Rabaul, Tuesday - Ingrid and I were out on the forward deck just in time to see Tavurvur erupt. As Orion approached Simpson Harbour at 5.30 am yesterday, a dense column of black ash spiralled rapidly through the cloud layer reaching about 8,000 feet before being pushed away and diluted by the prevailing south-easterly. Fortunately for Rabaul the ash was directed away from the town.
After some stuffing around with an overloaded local telephone system, I eventually caught up with my old mate and boss Sam Piniau – the first and former chairman of the PNG National Broadcasting Corporation. Sam now trades around the Gazelle Peninsula in cocoa and vanilla and is a long-time member of the PNG Sports Commission, a job which takes him to Port Moresby four times a year. At 68, he’s in good shape and the 30 years since we’d last seen each other hadn’t blunted the edge of our relationship.
Sam drove Ingrid and me through the bleak wasteland that is the new Rabaul, the occasional skeletal structure being the only sign that, before Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted simultaneously in 1994, a town once stood here. The once splendid boulevarde that was Mango Avenue is now a goat track. What was the only three storey structure in town, the District Office, has been obliterated. Radio East New Britain is a roofless shell. “I told Tom Pearson [one time NBC director of engineering and construction] not to give it a flat roof”, Sam joked.
We then drove out of town and took the long way to Kokopo: up the Burma Road to reach a plateau containing neat villages, substantial houses and rich cultivation. This I recognised. The Gazelle Peninsula, despite Rabaul’s demise, remains progressive, busy and comparatively wealthy. The education system is strong. The churches are active. The politics, as always, dynamic.
Reaching Kokopo, we called in at a small seaside restaurant for lunch. Here I met Francis Rangatin, the son of Chris, the NBC’s first director of news, who died last year. Death. When old mates get together, the subject they move to before most others is old mates. And many of our old Papua New Guinean mates have died, a substantial number after suffering from diabetes and losing one or more limbs. Over a cold SP beer and a meal of fresh fish, we pondered these and many more matters.
Later, in our stateroom, back on Orion, Ingrid remarked how Sam and Francis knew much more about Australia than Australians knew about PNG. And how they implicitly understood it would be the quality of the personal relationships that would improve the strained and testy conversation between our countries. John Howard and Alexander Downer take note.