© Geoffrey Heard 2014
I came to Rabaul as a pikinini journalist in October, 1963; just 21 years old, I thought I knew everything but I actually knew nothing. Despite that depth of ignorance I was AAP-Reuter's first full time correspondent* in Rabaul, charged with bringing this fascinating, complex place to the notice of the world.
I instantly became entranced by the volcanoes. You would have to be pretty odd not to -- the neat, treed, tropical town sat on top of the plug of a giant volcano, "extinct" they said, within the walls of the caldera, which was breached on one side to make one of the great harbors of the world. Glance at the picture at the head of the page and dare to deny it! A bunch of other volcanoes surrounded the little town, all said to be extinct (whatever that means) except Tavurvur on the left and Vulcan on the right as you looked east, guarding the harbor mouth.
The pair had erupted in 1937 laying waste to the town and a large area of the Gazelle Peninsula. There had been an eruption of Tavurvur about 60 years before to that. No new eruption was expected for quite some time, if ever, but a government workboat trudged out to the two volcanoes every week so vulcanologists could take measurements of the gases coming out of steam points and check ground levels around the bases of the cones -- upthrusting magma makes the ground around a volcano swell like a boil in human skin before an eruption.
I visited the volcanoes with the vulcanologists, I climbed Tavurvur and stared down into the crater (and felt considerably disappointed that it was just dirt down there, not roiling, boiling lava), I wrote newspaper and magazine feature stories about them and I took and sold pictures of them.
They were my volcanoes.
Towards the end of 1964, AAP recalled me. I was living in a volcano, in one of the most beautiful places on earth, in an area full of fascinating happenings and developments, and they wanted me to tamely return to an Australian city where I would have the privilege of working eight hour shifts in a room with no windows sub-edting copy from people living and working in really interesting places?
I resigned, and stayed in Rabaul.
Inevitably, though, my work took me away from Rabaul, and eventually I pitched back into Australia, so "quite some time" (30 years) later, when Tavurvur and Vulcan blew in 1994, I was long gone. In fact, I heard the news on my car radio in Melbourne, Australia, and was so distressed that I wasn't in Rabaul to see and experience it that I had to pull off the road while I beat on the steering wheel and shouted at the innocent communications device.
Since 1994, Tavurvur has not really settled down. It continues to have large and small bursts of activity.
And Tavurvur, the volcano I love, has been playing footsie with me.
I visited Rabaul briefly in 2004 and 2006. Tavurvur did some nice stuff in 2006, but not while I was here. My reward with just a single, derisory ash cloud puffed out casually while I was boating past one day. Better than nothing, of course, but not much! :)
Then I began visiting regularly in 2010 and finally got back to Rabaul on a permanent basis in 2012. Again, Tavurvur has done some stuff, but not while I was here. Frustratingly, I was missing its bigger rumblings.
But on Friday 29 August, 2014, it all came together. I was in Kokopo, where I now live (the "new Rabaul" since the 1994 eruption) and Tavurvur blew its top in spectacular and damaging manner in the early hours of the morning with a boom and a roar that shook houses 20 kms away and sent people scurrying outside fearing the apocalypse.
It was the beginning of a classic strombolian eruption with gradually diminishing explosions hurling molten lava, ash and gases into the air.
After waiting 51 years, I had my chance at last to see Tavurvur in fiery acton!
Only I didn't! I had arrived back in Kokopo just the day before after several weeks away. I was exhausted so typically (just when you need rest most) I had difficulty sleeping. When my eyes finally closed, I was as one drugged. I did not even stir when Tavurvur's first mighty blast literally shook the house and rattled the furniture!
Okay, okay, so I am a bit deaf. Even more than a bit. But we are talking mighty booms, booms that shook the whole house. Booms that made the bed jump. We are talking last trump stuff!
There were more booms and roaring, people called for me to get up and take some pictures. I could not. I simply could not open my eyes. I was totally exhausted. I slept through until about 8AM, and even then, tottered out of bed reluctant to make my feet work or my eyes open.
So it was that I eventually made it to Blue Lagoon lookout, halfway from Kokopo to Rabaul, to take some pictures of Tavurvur erupting at about 10AM -- a shameful six hours and a bit after it blew. I got some respectable and interesting pictures, but the truly spectacular ones were taken by others in the predawn with lava dribbling out of the fiery cone, and the dawn hours as the sun poked its first rays over the horizon.
Thirty-six hours later it was all over -- except for the clean-up, of course.
Fifty-one years I waited. Fifty-one. And then I could not open my eyes.
Good grief! ###
* I was also AAP-Reuters last full time correspondent in Rabaul. Part-time stringers had preceded me and a part-time stringer took over after me.