Archive for April, 2009


The Sunday night viewing at the bar was some new (to me) Channel 7 program, by all appearances another version of the travestial Today Tonight with an attempted veneer of Sunday evening respectability complete with Mike Munro’s fat head offering as much solemn reassurance as one can handle before vomiting (and when pray tell did Mr Munro get boned by Channel 9?). The content of one segment was particularly alarmist and stupid. It was a story of a Volcano that threatened all life as we know it on the Australian continent, potentially with the powers to black out the sun, choke crops with ash, cast a devil’s rain on our big cities, kill the Wiggles and the Bananas in Pyjamas and Peter Garrett etc etc… A solemn expert provided a series of evil portents while the intrepid reporter, a poxy Englishman with a penchant for annoying outdoor adventure gear, made a big deal about smoke and brimstone.

The audience around me at the bar was scornful. Claims of apocalypse were met with snorts and derision. A picture of a hotel pool filled with ash promted the response: “I know the owner of that place, the bugger filled it with mud himself for the publicity.” Footage of a bedgraggled man shovelling grey sludge was hooted at: “Great! They’re cleaning up the yacht club!” In other circumstances it would be pigheaded expatriate bravado, but here it was amusing. We were less than forty kilometres from the same volcano showing on the TV after all. I was happy to forgive the expats’ tone for another reason – I had flown into Kokopo that afternoon and was bemused to be viewing a TV show beamed over from Australia on my very first night, detailing the direst forecasts regarding the volcano that was across the large bay from where I was staying. At the table where I sat you could run your hand over the surface and feel the grit of the volcanic dust. You could do the same on any outdoor surface, balcony railing, or set of stairs. It felt like fine sawdust, as if hard work with a circular saw and a few dozen metres of lumber had just been completed. This is what I had absent-mindedly thought as I stared out at the ocean from the balcony outside my hotel room door. There was indeed construction going on that possibly reinforced the idea. Then as I idly wondered at what a volcano actually looked like the fact clicked. Of course. Volcanic ash.

It felt fine but gritty, and it was dark. Although it was periodically effaced from the hotel with mop, cloth and broom you couldn’t elude the raspiness on the fingers and palms. I wanted to rinse my hands every forty seconds. Although the floors and tabletops were clean thanks to the tireless cleaning regime the roadside gutters were caked thick. It was heavy grey sludge. A few feet of the stuff and you’d have a collapsed roof. This is incidentally what befell Rabaul, former jewel of the Pacific and possibly one of the most unfortunate towns ever built (volcano in 1937, then bombing by the allies in WW2, then the volcano again in 1994). No lava hit the town in 1994, just ashfall. The residents fled, and the town was not swept away so much as apparently crushed. I say ‘apparently’ because I didn’t see it for myself, yet. I’m told it’s like a piece of the moon landed in paradise. Huge tracts of Rabaul town have been abandoned, yet the residents who moved nearby still eat dust.

I saw Tavurvur a few times as I went about my work in Kokopo over the next couple of days. My colleague and I sat on the gold course on our final morning and munched hot cross buns and rambutans. He got on his mobile phone and chatted to half the residents of East New Britain, while I interrupted his conversations every forty to eighty seconds with ‘look out! it’s doing it again!’ or ‘shit! that’s a big one!’ or, in my wildest fantasies, ‘THARRR SHE BLOWS!’. A big white cloud hovered over Tavurvur, fed by the pillars of steam, the only blemish on an otherwise cloudless morning sky. Up, up geysered the steam and ash and dust, the wind sweeping the heavier particles around the province while always above lurked the bulging white cloud, proclaiming to all: “In case you weren’t told, this is a dead-set fucking volcano”. Most gouts were white bursts of steam and gas that billowed lazily up and out, but every four or five bursts was dense, grey stuff that surged up and out at a startling rate – my own (not so rigorous, admittedly) reckoning put the grey plumes about 150 to 200 metres in the air in less than fifteen seconds. The silence of the spectacle viewed from the comfort of a shady patch of fairway was mesmerising and surreal. I could have watched it for hours. I thought of stories of islanders worshipping active volcanos in the past: from what I’ve seen they’re still worthy of respect these days. That’s coming from someone who hasn’t felt the ground shake beneath them yet, let alone witness molten rock sweep in their direction. But that’s OK. I trust your reputation Tavurvur. If you say you’re badass, then by all means – you’re one baaaaaaaadddaaaaaasssssss mofo.

When the wind blows in the right (wrong?) direction no flights get in and out of Kokopo airport. This isn’t the kind of tragedy you’d think, seeing as East New Britain is yet another nice slice of paradise to be found in PNG. They seem to have nice roads in ENB, which seems a strange thing to appreciate – but anyone who has driven around Moresby will understand. You can catch a motorboat from the beach in Kokopo to New Ireland, or just sit there and watch as they hurtle in from their morning run from Kavieng in small fleets of three or four boats. They have rambutans in ENB as well, but you can’t take them back to the mainlandĀ  – as I discovered at the airport as we prepared to leave. Something to do with a malevolent borer beetle. I broke open the wild, primitive-looking fruit and tried to eat as many of the lychee-like fleshy bits found in each one. I couldn’t eat them all so I offered them to the security guards who told me I couldn’t take them with me. They wanted none.