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The Father – one of PNG’s most dangerous volcanoes

The Father at dawn
Mt Ulawun (The Father) seen from Graham King's veranda at dawn


BIALLA - On most mornings when it’s not raining I look out from my veranda to check what the weather’s like and to see whether the summit of Mt Ulawun is visible.

I take regular photos of the emissions and send them through to the vulcanologists at the Rabaul Volcano Observatory.

Ulawun is almost symmetrical with the northern slope forming an almost perfect angle of repose.  It is a strato-volcano with the upper 1,000 metres not vegetated.

The lower slopes are mainly vegetated with large tracts of Kamarere (Eucalyptus deglupta) which have thrived on the old lava flows.

Mt Ulawun eruption  1970
Mt Ulawun erupts in 1970

Mount Ulawun (also known as The Father) rears majestically from the Bismarck Sea on the north coast of the island of New Britain. The border between East and West New Britain provinces runs through the peak of the mountain.

Most people in Papua New Guinea are familiar with The Mother (Tavurvur) the volcano that destroyed Rabaul in 1994. But The Father is potentially even more destructive.

At 2,334 metres high Mt Ulawun is the tallest volcano in the Bismarck Archipelago and one of the most frequently active volcanoes in PNG. It is also one of the most dangerous. 

The volcano was first seen by a European in 1700 when William Dampier watched it erupting from the southern side of New Britain island near what is now known as Wide Bay. 

The next recording was 178 years later. A large eruption in 1915 deposited 10 cm of ash at Toriu, 50km northeast of the volcano.

Twentieth-century eruptions were only mildly explosive until 1967. In 1970 a large eruption produced nuees ardentes, incandescent clouds of gas, ash, and lava fragments, and lava flows.  The eruption devastated the north-west flank of Mt Ulawun and modified the summit crater.

After 1970 several larger eruptions produced lava flows and basaltic pyroclastic flows of fast-moving hot gas which also greatly modified the summit crater.

From Ulamona Mission
Steam rising from the summit pf The Father as seen from Ulamona Mission

An eruption in 1980 ejected ash to 18,000 metres and produced pyroclastic flows which swept all flanks of the volcano, devastating an area of 20 sq km. 

On my first flight to Rabaul in December 1980 the pilot of the F27 took us on a detour and circled the then erupting volcano.  I doubt that a pilot would get away with that manoeuvre these days. 

The most serious volcanic hazard at Mt Ulawun is catastrophic structural collapse, producing an eruption which could devastate hundreds of square kilometres.  There is also the potential for a large tsunami given the volcanoes proximity to the coast.

Just as Mt Tavurvur in Rabaul has her daughters, Mt Ulawun has his sons, Northson and Southson (Mt Bamus).

On most mornings a thin stream of smoke can be seen rising from the crater but by mid morning the peak is almost always covered by cloud.

Several villages, including the Catholic Mission at Ulamona, lie on the coast on the northern slope of the volcano.  The village people are on constant alert for signs of activity from the mountain and are prepared to evacuate if the warning is given that an eruption is imminent.

Mt UlawunThe Rabaul Volcano Observatory maintains a station at Ulamona.  The observer reports daily to the vulcanologists in Rabaul.  I regularly take photos of the summit (whenever I can see it) and send these to the vulcanologists so they can see if the emissions are changing.

The soils surrounding the volcano are recent volcanic ash soils that are very fertile and, combined with the high rainfall, ideal for agriculture particularly oil palm. 

The layers of ash, each no more than 10 cm, tell a story of frequent large eruptions the most recent of which is only 40 years old.

Large oil palm plantations and smallholder oil palm blocks have been established on the lower slopes of the mountain.  Like the local villagers, the plantation employees are on the alert for signs of increased activity and mock evacuation drills are practiced annually.

Mt Ulawun is on the eastern edge of the world famous Kimbe Bay and divers on MV FeBrina regularly stop at Fathers Reef.  Not only do they enjoy the spectacular coral reefs but they can also enjoy the view of The Father rearing up from the edge of the bay.

Visitors to West New Britain can visit Mt Ulawun by road (about four hours from Kimbe). Fishing enthusiasts travelling to Baia Fishing Lodge also can experience the spectacular views of the volcano as they pass Lolobau Island, another volcano.


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Arthur Williams

I shall not forget my first flight into Rabaul with my family on the way to start as a kiap in Taskul. The Fokker 27, I think, took us in a circle above the waters of Rabaul harbour inside the ancient caldera while skirting the more geologically recent volcanoes.

We were not only descending but seem to have been dipping one wing at an alarming angle to complete the manoeuvre. Quite an exciting introduction to PNG.

We landed at the old Matupit airport that would be abandoned after the 1994 eruptions. That was quite interesting as the runway went from one side of what was once an island to the other before ash rocks etc debris from past eruptions had joined it to the main New Britain Island.

Raymond Sigimet

I had a similar experience, Graham, of a change in flight path.

In early 1994, my father and I boarded a single engine Airlink plane out of Hoskins en route to Rabaul (before the twin volcanic eruptions).

Over Bialla, the pilot decided to detour and circle the summit of Mt Ulawun. It was a clear day and the summit and mountain itself was majestic.

I looked out the plane's window and had a good view of the crater. I felt my heart racing. This mountain is quite something. It dominates the landscape and makes everything insignificant.

In September of 1994, I witnessed the eruptions in Rabaul, one of the most beautiful towns in the Pacific.

I think Mt Ulawun would be the most destructive volcano in PNG if ever it decides to blow its top.

Great article!

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