Rabaul and Kokopo, Papua New Guinea

From Kokopo, in good weather, there’s a tantalizing sight in the distance: Mt. Tavurvur, an active volcano at the edge of the Gazelle Peninsula, past the town of Rabaul.

Having been rained out of visiting Rabaul during the Mask Festival, and spending the rest of my time after it waiting for a boat that never left, I had every intention of returning to East New Britain for four or five more days after New Ireland. Alas, the national fuel shortage and arbitrary airline shenanigans stranded me there, leaving me with just one day back in Kokopo and Rabaul before my next flight.

It’s just enough for a speed run, and a quick hello-again to my new friends at the guesthouse in Kokopo. It’s sadly not enough to accept their invitations to visit their villages, including one who greeted the first visiting missionaries from Fiji by, uh, eating them. Their bones are still kept in the village… but at least the village is Christian now? Would’ve been an interesting stop. Thanks, Obama Air Niugini. Ahem, back to Rabaul.

Kokopo is a replacement town. In 1994, Mt. Tavurvur erupted, destroying Rabaul and burying its remnants in ash, though people did escape in time with few casualties. Rabaul still has a lively market, and a scruffy little town centre. Not much to write home about, but Rabaul is actually a rare tourist destination in PNG, as its port survived and continues to host the occasional cruise ship.

But walk to the eastern edge of town, and you’ll come across the lonely Rabaul Hotel. British royalty has stayed here before. The grounds are well maintained, if a little dated. But there’s nothing left around it: just a wide boulevard devoid of buildings, and large black piles of ash. The ash has now been there long enough for vegetation to grow on top.

Before the big eruption, Rabaul was known as the Paris of the Pacific. A visit to the New Guinea Club down the road, now converted to a museum, hints at its social aristocratic heyday, the exhibits in what used to be a bar and ballroom displaying photos of a tree-lined boulevard with a cinema, theatre, and ornate colonial buildings. They did not survive the heavy piles of ash — but had the roofs been swept and maintained like the Rabaul Hotel’s was, perhaps they all could have survived. Nothing’s replaced these empty spaces either: it seems like people have simply given up and moved onto Kokopo, building cheap concrete block buildings instead. Or perhaps people didn’t care a neighbourhood that used to be the exclusive domain of the wealthy and white. In any case, Rabaul clearly has its best days behind it.

The volcano, on the other hand, continues to smoulder. The 1994 eruption, while only at its most intense at the start, didn’t officially end until 2014! It’s surrounded by an active hot spring, where locals from neighbouring Matupit go and cook foraged eggs of wild megapodes, a flightless bird native to the area. Somehow this village, directly south of the volcano, managed to avoid destruction, as winds carried the ash westward to Rabaul instead.

High up on the hill north of Rabaul is now a vulcanology observatory. While initially I made the hike up just for the view, an Australian employee showed me around inside, with lots of data tracking not just all of the little earthquakes happening every day, but the drastic changes in elevation of the Rabaul area in just the last few years alone: for example, Matupit used to be an island, but has risen 20 metres since the 1994 eruption, turning it into a connected peninsula. This area is the meeting point of three tectonic plates.

Rabaul isn’t just known for what happened in 1994, or the previous large eruption in 1937 that also destroyed the town. The area was first colonized by the Germans to extract cocoa and copra (used for coconut oil), before being seized by Australia, then a British territory that already had control of the southern part of PNG. During World War II and its time as a British territory, New Britain and PNG at large was also a battleground between Japan and the Allied forces, as Japan looked to expand its empire to Australia and occupied parts of PNG. An estimated 250,000 Japanese soldiers transited through PNG.

The Japanese heavily bombed the region, capturing Rabaul from the British in 1942. Subjugating locals, Chinese and white colonials alike, they directed the creation of dozens of tunnels, creating multiple bunkers to base their soldiers in. Giant holes pockmark the hills and coastline all around Rabaul. One of these bunkers is next to the New Guinea Club, and notably hosted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto for two weeks in the wake of the Pearl Harbour bombings that he executed, despite his misgivings about dragging America into the conflict. He became the most wanted man in the world, and was only caught and shot down after his communications had been intercepted, hinting at a flight over nearby Bougainville. It’s awfully dark inside that bunker, but there are still Japanese-labelled maps on the walls along with some of his handwriting.

Japanese warplanes and weaponry remain all over the area, some at the Kokopo museum, some abandoned at random, and some underwater. (I had hoped for a scuba dive to some aircraft wreckage, but the flight delays prevented me from doing so.) One particular bunker was created as a military hospital, and its complex network of tunnels spanning five levels and 15 entrances was both impressive in scope and detail — with designated underground kitchen space, chimneys, tables, armoury, hospital bedrooms, pantry, sleeping areas, rooms for top commanders, and lookouts on the surface — and horrifying as a creation of two short years of intense slave labour: the locals had no stake in this war. The crumbling remnants of the base of a heavily-used guillotine remain outside the hospital bunker, condemning slaves that worked too slow or did not comply. A Chinese cemetery sits nearby.

PNG has had much of its history shaped by foreign powers that never fully invested into it. The Japanese treated it merely as a transit point to more valuable territory. The British and the Germans took resources and left, never really subjugating the people, leaving only colonial names and some ports as its legacy. New Britain and New Ireland never had commonly used native names, given the many different language groups, and those names have stuck. Rabaul is a British mispronunciation of the local word “rapopo,” or “place of mangroves.” The Gazelle Peninsula comes from the name of a British ship in Africa. New Guinea comes from a Spanish explorer comparing it to Guinea in Africa.

The borders of Papua New Guinea were formed by the merger of British Papua and German New Guinea. Long past the colonial age, it seems that Papua New Guineans have left alone many of these colonial relics, despite having the freedom now to change it. They seem to hold no grudges either, not even to the comparatively brutal Japanese: Rabaul welcomes many Japanese visitors, often curious about the history they never learnt, sorry for the sins of a previous generation but unable to be contrite for something they never knew.

The question is, now under their own control, where do they want to go from here?

— “I’m pleasantly surprised not to see too much poverty here, at least in Kokopo. It seems like everyone is middle class. Your phones are all nicer than mine, even nicer than the one that got stolen. But I don’t get it, everything here is so expensive and imported and yet wages seem pretty low.
“People here don’t save their money, they just spend. They’re happy as long as they can eat, and they’ll pay any price for other goods as value has little meaning. I don’t know how, but we make it work. And people take care of each other.”
— “But poverty does exist, right? The pandemic can’t have been good for the country and the economy.”
“We see a lot of people from less developed regions like the Highlands move into the cities, looking for opportunities. Often there’s nothing but fighting up there. Unfortunately, they bring their problems with them. PNG used to be safe 20 years ago. You could walk around the streets with no problems. I would love to be carefree like you are in Canada, going out at night, walking home.
“We have so many resources. Fiji is a fraction of our size and yet they export more than we do. Why isn’t our country improving? Why do we have such a poor economy?”
— “People here always seem to blame the Sepik or the Highlands.”
“PNG hasn’t progressed. It’s stuck in the past. We have primitive tribes and conflicts that are stuck in the past, and they don’t care for anything else. Those of us in the future can’t teach people to be any better. They’re not interested or educated in listening.”

Perhaps there’s no appetite for past grudges if internal strife is more of a preoccupation. PNG is approaching 50 years of independence. A national identity is one thing, as is patriotism. But none of their previous colonial masters were able to develop the country and pull it into modern times, let alone bother to try. Will PNG be able to do it themselves? The interesting thing is…do people outside the cities even care?

As I’m watching the sun set over Mt. Tavurvur from Kokopo, some high schoolers with the same idea teach me some words in Kuanua, the language of the Tolai people in ENB. For whatever reason, both Tok Pisin and Kuanua share the word “avinun”: an intuitive cognate for “afternoon” in the former, but the number 10 in the latter. Given how often people switch between languages, it probably causes confusion. On this evening hour though, the greeting is “marum.”

— “This is a strange question, but… are you proud to be Papua New Guinean?”
“Of course.”
— “Why is that? I’d understand if you say you’re a proud Tolai or proud to be from East New Britain. What makes you feel proud of the rest of the country?”
“I never really thought about that, actually. But I’m proud to be both.”
— “Do you feel any connection to people elsewhere in PNG? What makes you care about people in… the Highlands? The Sepik? Or Bougainville, even though they want to separate? Aside from Tok Pisin, no one speaks remotely the same language.”
“We see them all as our brothers. Hmmm… I think what makes me happy to be a Papua New Guinean is that I can be myself, be Tolai, in any part of the country and people won’t find it unusual. I would feel comfortable being elsewhere in PNG. People intermarry all across the country, too.”
— “I can’t say I’ve actually met anyone from PNG before this trip. Aside from to Australia, it seems like people don’t really leave the country.”
“Yeah, I think people are happy to stay where they are, even though they could earn more money elsewhere. They’re not so interested in that. It’s the comfort of being home. Most of the time people might just move to Port Moresby or Lae.”
— “Would you?”
“I’m a little different. I’d like to move away, study law, become a lawyer… make money and buy fancy things!”
— “Would you leave the country?”
“Maybe. But I always feel a strong bond to Kokopo, to being Tolai. I still want to be a part of my culture, and fulfill the role it has for me as a woman.”

That’s a goal I haven’t heard spelled out so explicitly before. Coming from a western culture of individual pursuit, to have your desired path be the one culturally prescribed to you isn’t uncommon in the rest of the world. There’s clearly some self-awareness in the current generation here: they’re increasingly exposed to alternative lifestyles and know they have options. Cultures in PNG have stayed very traditional even now. They’ll inevitably evolve, but how, and how soon?

Leave a Reply