Imagine this: a grand, tropical, colonial capital, filled with tree-lined boulevards and a main street named Mango Avenue. For a time Rabaul was the prettiest town in PNG; it was the jewel of the South Pacific. Then, on September 18, 1994, three volcanos in the vicinity erupted one after the other, burying the town in ash, and destroying 80% of its buildings. The city was evacuated, and abandoned.
For years the city lay deserted, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a land of ash. Then, the jungle came creeping back.
The New Guinea Club, Rabaul
Rabaul began life as Simpsonhafen (German for Simpson Harbour), and was the capital of German New Guinea between 1884 and 1919. When Australia took control of the Territory of New Guinea – shortly after WWI – Rabaul was made its capital. In 1937 Mt Tavurvur erupted, killing more than 500 people in Rabaul, and destroying the city. The capital was moved to Lae.
The New Guinea Club was built in 1933 as a social club. During WWII the building was commandeered by the Japanese Navy and used as their headquarters.
The building was destroyed by Allied bombing raids during WWII and had to be rebuilt; it was re-destroyed during the 1994 eruption and has since been re-rebuilt.
Yamamoto’s Bunker, Rabaul
Right next to the New Guinea Club is a large underground command post said to be have been utilised by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who commanded the South Pacific campaign for Japan.
It’s a big, impressive bunker complex, and there are some original wartime markings on the walls and ceilings.
A small landowner fee is required if you wish to enter the bunker.
Most photos that you see of Rabaul will be of a city buried under ash, taken shortly after the 1994 eruption.
The old city is still buried beneath a layer of ash, but that ash is currently supporting a crop of lush vegetation. Don’t come expecting a post-apocalyptic scene. The odd concrete wall is all you’ll be able to make out of the abandoned city. The jungle has taken over.
On the outskirts of Old Rabaul lies the the former Rabaul Airport. The runway proceeded through the gap in the trees that you can see on the left side of the photo above.
This Japanese bomber (which people have been calling a Betty Bomber, or Mitsubishi G4M, for years, even though it is apparently not a Betty Bomber at all but another type of Japanese bomber) crash-landed at the Rabaul airstrip during WWII and remained there awaiting repairs. It was in good condition for several decades following the war but was buried in ash in 1994, and has deteriorated significantly since.
The plane is in such bad shape that it is of interest to WWII buffs only. A landowner fee is required to enter the coconut plantation that contains the plane.
Matupit Village used to be known as Matupit Island, and that’s because, prior to the 1994 eruption, Matupit was an island. The eruption pumped so much ash into Simpson Harbour Matupit was joined to the mainland.
The village was spared the bulk of the ash fallout thanks to prevailing winds. Old-timers still refer to Matupit as the island.
Matupit Village is a sleepy, picturesque, bucolic community. There isn’t much to see there, apart from a couple of churches, but it does offer a great viewpoint of Mt Tavurvur.
You can walk to Matupit from Old Rabaul – crossing the ash wasteland in the middle of the day is hard going though. An easier way to do it is to catch a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) – essentially a mini-van or 4WD ute that that picks up passengers.
Rabaul was captured by Japanese troops in 1942 and thereon served as Japan’s primary base for the war in the South Pacific. By 1943 there were 110,000 Japanese troops stationed in the region.
WWII relics are scattered about Rabaul and Simpson Harbour, much of it in a highly deteriorated state.
WWII Landing Barges
One WWII relic worth checking out is the landing barge tunnel. Five landing barges, parked nose-to-tail, sit in this long dark tunnel, which was quarried into the mountainside by POWs.
The tunnel and barges are located in a local family’s backyard. A landowner fee required.
This unusual rocky outcrop is located in the centre of Simpson Harbour. How did it get there? The answer is staring you in the face. It’s the tip of an underwater volcano.
Rabaul Volcanic Observatory
The parking lot of the Rabaul Volcanic Observatory offers the optimal view of Simpson Harbour. Simpson Harbour is actually a flooded caldera; the many numerous small volcanos that fringe the caldera (including Tavurvur, and Vulcan, and Rabalanakaia, and the underwater volcano responsible for the Beehives) are subvents, or stratovolcanos, of the one giant volcano (called Rabaul Volcano).
New Rabaul lies directly below the observatory. Old Rabaul is the vacant, low-lying land on the left side of the photo above.
Mt Tavurvur is the dark, stumpy volcano in the centre of the picture above. It manages to always appear to be in shadow, even during the height of the day when there is not a cloud in the sky.
Mt Tavurvur is one of PNG’s most active volcanos. The last significant eruption was in 2014.
You can climb to the top and peer into the crater (it takes about half an hour to climb) but you will need a guide to lead the way, and you’ll need to pay the ladnowner fee (there are usually guides waiting next to the hot springs).
Needless to say, climb at your own risk.
Not keen to climb an active volcano? Then one of the older, more passive volcanos might be for you. Mt Kombiu is 700 metres high. It takes two to three hours to climb from the trailhead, or about three to four hours if you walk all the way from Old Rabaul.
Best to begin early in the morning (especially if you intend to walk all the way from Old Rabaul) and take plenty of water. Guides might not be mandatory, but they are highly recommended. And you’ll need to pay landowner fees.
Practical information and how to reach Rabaul:
Rabaul has a domestic airport with flights to Port Moresby, Lae, Kavieng, and other cities within Papua New Guinea. More transport info here.