Twelve Days in Rabaul

We weren’t intending to stay this long in Rabaul, and some uncharitable people might say it’s 11 days too long, but for the most part we’ve enjoyed our time here.

Getting here was another story – like most of our recent passages, it starts off great, then slowly turns to custard. We’d extended our stay in the Louisiades to try and avoid the low pressure trough sitting directly in our path but we obviously didn’t wait long enough – after some initial good speeds, the wind disappears and then we’re hit with squall after squall after squall. Our little passenger sitting on the bow of the dinghy looks as unimpressed as I am.

One of many squalls on the way to Rabaul

As we approach the coast of New Britain I happen to be in the cockpit on a rare moment when it’s not raining and spot what looks like a local boat a couple of hundred metres to port. It looks very odd so I get out the binoculars and my heart leaps out of my chest – it’s a massive tree, roots, branches and all. Hitting that would be a disaster! We’ve been warned of the numerous logs that float out of the rivers near the PNG coastline, but this one is off the scale. In the daytime we have a chance to avoid them, but at night with no visibility…it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Approaching Rabaul

Entering the huge volcanic caldera of Simpson Harbour is quite something. There to our right is Mt Tavurvur, the quietly steaming, still active volcano that erupted in 1994 destroying most of the township of Rabaul.  Beneath us the harbour is littered with Japanese wrecks from WWII. Before the volcano erupted, Rabaul was a bustling port and a popular diving destination, but not so much anymore.  A few cargo ships come and go, but mostly the harbour’s occupied by fishing vessels from the Phillipines and China, who come in to unload their catch onto the mother ships. It makes you wonder how long it will be before the oceans are empty. It probably also explains why we haven’t caught one measly fish on our journey so far.

The still active Mt Tavurvur
Wrecks above and below the water
Tuna fishing boats loading onto the mother ship
Against the backdrop of Mr Tavurvur

In 1994 after Rabaul collapsed under the weight of volcanic ash, the main centre was moved to Kokopo, 20km away, and Rabaul has been left to fend for itself. The roads are mostly a series of pot-holes that the traffic weaves around.  In town there’s the usual array of Chinese supermarkets and hardware stores, the local fresh fruit and veggie market, a bank, and the Rabaul Hotel – the last vestige of Rabaul’s colonial past. We’ve heard you can get a great Chinese meal there, but on the day we visit we’re told the Chinese menu is only available in the evening, so we settle for a burger instead.  

Rabaul fresh market

The evening meal is out of the question as we’ve been advised not to go walking around at night here, but otherwise we’ve felt very safe during our stay – everyone we meet is friendly and welcoming, and being anchored near the yacht club gives us some peace of mind. Having said that, every premise in Rabaul has a security guard, and while we’re here there’s an attempted break-in at the yacht club. The security guards don’t mess about – we hear the ‘Raskols’ are now in hospital fighting for their lives.

Our anchorage off the yacht club

Talking of the yacht club – it’s not quite your RPAYC in Pittwater. It’s basically a huge  corrugated iron shed, open at each end, and most days only frequented by one or two ex-pats and ourselves. 

A busy day at the Rabaul Yacht Club!

There’s a small community of ex-pats that have been here for many years, who have some interesting stories to tell. Rod Pearce is now retired, but used to run dive charters here and lives on his boat on the marina. He’s the fount of all local knowledge and very helpful. He allows us to tie our dinghy up to his boat when we come ashore, and takes us out on Sunday morning for a fishing expedition. He manages to catch a nice silver trevally, but needless to say, our lure only attracts plastic bags.  And that’s the downside of Rabaul – the harbour is full of debris and most days it’s covered in a thin film of oily-diesel muck. So no swimming for us, and no chance of running the water-maker.

Which brings me to one of the reasons we’ve spent so long here – we’re fixing things (again!). Not long after arriving in the Louisiades there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when we discovered a leak in our brand new stainless steel water tank that was installed in Sydney only 18 months ago. At first we couldn’t believe it, and kept trying to find alternate explanations for the water leak.  But no – after we pulled the cabin apart to access the tank, we found a small drip from the bottom weld.  It would be a huge task to remove the tank and get it re-welded (even if we could find a welder here).  Luckily we carry some putty on board that’s designed for metal tanks and sets underwater, so after emptying the tank and jacking it up as much as we can, we smear liberal amounts of putty all along the joint, cross our fingers and wait. It sets like concrete so we cautiously re-fill the tank in increments. We’re in luck it seems – not a drop of water escapes and hopefully our bodgy repair job will last for months if not years.  They do say cruising is just boat maintenance in exotic places!

Other than that, we’ve been making regular foraging trips to town on the 7a bus (think Toyota minivan) for the huge sum of one Kina apiece (50 cents).

up the back of the bus!

We organise for fuel to be delivered to the yacht club in a 200L drum and fill all our spare jerry cans (we expect to do a fair amount of motoring in the next month or so), and we take the dinghy across the harbour to Origin gas to get our propane tank filled.  All of these necessary jobs take the best part of day to complete. Fun stuff? Not so much – our only ‘tourist’ excursion is a hike up to the Vulcanology Observatory over-looking the harbour, which nearly kills us in the heat and humidity.  On the way we pass many of the Japanese tunnels dug into the hillside during WWII – unfortunately we didn’t think to bring a torch so we don’t get to explore further than the entrances, but they’re quite impressive. As is the view from the Observatory over the harbour.  Rod told us to ask for Steve, who would give us a tour of the station and the monitoring equipment but unfortunately it’s his day off.  So instead we rest on the grass to stave off impending heart attacks from the climb. Our poor out-of-condition boat legs will be sore tomorrow!

One of the hundreds of tunnels dug into the hillside by the Japanese in WWII
The view of Simpson Harbour and volcanos from the Observatory

Another task that’s taken up a significant amount of time is organising our paperwork for our Indonesian visas. We’ll be applying for these in Vanimo, our last port of call in PNG. We’re aware that Vanimo is not considered a safe place to stay overnight, so we’re hoping that by forwarding all our paperwork in advance we can get our visas issued on the same day we arrive. But there’s a LOT of paperwork, and internet is frustratingly slow here.

And then there’s been the rain which has kept us boat-bound on several days. It’s supposed to be dry season but no-one’s told the weather gods. When we tell our new-found friends at the yacht club that it’s been raining ever since we left Sydney, they decide it’s our fault and keep hinting that it might be time for us to go.  Perhaps we should re-name the boat “Eyeore”, we appear to have our own little black cloud hovering over the top of us.

At least there are some nice rainbows

Our final task before leaving Rabaul is to stock up on supplies to take to the remote islands we’ll be visiting, and the necessary beer to get us there. There’s no way we can load this into the bus, so we ask the supermarket if they can deliver. Sure, they say – and they can give us a lift back in the truck too. So we load our cartons of beer, 20 kg bags of rice, sugar and flour into the delivery van and bounce our way through the pot-holes to the yacht club, much to the amusement of the locals. Even the mundane jobs become an adventure! 

Riding in style!
locals fishing
A Rabaul sunrise

It’s been a necessary and productive stop in Rabaul, but we’re looking forward to moving to Kokopo tomorrow for a bit of  R & R and some clean water to swim in…..

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