Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Cruise Log: The Bismarck Sea to Rabaul

#expeditioncruising .

L´Austral – Wednesday 21st December 2016
The Bismarck Sea to Rabaul
East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea

Simpson Harbour, Rabaul (Justin Friend) 

By Justin Friend

For a great deal of the day we were traversing the Bismarck Sea on our way to the northern tip of New Britain island to the port of Rabaul. The township itself was effectively destroyed in the twin eruptions of Tavurvur and Vulcan in 1994. Numerous earlier eruptions including a significant one in 1937 had really set the scene for what was to come. After the 1994 devastation, most of the town’s businesses and residences, and even the airport, moved further down the peninsula to the town of Kokopo which now serves as the provincial capital. The town of Rabaul proper today really only serves as the deep water port with most businesses that remain involved in one way or another with servicing the port and its workers.

The approach into Rabaul allowed us to view some spectacular scenery. Most of us lined the rails of the outer decks to marvel at the multiple volcanic peaks surrounding us, numerous fumaroles emitting their telltale plume of steam were easily spotted from the ship as we entered Simpson Harbour. Captain Daumesnil even navigated a short detour in to the adjacent Matupit Harbour right underneath the active Tavurvur to give us all a better view. Meanwhile in the lounge the hotel team had provided a colourful array of the classic French delicacy, the Macaron, to satisfy any sweet tooth cravings we may have had.

But the event we were all looking forward to was the trip to Rapitok Village on the edge of the Baining Mountain Range. Boarding our trusty fleet of small buses, each equipped with a local driver and guide we ascended the short distance to Rapitok, arriving just on dark. Taking our place in the semi-circular viewing area set out in front of a large field, a fire was started in the centre with villagers continuously adding firewood to the building conflagration. The purpose of all this was for the Atut – the night-time cultural performance of the Baining people.

Baining fire dancers are an amazing sight (Justin Friend) 

The Atut is truly a spectacular event. Traditionally used to honour the dead, celebrate successful harvests and most importantly initiate boys into manhood, the Baining men construct giant masks of bark tapa cloth stretched over a wooden framework for the dance. Typically, with very large eyes, the masks represent the spirits of animals hunted traditionally by the Baining. Several large pythons, representing the dangers associated with hunting in the bush were paraded during the performance, each snake held at one end by an uninitiated boy and at the other end a fully initiated adult male. The fire in the centre is built up as the men dance themselves into a trance like state.

Covered in a “magic” oil made from local plants and with their feet covered in a special covering of “magic” leaves to help give protection, the men run through the fire sending showers of glowing sparks high into the night sky. The accompanying vocals and percussion, a very primordial sound made by holding hollowed out logs vertically and literally bouncing them off a solid wooden slab, ebbs and flows, building in intensity and speed as the village men, now effectively totally evolved into the spirit animal their costumes represent, run into the fire, then slowing briefly as the men regroup and gather on the sidelines before once again entering the blazing fire.
For the villagers themselves, once the Atut begins it will continue until either they run out of fuel for the fire or until the sun rises the next morning. But for us from L’Austral, we had another delectable feast awaiting for us on the ship, so it was back on our fleet of mini-buses, leaving the dancing Baining in the glow of the fire, as we descended back dow to sea level and our awaiting ship. Tomorrow we will explore Rabaul, for now we will sleep in the shadow of the volcanoes…