The end for Rabaul?

Bismarck Sea, Thursday - Orion wound her way out of Simpson Harbour yesterday evening on her way to the Sepik. Since our arrival early Monday, Tavurvur volcano continued to belch a thick cloud of black ash which the prevailing south-easterly caused to drift remorselessly over Rabaul leaving the town, and us, grubby and sulphuric. The ash gritted between my teeth and a medical condition, which I will call ‘Tavurvur Throat’, could only be soothed by the application of a large libation of ice cold SP beer.

It was on the long, hot and dusty walk from Orion to the Hamamas Hotel (around which there is a story) that the future of Rabaul became clear to me. On Malaguna Avenue I again met the middle-aged Tolai man from Matupit Island , in the shadow of Tavurvur. I’d encountered Matthias when Ingrid and I were out walking on the first day. He’d rushed to greet me yelling “G’day Bill! Where are you from?” To Matthias everyone was Bill.

He was now standing alongside a pick-up truck parked in front of Seeto’s decrepit trade store at the town’s western fringe. In the back of the truck squatted a group of ten glum men. At their feet, a few bush knives, sarifs, kulau and other possessions. The only good cheer came from Matthias. “G’day Bill!” he shouted. I asked him where they were going. To the New Matupit, Matthias told me, a resettlement area in the hills near Vunakabi beyond the Burma Road.

They were giving up on Matupit. The most recent eruption had destroyed most of their canoes and generated a tsunami they feared might annihilate the village. No one was hurt but they’d had enough. They were voluntarily taking a step that protracted government persuasion since the 1994 eruption had failed to elicit. Demoralised, they were abandoning Matupit for good. They were miserable – and it showed.

222_street2“You were in Rabaul in 1970, Bill,” barked Matthias happily. “They are leaving. Give them some words.” So I stumbled my way through an inadequate speech in Pidgin about how sad I felt for them but I had driven past their new home yesterday and it was beautiful place with rich soil and fine trees and I was sure they would find it a good and safe home. I did not sound, and I am sure I did not look, convincing.

Matthias, however, was pleased. “He was Radio Rabaul”, he announced to the men. I wished him luck, we shook hands and went our separate ways. When the Matupit islanders start leaving, I thought, that’s the end for Rabaul. Of course, for so long as ships can still enter the harbour, there will always be a port. But there is unlikely to be a Rabaul community.

A fellow passenger, Bryan Grey, Ingrid and I finally trudged into the Hamamas Hotel for a welcome cleanser or two. Owner Bruce Grant had saved his investment in 1994 by shovelling ash of the roof faster than it fell. It’s now the last intact building in this part of town. The ash fell constantly as we were there and, while it won’t drive out Grant, another blow to tourism might.

People in Rabaul are talking about Vulcan erupting again and about a new underwater volcano, Togirgir, south of Vulcan, emerging. They’re worried and the Matupit villagers are leaving. It’s just possible we’re witnessing the end of Rabaul.

Photo: House in 2/22nd Street where we lived in Rabaul in 1970 [Ingrid Jackson]


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Ian Ross

Around 1974-75, when I was aged about 10, I lived in the magistrate's house on Namanula Hill with my family. Dad worked for the government as a lawyer and prosecutor.

I went to Rabaul Primary School and remember the sea pool and sailing solo around the Beehives. Terrified me at the time.

My moo and brother climbed part way into the crater of Vulcan many years before it erupted. I remember the fortifications and barges - remnants of World War II.

I can’t remember the street address of our house other than it was on Namanula Hill with 10 acres of land, Japanese tunnels and a bunker.

Paul Palko

I used to manage the restaurant and the bar at the Kaivuna Hotel in Rabaul in 1972.

Not many people I remember, II knew the German guy who was the man at the bakery, I had to wake him up most of the time at the early hours to fire up the owens, as we catered for Ansett and TAA flight crew and the left early in the morning to prepare their flights.

Another person I knew was Tim, who worked as a diver with Lloyd insurance company. My work schedule was kind of strange as I started at around 3-4am, then around 6am waking up my local guys (many times with a bucket of water) after that starting to prepare breakfast and lunch for the crew and passengers for the day, after around 8-9am going to the market to get all the fresh vegies and fruit for lunch and dinner.

After lunch about 3 hours break then back again preparing the "boys" for dinner session, finishing at around midnight.

Beside the heavy work I had time to drive around Rabaul, taking many pictures, climbing the volcanoes, many times scuba diving with Tim.

My stay unfortunately was cut short as I picked up malaria and had to get back to Sydney. I loved Rabaul and the people and never forget the beautiful places around.

Helene Mary Doolan

My father was Fredrick Winkle and was the magistrate at the courthouse in Rabaul. As a child growing up there I have many fond memories of that time.

Our family returned to Brisbane in 1964 as my father was very ill as a result of his World War II experiences.

I was considering returning to Rabaul for a visit but wondered what would I see? We lived on Namanula Hill. Does anybody know if the magistrate's house is still there?

When travelling once more is a thing, Helene, I can assure you that Rabaul / Kokopo is great for a visit. Plenty to see and do. Hope one of our readers will be help you find out if the magistrate's house is still standing - KJ

Joyce Bennie

Wondering if any one remembers my uncle David Wylie, who was I think a harbourmaster in Rabaul from the 1950s to 1965?

Frank Earley

Oh dear, such nostalgic memories triggered by finding this post again about Rabaul thanks to all the other contributors. I can feel your nostalgia. Special wasn't it, eh.

Thanks to those who filled in the details about announcer Grey Easterbrook whom I worked along side as an ABC radio tech.

I was trying to recall the time on guitar I accompanied I'm sure was Johnny O'Keefe on a one night concert he did in Rabaul about 1968. Anyone remember that?

I played quite a bit of jazz in various groups in Rabaul and one year TAA flew us to Lae to play for their annual ball. One engine failed on the DC3 on the return.

Noted in the last few years was the sad passing of both my rector Lyle Turley of St Georges Anglican and Don Clark, pharmacist and neighbour, and expect that my great mate Arnold Nunn from Nunn and Casey furniture has left us also. It became 'pal na madaka' after he left Rabaul (house of carpenter).

As a tech have fond memories of Noel Myers the chief tech at Rabaul Vulcanological Observatory.

Had an interesting time as Scoutmaster of the Rabaul Senior Sea Scouts about then. We were asked to take a floating pontoon from Simpson Harbour wharf around the coast to the developing oil terminal just past Kurakakaul. No such things as life jackets then.

Still have the note book of a great scout camp at Rapollo, Tovakundum plantation and I wonder what ever happened to these fine scouts, Thomas Tonin patrol leader, Francis Saua patrol second, Paul, Nick Ban, John Avapura, Manu Broom, David Daniels, myself 'Kimba' Frank Earley scout master.

I was saddened but not unexpectedly by the death about November 2019 of my very dear friend Mele Paivu of Paivu Tours, a bigman in the Tolai community. I'm still in contact with his family.

In another post of mine, he took the day off in 1964 to show me around instead of his bus business on my one day there with P&O exactly two weeks before the eruption.

I had many years of sailing my 12 foot VS sailboat in the harbour single-handed and often ran the movie projector at the Rabaul Yacht Club on Sunday nights.

I lived at the far left hand end of Wanliss Street in an ABC house and knew a Peter Donaldson (from age five actually) who worked at TAA Rabaul travel.

Wow, just realised it was 50 years and five days ago when we finally sailed (go pinis) out of that beautiful harbour on MV Chitral (1 January 1971) and am yet still fairly fluent in Kuanua. Mmmm, 77 feeling like 57. Must have been my six years there.

Stay Covid safe everyone. Boina ravian piruit partika.

[email protected]

Liz Burbrook

Pia Trewin, see my post above. Grey died of cancer in 2014. Today would have been his 80th birthday.

We were together and should have stayed so, but I was too scared to make the leap; something that I have forever regretted.

After Rabaul, Grey was in Moresby then, after leave, a brief stint in Tasmania, which he hated, then Darwin for the rest of his career.

Peter Goerman

Steve Humphries - regarding the Navy man you are still looking for, would that have been Sandy Sandilands? If so, contact me at [email protected]

Anders Burden

My two uncles and grandmother (Reillys) lived at their plantation outside Rabaul throughout the late 50's, 60's and early 70's.

They also ran their tavern on the property and it was frequented by many locals. They were all very well known, especially our grandmother.

I would love to hear if anyone has any recollections so I can pass them on to my aging mum. Please contact me at [email protected]

Peter Langley

This is a much later update relating to the foregoing comments.

My wife and I have just returned from a one day tour of Rabaul reaching there on the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth. We were really looking forward to going around the town and booked a private all day tour.

We lived in Rabaul from 1968 to 1973, myself working for Hancock Woodward & Neill (accountants) and my wife worked for Ross Jennings until the birth of our first daughter.

I notice a number of comments here from people we knew like Peter Georman, who mentioned Graeme Ward and Barry Weir, who I worked with. Also here is Caryll Beck at the Kaivuna who I worked with at the time. Also I see Patsy Donaldson (ex Rutter) who we knew very well at the time and met many years later in Melbourne.

Anyway to our tour around Rabaul. It was very hard for us go around the old areas like Mango Avenue, the New Guinea Club, Yacht Club, RSL Club etc and see the mess it is now. Went around the areas and really did not recognise much as it is now all overgrown and the two motels are a mess.

Took the road to Kokopo and it was also a disaster as there had been two weeks of very heavy rain and the water from the hills had washed away a lot of the roads and some bridges. It took 90 minutes to get there.

We had a lovely lunch at a Kokopo resort before coming back to Rabaul over the top road. Rabaul, when we were there, was the pick of the South Pacific and we had a great time even with the frequent earthquakes and the killing of the district commissioner and subsequent trial. But day boat trips to the islands etc made up for this trials.

We had a tear in our eyes as the ship departed Rabaul and all we really had were the memories of what a great place it was to live in during those early days of our marriage. Anybody wanting to catch, our email is [email protected]

Steve Humphries

I used to be one of the radio staff at the OTC Radio Station in Rabaul. I lived in the DCA dongas and loved with a passion my time there.

I met Mike a Patrol Officer and he showed us the ropes so to speak. My sport was parachute jumping at Kokopo but that came to an end when my partner Doreen Woodage was killed along with the pilot when the parachute and airplane collided.

George Tyler’s was our instructor but I don't know where he is now.

Bottom line. I really miss Rabaul.

I am still looking for my boss at the radio station who was a Navy man and a great man too.

Liz Burbrook

Attention Frank Earley - Regarding Grey Easterbrook, I only know that he died of cancer. I had always dreamed that one day we would be together again, but it wasn't to be. He had told me about the death of his girlfriend.

After he left Rabaul, he travelled for a while then went to Moresby then Tasmania, which he hated, and then Darwin.

Peter Goerman

Here are some of my memories of Rabaul in 1970:
Maybe it brings back some pleasant memories for some of you :-)

Patsy Donaldson (ex Rutter)

I lived in Wanliss Street in 1968 to 1970 with my now ex-husband who was a pilot with TAA. Then we moved to Namanula Hill.

We frequently went to the Yacht Club and the New Guinea Club.

I also spent most mornings at the swimming pool with other wives & our children. Rabaul was a beautiful place back then and it is so sad that all that has gone.

Frank Earley

Attention Liz Burbrook re Grey Easterbrook's passing.

I had just read another post by someone who was fond of him and that he was living in Darwin so I was about to chase him up then read your sad news. Arethere any more details?

Also sad was the passing of Ian Boden who worked with Grey at ABC Rabaul. Ian was married to Delma Muga who was also a reporter.

A relevant nostalgic post of mine from 2007;- About 1968 villagers sang hymns at the site of a tragedy when sky divers were caught/suspended in a cloudy updraft after they left the aircraft.

The pilot didn't know this, flew around to check, and hit one or more of them and crashed.

I was on duty at the ABC studios in the half-round tin shed in Malaguna Road that Sunday evening and vividly remember the announcer Grey Easterbrook playing "The carnival is Over" (Seekers)and he read the news bulletin.
His girlfriend had died in that accident.

That song became permanently attached to my emotions of that tragedy.

David Ashley

I was a teacher at Rabaul High 1972-73. Also a frequent habitué at the Yacht Club. I would very much like to get in touch with other teachers from the school - especially Bob Smiley, who used to live in Brisbane. I returned to UK after my two years.

Melanie Latter

I am not sure if this thread is still going, but my Father, John Latter, was the resident volcanologist in Rabaul - 1959-1963. My Mother Helen and John lived in the house at the top of the hill with the observatory just slightly nearby. I was born there in '61. My parents and I and my children now live in Bundaberg, Queensland, after quite a bit of shifting around in the meantime - UK and NZ. My parents' cook boy Mathias and his wife Hannah had a little girl called Sabina. My Father used to drive her to school down the hill. She married a principal/deputy principal? at Kerevat National High School - would anyone know of her whereabouts? I believe Louise and Frank Wysse ran the Trade Store (?) - their daughter Orana was born a week before me. They moved to Canberra. Louise and Frank are no longer with us. Walley (sp) Johnson lives in Brisbane and Dad tells me, still visits Rabaul. Molly Coleman used to live in Rabaul at the same time as us, since passed away I understand. Thank you.
Melanie. ([email protected])

Caryll Beck

It is nice to read some comments and memories of Rabaul.

Peter and I ran the Kaivuna hotel from 1969-1971, where Barry Weir was one of the directors.

Those years were very enjoyable. It's so sad to see what happened and just be able to make out the hotel in the ashes.

Liz Burbrook

Pia Trewin, or if anyone is still reading this thread, Grey Easterbrook died in Darwin on 28/08/2014. I don't know any details. He was 74. The world is an emptier place. xxx

Annie Wraight (formerly Ignacio)

I worked with the McGrades when the Hamamas Hotel was opened until 1994 when the volcano erupted. I looked after the administration and front office and was trusted by both Gerry and Joyce in a number of things. I also enjoyed working with Heather, Susan and Bruce.

In September 1994 I saw the transformation of Rabaul from a lush green town to a ghost town after the eruption. I went with Bruce to the airport and watch the volcano the day after it erupted.

I am residing in the UK and sadly lost contact with them but I wish to know where I could get in touch with Joyce or Gerry. I tried to email Hamamas Hotel but no luck.

Let's hope an Attitude reader may be able to assist Annie - KJ

Geoff Howes

I lived in Rabaul from 1971 to 1979. Want to correspond with any hash house harriers of that time. My email address is [email protected]

Mavis Host

We lived in Rabaul from 1971 to 1978 and it holds a many special memories for us, among them two of our children were born there.

I taught at Tavui Secondary School and then Rabaul Secondary in town and Colin taught at Malaguna Tech.

We have many, many wonderful memories of Rabaul. Golf, Ulu, Yacht Club, numerous dinners, lots of friends (Rabaul ladies still meet yearly here in Brisbane). It is too much to put in a short space. A special time.

Mavis Host


What lovely stories, I am sad however to say that the owner of the Rabaul Hotel is not Bruce Grant at the time you were there it Was Susan and Bruce Alexander. It has been in Susans family starting with her father Gerry McGrade since 1960. In 1994 Bruce Alexander as well as Susans sister Heather Phillips and her husband Mike Phillips and their mother and father Gerry and Joyce McGrade were there to dig the hotel out of the ash. Susan had to be airlifted out with her daughter to Australia for her daughters safety. Bruce and SUsie only took over the hotel in 2000 after the Phillips left for Australia with their five year old daughter, with frequent visits from Gerry and Joyce McGrade. I hope this information helps you

Peter Goerman

I left a note earlier (23 Aug 2009) and for what it's worth I add another detail: I retired 16 years ago in a small place near Batemans Bay called Nelligen where I befrieded Betty and Sandy Sandilands who had lived in Rabaul for many years but before my time (I arrived at the end of 1969). Betty used to work in the BP store in Mango Avenue across from the bakery and Sandy was manager for OTC. We spent many evenings reminiscing about Rabaul. Sadly Sandy passed away some years ago. If anyone wants to get in touch with Betty, email me at [email protected] and I pass the message on to her.

Denise Worrill (Hitchenson)

My family lived in Rabaul from 1967 till 1971. My dad was the dentist, John Hitchenson, first with Nonga Hospital and then in private practice. We three children went to school in Rabaul. We have fond memories of a great childhood there, sailing and swimming and riding our bikes everywhere.

Peter Goerman

Rbaul had been my jumping-off spot in PNG when I arrived there in early January 1970. Worked for Hancock Woodward & Neill, Chartered Accountants, in Park Street, with Graham Ward, Barry Weir (the resident partner), and later Brian Henderson. Lived in an old converted Chinese tradestore in Vulcan Street with two other accountants; later moved to the PWD mess hall on Malaguna Road. Stayed for just under a year, then moved onto the Bougainville Copper Project, but Rabaul will always be my favourite place in PNG. Thanks for the info on your blog.

Pia Trewin

You would have known Grey Easterbrook and Ron Grainger, all good mates. I wonder where they are today. I lived in Rabaul from 1952 to 1971. Our home was on the Namanula Hill Road opposite the DCA mess.

Frank Earley

Thanks for the (sad) news of beloved Rabaul.
I lived near the end (left hand side) of Wanlis St (Off 2/22nd St) from 1965 to 1971. This was A.B.C owned, then passed on to the N.B.C. and was great to revisit meeting the nice local B/Cast man and family when in 1994;-
I revisited on a P&O ship exactly 2 weeks to the hour on that Monday before "em I bugger-up"from the volcanoes.

Amazing having waited 23 years to do this nostalgic return then that happened.
Meli Paivu is/was a friend who had been just a clerk at Shell Co by then had become the owner of the Shell service station and many other businesses. Gratefully he took me around for the whole day in port when he could have been attending to his multi bus tourist business.
We looked for an old "Bossboi" that day from the radio station at the Kurakakaul ABC Transmitting Station. He lived not far from Pila Pila and Meli was asked the villagers about him.
You spoke about shaking off the rust from Pidgin, likewise the Kuanua/Tinatatuna place talk came flooding back and I was amazed how much I followed after all those years, and even Messalum ToWaddama understood me when we found him. I feel for you in your lament about the demise of Rabaul (The swamp) and what it was like to sail in and out by ship.
The old diggers on board celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Coral Sea Battle had few dry eyes when arriving.
When ever the diminishing opportunity arises, I thank any remaining diggers for their efforts in stopping the Japanese from taking Australia.
I often wonder what happened to The litle Anglican Church not that far from the Library. Was it destroyed? Did they rebuild it? There was a lovely little notice over the door;- "I shall pass through this world but once. If there is any goodness I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now for I shall not pass this way again"
Nothing is surer than change, it's how we deal with it.
Funny creatures we humans are when the emotions of nostangia can be so powerful.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)