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Rabaul

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Dec 16, 2021

Rabaul is the former provincial capital of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea. It was evacuated and nearly destroyed in 1994 when the nearby volcano Tavurvur erupted. As a tourist destination, Rabaul is popular for scuba diving and for snorkelling sites and also offers a spectacular harbour. Because of its war-time history it attracts many Japanese visitors. This article covers Rabaul and the neighboring town of Kokopo, to which the authorities moved the provincial capital after the eruption.

Tavurvur volcano

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Rabaul is on the Gazelle Peninsula in the northeast of New Britain island. Most of the indigenous people are Tolais. During the eruption 80% of the buildings in Rabaul collapsed. Although there has been much reconstruction the city always runs the risk of further volcanic activity.

Rabaul (the word means Mangrove in one of the local languages as it was built on a mangrove swamp) was the headquarters of German New Guinea until it was captured by Commonwealth troops during World War I. The Australian administration was moved to Lae in 1937 after an eruption that caused over 500 deaths. In January 1942, it was heavily bombed on January 23 as thousands of Japanese troops were landed. By 1943 there were about 110,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul and around 2,000 local women were forced into sexual slavery. The Japanese army dug many kilometers of tunnels as shelter from the Allied air forces and many of these can still be seen today.

On 19 September 1994, Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes erupted, destroying the nearby airport and covering most of the town with heavy ash. Fortunately the city’s inhabitants evacuated before the eruption and only a handful of people were killed. Most of the buildings in the southeastern half of Rabaul collapsed due to the weight of ash.

  • Air Niugini has daily flights from the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, as well as flights from Lae, Kavieng, Hoskins in West New Britain, Buka in Bougainville and other locations in PNG. Rabaul Airport was completely destroyed in the 1994 eruption as it was in direct path of the falling ash from the nearby vents. The airport was later rebuilt at Tokua to the southeast, but this has also occasionally been closed by ashfall from continuing volcanic activity. Despite its new location the airport continues to use the three-letter code RAB. On arrival, you can get collected by your accommodation – but be aware of fees, often K40 or more – or get a taxi for a similar cost, or, if you’re on a tight budget, get the public minibuses into Kokopo for K2. Many hotels are walking distance from the bus route and you can even connect to the 1A bus to Rabaul. On departure, the airport is horrible, very hot with insufficient seating, one small shop that doesn’t even sell water, and the only working toilets are in the departure lounge, which you can’t access until shortly before the flight. You still want to check in 1.5-2 hours ahead to avoid being bumped, but come prepared.
  • Coastal shipping. There are several vessels that connect Lae with Rabaul, with intermediate stops. Some of these carry passengers.

Buses ferry locals around for 80t for short trips. The 1A bus runs between Kokopo and Rabaul in about 40 minutes for K3.50 (K5 if it’s raining as they take a longer but less muddy route) – between the 1A and walking, you could see some of the attractions quite cheaply.

Hire cars are available from hotels and companies. They are expensive – with base costs of maybe K240 per day plus a mileage fee and petrol, you could spend K400 on a day trip to Rabaul from Kokopo. The traffic is pretty relaxed but some of the Kokopo-Rabaul Road is badly damaged by mudslides and some of the side roads are rough – 4WD might be advisable.

Tours can be organised by any of the hotels, for land (war sites, volcano) or sea (diving, Duke of York Islands). They are a great way to see everything but are expensive unless you have a big group – think minimum K700 per car.

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