Archive for the 'end of the world' 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.


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.