pebbles,Saturday 18th February
We were both awake early this morning as we were scheduled for a shore cruise and we had to meet at The Marquee by 7.20am. A few hundred other people were also booked so there were queues for breakfast at The Pantry.
We arrived at Raboul at 7am and after docking, customs and immigration processes were complete it was time for a tour.
Going ashore we were greeted by the now familiar dance troupes and a male choir, each area has different routines, chants and drums etc.
This was followed by hundreds of locals sitting in groups with their wares spread on anything, tarpaulin, rug, woven mats even banana leaves. We felt vaguely guilty that we could not buy something from every vendor but there were hundreds and hundreds more everywhere we visited.
Raboul and the surrounding district are part of the Pacific Ocean Ring of Fire, a huge area of active and dormant volcanoes. Raboul itself is ringed by several extinct volcanoes but one, still active, called Turvurvur, blew its top in 1937 and again in 1994. The 1994 event killed over 500 people and buried most of the town under many metres of volcanic ash. The ash fell for two days after which a volcanic dust began to settle further burying the town and hampering rescue operations. Today much of the old town is still buried but gradually streets are being excavated and opened up. The original hospital is still buried with only a few remnants visible as a reminder and memorial. Ash, dust are ever present even at the port and pebbles of pumice fills what was once the golf course and any other vacant land.
The history generally only refers to the eruption of Turvurvur but the following news report shows there was a double eruption, one from Mount Turvurvur and the other across the bay from Mount Vulcan.
Here is a video from 2014. https://youtu.be/BUREX8aFbMs the best way to view the video is to copy and paste the link into your web browser then right click on Paste and Go.This a worthwhile video. Look for the shock wave and debris.
The original streets which were designed, laid out and formed by German occupation since the time of WWI have gone through some changes. Japan occupied PNG before and during WWII and continued to maintain the roads. As well they tunnelled into the huge extinct volcano which overlooks the town. The tunnels were part of a huge operation to provide shelter and a fortress against any invasion. The tunnels included an Army hospital, munitions storage, accommodation, observation post, food storage, preparation and service facilities. Despite this the Australian Army moved in and captured the town which the locals call the “One Day War” but which in reality was probably more to do with the surrender of the Japanese Army in September 1945. Australia continued to maintain the roads and infrastructure of the town for the next 30 years until Independence when Michael Somali was elected as Prime Minister. Australia still continues to provide aid but little seems to filter down to keep the roads maintained. The roads even in the centre of town are badly potholed and the once beautiful gardens down the centre of the main road are now just a deplorable mix of volcanic ash, pumice, smashed and broken concrete garden beds and a few struggling flowering bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus.
The locals blame the volcanic eruption 23 years ago for the condition of the roads, gardens paths and public places. Much of the town, including the airport is located some 30 Klms along the coast.(moved there after 1994) We did not see the new Raboul so cannot comment. However it seems that even in the parts of town unaffected by volcanic fallout, very little has been done to maintain what is still home to a large part of the population.
Raboul was once known as The Most Beautiful Town in the South Pacific. Now it is a desperately poor relative of its once former glory. We are told the locals, most of whom are unemployed and live on a subsistence level are happy. It is hard to tell if they are happy as a walk through the local markets show faces resolved to accept whatever life throws at them. The betel nut and lime chewing people live in a constant state of mild euphoria which could be construed as “happy”.
After being assigned a tour guide and an eight seater un- air conditioned Toyota we were on our way. Our tour guide was a very shy local woman who seemed to be reciting information rather than explaining and answering questions.
Otherwise it was a good tour.
By 8am the day was already hot, the temp having reached 30 something degrees and humidity near maximum was a recipe for an energy sapping day.
First up we visited the local coconut oil manufacturing plant where saw raw coconuts turned into desiccated coconut, coconut cream, coconut water, virgin coconut oil and even the shell and husks were recycled. We received a bottle of cold pressed virgin coconut oil which according to the label is healthy and can be used medicinally and in cooking instead of butter or olive or peanut oil.
Next, the tour wound up the steep hillside, an ancient extinct volcano, which overlooks the town where we saw hundreds of the Japanese built tunnels in the volcanic rock. At the top of the hill we entered the Volcanic Activity and Seismic Monitoring Station originally built and still partly funded by Australia. The centre still carries out its monitoring and data collection but the buildings are in a poor state of repair.
http://www.wovo.org/0500_0504.html I, like most of the tourists asked the same question, “will we see an eruption or even some molten lava flow”? “No, not today”.
We drove back along the potholed streets of town to the site of a couple of Japanese WWII fighter plane crashes.
At some stage money was spent partially excavating the planes but no attempt at preserving the site or the planes or erecting barriers or signs has been made. It is up to each tourist to interpret what they see. The ever present locals selling their hand made knick knacks were sitting in a quiet orderly fashion trying to survive in the heat and passively hoping for a sale. Betel nut and lime helps keep them passive. A small group of orphans sang songs in the way that only South Sea Islanders can sing. It is a sort of joyous rendition of once upon a time favourites. I enjoy their singing.
Next on the tour was what we had all come to see. The active cranky unpredictable volcano called Turvurvur.
Naturally the tourists are kept a long way from the volcano itself but walking on a desolate expanse of hot volcanic ash, dust and pumice pebbles within a few hundred metres of the steep caldera walls was still exciting. Here was boiling water bubbling up through the pebbles and flowing into the ocean.
It was hot enough already without extra hot steam wafting across our face from time to time. As evidence of the still active volcano was the fact that nothing grows on its hillsides. The older, much larger extinct volcanoes have thick layers of vegetation.
The final place to visit was Matupit Island, 17 metres above sea level, formed by lava flow from the still active Vulcan 750 years ago. Here a combined trio of churches have formed a missionary school in full view of the volcano.
Once again there was a market of locals selling mementos of PNG. Baskets, bags and sea shell necklaces dominated. Here was more joyous singing by the children in an open classroom.
Our tour guide commented that most of the population is addicted to chewing betel nut. Then to prove her point she pulled out a nut, bit into it to expose the kernel, opened her lime pouch, dipped in a lime finger fruit and started to chew the whole mess. Soon a red glob of what looked like chewing gum (another dirty habit) was in her mouth. She said you must not swallow the juice then spat out the window as we drove.
She looked happy.
She looked happy, in a distant, vague sort of way.I was sure little voices were talking to her.
We arrived back at the ship totally soaked with sweat and exhausted from the heat, humidity and walking across uneven ground for the last three hours.
Oh what a difference a hot shower, change of clothes an icy cold beer and lunch can do.
My bucket list, short as it may be, includes a visit to an active lava belching, ash throwing volcano.
Hmmm! How, when and where do I achieve this?
As ARIA steamed out of Raboul Harbour we got a late afternoon view of another prominent feature. The Beehive Islands or Dawapai Rocks as it is now more commonly known. History tells us that the rocks were once joined and a village was located here. The eruption of volcano Vulcan in 1937 sunk the island, drowning many of the villagers.
We also had a final look at Mount Turvurvur in the late afternoon setting sun. It was interesting to discover that the volcano Vulcan, last erupted in 1994 is already covered in vegetation. On the other hand Tavurvur still spits and flares and erupts from time to time. It has no vegetation growing on its flanks.