The last of the minibuses laden with locals crawls away. They smile and wave, and I sense their empathy at my predicament. I’m standing alone outside the airport terminal, and we all know I’ve been stood up.
That’s the public transport gone, and it will be pitch black in two hours at a guesstimate. Standing in the same clothes since Saturday, I wipe a hand under my arm. Bit of a hoy. I’ve arrived in Papua New Guinea. My mobile’s useless. No network. Dragging myself back inside the now deserted terminal, I approach the biggest bloke still working there, and he gets on the blower for me. Pidgin chatter.
“They’re expecting you my friend. You arrive tomorrow.”
We laugh. I’m definitely back in Papua New Guinea ...
Half hour later the airport staff wave goodbye from their pick-up and leave me in the plush surroundings of the Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort. I’m given the guided tour of the grounds and facilities. It’s lovely, especially if you’re a woman expecting that sort of thing. I nonchalantly convey that I could afford to stay, if I wanted to, all the while standing downwind, thinking, “How much?!”
Stephen Woolcott belatedly arrives in his battered Hilux, apologising profusely, (and needlessly), for the mix up. We traverse the pot-holed road towards Kabiara Beach Hideaway, an altogether more homely, and more affordable destination. Originally a half way house between the family’s plantation across Ataliklikun Bay and Rabaul town, Kabiara started as a resort in 2003, providing a much needed year round diving infrastructure for the area. The few high end resorts cater primarily for industrial and political guests, rather than divers on a budget.
The Woolcotts have continued to integrate themselves into the local community in an effort to get the villagers onside with developing tourism. This is not without setbacks. Stephen dived a new site, and a rumour spread like wildfire that he’d discovered a wreck full of diamonds and oil. That old chestnut.
“So what did you do with the diamonds?”
Stephen smiles and plays along.
“Well I had to give them back.”
“You kept the oil, though?”
“Oh yeah, I kept the oil!”
After a feed, a much needed shower and a good night’s sleep in a comfortable beach bungalow, it’s time to dive. As the only guest, I have my pick of the sites, and opt for a trip round the coast to Simpson Harbour.
The boat ride takes about ninety minutes, so settle down 5C; a brief history lesson.
During WWII, the Japanese were after a base for their push south into the Pacific, and Rabaul, with it’s superb harbour formed from an extinct caldera, was just the ticket. They mounted a full blown invasion in January 1942. Overwhelmed, the token Australian force were either killed or captured, or braved the ravages of the jungle to escape.
The Japanese soon had a garrison of over 100,000 personnel, with functioning airstrips and brothels. However in late 1943 the Allies launched ‘Operation Cartwheel’, bombing Rabaul, effectively blockading, and neutralising the base as an offensive threat. The Japanese dug over 300 miles of tunnels in the surrounding hills and sat out the remainder of the war.
So by the time of the surrender on 6th September 1945, there was a harbour full of wrecks. Indeed fifteen were dived and described by Monica Foster and Peter Stone in their meticulously researched ‘Rabaul’s Forgotten Fleet’, published in 1994, which was coincidentally the year the surrounding volcanoes erupted - and buried the lot under ash.
Because although Simpson Harbour is an extinct caldera, the volcanoes surrounding Rabaul are not. There were twin eruptions of Vulcan & Tavurvur volcanoes in 1937, that claimed over five
published in Sportdiving Magazine
publishied in Our Way - Airlines PNG in-flight magazine
published in Tanked Up
hundred lives and caused widespread devastation. And they erupted again on the 19th September 1994, after a mass evacuation, and totally destroyed both town and airport, forcing the effective abandonment of Rabaul.
Today it’s a bizarre ghost town. A handful of scattered buildings dot the surreal black landscape, and the tree-lined streets now only exist in faded photographs of what was once dubbed the prettiest town in the Pacific.
At the foot of Tavurvur the spur of Matupit Island is home to a thousand strong community who stoically defy the volcanic rain and the authorities’ attempts to move them. They got off lightly in ‘94, but have not been so lucky since. When it’s not falling on their heads from the sky, the ash is blown into their faces off the land.
Last time I was here Tavurvur was sleeping, with only a lazy wisp of smoke to indicate it was even breathing. Now it’s at it, and it’s spectacular. Dive guide Lloyd and the boat boys don’t seem to notice, so I just sit and gawp transfixed until we finally moor up over the wreck of the 5,859 ton freighter, Italy Maru.
She’s responsible for my love affair with wrecks. I’d dived a few shallow impostors, but back in 2002 the Italy was the biggest and deepest wreck I’d explored. I don’t mind telling you I was slightly apprehensive, hand-over-hand down the line, my strobe busy flooding - and then, something magical. Nitrogen narcosis no doubt, but the wreck, with her jutting superstructure twisted like a curious old face, suddenly stirred and stretched up from the mud towards me.
It’s never happened since. Usually I feel like I’m caught in a tractor beam when descending, or like a bug about to be splattered on the windscreen when the wreck looms large and unyeilding out of the fog, but I’ve never had that sensation of a rusting hulk coming up towards me since diving the Italy Maru. I tend to keep quiet about that sort of thing until I get to know you, to be honest ...
I’d love to tell you it’s gin clear for my reunion, that the wreck comes up to greet me like an old friend, but I’d be lying, because the visibility is pants, and the Italy Maru doesn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. It’s like finning through an ash soup, and although the water clarity was hit and miss before the big ‘Ka-Boom!’ of ‘94, today it’s much, much worse, than my initial dive seven years ago. The recent eruption that closed the airport for a month has contributed to a less than stellar return.
The boat boys spend elevenses jumping off The Beehives, a pair of volcanic plugs that rise from the harbour depths. I decline their invitation to join them in certain death on the fringing coral below, and contemplate Sod’s Law regarding visibility over my Bento box. But this is Rabaul and things are already looking up. Across the harbour, docked at the Yacht Club, is Barbarian II.
Twenty minutes later I step aboard and shake hands once again with the skipper, my diving hero, and PNG living legend, Rodney Pearce. Self taught diver and wreck hunter since the age of ten-ish, not only has Rod ‘been there’ and ‘done it’, he discovered ‘it’ in the first place. And then designed the T-shirt for good measure. (After finding the B-17 ‘Black Jack’, the underwater world’s greatest aircraft wreck, he really did design the T-shirt.)
Rod’s found so much sunken wreckage he makes Dr. Robert Ballard look like a sleeping geologist who couldn’t find a teaspoon in a mug without the French to help him, and the reason I’m telling you this is that Rod never would. There are some people who are worth missing a dive for. For you lot, imagine spending the afternoon drinking with Captain Cousteau.
In an effort to find better visibility, I opt to dive the wrecks outside the harbour. We drive the coast road, past the catch for sale, chocolate box churches and neat village gardens, to dive what’s left of the Iwate Maru in milky green water, now hardly recognisable as a former water transport, having been heavily salvaged, but still a fascinating junk yard of maritime bric-a-brac.