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.
“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]