Rabaul harbour is gorgeous. It has been called the most impressive harbour in the Pacific Basin and rightly so I think.
As we sailed in, the impressive and brooding Mt. Tavurvur volcano loomed above, puffing smoke above several smaller ones. The area around the bay appeared extremely mountainous and its lush greenness spoke of regular heavy rains.
And what of the "Unlucky Past"? In 1937 and 1994 Rabaul had to be rebuilt from the ground up after volcanic eruptions flattened the city. Massive Japanese aerial bombardment in WWII flattened what had been rebuilt from the 1937 eruption. Unperturbed, the residents rebuild each time thanks to very generous Australian Aid.
This port of call we decided to go to the other extreme. Local buses and lots of walking for our sightseeing we decided instead of expensive shore tours. Firstly we walked to the local market and, after looking around, found a mini van and an English speaker understanding that we wanted to go to see the Japanese Barge tunnels. Soon the bus filled to way beyond capacity (as is the norm for mini buses) and we handed over a small coin each.
20 minutes later after many stops and starts we were deposited along the road somewhere, with not a tourist sign in sight. The driver pointed towards a path leading to a steep hill and took off in a cloud of smelly diesel. As we walked up the path a wizened ancient man leaning on a walking stick came to meet us. He said in passable English that he was the caretaker and we saw we had now arrived at a garden memorial area. Not quite what we had expected but we looked around for awhile and then we were joined by two shy little girls of about 8 and 10. Barefoot and dressed simply, they beckoned for us to follow. We looked enquiringly at the old man who nodded his assent and said " the children will take you". Take us they did and it turned out we were seeing the non touristy little known Japanese hospital tunnels and a spy tunnel instead of our intended destination. A much better experience!
Glad of our hiking boots, we puffed and pushed ourselves up an extremely steep and slippery incline as the girls scampered up untroubled in their bare feet. The older of the two girls, became quite a competent tour guide explaining to us in good but hesitant English how the tunnels had been used and showed us various Japanese artifacts left behind. The tunnels had housed the wounded on several levels and contained a clearly defined kitchen and a munitions store. One tunnel took us to a breathtaking view of the whole harbour and we understood this was a snipers position. We were then taken down another challenging path by our girls in the opposite direction we had come and, lo and behold, we had arrived at the real tourist destination of the Japanese Barge Tunnel! We gave the girls some Kina and thanked them profusely for our special tour.
The Japanese barge tunnel was part of a network of rail tracks that connected barges and ships with munitions stores. This tunnel still contains five rusting barges with three of them visible to the public.
Catching the local minibus back to Rabaul we had a flat tyre. I counted 21 people get out of the Toyota Tarago! We were more than a little grateful we had decided to do this trip early in the day and not risk being late back to the ship. Once the spare was on only a dozen or so got back in, the rest of the passengers had wandered off. When we arrived back at the market in central Rabaul the driver wouldn't take our proffered money for the trip saying "No pay for tyre flat".
Back in Rabaul we set out to walk to the Volcanological Observatory. The Rabaul region has been rocked by at least three massive volcanic eruptions in the past 100 years and this observatory collects and manages data and this data is used by scientists from all over the world to study volcanic activity. Australia pays for it. It was a massive steep climb up through housing suburbs and before long we were ruing the choice of walking. We asked for directions from a girl of about 16 and she said she would show us. She too began to struggle with the hike. Along came a local mini van and we hopped in expecting to pay for the girl who had tagged along as well as us, but when we arrived the driver waved away any payment with a big smile.
At the observatory a group of children were waiting to sing for a bus load of tourists about to leave. Lucky for us, we then had the observatory all to ourselves. Further, when we had finished looking and chatting to the PNG scientist in charge, he locked up and said he would drive us back to the ship. When we offered payment he also waved us away. Our tag along guide however made a speech about how she was studying tourism and she believed she was worth X amount! X was quite high but we did give her some money and all in all it had been a wonderful shore day and much more within our budget than the last one.