Early in the morning on the 19th of september 1994, where people in the picturesque city of Rabaul, were still fast asleep, a rumble as deep and loud as thunder could be heard. This was no thunderstorm though, and within minutes it was clear to even the most sceptical, that Mt. Tavurvur, the dormant vulcano just south east of town, had erupted. Erupted, indeed, with such force that within 24 hours most of the city was buried in 1-2 meters of thick and concrete heavy ash. Remarkably only 2 people lost their lives. Today most people have started a new life a little way south, in a the new city of Kokopo, where most of the shops and hotels now are to be found, and where I have set up camp.
Getting here by small boats was no easy task though, and took me through some very rough weather, jungle, beaches and countless small villages.
I finally found a boat from Losuia, Trobrian Islands, that was leaving for Bolubolu, the small station on Goodenough Island. However the weather was rough, so we ended up waiting for hours before we could take off.
Not long after leaving port we would find ourselves in a sea beaten up by the wind, animating the waves to grow in strength and power. The little cargo ship carrying 34 teachers and me, was tipping ominously up, down and from side to side. Waves crashed in over the main deck, and the people sitting there holding on to dear life. People were getting seasick left and right, and the only thing I could think of doing was to hold on to the iron bars of the ceiling holding the tarpaulin, and just fix my eyes on the horizon and try to fight off my increasing weariness. One of the crew would come out and yell “Balance the boat, balance the boat”, and we would have to relocate ourselves, and even out the weight. At one very critical point a wave forced the little boat onto its side, lifting the keel right out of the water, and for a moment that seemed to last forever, we balanced there, only to turn violently back the other way. We almost capsized, and it was no fun at all.
We did make it however, but it did make me reconsider the sanity of the whole project. It is very important to evaluate the boats and the weather before you get onto them, so as to at least to some extend minimize the risk. You can never be sure though, and with the boat transport situation in Papua New Guinea being all but hopeless, it is hard to be choosy. Almost always, you will have to take what is there, and hope the weather holds.
I made it to Goodenough Island, and would spend the next couple of days still feeling seasick. It wore off though and my morale came back in full force. Getting away from Goodenough was not easy either, since this is far from any normal trade routes. It’s like this, if you want to travel in Papua new Guinea by boat, you have to follow the trade routes, since that’s where the boats are, and that’s also where the passengers are. Outside of these trade routes, boats are much more sparse, and you will have to get lucky. After 3 days, I did get lucky though, and found that the principal head teacher of the island was leaving on a tour around the southwest of the island, to give a message to all the local village schools. This gave me a perfect opportunity to come along, but for the crossing over to the main land, he would not go, and I had to pay for the gasoline in full. They were friendly though, and decided to ferry me across the straight to Cape Vogel, as long as I covered the fuel. Seemingly still in luck, within 30 minutes, I had found another boat going north up the coast to Tufi, just where I was going. The next couple of days, I was able to continue the journey north all the way up to Lae. It took 5-6 full days of sailing, and had me pass through what must have been no less than 20 different villages, all with their unique languages.
On the way we stayed in whatever village was closest, and one night we had to crash on the beach, and in a small transit hut, built for local passengers passing through. It was a great way to see some of the varied villages and its people, in their tranquil environment.
In Lae the big decision of whether or not to go into the Highlands had to be made. But considering the time it had taken me to get to Lae, and the distance that lies ahead, made the call for me. So after 10 full days of replenishing myself and my gear I decided to continue east. This however should prove almost impossible. Rabaul Shipping, the only remaining passenger ship in Papua New Guinea, who runs one boat from Lae to Rabaul, where I was heading, I was soon to found out, has a “no White Man” policy. I was simply not allowed to buy a ticket. This infuriated me, and I went to the local police and presented my case. With two policemen in front of me, I returned to the Rabaul Shipping office and demanded to be issued a ticket. They said that they would look into it. But after further days of waiting, with a lot of frustrating calls the their head office, I decided to let them keep their stupidity for themselves, and continue by small boats.
Down at the Voco Point at the harbour in Lae, it was pretty easy to find a boat to Finschafen, the east point of mainland Papua New Guinea, and the trip took only about 3 hours. The task here was to find a boat to the small Island of Siasi (Umboi). But since that meant crossing the ocean, no boats were going. I ended up staying with a family at the nearby Dregerhafen school area. Some students from Siasi, wanted to go back to their Island, and was waiting for the school to provide the means. This never really happened, and after 6 whole days of waiting for a school decision, I told them that I was willing to put up 500 kina (200USD), if they were willing to share the cost. This changed things rapidly, and before long we had a boat, crew and gasoline.
The crossing over to Siasi was without any incidents and was a pretty journey passing by several smaller islands on the way. From Siasi, it was soon very clear to me, there would be no boats going anywhere. Not even government support comes out here, they told me. Having already spent 6 days waiting, I was eager to get going, and after a humid and too warm night, I hired another dinghy to cross over to West New Britain. The Idea was to reach for the small village of Aisega. From there, I was told, I would be able to go with the local Lumberjacks going into the jungle every morning, by company vehicle. The problem however, we learned upon arrival, was that one of the many bridges along the road, had recently been swept away by heavy rain. So sure, I could come along until the bridge, that was no longer, and then walk the rest of the way to the village of Kilenge on the north coast, from where there should be boats heading east. I got my self a squire fully equipped with a sword like bush knife, and decided to head off the very next morning. The truck picked us up, and with the workers, we went deep into the jungle up and down steep hills. After about 45 minutes, we came to the broken bridge, and sure enough, no truck would ever be able to cross it. It was now a 10 meter deep gorge, with only a few tree trunks crossing over. So we packed up, and started the hike.
It was a hard 6 hour trek, through jungle, villages and down to the beach whenever possible. I have trekked before, and so I loved the opportunity to get some miles in my legs. The problem however, was not so much the jungle, nor the length of the trek, as it was the heat. It’s so warm here, that its hard to even just sit around, much less hiking around in the jungle with 20kg on your back. In the final few kilometers, we had to stop and seek the shade again and again. But we did finally make it.
I had put on my hiking shoes, that I hadn’t used for about 2 months, and this proved to be a mistake. Not that I would have been much better off in my sandals. But having walked around barefoot and in sandals for 2 months, had given me lots of hard skin on my foot, now resulting in lots of blisters. Also the big toe nail on my left foot was blue, and looks like its in the first stages of falling off. I’m stupid. I should have known this, but living with the locals this long, makes you think that you can just go as the locals, and not take care of your feet, like we do at home. They too will get blisters and sores, but they don’t care. I care a great deal, specially since blisters can quickly turn into open sores, and the slightest cut has a very hard time healing up. Just to make sure that the nail would indeed fall off, I accidentally kicked my bad toe hard into a wooden ladder climbing up into one of the village huts. That made me just sit around feeling stupid and miserable.
The good news though, was that the guys I was now staying with in Kilenge told me of two Japanese Archeologist in town, that were leaving east in two days time. No other boats would be leaving the village to Kimbe where I was heading, so it was a lucky break.
I had a few days to recover a little, and then head out to sea once again, on what would soon be obvious to me, was in fact a Japanese Expedition searching for and recovering the remains of lost soldiers. I had, it turned out, stepped right into a historic 14 man expedition, with officals from Papua new Guinea and Japan, local translators and armed guards. Their plan was to visit the many smaller islands that are dotted around the north coast of West New Britain. During World War II, huge battles were fought here, and many Japanese soldiers lost their lives in the waters. Some survivors made it to these Islands, and those who were too weak to be rescued, died there. buried by the local villagers, their remains have lied dormant here in a direct historical line from WWII till today, 78 years after. On the small Island of Tamuniai close to where a big Japanese warship was sunk by the Americans, they found the remains of 4 Japanese soldiers, that were presented to us by the local chief. The bones were laid out on white sheets, where the Japanese scientists could examine them.
It was around this time It dawned on me what was going on. Mr, Shibata, one of the Japanese Archeologists and now an old man him self, lost his father in the war, in this very area. A father he had only known as a small child, before he left to fight in the war. He has dedicated his life for this search, and right there, right then, he could be looking down upon the remains of his long-lost father. It made me realize how close I was to this monumental time in our history. To be this close to the factual war left me in awe for the rest of the journey to Rabaul.
We were welcomed into the Island villages, as special guests, and were treated with no end of food and drink. We spent the night on the small Island of Kapo, in one of the houses on stilts out over the sea. A beautiful place, and the following day would prove to be the most beautiful I have seen in my 2 months here. The sea mirrored the clouds and the skies, in a way you usually only see on lakes or salt flats after rainfall. Ocean and sky were one, as we continued eastward, and finally made our way to Kimbe.
I said my thanks and farewells to the Japanese, that had the courtesy of taking me along for some of the journey. In Kimbe I had my first hot shower in 2 months, and was more ready than ever to finally make it to Rabaul. Which I did, after a full day by bus and another dingy ride to the small harbour of Takunar. From there it was only an hour or so to Rabaul, and 30 minutes more down to Kokopo, where I am spoiling my self with hot showers, free wi-fi and a swimming pool that I will be jumping into just after writing this!
In the coming week, the quest will be to find a way to Bougainville and then further on to Solomon Islands, which also marks the end of my Papua New Guinean adventure.
The hospitality I have met in this country is unparalleled. For almost a month I havent paid a single cent for accommodation or food. It is tradition here, in the rural areas, to look after travellers passing through your village. They take this very serious, and see it as their most important task, to see you through to the next village. Absolutely amazing.
Go to Papua new Guinea if you want hospitality and friendship. No cannibalism here… anymore.