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ISSUE 12 ARCHIVE - RABAUL, PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Howard Sawyer

You've never heard of the place. It cost a packet, and takes three days slog from the UK to get there, providing the airport is open.

The authorities are trying to move the locals off their post apocalyptic land on health grounds, and if malaria or the raskol gangs don't get you, Jesus probably will.

Why would you go? Why on earth would you go back? Seven years on, H E Sawyer chomps at the bit.
KLJ Diver Travel
Volcano The last of the minibuses laden with locals crawled away. 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. 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.
Mechanical carcass "They're expecting you. You arrive tomorrow." We laugh. Oh, I've definitely arrived in Papua New Guinea...

Half an 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 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.
Ocean Visions
Prop The Woolcotts chose 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.
Gun fun 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 three hundred miles of tunnels in the surrounding hills and sat out the nagging bombing raids and the remainder of the war.
Aquamarine Silver
Gun fun 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.' This book was published in 1994, the same year as surrounding volcanoes erupted and buried the lot under ash.

Although Simpson Harbour is an extinct caldera, the volcanoes surrounding Rabaul are not. There were twin eruptions of Vulcan and Tavurvur in 1937 which claimed over five hundred lives and caused widespread devastation. They erupted again on the 19th September, 1994, totally destroying both town and airport, forcing the effective abandonment of Rabaul.
Map 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.
Nautilus Lifeline
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 was slightly apprehensive, hand-over-hand down the line, my strobe busy flooding, just great, 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 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. 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.)

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 transporter, having been heavily salvaged, but still a fascinating junk yard of maritime bric-a-brac.

The intact and much photographed Mitsubishi A6 M2 Zero fighter lying flush to the sand in thirty metres, is a real winner, as was the pilot who allegedly swam ashore and walked away. There are not many shore dives where you can fin out with the mantra, "Erupting volcano on your right going out... erupting volcano on your left coming in..."

The day gets crazier still on the drive home. As we round a bend, a few raskols get to their feet, and within seconds over a dozen more, many carrying big sticks, seep out from the tree line, and spill onto the road. Stephen looks resigned, (I'm perversely thrilled), although it's basically a friendly local 'toll', a few kina coins to appreciate the 'road works' they've voluntarily done on the potholes.

It's at this point we run out of fuel. Stephen looks sheepish. He's got two thousand kina worth of frozen meat, dive kit, a guest, and a boat boy in the van. And no signal on his mobile. But I'm having a whale of a time. Today I've already shaken hands with a landowner, who, as a child, met the invading Admiral Yamamoto, eaten fast food at 'Big Rooster', seen their competition, the bizarrely titled 'Zero Rooster', lost a fight with a chocolate ice cream, and been held up. I'm sorry, but you just won't get this in a dive brochure.

Now, if you're still with me, you're probably thinking I'm not exactly selling Rabaul, what with the long haul, the cost, it's everyday lunacy, and the fact that it could-have-been- Chuuk-Junior-if-only-it-weren't-for-the-flippinvolcanoes etcetera. And you'd be right. But tomorrow I'm going to dive something I missed last time around. It's the reason I came back.
RescuEAN
I wouldn't say I was excited, but I kicked off the morning by trying to put my 3mm wet suit on back to front, much to the crew's amusement.

The Main Event is the second dive of the day. First up is George's wreck. Mystery surrounds the Japanese freighter and suspected minelayer to this day. She was named after George Tyers, the first European to dive her, and lies on a slope at approximately forty degrees. Without identification she has to be appreciated for what she is; an idyllic aquarium wreck, and being outside the harbour, there's the added bonus of good visibility in spite of the plant detritus that floats on the surface.

The bow is at approximately ten metres, and the stern at sixty. The skeletal deck, winches and railings are festooned with a wide variety of soft corals. The aft hold at forty-five metres contains half a dozen steel floats, some intact. Think 'Alien'. The scene where the egg hatches.

We zig-zag back up over the wreck towards the forecastle, where Lloyd tells me there's a puffer fish of frankly ludicrous proportions. And he's not wrong. Peering inwards, there's a creature the size of Sir Harry Secombe. It's a terrific dive.

The boys take the boat round to a nondescript piece of coastline and moor up using landmarks of a single stumpy palm and a couple of protruding rocks. Unlike the harbour, you'd never guess what's down there. It's utterly beautiful. A virtually intact upright Mitsubishi F1 M2 bi-plane at twenty-eight metres. The machine gun behind the rear cockpit has been souvenired, and the main float under the fuselage is slightly askew, but otherwise it's a sunken treasure.

It's like when Airfix used to sell model kits in bags and you discovered a rarity in some musty toy shop in a foreign corner like Aberystwyth.

The criss-cross wires between the wings are sprayed and flecked with soft coral and crinoids. Indeed under torch light or the strobe, the plane is decorated with the most incredible paint job. Fin up the sediment in front of the propellers, then hang back, and she could be flying through the clouds again.

Sunken bi-planes are as rare as dragon eggs, although there's another in PNG, off Kavieng, New Ireland, but it lies twisted and broken like a fossilized archaeopteryx. The Rabaul biplane, sunk at it's mooring, is a one off, and a real underscore for the wreck diver's portfolio.

Stephen wants to show me his reef dives and the critters that live there. He says they're really something, and I'm sure they are, but I'm out of time, and have to move on. He'll get the opportunity next time no doubt, because Rabaul is a magical place, and I'm definitely coming back.
Ocean Visions

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