There’s a universal truth to traveling in Papua New Guinea—things probably won’t go exactly as planned, and you might as well just accept it. In fact, it’s when the formalities slip away and you’re stuck or confused that the people and places shine the brightest and you find it’s truly hard not to love Papua New Guinea.
Case in point, when I walk outside Tokua Airport on East New Britain, I catch a brief glimpse of my pre-arranged ride as it pulls out of the parking lot and disappears down the main road to Kokopo.
I look around for a taxi—no dice—and flop on the outside bench, thinking through the possibilities: “There must be another car coming; or, they’ll realize they left me and turn around—right?” Neither of those things happens while I’m sitting there, but it doesn’t take long for a dozen off-duty airport security guards to see I’m going nowhere.
Without hesitation, they call me over and load my bags into their departing truck with wide smiles and welcoming handshakes. After they hoist me into the front seat with the driver, I get an impromptu island tour and the first of many “where-I-was-when” stories about the day the Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes exploded, all but destroying painfully beautiful Rabaul town under a blanket of black ash like a South Pacific Pompeii.
Because of that day almost 20 years before, they don’t take me into Rabaul, though many still refer to the area as such, but rather to the now-main town of Kokopo that rose from the ashes just south of the volcanic epicenter. Even now, however, these two belching beasts dominate the landscape.
I get my first close look at Tavurvur the next day. The still-smoking volcano sits on the rim of a highly active caldera that encompasses Simpson Harbour, and I’d dreamed of climbing to its crater since my first trip to PNG a couple years before. This first pass happens only from the water, however, as my guide and I take a spin through the port en route to the Duke of York islands, where I spend a couple days staying with a village on Mioko Island.
Duke of York Village Stay
Motoring into this small island chain is about as close to paradise found as I’ve seen anywhere. Narrow channels wind among palm-fringed islands and mushroom-shaped rock formations, and every turn reveals another picture-perfect beach tucked among aquamarine grottoes. We pull up to the shore on Mioko Island through the electric-green water of a protected cove.
I’m the only Westerner in the boat, on the island as well, and the usual contingent of curious children greets me, their cheeks seasoned with salt and their hair frosted bright yellow from years of frolicking in the sun and seawater. But the village is no stranger to Americans. Missionaries from my country spent a long and friendly time here, I learn, as I sit around a fire with the elder women, who pile my arms with searing-hot cassava straight from the coals.
These days, the residents on Mioko welcome visitors from all over the world—generally just handful of tourists each month—with a village-stay program that started in March 2010. Money from the program goes toward supplies for the on-island primary school.
When I first arrive, I get a quick tour of the village. My accommodation is a simple raised house with a woven mat for a bed and windows that prop open to let the breeze through. But a stay here is all about meeting the people and exploring the island, so we soon set out on a hike to some nearby sea caves.
Very few corners of East New Britain escaped the scars of WWII, and here it’s no different. Hundreds of villagers used these caves as hideouts to avoid capture by the Japanese during WWII. One leads to a lookout point on the side of a sea cliff, where we crawl through the tight passage and sit for a while, watching the village kids below as they spearfish in the shallows and skillfully body surf the big waves out past the reef line on scavenged planks of wood.
In the afternoon, I go for a short paddle in an outrigger canoe to a nearby snorkeling spot, but the real adventure happens after the sun goes down. Excited to have a motorboat available—the one I came in on—a group of young men waits eagerly in the dark for the moonrise. When it’s time, a half dozen of us load into the boat with spears, torches, and a thermos full of hot tea, and we head to the offshore reefs bathed in white moonlight.
Spearfishing is clearly serious business here, with caught fish providing a protein boost to the villagers’ starch-heavy diet. So I opt to man a light while those with the best aim take the spears. In pairs, we slip into the water. I hover on the surface, tracing a search pattern over the seabed with my torch, while my partner watches for the flickers of movement that give away a fish or lobster. When we spot something, we take deep breaths and dive together for our quarry.
The sad reality is that the reefs are pretty short on marine life of any kind, the result of over fishing that will ultimately strip them bare, but the boys hunt enthusiastically nonetheless.
In the early morning we return with a handful of reef fish, and they are promptly smoked over the fire and set aside for the next day. I catch just a few hours sleep on my woven mat before it’s time for the early morning run back to Kokopo Beach Bungalows, where I relish a hot shower and a hearty meal before hitting the road for the main attraction.
Climbing the Volcano
The closer I get to Tavurvur, the starker the landscape becomes, until the road finally morphs into a rutted track across a black-ash wasteland. Occasionally I spot the tops of houses jutting from the ground as if they’re slowly slipping into quicksand. My driver stops the truck at a makeshift chain fence, where we pay the usual resource-use fee before driving on and parking alongside a deep channel eroded into the black ground.
From here it’s all on foot. The mid-morning sun is hot, but the ground is even hotter as we approach the bay, tinged sulfur-yellow by the trickle of boiling water that erupts from the ground in steaming, muddy pools. The molten magma beneath us sits close enough to the earth’s surface to heat the volcanic sand like a giant mumu oven. In fact, it’s here that the villagers from Matupit Island—the so-called Matupit Egg Miners—find and cook the megapode eggs that they sell in the local markets.
Continuing on, I cross the rolling foothills of the volcano to the base of the summit. The climb is relatively short, but steep and hard-going as the loose sand slides underfoot with each upward step. But the view from the top makes my day. The perfect circle of Simpson Harbour opens up with the yellow fingers of the boiling pools stretching into the blue sea below me, cinder-cone shaped Vulcan towering on the opposite shore, and lush green mountains cloaked in wildflowers backing the buried town.
I take in this view while standing, literally, on the lip of Tavurvur’s crater. The pungent, rotten-egg smell of sulpher stings my eyes and nose and sweat-inducing steam envelops me as it seeps from beneath the yellow-caked boulders deep in the mouth of the mountain.
There are few places in the world where a person can get so close to such an unpredictable force of nature. With raw energy radiating off the rocks and fumes swirling around my head, I feel invigorated and intimidated, as if—just for a moment—part of me has slipped from this world through the shadowy doorway of a seething underworld.
The high from the experience buoys me up as I make my way back down the mountain, practically sliding on my butt as the loose sand crumbles under my feet and cascades down the hill. Having seen the natural legacy of Rabaul, I switch gears to in order to explore the remains of one of PNG’s most impacted WWII outposts.
A valuable port, Rabaul was captured and occupied by the Japanese, and a bunker in town bears the name of Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of their damaging presence here, the Japanese government erected a memorial in Rabaul, which stands today as the largest Japanese War Memorial in the entire Pacific.
It isn’t known whether Yamamoto actually used the bunker before his plane took off from Rabaul and was subsequently shot down by Americans over Bougainville. But exploring the underground passageways leads me to a cramped, circular command center, where it’s easy to imagine unnamed Japanese officers planning their strategies on the maps that still remain, painted across the stone walls and ceiling with points of interest marked in Japanese characters.
In addition to the bunker, Japanese forces used POW labour to dig hundreds of kilometers of tunnels throughout the surrounding hills, for a variety of uses. The most famous of these are the barge tunnels carved into the sea cliffs near the bay, right off the main road. The landing barges that were hauled out of the water here still remain, slowly rusting away as they overlook the sea.
After accepting that things might not go as planned, I end up with an enviable collection of adventures that I never would have expected, from a warm welcome and complete cultural immersion with island villagers to a bucket-list trek along the rim of a live volcano.
And so, when I pull back up to Tokua Airport to realize that—this time—my luggage had mistakenly been loaded onto a departing offshore mining boat with some fellow passengers, I don’t hesitate or question. Instead I laugh, jump back in the car and hit the road for one last adventure. It’ll work out fine.