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The Frangipani Festival reminds Rabaul of its past

Rabaul - Tavurvur
Tavurvur volcano


PORT MORESBY - The focus of the O’Neill-Abel government to divert most tourism development funds to the West and East New Britain is not to derail or downplay other aspiring provinces but to enable visitor numbers in the New Guinea Islands to gradually catch up.

Rabaul’s Frangipani Festival is becoming a global event, so over the next few years a huge climb in tourism numbers can be expected that will benefit province, region and country.

On the morning of 19 September 1994 when the colcanoes Vulcan and Tavurvur erupted forming an ash cloud reaching more than 18kms above Rabaul and causing 30,000 people to be evacuated from the town. The resultant damage to buildings and other structures was massive.

That eruption caused a lot of hardship for Rabaul, but over the last 25 years the once beautiful town has been able to revive itself and regain its reputation as a tropical paradise.

The Frangipani Festival commemorates the anniversary of destruction and rebirth and, being in September, it also celebrates Papua New Guinea’s independence.

The streets of Rabaul come alive with noise and colour for an annual float parade. There are canoe races in the spectacular harbour. Schools come together to celebrate. The famous Baining fire dance mesmerises crowds.

Rabaul - Frangipani Festival parade on Malaguna Road  2016
Frangipani Festival parade on Malaguna Road

The first float parade was held in 1995, on the first anniversary of the eruption, just as the town was getting back on its feet.

“I think we had only 25 floats and we thought that was a lot,” said an organiser, Susie McGrade. “It was only supported by the people who actually lived in Rabaul at the time.” But it grew.

“Around 2000 we were shocked when there were 65 floats and Rabaul Market was packed.”

In succeeding year, the support escalated and in 2016 the parade hit an all-time high with 165 floats and 7,000 people lining the streets.

The canoe race, tagged the Two Stone Kanu, has also been steadily growing in popularity and now 75 men and 55 women take part in the race around the Beehives, the dramatic volcanic structures projecting from the placed waters of the harbour.

“And of course the Kinavai and the Baining fire dances are always well supported, said McGrade. “These are the highlights of the cultural side of the festival and the Historical Society also keeps our culture and history alive.”

The festival generates great support from the Tolai people. At peak festival times, it takes travellers two hours to get into Rabaul because all roads are so congested for the float parade.

There has been growing interest from overseas and local visitors. Tourists looking for memorable experiences certainly get them in Rabaul at this time. And shops, hotels, resorts and guesthouses in Rabaul are booked to capacity.

Rabaul - Baining Fire Dance
Baining Fire Dance

The staging of the Frangipani Festival is done through the support of the Rabaul business community and there is no government support. It is the only PNG festival which is free to the public and this is because Rabaul business houses get behind the festival with all the support they can.

Funds raised from the festival go to keeping the Rabaul Museum open to the public.

The festival committee consists of a team of dedicated volunteers including McGrade as chairwoman, chairman Dennison Kyvung, town manager Victor Vitliu, cultural coordinator Dickson Kondaul, David Pua, Alice Guere and a district education representative and school heads.

“This year we have a number of sponsorship packages available and would love to hear from businesses or organisations interested in partnering,” McGrade said. “We are always grateful for any donations, no matter how small they may seem.”

Registration for participation is open for the float parade and prizes are awarded for the most creative, the most entertaining, the best corporate and the best community group and private float.

The festival is named after the glorious trees that perfume the streets of Rabaul. Once you have arrived in Rabaul, most likely through Port Moresby, you are met at Kokopo airport and, if you are staying in a hotel, you will most probably be taken there by a pickup bus.

As well as the festival there is lot more to see around Rabaul including the Lark Force and 2/22 Memorial, the Montevideo Maru Memorial, Rabaul Museum, Yamamoto's Bunker, the Peace Memorial and the Submarine Base.

Towards Kokopo there are the World War II barge tunnels and Japanese underground hospital and the Kokopo War Museum. The Bita Paka War Cemetery is also not to be missed.

Every new day is a good day in Rabaul, starting with a hearty breakfast of fresh coconut water, tropical fruits and of course aromatic PNG coffee and tea

Rabaul - Frangipani Festival floatThen you might head out to the still smoking Tavurvur volcano and its hot springs. Locals from Matupit village at the foot of the volcano will tell you the story of Rabaul’s volcanoes. You can then visit the renowned vulcanological observatory on top of Tunnel Hill.

At the Rabaul Bung Market you may like to try the Tolai’s favoured buai (betelnut) or the local karamap - banana, fish and greens wrapped in banana leaves.

Although the town has been knocked about badly in the past by Mother Nature, the people of Rabaul persisted and stand proud of what's been accomplished, and they love welcoming visitors to this special place.

Peter S Kinjap is a freelance writer and a blogger, email [email protected]


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Arthur Williams

I had happy memories of Rabaul before the 1994 eruptions and so felt very sad when I flew in about a year later. I recall seeing only the apex of the roof of what had been my friend Justice Tomarum’s home.

As an old New Ireland hand, I have never ceased to be amazed that, from the time I arrived in Kavieng, beautiful, volcano free New Ireland has been ignored as a better and safer place to have an international airport.

Sir Julius Chan, one of the founders of the nation, has always been MP for the province yet he seems to have ignored his native roots for the commercial benefit of his hotel and shipping business in the dangerous shadow of the Rabaul volcanoes.

I cannot recall any major attempt by any other of the many New Ireland MPs over the past 50 years really pushing hard for Kavieng as the preferred site.

We have had many talks and occasional land disputes by landowners as the airstrip has been piecemeal improved and lengthened but never with the intent of making it more than a mere provincial airport rather than an international one.

Even with the advent of the Lihir and Simberi gold mines, Kavieng was bypassed in favour of Rabaul’s Tokua Airport, though some international flights have been allowed into the Kunaye airfield on Lihir for overseas employees of the mine. I think they may have been charter flights from northern Australia.

Only last week the government is said to have provided K6 million for a 1.4 km extension to Kavieng airport, but apart from the improved length to attract overseas flights you also need all the improvements to terminal facilities and town infrastructure.

There was nothing in the PM’s 200 pig fest speech about wanting to see Kavieng becoming a port of entry for flights into PNG.

Nothing irked me more when flying Air Nuigini from Asia to PNG than, on a clear day, being able to see my destination - beloved Lavongai Island - below our seven mile high jetliner and knowing we were destined to fly another hour and half or so over the Bismarck Sea and over the ranges to land in filthy, dusty Moresby.

There to spend a night in an expensive hotel only to be up at crack of dawn to get an expensive flight that followed exactly the previous day's route to reach Kavieng. Doesn’t seem there will ever be a change to that itinerary in my lifetime.

However there appears to be no logic for preferring the volcanic Gazelle with the ever present foreboding of a worst case scenario of another terrible eruption like 1994 or what has happened since then - such outpouring of ash and smoke that Tokua is closed to all flights and lo and behold they are diverted to the safety of Kavieng.

I don’t know what drives this crazy emphasis on Rabaul being the logical place for a major airport. Perhaps it was because the Germans liked it but they hadn't thought of flying when they moved their HQ from northern New Guinea coast to Simpson harbour.

My only dream now is that when New Ireland autonomy comes the governor and his members willsay, “Right let's open New Ireland to international flights!”

Till then Rabaul, enjoy your festivals.

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