Posted February 13, 2020 by David McGuinness

Thirty-seven hours after I departed London Heathrow my plane touched down on Rabaul air strip, a gash in the bush cut by the Japanese, who used Rabaul as their South Pacific base for the last four years of World War II, from 1942 to 1945. Rabaul is the capital of East New Britain, one of two provinces that make up the island of New Britain, the largest island off the mainland of PNG. The door to the plane opened and a wall of heat and humidity hit me. 

My flights to PNG told me much already. In Singapore I met (and filled in landing forms for) two Malaysian mechanics (from Sarawak, Borneo), and an Afghani who told me he was a businessman all boarding my flight to Port Moresby. En route to Port Moresby I met a Finnish gas engineer, a young mixed-European group heading out to work on a mine, and two British missionaries who had lived in Mount Hagen for about thirty years. There was also a large contingent of Chinese. I, it seemed, was the only one visiting with a view to seeing what PNG has to offer the curious traveller.

Laurence, my guide, stood sweating with my name board in his hand. With an open, attractive face and an easy manner I took a liking to him immediately. We drove toward Rabaul, passing its replacement, Kokopo, en route. In 1984 the twin volcanoes of Tavurvur and Vulkan erupted yet again and almost completed destroyed Rabaul, previously known as the “Pearl of the Orient”, by blanketing it in a 2m thick layer of very heavy ash which caused almost all the building to collapse.  Kokopo is a bland replacement built further to the South, where those who owned land and property within harm’s reach of Rabaul’s volcanoes were relocated. The lure of ancestral lands is strong in PNG however and some have moved back despite the inherent risks. 

Our first stop was a 300m long tunnel housing 5 large Japanese barges, as well as a lot of small bats. Dug by prisoners of war with some local help the tunnels were intended to protect their precious cargo from Allied bombing. Two weeks after the war ended the Japanese returned and harvested the barges of their engines. As we exited the tunnel a small impromptu market of local trinkets had sprung up. Laurence explained that up to today artifacts from both world wars are being discovered. One of the most sought was the AE1 submarine, built by the British during WWI, and given to the Australians who deployed it - unsuccessfully - against German ships, which instead sunk it. A month ago a German team succeeded in finding it despite several previously unsuccessful attempts by other teams.

Our next stop was an underground Japanese hospital, a maze of tunnels, with a ward, a kitchen and various store rooms as well as a lookout. The Chinese provided many of the doctors here, but without permission to treat themselves many died of malaria. A small monument marking their loss was recently added to by the Chinese government by a rather larger affair. Dion, my local guide here, explained with a broad smile of betel-nut stained teeth the terror he felt as a child when first seeing a volcano erupt and losing his family home. His grandfather who had died just a month earlier had helped the Japanese to build these and operate these tunnels.

We drove through the remains of Rabaul. Laurence pointed to the left of the road “this was Chinatown” and to the right “this was Malaytown”. A low scrub stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the road with no evidence of any buildings. My mind reeled. Laurence pointed out where his primary school and his playground used to be. He had also lost his family home in the 1984 eruption. 

We stopped at the New Guinea club, a former businessman’s club turned museum that was variously destroyed during WWI (by Australians), 1937 (volcano), during WWII (by Allied bombing), in 1993 (by fire) and in 1994 (again by volcano). It houses a small but interesting collection including old photos from the area going back to the late 19th Century including German, Australian and Japanese rule, a German New Guinea flag, a saltwater crocodile skull, a piece of Yakamoto’s plane (the famous Japanese marshal admiral that order Pearl Harbour) that was shot down in this area, various Japanese weapons and some masks. Laurence told me a little about the forbidden history of the famous Queen Emma, an American-Samoan princess, and alluded to a darker history on the island than the one that is generally known. He also mentioned that locals generally had better feelings towards the Germans, who built Rabaul than the Australians, who brought less and were more divisive (trying to bring in a form of apartheid). He pointed out a photo of the Australian district commissioner, Jack Emanuel,  who was murdered by locals because of his wont to procure land as well as his proposed policy of shops for locals and others for whites. It is no coincidence that it was the Toloi who first pushed for independence and that the “father of the nation”, PNG’s first and several times elected prime minister, Michael Somare, was from Rabual. 

Next door we popped our head into Yamamoto’s bunker but it was partially flooded due to recent heavy rains, which seem to have stopped only recently. Maps on the roof attest to his plans for world domination, not knowing that his days were soon to run out.

We stopped in at a beautiful hot spring that fed into the sea, in the shadows of a string of volcanoes. Locals apparently come here to boil Guinea Fowl eggs. Another impromptu market sprung up as I took photos. Laurence spoke to the locals about building a path up the mother volcano as a way to bring more tourists into the area. They listened with interest.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the link below to navigate through this journey.


Check out our tours with these unique experiences below

Prefer to do a tailor-made itinerary where you can choose your unique experiences and build your perfect trip? Click here to contact us today.

Papua New Guinea Explorer

Papua New Guinea
Culture | Tribal

Ancient tribal traditions and azure seas

£7,445 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
14 days
Call us on:020 7183 6371

Trip Finder


Or search directly from our list of tours: