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Papua New Guinea: Rabaul Volcanoes

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Rabaul Volcanoes | Papua New Guinea | Oceania

[Visited: June 2016]

When I land at Rabaul airport, we actually touch down east of Tokau, a town some 30 kilometres to the south-east of the former capital of New Britain province. The airport is also known as Kokopo, named after the town that moved to capital status after Tavurvur volcano erupted in 1994, destroying much of Rabaul, as well as the former airport. I can see the volcanoes in the distance, and am all excited. After a quick PMV ride to Kokopo, I walk with my bags to the seaside for a better view of the volcanoes, and then take another minivan to Rabaul. A guide is quickly arranged, and after a ride on a truck over an unpaved road, we walk towards the south. Mount Tavurvur rises right ahead of us - black, smoking, surprisingly low for such a lethal volcano. We walk a barren landscape, past hot springs, which are a steaming river flowing into the sea, up and down ash dunes, to the lava field where the going gets a little more difficult. Pointy small lava stones get into my sandals, the surface is trickier to walk on, and after a while, the path gets steeper and steeper. My guide has flip-flops which is not a good idea: he loses them several times, slips down, has little grip. When we get closer to the rim, the soil becomes warmer, and gasses come out of cracks between the rocks. The view at the top is stunning: smoke going up everywhere, red, white, and black rocks, accompanied by a stench that grips you by the throat. When dark clouds appear and it starts to rain in the distance, a rainbow appears above the crater. It is not the sunset I had hoped for, but this is probably even better. We head down when we see the rain closing in on us. At the hot springs, we meet a local family who offer us a megapode egg boiled in the hot springs, and a ride back to town. This turns out to be a very fortunate meeting when, after five minutes, rain lashes down on our 4WD.

Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Monochromatic composition of Tavurvur, South Daughter, and the beach

The next day, after exploring Matupit and seeing Tavurvur from a traditional canoe, and visiting the megapode egg gatherers at the foot of the Tavurvur volcano, I walk through Rabaul again, and head up the road towards the north. After climbing the main road for a couple hundred metres, I turn right, and climb a steep road with some caves, to reach a narrow ridge. I am at the Volcano Observatory, and when I walk towards the south side of the road, a magnificent view opens up before my eyes. To my left is the Northern Daughter, a little more ahead lies the Mother volcano, or Kombiu, and further still, the Southern Daughter and Tavurvur. The smoke coming out of the crater of Tavurvur somehow gives it a peaceful image - while the only question is: when will the next eruption be, and how devastating will it be? To the west: the Beehives, twin vertical rocks in Simpson Harbour which have a volcanic origin, and Vulcan, the newest volcano on the block which was born in the 19th century and then developed the habit to erupt simultaneously with Tavurvur in 1937 and 1994. Below me, Simpson Harbour; more than before, I can now see how the entire harbour is in fact a giant caldera, submerged, with a string of volcanoes acting as vents. From here, it is easier to see how Tavurvur managed to destroy much of Rabaul: buildings were obliterated by falling ash. Behind me, the sun now sinks below the clouds, casting a warm light over the bay with its volcanic peaks. I walk past the houses and find a platform which gives unobstructed views to the west for the setting sun, and the east for the grand view of Simpson Harbour. Even after the sun is down, the pink clouds in the sky provide an after-show. It is only when everything around me turns to grey that I descend.

Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Rainbow over the smoking crater of Tavurvur

It is still dark the next morning when I leave the hotel with my guide to climb the Mother volcano, or Kombiu. It is the highest peak in the neighbourhood, and I hope to get good views here. We are still on the track when I can see the sky getting just a little less dark, and we still have to climb more than 500 metres, so I am afraid we will not make it before sunrise. I try to push the guide into going faster, but especially when we hike up the trail and the going gets steeper, he lags behind. The path is quite easy to follow, there are only a few forks, so I push on by myself. When I get higher up, I leave the forest behind, but now the trail is surprisingly narrow, and I have to push through high grass which is very wet. There is a small plateau and another short climb brings me to the real summit. When I turn back, I can only say Wow! Below me is Simpson Harbour, I can clearly see Rabaul at the seaside, I can see the North Daughter, and the South Daughter. Tavurvur is hidden behind the slopes of Kombiu itself. The sun is just up, but hidden behind a thick cloud. I am afraid it will envelope the mountain and block my view, but fortunately, it dissolves after some time. I hear shouting below me, and to my surprise, young guys climb up as well. They are followed by a never ending stream of youngsters working their way up the steep slopes of the Mother volcano on this early Sunday morning. We make our way down to a viewpoint which is just above the crater of Rabalanakaia and Tavurvur. The views of the latter are spectacular. Across the bay, we see the beehives and Vulcan, the youngest volcano around this submerged Rabaul caldera. This is a worthy end of my visit to Rabaul; we hike down through the copra fields. Back in town, I turn around, and when I see the string of volcanoes, with the peak of Kombiu towering above the others, a deep feeling of satisfaction engulfs me. The raw beauty of Rabaul will stay with me for sure.

Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Tavurvur sending smoke over Simpson Harbour - itself a giant submerged caldera
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): View of three volcanoes from a traditional canoe: Kombiu, Tavurvur, and South Daughter
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Smoke coming out of the crater of Tavurvur volcano
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Tavurvur volcano just before sunset
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Hot springs and Tavurvur in the background
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Black Tavurvur contrasting with the road and vegetation
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Looking north with North Daughter and Rabaul at the end of Simpson Harbour
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Late afternoon view over Simpson Harbour with Kombiu, Tavurvur, and South Daughter volcanoes
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): Looking down on smoking Tavurvur and the entrance of Simpson Harbour, itself a huge caldera
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): The summit of Mother volcano, or Kombiu
Picture of Rabaul Volcanoes (Papua New Guinea): View from Kombiu, the Mother volcano, into water-filled Rabalanakaia crater

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