Thursday, 22 December 2016

Cruise Log: Rabaul & Little Pigeon Island

#expeditioncruising .

L´Austral – Thursday 22nd December 2016
Rabaul & Little Pigeon Island
East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea

Wreck of a Japanese WWII bomber slowly consumed by the ash and jungle (Justin Friend)

By Justin Friend

This morning we had a series of tours we could choose from and we were divided up into multiple groups as we each headed off on our adventure. Several of the fittest amongst us joined with their guides to climb the largest of the Rabaul caldera volcanoes, known as “the Mother”. Despite the heat, humidity and steep terrain the climb was successful and everyone made it back with a smile on their face.

A large group of us stayed in the immediate Rabaul area to explore the old town now buried under tonnes of ash. We took a drive down the once picturesque Mango Avenue which before the 1994 twin eruptions was lined either side with giant mango trees. One could only imagine how it looked back then as today there is very little evidence to show it was once a bustling town. From Mango Avenue we were then driving on what was once the Rabaul airport. Like the rest of the town the airport has now been moved further down the peninsula, safe from any future eruptions.

Off to the side of the airport, under some coconut trees, lie the remains of two WWII aircraft. A twin engine bomber and a single engine fighter, both Japanese aircraft, were destroyed on the ground during the war by American air raids. Like the rest of the area they too were buried under the ash but the local Matupit villagers have dug the aircraft out to allow us to be able to view them. The sulfuric acid produced by the volcanic eruptions has taken its toll on the WWII relics and they most likely will be no longer recognisable as planes within the next few years.

Admiral Yamamoto, the infamous Japanese naval commander in charge of the Japanese forces in this region during WWII commanded his forces from Rabaul for a great deal of the war. Hundreds of kilometres of tunnels were constructed under Rabaul during the war and we were able to access part of Yamamoto’s command bunker. Next to the bunker entrance was the old German New Guinea headquarters, which after WWI became the New Guinea Club, and which was also seconded by Yamamoto during WWII for use as a headquarters building. Today the New Guinea Club houses the Rabaul Historical Society, who with very little funding do their best to maintain accurate historical records and displays.

The Rabaul highlights tour culminated with a visit to the Rabaul Volcano Observatory which not only houses the equipment monitoring the volcanoes in the caldera but also provides a great view point looking out over Simpson Harbour. Then it was a quick visit to the town fruit and vegetable market as we returned to L’Austral waiting patiently for us at the wharf.

The third tour group today headed out of Rabaul and went further down the peninsula to the redeveloped town area of Kokopo. On the way the Japanese tunnel systems were quite evident and the group was able to see several landing barges still sitting inside the tunnels pretty much as they were left at the end of WWII albeit a little rustier and more decrepit. These tunnels were also dug out by locals after the volcanic eruptions to allow us to be able to view them today. Kokopo also has a reasonable collection of WWII artefacts including artillery pieces and light tanks on display at the town’s historical museum.

One of the most significant parts of the Kokopo tour was the visit to Bitapaka. Here lie the hundreds of predominately Australian soldiers killed during the Battle for Rabaul in WWII. A token Australian force, known as Lark Force, had been stationed on the peninsula to defend the airstrip and deep water port. Lark Force was significantly outnumbered when the inevitable Japanese invasion came. Those not immediately killed were captured and taken prisoner. Tragically, as the Australian PoWs were being shipped to Japanese occupied Hainan island off the coast of China to be used as labourers, an American submarine attacked and sank the Japanese cargo ship killing all the surviving Australians from Lark Force.

Bitapaka also had a role during WWI. The first Australian casualties of WWI lost their lives here, and their remains also lie in the Bitapaka War Cemetery. The Australians had been asked by the British to land at Rabaul and destroy a German Wireless station at Bitapaka. After a short battle that spread around the peninsula over several days, the Germans were defeated and soon right across what was then German New Guinea, the imperial German flag was replaced with the Australian flag, which then flew over the New Guinea Islands until 1975 when they joined the rest of the mainland and island groups to become the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.

Our afternoon was spent in the Pigeon Island group just outside Rabaul Harbour. The dark clouds that seem to have been following us since Tufi built up once again this afternoon but didn’t really give us too much grief. A local family from the Duke of York Islands were camping on Little Pigeon Island for the weekend during their Christmas holidays and while surprised to be suddenly sharing their secret holiday island with 200 international visitors arriving from a giant ship they warmly welcomed us and invited us to share their island.

We sailed out of PNG waters this evening en route to the Solomon Islands where more adventures await us…