Rabaul and Kokopo: WWII history and volcanoes

We had a very uneventful sail from Budi Budi atoll up to Kokopo, at the NE corner of New Britain island. I use the term ‘sail’ very loosely here, as we motored or motor sailed almost the entire distance- about 325 miles. The sea state matched what we experienced floating along the equator during Totems passage to the Marquesas from Mexico: a tie for the most board-flat, almost oily, seas we’ve seen. We saw schools of tuna but had no luck ourselves, catching only a skipjack (and nearly losing it to a shark as we pulled in the line).

It’s in Kokopo that we officially entered Papua New Guinea, more than a month after leaving Australia. Quarantine visited Totem while I was ashore with customs: it was one of the easiest clearance processes we have experienced. Visas acquired from the consulate in Brisbane smoothed our entry. The official who completed our paperwork clucked like a mother hen over the children and wondered how we managed to keep them fed during our travels. She didn’t let us go until we had been given an orientation to the locations of the public market and various grocery stores.

Kokopo is the first place we’ve been where I have reservations about our safety. It was in this area that the prior owners of a boat we met in Mexico, Rio Nimpkish, suffered a brutal attack that prompted them to end their cruising years. Last year, men armed with machetes came down a hatch into a boat anchored off town at night, tying up those aboard and stealing goods. They weren’t seriously hurt, but it was a traumatic experience. But we’ve also been told these were isolated incidents in an otherwise friendly place. Our choice was to keep our visit brief, and to stay in the company of the boats we’d met in Budi Budi: looking out for each other and being available if needed.

We nearly passed Kokopo by, and that would have been a shame. It was extremely friendly: the kind of exuberant recognition that can go to your head. Walking to the market, it seemed like every other minibus or flatbed truck/bus going by erupted in waves and smiles and “Helloooo! Good morning!”  Students called down from a hilltop with big waves. Almost everyone I passed in the street offered a greeting.

This was our first chance to check out hardware stores (time for a coconut scraper and a machete!) and get access to the Internet. The market was fantastic and offered welcome variety after weeks of similar island produce. We supplemented our staples with sweet pineapples, gorgeous eggplant, fresh greens, fresh ginger, bell peppers, spring onions, even bits of iceberg and a cabbage so tender I could pass it off as lettuce. Prices at the grocery store are higher than Australia- sometimes strikingly so. Powdered milk (forget about fresh) was at least double. It’s painful to see food costs so high in such a poor place, and think about how limited the options are available to locals.

Kokopo is on the south side of a volcanic rim, with the town of Rabaul about 10 miles across the bay. Rabaul is the official capital of the province but was devastated by volcanic eruptions in 1994. Most of the population was moved to neighboring Kokopo, but Port facilities remain along with one main street of ‘haus kaikai’ (restaurants), a public market, banks and a few shops. It’s supposed to be safe from eruption right now, but it’s still unsettling to look up at the rim of a still-steaming volcano from our mooring at the Rabaul Yacht Club. An earthquake one night created some disturbing wave action around the boat, although it nothing dangerous.

Rabaul is full of interesting sites related to WWII history and the surrounding volcanoes. To try and take in as much as we could, we got together with our companion boats to hire a mini van, driver and guide. Thankfully many of our group are were quite a bit smaller (we have nine children between three boats!) and we all managed to squeeze in, despite exceeding official capacity by a few bodies.

At the volcano, we were able to drive close to the base to hot springs. Not knowing what to expect, a few of us had tucked swimming suites into our bags for the day. Let’s just say the boiling water we found was nothing like the hippy heaven hot springs we know from the Pacific Northwest! We might not have been able to go swimming, but a landowner who showed us around made quick work of boiling an egg in the steaming water to demonstrate.

Later, at the observation tower, a diagram helped identify from our high vantage point the many volcanic peaks around the rim of the bay. Several of them are new, the most recent mountain popping up in just the 19th century. Welcome to the ring of fire.

World War II monuments, ruins and relics were next. Niall has written up his experiences with the war relics on his blog, http://totemtravels.blogspot.com. It is incredible to see these tangible pieces of history: it reminds us how truly awful war is. Even when the lines of good and bad and motivation to fight are not as blurred as they are today, it is still cruel and devastating. It seems that the innocent still pay the highest price. In the tunnels carved by Japanese to load submarines, in my minds eye the Indian slaves who worked them huddled in the shadows on the side: thousands of them died during the war under the Japanese. In Admiral Yamamoto’s bunker, a small circular room painted with regional area maps and a range map centered on Rabaul left the chilling reminder of their use for warfare. We visited just a few hundred yards of the thousand miles of tunnel said to exist around Rabaul, carved by hand from rock. Peeking from the damp air through the cracks to the sea, you can imagine where anti aircraft guns would have trained on allied bombers.

With the looming monsoon weather change and the prospect of a friend meeting us in Indonesia for the holidays, we felt pressed to keep going and moved on to Kavieng. It seems like we could always linger to learn more and enjoy every place we visit, but we’re all looking forward to snorkeling the pretty water and wrecks in the water off New Ireland.

Before we left, we stopped off at Rapopo for a  night. It had been a huge treat to see the s/v Bobbie moored there when we arrived from Budi Budi: we first met Emily, the woman single handing Bobbie on her adventures, back in Mexico more than two years ago. Bobbie had been hauled for work about eight months ago, then abandoned by the crane which took her out of the water, leaving the boat marooned on the hard. She’d just been splashed the week before. After a companionable evening on board, she decided to take a vacation from boat work in Kokopo and catch a ride up to Kavieng with Totem. She’s excellent company so this worked well for everyone!

PNG isn’t known for cruising guide coverage, so here are a few tips to this area for those in our wake:

* Kokopo: the safest place to anchor is off the Rapopo resort. It’s less convenient to the public market and facilities, but you can dinghy over or anchor shorter term there. We wouldn’t trust the moorings but didn’t dive on them (they do not belong to the resort and do not appear to be maintained). There’s one sandy patch, but the bottom here is mostly hardpan coral and difficult to get the anchor set.

* If you do anchor off town, know that customs did not want boats there. We stayed 2 nights then moved. For a reasonable fee, security guards for businesses onshore can provide guards, 24/7, to watch dinghies and boats if desired.

* Kokopo is a great place to provision for food, fuel, propane, and other supplies. The prices are probably about as good as we’ll get without going to the mainland. Diesel was 2.50 kina/liter during our visit, with a minimum purchase of a 200 liter barrel. If you have a lot of islands left to visit, check out the wholesale stores for goods from bolts of cloth to pencils and workbooks for trade.

* Internet is available from the Rapopo resort, through a direct plug in at the front office. If you’ll be in areas with cell towers (don’t bother if you’re headed towards the Louisiades!), a Digicel USB modem is a good buy and readily topped up in areas with coverage. For boats coming west, I suspect the Digicel modems in Fiji work here with a change in the country setting.

* In Rabaul, the bay at is so littered with wrecks and underwater junk (mostly WWII era) that you may not want to risk anchoring. Nylon rope at both ends of the chain of the RYC’s mooring was sketchy at best, so Jamie went down (only about 22′) and secured our own line to the mooring base.

* Rabaul security: there are a LOT of kids hanging around the dock at the RYC. A boat near us had their dinghy somewhat trashed. Most was good natured from kids jumping and playing on it while they had it at the jetty while they were away on shore, but it appeared to have been deliberately spiked with something sharp as well. Consider hauling your dink up to the RYC (you’ll want wheels) or asking the adults fishing on the jetty to help keep an eye on it. Many of them are mothers to the children splashing nearby.

* Touring: we got our guide and driver through the RYC. Ask there or at the hotel for a recommendation. Total cost was 250 kina for 1/2 day (about $125), 350 for full, plus 20 kina/adult or the guide. You need a lot of small bills to pay the property owners at locations you visit (typically 5 kina/adult).

* A few of our group climbed up the volcano rim. This is not recommended by the officials at the observatory, but a local guy is happy to take you up for 50 kina / trip. He is the traditional owner of the land adjacent and is at the hot spring site daily from dawn to dusk. The extreme ends of the day are best for this hike, as the heat on the blackened earth is brutal. Round trip (plus dinghy ride from the RYC) can be done in a couple of hours.