Archive for the 'disaster' Category

Tavurvur and the dead town

You go to visit the wasteland because that’s just what you do when in East New Britain. It’s a beautiful part of the world. The bay arcs inward like an undulating blue plate, with sunlight glistening on top as if the sea is crested with flecks of silver or tin. The jungle creeps down and meets the sea, in many places foliage dripping over the spots where the water kisses the sand and rock. Dripping. Of course it’s a hot place. When you step outside the air conditioning you almost immediately find yourself in the clammy grip of sweat. The perspiration mingles with the dust from the gravel roads, and soon you are ragged and gritty.

You drive to the other side of the bay, where your objective waits like a mostly-dead limb just waiting for the final rot and wilt befor utter abandonment, amputation from the world. Rabaul is the place, and it is an unlucky place, having been smashed by eruptions in 1937, then reduced to rubble by the vengeful bombs and strafes of allied war planes in World War 2. Two volcanoes trashed the place in 1994, belching black ash and rubble across the town, pressing the buildings into the ground like a great sooty thumb would slowly, cruelly crush a bug. Vulcan sits languidly across the bay from Rabaul, again covered by tree, vine and grass. It’s gone undercover until people let their guard down once more. Tavurvur meanwhile still snarls with life. Vapours seethe from cracks in the grey flanks. Its exterior looks dead, but inside the roar of the eath’s fires are very much alive. Ancient, vital, ruinous. Its language is sulphurous and its grim dominance of the western side of the bay shows contempt for both the town that once was and the meagre concerns of the people who have scrambled about in its shadows for so long. Vulcan is deceitful, disguised by jungle, preparing for the next assault. Tavurvur meanwhile gloats. One day, says the mountain, I will crush everything here. If you are here, I will destroy you. If not, your descendents. If your town remains, I will consume it. If it has rotted away then so be it, I will have the jungle. This place is mine.

The streets of Rabaul, and the road leading to the town, are in poor shape. While the basic activities of life and commerce are evident, it does not seem anyone is willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep things in order. Wide streets are half closed, and you often have to avoid mounds of ash and dust that pile onto the cracked bitumen. On either side of the road the evidence of 1994 can be seen – piles of volcano dust, in some places as high as the car, in other places higher. The market has been rebuilt and is active, and green has started to reassert itself in many places. There are some buildings that remain only because their owners were intrepid or foolish enough to stay in town while the fury of Vulcan and Tavurvur was at its strongest. These stubborn folk had realised what those who fled would not discover until afterwards – that only ash and dust fell on the town. All it took to save the buildings was stout-heartedness, a strong broom, a daily climb onto the roof, and a few lungfuls of the earth’s disgorged detritus. Once Rabaul was the Pacific’s jewel. Then under the Japanese it became a bristling steel crown, a hub of conquest frequented by submarines, ships and soldiers en route to meet death at places like Milne Bay, Buna-Gona, Salamaua, Kokoda. Now, Rabaul is barely there at all.

Nonetheless there is a still a hotel, complete with a retaining wall facing the street. “The street is now higher than my carpark” explains the owner with an exuberance that seems very much out of place. The wall is needed to keep the front door and carpark from being consumed by the same dead blanket that took most of the town. Driving in and out of the carpark involved negotiating a ramp of ash and dirt. We eat at the restaurant, enjoy the boisterous and ebullient greetings from the proprietor, and wonder if it’s real. Inside, a restaurant with complete Chinese-Western menu (burgers or chow mein, your choice) has a handful of customers, including the owner and three friends celebrating a birthday. Outside it’s Mordor by the beach.

The proprietor was exceptionally eager to recommend some places, and we followed her directions to a place where volcanic gas reputedly fizzed up in the water. Turn left just before the yacht club (apparently still open for business, we didn’t check), a right soon after, and you arrive at the original objective. Wasteland, desolation, blasted nothing-place ornamented only by stark rows of denuded coconut palms, dead sentinels keeping watch in a bright tropical Tartarus.

Soon enough we have company. Eight girls from the nearby Matupit Island hail us down and correctly guess our destination. The two youngest clamber inside the back of our cabin, uninvited and unabashed. They are all covered in grit but are not bowed or dour. They shriek and giggle and deliver quick directions in pisin. Go an tap likilik. We come to a path marked by a few hundred metres of upright sticks rammed into the dust, eerie markers that looked like they should be topped with skulls and other grisly trophies. The girls in the back blather away some more but I glean the word ‘namel‘, ‘middle’, and I remember the hotel owner mentioning that at one stage we’d have to follow the road marked by the sticks. Aside from the sticks however only bare remnants of tyre marks indicate any kind of beaten route in the grey ash. A few hundred metres later and we are halted before a makeshift gate (preventing access how exactly to anywhere was beyond me). A man slumbered, not bothered by the dust that whipped at his flimsy garment, enjoying the single patch of shade he could scrounge underneath a simple humpy of dried palm leaves. The girls woke him and he opened the gate for the usual visitors’ fee, telling us we were most welcome. His hair was like wire and his eyes were the kind that belong to the perpetually allergic – or the forever grieving. We waved to the man and then, again, onward.

Soon after we disembarked and walked the last few metres to the spring, where the sea water was hot to touch and the air was sulphuric. The girls wanted to sell us necklaces. When we didn’t seem too interested one started talking in quiet tones about the life they all led on Matupit. Insufficient soil for good gardens. A trek to Rabaul town for water. Most trees denuded by the volcanoes in 1994, with any later attempts at growth smothered by more ashfall. She told me this as we approached the bay, and I could see her home across a few hundred metres of water. It looked like one or two hundred small homes still stood, in spite of the dead world around them. Their presence did not seem like act of defiance, just existence. The people who could go had already left years ago. The people remained ate, drank and washed in dust every day. Soon enough they would choke on it. There was no way these girls could live beyond forty or fifty if they stayed there. Nothing but the forlorn. I bought a shell off the girl, dazed by the dead spectacle, and amazed that the young women before me were anything more than zombies.

We drove back and dropped them where we found them with a spare bottle of water. A sad awe filled me as we traversed the desolation again, driving over the empty expanse where the old airstrip was and glimpsing more and more wrecked buildings as we neared town. Some remained in Rabaul because of some kind of stubborn insistence, but others stayed because their lives were this place and could not be any other. Young and slender things destined for gauntness and a final splutter, to be given back prematurely to the mad angry god that owned the place. Sadness and doom, nostalgia and gloom. We endured the road back east, and for all the stark splendour of the volcano’s domain I was glad to be among green once more.


It was a bad night for sleep.

It’s good to get out of Port Moronsby to refresh your memory of the PNG outside of the gritty shitty mini-metropolis. Goroka is a great place for revitalising whatever one loves about PNG. Cool, green, whiskey-drinking weather rather than gin-soaked baking heat. Bananas grow alongside conifers and eucalypts, it is like some melange of Australian high country and European lower alps with a generous dose of the tropics. The sun still burns but the shade is cool and even cold – bring your hoodie. Also, pigs frolic in the park and snuffle around in the grass looking for worms. The last time I was here I got a photo of one specimen heaving its way though a mound of garbage (sadly Goroka does not escape this ubiquitous PNG landscape feature), but I didn’t take many as I was getting looks from people that seemed a tad displeased – like what the HELL are you doing taking pictures of OUR RUBBISH HEAP?

Anyway, Goroka. The big disadvantage I have with travelling is sleep. I usually take one or two nights to learn how to sleep properly in a new place. Last night’s efforts were not assisted by the two security men who kept their conversations going all night, and the other guest who somewhere had the TV going until well past 2 am. And of course there was a bloody dog, the kind who routinely starts up some outraged carry-on at the hint of anyone walking around during suspicious hours. Wuff wuff wuff, good dog – but did anyone tell this canine crusader that this in PNG and that there’s ALWAYS going to be people strolling around without purpose at any god forsaken hour? Save your noise for when there’s some serious mauling to be done, please, like when a raskol tries to steal the pig or something.

Sleep came eventually in dribbles, and you take what you can get because its still better than nothing. The intermittent disturbances kept me fitful and edgy, but there was nothing to be done about it outside of a ludicrous bosman hissy fit, which is never a good look at 3 am, especially as this is a good time to forget one sleeps with nothing on.

At one stage I had managed to coax a nice stint of sleep from the reluctant night, only to be shaken awake. Strangely there was nobody in the room to shake me. The room itself was shaking – short rapid one-two-one-twos, as if the building was sitting on a big sieve and some godly hand was trying to shake the smaller particles down – particles like me. A generator, I thought. Some useless goon is starting the biggest generator in the world under my room, the bastard. We had been witness to a blackout in town earlier, which had been amusing – the tinny music from the shops had stopped, the noise of power tools was abruptly stilled, the lights had just died. I figured the same had happened in the middle of the night and the generator was bucking and kicking into life. Pretty quiet for a generator though. Indeed the only noise was the room itself, rattling like a wooden box full of bones. It only went on for ten seconds or so and then it was over. Mercifully sleep came again, swiftly and without argument.

So that was how I lost my seismic virginity, and didn’t even know it at the time. First time for everything, and now thanks to PNG I have enjoyed my first volcanic belching and been wobbled through my first earthquake. I know there’s plenty of disastrous stories involving these strange events but I’m happy enough keeping mine in the dumb and harmless category. Not so hard core but hey, its GOOD to have a guest house to go back to this evening. Can’t imagine my sleep this evening would be too great curled up on top of a pile of splinters and rubble after all.

Shituation 3 – car i bagarup

There’s nothing much you can say in favour of having a car break down on you twice in one week. Conversely you can confidently say it’s a bit shithouse. It’s satisfying, however, to be able to say that having a car break down on you twice in one week in Port Moresby was no more or less shithouse than were it to have happened in Sydney. Or at least to say our car broke down on us twice in a week in Port Moresby, and guess what? We lived.

Now, a qualification – said breakdowns did not happen at night. They did not happen in the midst of a settlement teeming with raskols (probably because we tend to avoid those places, like most folks who have both the sense and the luxury of doing so – and of course there’s plenty around without much of the latter, never mind the former). The breakdowns have, I might add, been resolved to 95 percent satisfaction – once we could be bothered hauling the vehicle to our mechanically-minded man in Six Mile with the heavy equipment hire business and the defunct WW2 browning machinegun in his living room, I’ll be 100 percent satisfied.

Initially we suspected the incompetence of the petrol station attendant (a small but significant boon of Moresby life is that people fill your vehicle for you!). As our humble brown auto choked and shuddered it’s way towards home we reasoned that maybe the guy had put diesel instead of petrol in the fragile engine. We’d already recruited three strangers (one actually turned out to be our neighbour!) to help push-start it at the servo, and the effort was more painful than usual. Splutter, cough, gasp, and ppppffftttpppffff… we rolled to a halt at the lights closest to home, conveniently blocking the turning lane.

I got out and again ‘recruited’ some more help. One need not be proactive when seeking help in pushing a vehicle out of harm’s way in Moresby. You need only make vague pushing motions at the rear of a vehicle and maybe summon a few glistening droplets to adorn one’s brown and abracadabra! Three or four helpful types will materialise and get your car out of the way. If you’re lucky the same ‘new’ neighbour will appear again (as he of course did, a few kilometres from where we’d first met him), helpful and red mouthed and wild-eyed with a pot belly full of boisterousness. ‘We are used to this!’ he exclaimed, meaning his countryfolk’s frequent vehicle-pushing. ‘This is real PNG driving’. When I mentioned the diesel in the petrol tank theory he offered the services of his son to take a whiff and figure out what was in our car’s gizzards. When I said that was a bit too dangerous he told me not to worry. ‘We’re not like the Abos!’ he assured me, jokingly. I was too stupefied to respond.

A small crowd of mechanical know-it-a-bits gathered and peered at the unfathomable engine region of the car, but meanwhile we had called the helpful chap we shall call, for the purposes of this narrative, Mr Tech. Mr Tech is our property manager and his job description apparently extends to ‘helping clueless dimdims when their car’s stuffed’, among other useful activities. It was Sunday but Tech was around, so I took a short walk up to his office (an air conditioned shipping container) to borrow some jumper leads. Of course there was no question that the exercise in getting the jumper leads was simply another chance to remind him that I had no idea what to do with such things, so he said he’d be down – after some paperwork. He was rolling a cigarette as he told me this but I dare not presume what kind of paperwork would keep a man busy on a Sunday.

Tech came of course, but the jumper leads did little to reinvigorate our vehicle. In my ignorance I entertained the notion that flogging the car with them to encourage onward movement may help but I did not voice this, as even I know a car is not the same as a horse. Mr Tech retreated with the useless jumper leads. We lingered in the sun and the dust congealed between my toes. Kit got a sunburnt right arm from hanging out of the driver’s seat window. After a while the sunlight makes everything go a bit bleached-looking, a slow surreal scalding of the retinae that comes from long exposure to the garish light. The bare hills, the ubiquitous red dust, the palls of smoke, the people trudging and wilting under the bare sky. I went and bought two cans of Solo and came back just as Tech arrived again with a tow rope. As we attached it his wife sat dutifully in the front seat of their ramshackle Land Cruiser and assured us warmly that it was not a bother to help, even on a Sunday. Actual charitable Christians! I thought.

That was the first breakdown. We got the car back within a day or two after Tech’s offsider had examined it, and were told the issue was simply a flat battery, and maybe the oil (which of course had been disgracefully low). All seemed well and I was collected from work in Town a couple of afternoons later. It may have been the proximity of the same service station where the trouble had started that prompted the shudders and jolts, but again we were sitting in a car with a near-fatal case of the hiccups. Traffic was slow and inevitably we stalled. As I got out to push I could only give a helpless shrug to the driver of the ramshackle taxi now stuck behind us, who if it were not for the surprise of seeing a dimdim get out to push could have been thinking ‘there but for the grace of God…’ Or, just maybe, he was thinking we were deadshits who should be in a better car – as we were thinking.

This of course was a conspicuous situation. Two whiteys stuck by the side of a busy road, close to a kai bar and a bus stop, leaning nonchalantly on the car as if it were just the kind of thing we’d normally do in our spare time. Plenty of greetings and smiles and waves and entertained locals eyed us up as they went past. We had decided to try and get help from different quarters seeing as Mr Tech had helped us so readily the previous Sunday, but none of our calls got through. As we were contemplating the dilemma of calling on the same guy for a favour, the situation resolved itself for us – for who else what creaking his way up the bumper-to-bumper traffic than Tech himself. He spotted us, clearly puzzled, and again I shrugged. He promised to return soon with tow ropes – just first he’d have to get home and throw the two tuna fish in the back of his vehicle in the fridge. I saw these fish, they were massive, and it would have been a damn shame to leave them in the heat too long. So we waited.

Now when waiting idly by the roadside one gets less relaxed as the light dwindles. This is a fair fact. The traffic dissipated, the crowds thin and vanish. I watched as the old women packed up their cheap sunglasses and buai after a long day squatting in the dirt under the beating sun. Somewhere some people at home were probably bracing themselves for the Channel 9 news theme that preceded the EMTV news. Meanwhile I briefly got to know one of the guys who had helped us push the car, a shifty looking bloke with a ludicrously colourful shirt named Charleston. ‘I’m always around here’, he informed me, indicating the grubby steps and benches in front of the kai bar, before expectorating a mouthful of red gob proficiently into the gutter. It settled with the bountiful refuse and kindred buai stains that filled the overbrimming storm drain.

The lack of light eventually became disconcerting, but not for long – Mr Tech’s Land Cruiser was spotted rumbling in our direction, his great grey afro luminous in the cabin of the vehicle. He had brought his son, who was promptly put to work. As he bent over his son and informed him of his uselessness in the arts of the tow-rope I could not help notice Tech’s gnarled, talon-like toenails, and the wafer-thin surface of his thongs that separated his feet from the bitumen – they were so clearly part of his person that they almost looked like they would have to be peeled off his feet later after a long soak.

One final mishap awaited us, but not an unexpected one. The rope came undone as we were hauled up the wide expanse of road approaching our place, past the leering face of the Happy Gardener on the billboard out the front of his nursery, but before the Country Club and the dilapidated playing field. It was fully dark by now and cars, though fewer, were careening past at reckless speeds. Our own lights were utterly functionless and so we were were praying oncoming traffic in our lane saw us with enough time to not smash us to smithereens as we retied the rope – or as Tech’s son tied it, before his dad finally intervened to do it the grown up’s way. As they tied and untied and objected to each others’ interference I noted grimly the portions of the roadside railings that had been wiped out by speed-crazed suicide drivers in recent times. It isn’t an exagguration to say that new evidence of high-speed carnage can be seen on this road every week. We would have looked like sitting ducks in the oncoming headlights – assuming we were spotted.

A few dithering minutes later and we were moving again, all of us in one piece, as was our car. The same could not be said for Tech’s Cruiser, although this was no fault of some wild driver on Waigani Drive. Earlier I had noticed the steering column held together by layers of electrical tape, and the missing window-winder handle that had been replaced by a pair of multi-grip pliers. I commented to Tech’s son that multi-grips were probably put to better use than as makeshift window winders but he just said they always knew where to find them. Fair enough. The engine obviously worked OK though, and that was clearly the most necessary bit (along with the rope). Neither failed us for the rest of the short voyage back to Tech’s compound.

The epilogue goes something like this – the car is now fixed, although like I said I’d like our man in Six Mile to give it a once over. Some clever device called an alternator needed replacing, and the process of getting Tech’s right hand man to fix it involved two weekends of waiting – being fiscally challenged the mechanic couldn’t just buy the parts and get us to reimburse him, we had to fork out up front for everything. In addition the process of figuring out what ws actually broken seemed a bit trial and error, as in ‘stretim displa, see if it works, nogat, traim displa samting, whoops em bagarap yet, wokim nupela alternator then…’. But when you can’t fix it yourself one learns to accept these things, hop on the buses in the meantime, and wonder why on earth people don’t just ride bikes.


People – the situation is really dire over here now.

It’s not the kind of situation you’ll read about in the papers but nonetheless it’s a predicament that’s deeply worrying. One pivotal moment and suddenly one’s very existence in this place goes from quaint and odd to outlandish, frightening, and terrible. One small event, and life is awful. I’m not sure how to say it otherwise – except to say I don’t know how to express the grip of fear that is squeezing me as I type.

WE’VE RUN OUT OF GIN. The last drop has been squeezed, and trust me when you try you CAN squeeze a glass bottle. If ever there was a time when we needed a friend (and their two litre duty free booze allowance) now is the time.