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Recess in Rabaul, A South Pacific Adventure
by Shirley Ralston
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Living on the Pacific Rim provides some awesome opportunities to feel the earth move. Well, maybe you wouldn’t think it was so awesome, but if you are a nerd like me it’s pretty cool. It’s a very real reminder of the power of God in creation. This whole region is active with tectonic movement and tremors and earthquakes are common. A couple of weeks ago my husband relayed to me what he described as “a very large person stomping down the hallway” at his office. Turns out it was a tremor. Just looking around at the landscape of Papua New Guinea provides plenty of visual evidence of volcanic activity as well.

We took advantage of a long weekend recently in order to experience some of this seismic activity up close, in Rabaul on PNG’s island of East New Britain. The 1 hour and 20 minute flight from Port Moresby is perfect for a weekend getaway. Flights depart on Friday afternoon and arrive in time for dinner and a spectacular sunset – thanks to the volcanic ash. Our accommodations were about 10 minutes from the airport near the town of Kokopo. We stayed at Rapopo Plantation, a place with that perfect, laid back, South Seas feel.

Rabaul is a popular destination for divers and snorkelers because of the incredible reefs that surround the island. But it also provides the rare opportunity to experience the Tavurvur cinder cone that is part of the Rabaul mother volcano and the Bismarck Arc. This family of volcanoes sits alongside the harbor in Blanche Bay. Tavurvur is extremely active and has proven to be quite dangerous. It, along with the Vulcan cinder cone, erupted in 1994, causing the evacuation of the town of Rabaul. Thankfully, due to early warning, there was no loss of life. The town has been rebuilt a safer distance away. But since the eruption of 1994, the cinder cone of Tavurvur inside the caldera has continually made it’s presence known. We booked our volcano walk and harbor tour through the full service dive shop on site where we were staying.

I admit, I am often guilty of suffering from American expectations and this time was no exception. When I saw the small banana boat we would be making our journey in moored along the beach I thought, ‘Really? Where’s the bathroom on that thing? What if I get seasick?’ I suddenly had misgivings about putting my life in the hands of two barefoot local guides in this dinky little boat. But, my desire to see an active volcano overcame my fear so I stepped in sat down and grabbed the edge of my seat. I looked at my husband and asked quietly, “Do you think there are any life jackets on board?” He shrugged…an unusual response for the safety sergeant I know him to be. Paul, our tour guide, must have sensed my anxiety because he stood up suddenly saying, “I now go over safety. There are life jackets in the hold, we have first aid kit, and there are drinks and snacks under your feet.” I guess he thought that would make me feel better. I tried to ease my anxiety by telling myself that he and Chris, our skipper, had probably plied these waters their entire lives. If anyone had died on their watch I sure didn’t know it and well…ignorance is bliss, right? All the while I was mentally calculating how I was going to get that life jacket out the hold if necessary. Paul and Chris just smiled at me as they gently navigated past the reef and headed out across the open ocean towards the puffing mountain in the distance. My husband seemed unconcerned but I’m a real chicken at heart, and I was praying and hanging on tight.

Thankfully, our journey across the bay was smooth and uneventful. Skipper Chris rounded the point in view of “mother”, the largest and oldest cinder cone. She is currently dormant and deceptively green and majestic. The water grew warmer and warmer as we got closer. We pulled up onto the black sandy shore, it’s color a result of pulverized volcanic rock and ash. The base of Tavurvur bares the remnants of past eruptions and lava flows. They spread down to the beach in the form of black and gray jagged rock. I noted my running shoe clad feet in comparison to Paul’s bare ones. I heard my husband say, “Are you going up this mountain without shoes?” “Yes”, Paul said, smiling as he led the way. I envied his ease and agility as he scrambled up the base of the volcano, confidently choosing our path towards a low-lying steam vent. I had to carefully navigate my every footfall. Instinctively he would turn towards me and offer an assisting hand.

Before long we could hear hissing steam coming from the rocks that were turned yellow by the sulfur coming from deep below. The unmistakable smell of rotten eggs hung in the air. We stood and watched with fascination as the vent expelled steam from the side of the mountain. It was loud and it had a certain rhythm that made me wonder what type of force underneath the earth could possibly produce that kind of cadence.

High above us, the summit of Tavurvur continued to belch light gray ash. We ascended higher, drawn like Frodo and Sam to the top of Mt. Doom. Soon though, my legs told me it was time to turn around. Much to the chagrin of the men, we began our descent back down to the beach. I stopped often to assess the path in front of me, more treacherous now – the rocks were wet and slick.

Suddenly the ground began to rumble and shake beneath my feet. A loud explosion, like a cannon-shot, came from above. I turned and looked up to see Mt. Tavurvur ejecting massive boulders from her top. Thick black smoke and ash billowed into the sky. ‘Wow. This is crazy. I’m going to get crushed by falling boulders’, I thought. ‘On a remote island in the Pacific…like maybe no one will ever even find me.’ I was thinking of Frodo and Sam again…happy I didn’t have a ring to destroy, but wishing a gigantic eagle would come pick me up. That would’ve been awesome. Lucky for us, the trajectory of the mountain’s caldera put us out of harm’s way.

From a safe distance, we watched Tavurvur angrily spew her insides for a couple of minutes before continuing our journey down. On the beach Chris was all smiles. “The mountain blew for you!” he said. I smiled at him. “Yes, it certainly did.”

We continued to be mesmerized by the volcano’s activity, past and present, as we toured the harbor. A Japanese stronghold during World War II, the harbor is littered with relics from the war, both above and below the water. It also bears the scars of the volcano’s destructive eruption in 1994. Evidence of a town quickly abandoned is everywhere. Particularly striking was the overgrown runway from the old airport, dramatically sheared off at the water’s edge. The Volcano Observatory sits high on a hill above the harbor, continually monitoring the mountain’s activity in case of the need for evacuation.

By the time we headed for home, it was late afternoon. The wind was stiff, which made for some very large swells and a very long trip. The little banana boat whacked its way back across the open water in a manner that scared the living daylights out of me. I was hanging on for dear life the entire time. My husband stood with his face in the wind, holding the rail on the side of the boat and loving every minute of it. I guess it’s true that opposites attract. What a day and what a once in a lifetime experience! As I stepped out of the boat onto dry land I looked at the dark gray muddy ash still on my shoes and remembered a couple of lines from my favorite movie:

Sam ~ “There and Back Again: A Hobbit's Tale by Bilbo Baggins, and The Lord of the Rings by Frodo Baggins. You finished it.”

Frodo ~ “Not quite. There's room for a little more.”

The adventures continue!

“He looks at the earth, and it trembles; He touches the mountains, and they pour out smoke. I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God while I live.” (Psalm 104:32–33, HCSB)

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