one location, and that there were still many many relics out there. The vegetation is so thick I can easily see how these relics are indecipherable by now.

The tour included time for lunch at a local tourist hotel – lunch was at our own cost, which was good. The lunch options were fish and chips, a Caesar salad, or a burger. I was still a little sketchy about eating food out and especially not in this heat so I just got two icy cold sodas. We went to the volcanologist site, which is at the top of the hill where they track the volcanic activity. Humdrum looking buildings and I think the equipment is quite dated but they knew the 1994 eruption was coming and were able to warn people in time so that only five people died as a result of this huge eruption – I think all five of them were from people who had heart attacks, trying to shovel out of their cars, boats, etc.

The final stop was another relic museum, which is also the New Guinea Social Club. I got a real kick out of this because it looks like any bar of an Elks, Masons or Rotary clubhouse: photos of notables on the wall, stray trophies, newspaper clippings, and serviceable tables and chairs. No AC, but tall ceiling, lots of doors, and a nice veranda.

We drove back through the center of Rabaul which was bustling. It was a Sunday, but by now it was almost 3 o’clock so people were shopping and walking along the main drag. This was a commercial area, so not idyllic.

This was the first time in years, maybe 20 years, that I’ve done organized tours but there wasn’t the infrastructure in PNG for me to explore by myself, nor would it be safe and I wouldn’t know what I was looking at so organized tours were a great answer.

I really enjoyed this glimpse into Rabaul and feel that I have a decent sense of them. I can be a good ambassador for PNG now and try to let people know how welcoming and friendly they are and that it is safe. And of course, my mind was opened to new ways of lives which was the best thing.

Naturally at dinner, I met a bunch of negative women who annoyed me, and I had to set them straight. At dinner time, I sit at a different time every night, using what’s called shared seating. It’s a good plan. It turns out that two of the couples didn’t do a tour and walked around on their own; in big cities, I do that all the time after researching and learning where to walk & what to see. And of course, I did research for this port and realized that number one, there’s nothing to see in the port towns and number two, it might not be the safest. I don’t know if these people did, but they said they felt very unsafe and it was very unattractive. So I had to ask them for details of why they felt unsafe. #1 They said there were kids all around and the kids would get up very close to them and they thought that they were foiling the kids from pickpocketing them. Ai yi yi. I shared my experience with the kids, and that my experience was different from theirs – I was very mild and even toned - I didn’t think those kids were pickpocketing at all. So one of the husband says “how do you know?? That’s the way they get you!!””” Double Ai yi yi. I realize there’s no point in arguing with someone as ignorant as that, so I just said “well we had different experiences and that’s what travel’s about”… They rolled their eyes at that one.

#2 The women wanted to add to their tale of fear and said she and her husband were walking with another couple from the ship, she went into a supermarket to buy something (not sure I’d go into one of these local stores & I’m pretty intrepid) and the other wife went outside to smoke a cigarette. So this is a relatively busy market (and these are not supermarkets with big glass windows -they are stucco buildings with one doorway and maybe one window) and there are usually other people sitting or standing outside any building in PNG; don’t know what they’re sitting or waiting for - maybe just resting. Picture this scenario - here’s this white woman standing there smoking; the other woman comes out of market and tells us that she sees a group of men standing off to the side, looking at the woman and nodding so she tells the woman’s husband to go get the woman. The people at my dinner table are all agreeing that it was a dangerous situation and it’s a good thing that she could see this happening and warn the husband. There were so many things running through my mind but I said - in a firm voice - “That wasn’t very smart of her to stand alone in a place she doesn’t know anything about” and the women agreed and said yes, they probably should not have gone into the market and I said definitely. Then our food came which was good because it shut down the conversation. But how arrogant and western and white is that to think that just because this woman is standing there: obviously a tourist, a white woman, which is very unusual to see in a local store without a guide, smoking a cigarette (I don’t think smoking is common in PNG and possibly not for women at all…In fact, for all we know, a woman who is smoking could be a hooker). So if this group of men really were nodding at her, they could’ve been acknowledging her looks good or bad – like men all over the world do - or nodding in agreement that it’s unusual to see a tourist particular store or nodding at a joke about why would a tourist come to this store? I doubt they were nodding in agreement to jump her and attack her or sell her into slavery. Well, I hope my little message got through to them but I’m sure it didn’t and they will go home and tell everybody how this town was so unsafe they were fearful.

Edited: 20 April 2024, 08:55
1 reply
Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
394 posts
199 reviews
77 helpful votes
1. Re: Trip Report - One Day in Rabaul

Thank you for sharing your detailed insight into a special place for me - Rabaul, my birthplace! I returned to Rabaul 25 years ago (my honeymoon) and my experience then was like you described ... friendly people, just wanting to say hello and not sinister like your ignorant cruise mates inferred. I am so glad your experience was positive. I hope to return one day soon!

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