An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Trouble With Tavurvur

Damn Geoff. Damn him for sending that email telling me how he managed to climb the volcano. Damn, damn and damn! He did it, and I didn't. I hate that and the way he put the idea in my head. I was so very, very keen to follow in his footsteps and look down into the crater of a volcano for the first time ... bugger.

Oh well at least I tried and survived. It could have been worse and I not survive. Thankfully we won't know. What I did do though has since been called "nuts", which in hindsight I would partially have to agree with.

But back to the beginning. I had been staying at Kokopo all week and the idea since arriving on the Tuesday was that I would take the Friday off and go and climb the volcano, Tavurvur (pronounced TAV-oo-vor), around near the old provincial capital of Rabaul.

Rabaul, from all accounts, used to be the prettiest town in the South Pacific, then in 1994 nearby volcanos of Tavurvur and Vulcan blew up and covered most of the town in tonnes of ash. Parts of it have since been rebuilt, but it has never returned to its former glory.

Getting up early so that I could climb the little devil before the main heat of the day, I jumped on a PMV bus and headed around the coast for the 20 minute bus trip. I had organised to meet up with a wantok of my work colleague, but he was running on PNG time and didn't surface at the designating time. In the end I was glad he didn't show, because I didn't need him and he would have got in the way.

Instead I found out from the women in the market that if I wanted to get up close with Tavurvur that I needed to go to Matupit and then catch a canoe across. They then proceeded to point out a conveniently passing PMV ute that stopped and let me on the back to the looks a bunch of bemused women. It obviously bemused the driver as well because he insisted that I jump in the front with him after he kicked out a local guy. He was a nice guy who used to be a cop in Lae.

The road proceeded through the old part of town that was destroyed Pompeii style. On kerb and gutted roads with banks heaped with metres of black ash we drove past the shell of the pervious provincial headquarters, then past the unrecognisable former golf course and down the airstrip which is now part of the road. It was all a weird sight.

Matupit turned out to be a nice sizeable village in one of the most unenviable locations - pretty as it is. Somehow it had managed to escape the full extent of the eruption when the winds blew the ash instead all over the Rabaul. My driving mate told me he would get me in touch with a local guy to canoe me across the bay to the angry mountain. In typical PNG style this was achieved by telling a couple of local girls that I needed Tony, who then escorted me through the village all the while calling out "Tony", "Tony" etc.

He was eventually found down on the beach with what seemed like the rest of the men from the village and most of the kids. Men's business was being conducted with the slaughtering of a pig.

On the beach butchery

The full reason for the pig killing I did not find out - pigs don't get killed unless there is a good reason - but I suspect it was something to do with the fact another villager had recently been killed. In the market I had heard that there was a Matupit man that had died after trying to dig up Megapode eggs. These are a local delicacy that is apparently only found in the soil close to volcanos, no doubt for the heat. Paul Theroux writes about these eggs in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania.

Our unlucky chap from Matupit was two days before trying to dig up some of these eggs on the lower ground around Tavurvur from a depth of 2 metres when the hole he was in collapsed on top of him. Nobody spotted that he was covered until too late.

While I got my camera out and took pics of the kids, the pig and the volcano, Tony got the canoe ready. With a helping hand from the local kids in their usual lively mode we pushed off and started the 20 minute, or so, paddle over the bay.

The village kids giving me a push off

Looking at Rabaul's famous volcano from a distance and it is not that scary a prospect. It sits like a squat little baby, not yet at the crawling stage, being looked over by other family members - Mother and Daughter. The little baby though does not know when to keep quiet and is almost continually having a dummy spit. This, unbeknownst to me, was to be my downfall from the start.

Click to enlarge. From left to right: Rabaul on a harbour, Vulcan in the foreground, Matupit peninsula in the middle, The Mother in the background, Tavurvur throwing ash and The Daughter on the right

I started to notice that things were amiss when I realised that Tony was only wearing thongs for footwear. I was hoping that he would climb the thing with me, so he could guide me around the crags and crevices. With those thin bits of rubber he wouldn't be climbing anywhere up the side - they would probably melt.

Upon hitting the beach, I got the official word, "Mi bai stap hia, yu tasol go up na kisim piksa" (I will stay here, you alone go up and take photos). Hmmm not good news, I wanted someone to go with who had done it before. Then the instructions on where to go came. Now if you have ever received directions in pidgin you will know straight away how infuriatingly vague a language it is. "Go long barret, klostu whitepela graun, go raun liklik na up long hapwe" and all the while pointing.

I got him to repeat his directions twice more and I still wasn't sure. In pidgin long can mean on, in, under, basically any conjoining word. Was I supposed to go in one of those nasty looking crevices or on top of the bank. There was only one way to find out.

I put my boots on and got one final instruction before I set off up towards this rocky, steamy, smelly peak. "Yu noken go antap, go hapwe tasol. Em toktok plenti nau. Smok na bikpela ston kam up. Antap itambu stret". Ahh shit, I had been given word not to climb to the crater.

This was the first time I actually realised that it wasn't a good idea to climb up a volcano when it is throwing out ash and rock. Later I found out that Geoff had had the luxury of Tavurvur being quiet the whole of last year. I, it seems, had picked a bad time.

I set off anyway, may as well climb something now that I had just put my boots on. So I picked my way up the beach and off towards the crevices. One look at them and I realised it was not a good to walk up those. Steam, heat, yellow sulphur encrusted ground - nasty.

On top of the bank I picked my way up trying not to walk on too much of the white encrusted ground or head towards the area which was steaming. This made my path go along the edge of one of the nasty crags. I made sure I didn't step too close, there was no telling how stable this ground was.

I wasn't keen to fall in one of these crags

Taking my time I managed to find a safe enough route to get up half way of the volcano. It wasn't particularly high and it didn't take long (20 or 30 mins?) but when I looked down at my shirt and saw it was saturated in sweat I realised this little climb had certainly made me exert. This was emphasized when I gulped a whole bottle of water down.

Standing just at the point where the slope rises up the last 40 or 50 metres to the rim of the crater I suddenly had the incredible urge to finish the rest of the climb off and get to the top and have a look down. The volcano had been quiet the whole time I was climbing and it would only take another 5-10 minutes to get to the top. It was one of those ultimate indecisive moments. "do it" part of me said, "no don't" the other counted, "the local guy told you not to". Argg. I would set off one way up then turn around and then stop and look back up.

My decision was made for me when Tavurvur decided to talk. With an angry roar, a huge rumble and a ground shake, a spectacular column of ash ballooned and billowed into the sky, easily reaching a couple of hundred metres into the air. In amongst the dark cloud I could see chunks of black rocks (or were they boulders) being flung recklessly. My thoughts were as follows. "that is impressive", "I'm glad the wind is blowing that way and I'm standing on this side of the volcano", "where's my camera?".

Tavurvur was angry with me

I decided to head down - obviously. The rocks were crashing down on the other side of the volcano, making a scary cracking noise. I was satisfied with what I had done, but wish I had picked a better time to do it.

Tony was still on the beach when I walked sweatily up and plocked myself on the bow of the canoe. "Yu kisim piksa?", "em nau, yumi go".