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YEAR’S EVE IN RABAUL

 IN PROGRESS

 

‘I met Dogster once, sitting under a palm tree in Rabaul. It was New Year’s Eve 2002 – or 3, I can’t remember. He was tired and emotional, smelling vaguely of cheap wine and vomit, surrounded by natives who had rescued him from the incoming tide. Then a huge black fellow scooped him up and carried him bodily to a car, dumping him gently in the back seat. The last I saw of him was one bare foot sticking out the window as they drove away.

I found his shoe later, covered in red ants, abandoned not far away. I’ve kept it ever since as a souvenir. He is a very peculiar man.’

Rabaul, rather like Dogster, has been destroyed more than once. The last time it was for keeps.

Rabaul is a township in East New Britain province, Papua New Guinea. Rabaul is continually threatened by volcanic activity due to being built on the edge of Rabaul caldera, a flooded caldera of a large volcano. The town was the provincial capital and most important settlement in the province until it was destroyed in 1994 by falling ash of a volcanic eruption. In 1983 and 1984 the town was ready for evacuation when the volcanoes started to heat up. Nothing happened until 19 September 1994, when again Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted, destroying the airport and covering most of the town with heavy ashfall. There were only 19 hours of warning before the eruption and the city’s inhabitants self-evacuated before the eruption. Only a handful of people were killed—several of them by lightning from the eruptive column. The advance planning and evacuation drills helped keep the death toll low. During the eruption, ash was sent thousands of metres into the air. It caused rain which caused 80% of the buildings in Rabaul to collapse due to the weight of ash on their roofs.. Most of the buildings in the southeastern half of Rabaul were destroyed.
 

 

 The last eruption prompted the relocation of the provincial capital to Kokopo, the former German Herbertshöhe. Which is where Dogster lost his shoe.

It’s an ugly bloody thing, that volcano – but it’s the only show in town. Up close it’s like staring straight at hell. No pretty lava, just black crap pouring into the air, settling like grey grit over everything. No fun, volcanoes.

DEATH FOR DINNER

It was death for dinner. A plate of sliced grey meat was flung on the table in front of me. A helpful hand poured liquid pooh over the grey. The flurry of mixed frozen vegetables and a pale imitation of a baked potato added to the unease.

‘Enjoy’ grunted the waiter.

Dog looked across at the others, expecting to see his horror reflected in their eyes. No, they were tucking in with great enthusiasm. Some concepts have not yet made it to PNG. Here food is fuel, nothing more.

‘Great,’ said Justin, ‘wolfing down the gristle, ‘good pela tucker.’

‘Pass the gravy…’ said Nola, one half of a pair of unhappy schoolteachers. Her husband aimply sat and ate. Only Dog had taste-buds, it would appear. Still, the conversation was lively, the environment serene and grey gristle was the only food around. This was no time for complaining. Eat it, Dog and shut up.

Dog liked Justin and Justin liked Dog. He was one of the freebies and a great man to have on board. A PNG national, he was the nation’s favorite radio announcer. In PNG, we are still in the land where the only communication for anyone outside the town is gossip. Radio comes a close second – so the friendly, gro-o-o-oovy voice of Justin ** floating in from outer space was like gossip from the world.

‘I like you,’ he said to me one afternoon, ‘all the rest are crap but I like you.’

I  could only agree.

‘When were these vegetables last in the ground?’ Dog mused, shuffling a square of orange organic matter around his plate. ‘What is this?’

‘It once was a carrot,’ said Justin dryly.

‘A long, long time ago,’ Nola said with a snarl. She’d been in PNG for years. She knew that vegetables came from packets.

‘It’s just bloody boarding school food.’

Here was the clue. Zapeedabada was, in many ways, a big, overgrown schoolboy. He’d made little progress into the civilized world since school. Yup, he was sent away to board. It was the best time of his life. His taste buds froze in time, somewhere around lunch. All meals were tomato soup, lamb and two veg, all desserts were jelly and ice cream. We all sat together to eat, the usual cruising horror, each meal a tiny minefield of new and dreary companions. Dinner tonight was relatively benign. The school-teachers were kind, Justin was fun. Zapeedabada sat with his back to me at the next table, trying to squeeze out a conversation.

Zapeeda was a gruff man, taciturn, not prone to making an effort. He didn’t have small chat. He cut to the chase and, if he felt there was no chase to be had, he simply cut off. We tended to avoid each other at meals. Life was short.

Dog was shoving the grey into his gob, talking and drinking with his customary mealtime flair.

Bring me one hundred beers!’ he chortled.

‘Two hundred!’ said Jason.

‘……….,’ said Dog.

Nobody noticed my mouth opening and closing, the jokes rolled around the table, everybody laughed and ate some more.

‘…..’ said Dog. Then he said ‘……….!’

A piece of lamb was stuck in his throat, blocking off speech, air and, very soon, life itself.

My hands waved wildly. I stared straight ahead with a look of pure horror on my face, mouth opening and closing soundlessly.

‘Are you alright?’ Justin said.

Dog shook his head wildly and did the ‘there’s-something-stuck-in-my-throat-and-I-CAN’T-BREATHE!’ mime. There was something about the look in his eye. This was real. Mouth opening, closing. Not one scintilla of oxygen made it to my lungs. I’m in trouble. Really. I’m in trouble.

Seconds left. The others are suddenly transfixed. What to do? An instant emergency does tend to collect one’s thoughts.

‘Do you want us to hit you on the back?”What can we do?”Oh shit…’

Thye dining room fell silent as all eyes zoned in on the emergency. Hy eyes are wide. I know the potential of my situation. I am choking. No air. Die. Hurry. My arms flapped about. Help me, said my eyes, ‘he-e-e-elp…’

WHACK!!! Beaughh-h-h. Ehh-h-h. Gulp. Cough. Ble-e-e-ugh.

I stared at the gristle in my serviette.

‘Fucking food,’ I said, ‘this fucking, fucking food.’

Zapeedabada stood over me. One enormous hand reached out and grabbed my shoulder.

‘Better now?’

I stared up and into two hairy nostrils and eyes that had transformed from gruff to gentle.

‘You saved my life, Zapeeda…’

And he had. Quite literally. Dog was about thirty seconds from collapse. It was either a bash on the back or the Heimlich manoevre. The bash was fine by me. Truly. Any port in that storm. I was going to have to rethink my Zapeeda additude. Seeing as he’d saved Dog from death, I could scarcely maintain the rage. I reached out and shook his hand.

‘You did save my life, mate. I am in your debt. Thank you.’

Dog was suitably solemn and manly – but he’d been suitably scared as well.

Zappeda did the customary growl and ‘don’t think about it..’ mumble. He gets embarrassed with praise. He gets embarrassed by any deep feelings, really. It was like watching a man carry a wall around. Of course, like all strong wall-men, he was a little sissy inside. Easily hurt, easily angered – negative emotions came fine. It was expressing the positive ones that gave him trouble. The best one could hope for was a twinkle in the eye.

So there was the brief twinkle.

Basil Fawlty dissolved for a second. So did the foreign fool.

‘Thank you. I mean it.’

*

Rabaul was the headquarters of German New Guinea until captured by the British Commonwealth during World War I, when it became the capital of the Australian mandated Territory of New Guinea until 1937. During World War II it was captured by the Japanese in 1942, and it became the main base of Japanese military and naval activity in the South Pacific. Settlements and military installations around the edge of the caldera are often collectively referred to as Rabaul despite the old town of Rabaul itself being reduced to practical insignificance by the volcanic eruption in 1994.

As a tourist destination, Rabaul is popular for scuba diving and for snorkelling sites and a spectacular harbour; it had been the premier commercial and travel destination in Papua New Guinea and indeed in the wider South Pacific during much of the 20th century until the 1994 volcanic eruptions. There are still several diving operators based there.

World War II

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor it was apparent that Rabaul would come under attack. By December 1941, all women and children were evacuated. In January 1942, Rabaul was heavily bombed, and on January 23 the Battle of Rabaul began with the landing of thousands of Japanese marines.

During their occupation the Japanese developed Rabaul into a much more powerful base than the Australians had planned after the 1937 volcanic eruptions, with long term consequences for the town in the post-War period. The Japanese army dug many kilometres of tunnels as shelter from the Allied air forces. By 1943 there were about 110,000 Japanese troops based in Rabaul. The Japanese army also set up brothels in Rabaul where “… perhaps 2000 or more women were deceived and forced into prostitution of a most demanding kind …”, according to Emeritus Professor Hank Nelson from the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.[4]

On April 18, 1943, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was shot down and killed by United States aircraft over South Bougainville after taking off from Rabaul. Japanese communications giving Yamamoto’s flight itinerary were decrypted by United States Navy cryptographers.[5] Eighteen United States Army Air Force P-38 Lightning fighters took off from Guadalcanal and destroyed the two bombers of the Yamamoto flight and the escorting Japanese fighters.

Instead of capturing Rabaul, the Allied forces bypassed it by establishing a ring of airfields and naval bases on the islands around it. Cut off from re-supply and under continual air attacks as part of Operation Cartwheel, the base became useless. The Japanese held Rabaul until they surrendered at the end of the war in August 1945.

THREE ISLANDS

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