The Volcanoes

There is nothing quite like a volcano puffing and muttering away to make you feel simultaneously revivified, overflowing with life, and totally humble before the enormous forces of nature.

And when it is Tavurvur and you are lucky enough to be here when it signals its latest smoke and ash display with a midnight roar that even 20 kms (12 miles) away sounds like a 747 landing on the road outside your window, you really know how important you are in the greater scheme of things! And that was only a bit of a burp, really!

But mighty as this power is, living in and around Rabaul is safe as the volcanoes are quite predictable and are constantly monitored for the precursors of activity. The Vulcanological Observatory (known locally in Tok Pisin as Haus Guria — earthquake house) keeps the volcanoes and the magma body underlying them under close observation.

The early morning sun highlights smoke drifting from Tavurvur volcano — one of the two which erupted in 1994 wiping out nearby Matupit Island village and most of Rabaul town.

Tavurvur in the morning seen from Matupit Island. The volcano's superheated gases and dust cut a fiery swathe through the Island and left the remnants covered by a meters thick coating of acrid, acidic dust. No lives were lost in the eruption as it was well predicted by the Vulcanological Observatory experts and local residents alike.

Rabaul town and harbor are mighty  craters left after massive explosions of gas, ash, rocks and lava that formed the Gazelle Peninsula as we know it about 1400 years ago. After that giant outburst, the magma hardened into a huge plug. The soft crater wall crumbled to the sea on the south-east side and Simpson Harbor, one of the world's finest harbors, was formed as the sea washed in over the plug's lower parts.

The string of volcanoes on the north east side (your left as your look out from the Observatory) Kombiu (the mother) and her north and south daughters, Tovanumbatir and Turanguna, and Watom Island to the west (behind you) are thousands of years older. Behind them, to the north, is another great underwater crater, Tavui, of unknown age but possibly younger than the Rabaul harbor. It was not even recognized for what it is until the evolution of technology in the 1980s made it possible to peer into the sea's depths.

Smoking Tavurvur and Dawapia (the Beehives) seen across the harbor from Malaguna. The Dawapia outcrops have been reduced over the yeas with subsidence and earthquakes. When whites first visited Rabaul, the larger outcrop had a  beach and a micro-village of two or three houses on it.

The mighty eruption that formed the harbor wiped out all life in the entire Gazelle Peninsula, hundreds of square kilometers. It is hard to imagine that today's verdant Gazelle was a dusty, gray, lifeless moonscape, but visiting Matupit Island and seeing some of the areas there that bore the brunt of the most searing gases and acrid, abrasive ash from Tavurvur's 1994 eruption gives a clue.

Over centuries plants, insects, larger animals, the Bainings people, and finally the Tolais invaded, and the Gazelle was transformed into the hugely productive lush, green, tropical landscape it is today.

Then ships sailed in from Europe and the lovely township of Rabaul grew up inside the breached caldera, only to be devastated at roughly 60 year intervals by eruptions from Tavurvur and then Vulcan situated at each side of the harbor mouth. (Since the last big one was in 1994, book ahead to be around for the next one expected in 2050 or so!)

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Nearly 20 years on from the 1994 eruptions, Rabaul town was gradually being revived and the Tolai people of Matupit Island, which bore the brunt of the 1994 blast, were moving back and rebuilding their home.

And along with town residents, planting their favourite flower, the frangipani.

Then came the blast of lava, ash and gases on 29 August, 2014. And everyone began cleaning up again.

Twenty years on from the 1994 eruption, Matupit Island is slowly recovering with new growth, villagers moving back and repairing houses and their churches and planting food — and the iconic frangipani is flowering again.

Visit Matupit and you will see repaired and new houses where people have moved back to the Island, new food garden and decorative plantings, and vegetation struggling to re-establish itself in the worst hit areas.

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