Rabaul is the former provincial capital of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea. It was evacuated and nearly destroyed in 1994 when the nearby volcano Tavurvur erupted. As a tourist destination, Rabaul is popular for scuba diving and for snorkelling sites and also offers a spectacular harbour. Because of its war-time history it attracts many Japanese visitors. This article covers Rabaul and the neighboring town of Kokopo, to which the authorities moved the provincial capital after the eruption.
Rabaul is on the Gazelle Peninsula in the northeast of New Britain island. Most of the indigenous people are Tolais. During the eruption 80% of the buildings in Rabaul collapsed. Although there has been much reconstruction the city always runs the risk of further volcanic activity.
Rabaul (the word means Mangrove in one of the local languages as it was built on a mangrove swamp) was the headquarters of German New Guinea until it was captured by Commonwealth troops during World War I. The Australian administration was moved to Lae in 1937 after an eruption that caused over 500 deaths. In January 1942, it was heavily bombed on January 23 as thousands of Japanese troops were landed. By 1943 there were about 110,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul and around 2,000 local women were forced into sexual slavery. The Japanese army dug many kilometers of tunnels as shelter from the Allied air forces and many of these can still be seen today.
On 19 September 1994, Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes erupted, destroying the nearby airport and covering most of the town with heavy ash. Fortunately the city's inhabitants evacuated before the eruption and only a handful of people were killed. Most of the buildings in the southeastern half of Rabaul collapsed due to the weight of ash.
Air Niugini has daily flights from the nation's capital, Port Moresby, as well as flights from Lae, Kavieng, Hoskins in West New Britain, Buka in Bougainville and other locations in PNG. Rabaul Airport was completely destroyed in the 1994 eruption as it was in direct path of the falling ash from the nearby vents. The airport was later rebuilt at Tokua to the southeast, but this has also occasionally been closed by ashfall from continuing volcanic activity. Despite its new location the airport continues to use the three-letter code RAB. On arrival, you can get collected by your accommodation - but be aware of fees, often K40 or more - or get a taxi for a similar cost, or, if you're on a tight budget, get the public minibuses into Kokopo for K2. Many hotels are walking distance from the bus route and you can even connect to the 1A bus to Rabaul. On departure, the airport is horrible, very hot with insufficient seating, one small shop that doesn't even sell water, and the only working toilets are in the departure lounge, which you can't access until shortly before the flight. You still want to check in 1.5-2 hours ahead to avoid being bumped, but come prepared.
Coastal shipping. There are several vessels that connect Lae with Rabaul, with intermediate stops. Some of these carry passengers.
Buses ferry locals around for 80t for short trips. The 1A bus runs between Kokopo and Rabaul in about 40 minutes for K3.50 (K5 if it's raining as they take a longer but less muddy route) - between the 1A and walking, you could see some of the attractions quite cheaply.
Hire cars are available from hotels and companies. They are expensive - with base costs of maybe K240 per day plus a mileage fee and petrol, you could spend K400 on a day trip to Rabaul from Kokopo. The traffic is pretty relaxed but some of the Kokopo-Rabaul Road is badly damaged by mudslides and some of the side roads are rough - 4WD might be advisable.
Tours can be organised by any of the hotels, for land (war sites, volcano) or sea (diving, Duke of York Islands). They are a great way to see everything but are expensive unless you have a big group - think minimum K700 per car.
- 1 Mount Tavurvur and hot springs (drive down Mango Ave, turn left at the Travelodge intersection, after a few hundred metres, turn right at the white cross, a bit further on, veer left at a cross, then just follow the road towards the volcano). At the end of the road is a parking lot where you pay. You can take a look at the hot springs (don't fall in, they're deadly) and get a really good view of the volcano and the ash deposits. Locals will be selling handicrafts. Climbs start from here. K5.
- 2 Bitapaka War Cemetery (turn off at the sign between Kokopo and the airport, then about 5km down the road). Maintained by the Australian War Graves Commission this is the final resting place for servicemen from many countries who died in WWII. There is also a Japanese War Memorial at a former sea-plane base. Free.
- 3 Japanese Barge Tunnel (down a short rough unmarked track near Mt Vulcan. If coming from Rabaul, there is a sign but it's not right at the turnoff so you may need to hunt around). There are around 700km of tunnels in the hills that surround Rabaul's Simpson Harbour. Accommodation, hospitals and hiding places for barges were built in them. Some of the barges can still be seen in this tunnel at Karavia. K7.
- 4 General Yamamoto’s Bunker (turn left off Mango Ave at the sign. Bunker is opposite the New Guinea Club). The General led the Japanese South Pacific campaign. He was eventually shot down by the Americans after flying out of Rabaul on an inspection tour to the Solomon Islands. It's small and there's nothing in it but you can visit his underground command post. K5.
- 5 New Guinea Club Museum (turn left off Mango Ave at the sign). The venerable New Guinea Club, built in 1937, is now a museum about the history of Rabaul. Lots of photos. Very hot. K5.
- 6 Volcano Observatory (where the road from Kokopo veers right to become Rabaul's main street, instead turn left. After a few hundred metres, where the road just starts to descend towards the other coast, there is a very narrow paved road on the right, next to a white cross. Drive carefully to the top of this road.). The observatory's work in keeping watch on the volcanos was the reason why no one died in the 1994 eruption. There is a lookout here with a great view over the town, bay, and volcano. Free.
- 7 Kokopo War and Cultural Museum (opposite the waterfront golf course, a short walk from central Kokopo). A collection of Japanese war relics and a few photographs and trinkets. K10.
- Dive. The Rabaul area offers some fantastic diving opportunities. Apart from incredible coral and fish there are numerous sunken WWII Japanese battleships to explore. Dive companies include:
- Climb. In addition to the two active volcanos, Tavurvur and Vulcan, there are four other volcanic hills surrounding Simpson Harbour. Mt. Mother (or Kabiu) is the highest. This is 700 meters and can be climbed early in the morning from Matalau Village. Mt. Tavanabatir provides a home to the Rabaul Volcanic Observatory and offers a beautiful panoramic view of Rabaul Town, as shown in the photo.
Kai bars and chicken shops abound in the towns. Lots of fruit is available from markets and supermarkets. The resorts generally have decent restaurants overlooking the sea. Seafood is obviously the most reliable dish. The Rabaul Hotel has the Phoenix Room, a striking dining room with Chinese, local and colonial decor, but with lacklustre Chinese food.
- 1 Rabaul Hotel, Rabaul, ☏ . The Rabaul Hotel is situated 45 minutes from the Tokua Airport. Featuring 34 hotel rooms and catering for all budgets, the hotel's atmosphere reflects a blend of Rabaul culture (the Tolai people), and its more recent Chinese and Australian influences. The Hotel is within walking distance to the markets, historical sites, and is just 20 metres from the bus stop providing direct access to the surrounding attractions. It caters to business travellers or visitors with a special interest in war history, volcanoes, indigenous culture, the islands, diving, fishing, trekking or golf.
- New Rabaul Guest House, Wharf St., Rabaul, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Kokopo Beach Hotel, Pockley Rd, Kokopo, ✉ email@example.com.
- Kokopo Resort Hotel, ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Good quality accommodation in the center of Kokopo
- 2 Rapopo Plantation Resort, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com.
- 3 Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort. Beachside resort but a short walk to the central banks and a supermarket. K550+.
- Kimbe - via plane to HKN