Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, was built on the edge of a flooded caldera, at a place called Simpsons Harbour and is ringed by volcanoes. The town was the capital of the province and widely regarded as the most beautiful town in the South Pacific until it was destroyed in 1994 when Mt. Tavurvur erupted. The resulting ash inundated the town, with the weight of the ash causing the majority of the buildings to collapse.
Rabaul has extensive World War II history, as it was the main Japanese headquarters in the South Pacific. As a tourist destination, Rabaul is popular for SCUBA diving and for snorkeling sites and also offers a spectacular harbor. Because of its war-time history, it attracts many Japanese visitors.
“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 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 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 prostitution. 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.” – http://www.wikitravel.org
Rabaul is the home of the Tolai people, but the surrounding high mountains are the domain of the Baining people. In the evening we were driven up the mountain (about 45 minutes on unpaved roads) to have a rare opportunity to witness the Baining’s tribe fire dance [see our next blog post].