Cruise Papua New Guinea – Rabaul

Rabaul is a township in East New Britain province, on the island of New Britain.Rabaul was the provincial capital and was considered the most important settlement in the province until it was destroyed in 1994 by a volcanic eruption directly across the bay from the township.  Prior to the eruption there was a population of some 18,000 people living in Rabaul, but now the population sits at approximately 4,000 people.

Again, because we had received limited shore information on board from any Destination Experts, we did not know what to expect, but being another town stop with many cultural sites and historically significant WWII places nearby, we decided to take a ship excursion to view the old Japanese war tunnels, the Kokopo War & Cultural Museum, Queen Emma’s Steps and the Bita Paka War Cemetery.

We were a little late arriving into Rabaul, thanks to the tardiness of the pilot arriving on ship – the islanders, much like the famed ‘Fiji Time’ have a fluid sense of time compared to those of us living in western societies who are ruled by our watches and clocks.  Which is fine, it actually probably very good for us to not get worked up over our schedules on occasion, but not when these guys had morning tours and afternoons tours to get through and once we were shuffled off the ship and onto minibuses, we had guides and drives determined to make up that lost time!

Our first stop was to the Japanese war tunnels, which we reached by driving at break neck speed, over pitted and potholed damaged roads in minibuses with cracked windscreens, no air conditioning and few, if any, seat belts.  :/  This was not entirely surprising, I have been on tours in the islands in the past, and was not expecting air conditioned coaches with refreshing towelettes and ice cold drinks or anything… it’s a miracle we arrived at our stops safely, but arrive we did.  The Japanese apparently dug 360 miles of tunnels through this region, and we were taken to see a section that was about oh, maybe 20m into a cliff face.  O.o   The tunnel we were taken to was much larger than I was expecting – I guess I was thinking Gallipoli type trenches, instead we were greeted by a huge entrance approximately 5 meters tall and 4 meters wide, that housed some rusted old Japanese barges.  We were all hurried in to have a look, climb up onto a rickety viewing platform and then hurried out to our minibuses to depart.  Our stop at the tunnel was barely 10 minutes, some of our group did not have time to get up the view platform, and unfortunately, the only piece of information I gleaned here, was that there is 360 plus mile of tunnels throughout the islands and that much of them were dug by prisoners of war and captured natives.

Rabaul Japanese Tunnel Rabaul Japanese Tunnel Rabaul Japanese Tunnel

Japanese barges – Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, 1942

After our very quick stop at the Japanese tunnels, we were bumped and bustled along more broken roadways to the Kokopo War & Cultural Museum.  Our guide, whose name I did not catch, because she was so quietly spoken in the noisy windows open environment of the mini-bus, told us when we stopped at the museum, we would have 25 minutes to explore the centre.  Much of the centre was outside artefacts on display – old tanks, jeeps, machine guns, bomb casings, a downed aircraft… all sorts of interesting things that are sitting in the front yard of the museum, slowly rusting away where they sat.
Kokopo War Museum WWII Searchlight

Kokopo War Museum WWII equipment
Kokopo War Museum WWII machine guns Kokopo War Museum WWII jeep Kokopo War Museum WWII bomb cases

Kokopo War Museum artefactsKokopo War Museum WWII artefacts

We had barely made it through the front section of the museum and had just stuck our heads into the ‘Cultural Exhibit’ building, when a man with a megaphone (from one of the other minibuses) started telling us that it was time to leave.  We had been there a scant 13 minutes by my phone’s clock, and I was unimpressed at being rushed out.  I managed to stick my head inside the Cultural Exhibit for a few moments, but did not get into the museum proper to see any of the photographs and memorabilia that I am told is on display there.

Hustled back onto the buses, I was quite taken aback when we were drive LITERALLY about 60 meters down the road to a resort hotel which sits now, where the palace of a very wealthy and influential local woman, Emma Coe, known affectionately as Queen Emma, once sat.  All that remained now were the white steps of her palatial mansion.  She sounds like quite the character, but I sat listening to a representative of the resort telling us about her very interesting life, wishing I was back at the museum!  After another 10 minute stop here, we were back on our death trap buses and headed for the Bita Paka War Cemetery.Rabaul Queen Emma's steps

On the way to the Cemetery, we passed a huge crowd of people walking along the side of the road in brightly coloured dresses, singing and waving palm fronds.  As we drove past I saw at the front of the crowd, a man holding a (very rudimentary) framed painting of what appeared to be Jesus Christ, and another carrying a largish, 4′ or so, heavy wooden cross.  I asked the guide if it was a special day, she replied, “Sunday.” and then a little further on, “They Catholic.” which lead to the conclusion that this was the normal Sunday march to church for a great number of people in Rabaul.

The Bita Paka War Cemetery was established in 1945, and is located near the old Bita Paka wireless station, just south of the town of Rabaul.  The cemetery is managed and up-kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and here we saw the cemetery contains the graves of many Australian and Commonwealth soldiers killed during the operations of WWII or those who died as prisoners of war.  Like most war cemeteries, Lone Pine in Gallipoli, Arlington near Washington, this beautiful and quiet place was very solemn.  There were monuments with markers of the names of fallen soldiers listing them by battalion and unit, as well as a large lawn cemetery, many headstones reflecting the ultimate futility of war with their, ‘an Australian Soldier’ epitaph.  One man in our tour group, stood proudly in front of the large stone cross that dominates the central memorial area, pulled off a smart salute, and started to cry – his father was buried in this cemetery… a father he had never met.  Several other people were gently weeping as they wandered through reading the names of those brave young men who lost their lives in WWII.Bitapaka War CemeteryBitapaka War CemeteryBitapaka War Cemetery

That is, right up until the guy with the megaphone climbed up onto a chair and said, “If you want me to shut up, you better get back on your bus!”  I cringed at the insensitivity of the call to return to our vehicles, and we dutifully left the cemetery for the long drive back the way we came to get to the cruise ship.  We had left the ship 45 mins late, and arrived back 20 mins later than our originally scheduled return time.

We have booked many Princess cruise shore excursions – in New Zealand, Alaska, Japan, Scotland, Norway, Iceland… all over the place.  And never have I had such a rushed, dodgy experience.  Our guide was all but useless, she spoke so quietly that I could not hear her, even though I was sitting directly behind her, and the information she did try to impart was written down on some printed pages that she was reading off – we would have been better off if someone else from the group had taken her pages and read them aloud.  It was a very disappointing tour – to be rushed through these historical sites and to miss half the exhibits at the museum, not to mention the inappropriate attempt at humour at the cemetery when calling everyone back to the minibuses.  This would have been a great day out – if we 1) had the allotted time at each site that we were supposed to have, and were not rushed through by guides trying to make up for the fact the ship got in late, 2) had a guide whose English was good enough to engage on her subject matter and 3) a little sensitivity training was provided to those taking us to these places.

Due to the long uncomfortable ride, it felt like a very long morning indeed, and eventually I decided to write a letter to the Shorex Manager on the ship – in as constructive a manner as I could muster – with a view to seeing these tours improve in the future… or at the very least for the guides to understand that if we get in late, we return late.  Still, glad I did a tour.  Rabaul the township looked like a depressing sort of place – still recovering from the volcano in 1994.

Cruise Papua New Guinea – Kitava

Our next stop was Kitava.  Which was, as far as we could tell, ‘just an island’ stop.  Usually on board the ship, you will get shore lectures, offered by well travelled Destination Experts… but for some reason, on this trip, we were getting plenty of Enrichment Lectures offered by Dr Anna Campbell from the School of Anthropology and Archeology at ANU – on topics such as the natives assisting the Australian soldiers during the war, to missionaries and their efforts to bring Christianity to the islanders.  She presented very in depth lectures on very specific and pointed moments or persons related to the local areas – but offered no information on ‘where to go? what to do? what to expect? is there transport? what currencies are preferred?’ or anything practical and useful like that.

So we left the ship for Kitava with all our swimming, sun protection and snorkelling gear and planned for an island day – and we were not disappointed.  Kitava is a beautiful island and we had gorgeous weather for it.Kitava Island Papua New Guinea Kitava Island meeting Kitava Island PNG

There were children everywhere singing and dancing in traditional costumes, and places where we could make donations to the children’s schools.  Quite a few of our fellow passengers who had obviously been to the islands before had bought with them small goodie bags containing stationery to hand out to the children.  The kids were thrilled with their new pencils, colouring books, crayons and school things.  What a great idea, and a lovely way to contribute to the island’s children.Kitava Island market Kitava Island Children Kitava Island childrenWe made out way down to the beach to go have a look among the rocks and coral to see what we could see and I swear, I have never seen such crystal clear water. Visibility was incredible, the water was beautiful and refreshing and there was quite a strong current pulling us down the beach.  If anyone is planning on snorkelling on Kitava though – I would suggest a pair of reef shoes and fins rather than flippers.  The coral runs all along the easily accessible sides of the island near the ship’s tender jetty and there are very few areas where a path has been cut through to get out to where the water drops off to any depth, so unfortunately, many are donning flippers and then trampling over the coral (risky) to get out to the deeper water.  Alternatively, you need to swim out carefully over the top of the coral in the shallows and put your flippers on once you are out at a decent depth.  But once, we were adequately kitted up, we had a wonderful couple of hours swimming with the fishes.  Just beautiful, though the current at the time was a little stronger than you would prefer and it was hard work to stay and look at the things you wanted to see.  🙂

Kitava Island jetty Kitava Island underwaterKitava Island Sea cucumber Kitava Island Clown fish Kitava Island coral Kitava Island snorkelling Kitava Island Clown fish
There was a weird sign on another small jetty saying ‘Turtle Aquarium’, which turned out to be a lonely turtle in a cage about the size of a crab pot, attached to the jetty underwater.  I guess turtles aren’t that common in the area and they were charging 15K to go have a look at it.  The other attraction Kitava has to offer is a ‘Skull Cave’.  We saw a sign for it once we were walking towards the main snorkelling areas and thought it sounded interesting, but as we were expecting only a beach day, none of us were in suitable footwear to go off exploring.  It turns out this Skull Cave contains cannibalised human remains, which anthropologically speaking is fascinating, but we weren’t equipped to go hiking and climbing a cliff face to seek out the cave.  It will be on my list for next time if I make it back to Kitava.

The only awkward aspect of our visit to Kitava was upon our arrival.  On stepping off the ship’s tender we walked down the jetty towards the island where the ship’s photography crew were set up with some young local girls with whom you could stand and have your photograph taken.  These girls were about 13-14 years old and in traditional dress… which meant that they were wearing grass skirts, flowers in their hair and necklaces of shells and beads and nothing else.  I saw what was happening (and that the girls didn’t seem too happy to be standing around having their photo taken with all the tourists) and managed to side step these half naked, prepubescent girls.  This whole concept didn’t sit comfortably with me at all.  If professional photographers were lining up some topless underaged girls to have their photos taken with two thousand total strangers – I have a feeling someone would be going to jail.  Now I know their customs are different here in the islands, but the whole thing just felt like exploitation to me, and I did not want to add to the girls’ discomfort, nor did I want my young son participating in having his photo taken with semi-nude girls!  Princess need to re-think that one I think.

Cruise Papua New Guinea – Alotau

We had two lovely sea days before arriving at our first port – Alotau.  Alotau is the capital of the Milne Bay Province in the South-East of Papua New Guinea.  We didn’t know quite what we were going to do here, as there were limited ship tours (and they were crazy expensive, even compared to what I had recently been paying in Scandinavia! Like, $150 for half day tours, no thanks), and we arrived late due to having left Brisbane a few hours late, and having to sail close to the Qld coast in order to have a passenger medi-vac’d off the ship just east of Cairns.Alotau dancer - girl Alotau dancers - dock Alotau dancer - boy Alotau Dancers - PNG

We were greeted by colourful locals dressed in traditional clothing, singing and dancing on the dockside – thankfully inside a warehouse out of the heat for them, and we decided we would walk the 20 minutes into town which would take us past the Australia War Memorial which was erected to commemorate the Battle of Milne Bay – which my grandfather fought in, in August 1942.  I have written previously about my Poppa’s involvement in PNG as part of the 25th Battalion and later as part of ANGAU, so I was quite keen to see this memorial.

It was a hot 20 minutes walk to town and we were being stared at – a lot – by the locals who seemed to have nothing better to do than sit around under trees (rather sensibly considering the somewhat uncomfortable heat) and chew beytelnut, occasionally stopping to spit globs of red beytelnut juice all over the dirt…

The memorial is a stark black granite upright marker, with ‘Battle of Milne Bay’ inscribed on it, set in a beautiful park right near the centre of town.  Surrounding it were plaques describing how the Japanese Imperial Army had invaded on 25th August 1942 and In just two landings a few days apart, they had established a 2,400-strong army near Ahioma. Unlike other engagements in the Pacific (like Kokoda) the Battle would be over in just 12 days.Milne Bay War Memorial

The Japanese fought with the Allies and their base suffered early casualties from an RAAF aircraft-led attack. During the evenings of the 26th and 27th August, the Japanese forces attacked, causing the Australian battalions to withdraw to the Gama River. Pressing their advantage, the Japanese continued to attack pushing the Allies further back to the converted No 3 airstrip, amid furious fighting.

Several times the Japanese charged across the open airfield to be greeted by a hail of fire and were repulsed each time. The battle had turned as the Australians had been reinforced, causing the attackers to become the defenders. The Australians launched counter attacks, and the Japanese sent warships to help their unexpectedly routed troops. A week later the Japanese Navy called off their invasion and started to evacuate. It is estimated that 750 Japanese and 161 Australians were killed at Milne Bay; but many more were wounded.

In the larger picture of the Pacific war, it was not a major victory in itself. The significance of the Battle of Milne Bay lay in being the first Allied land victory in the Pacific, which boosted morale considerably, not just in Milne Bay, but for all the Allied forces fighting in the region.  Personally, it felt rather strange to see my grandfather’s recollections of Milne Bay recounted on these plaques – I discovered the name of the US Major General that my grandfather had been curt with; Major General Clowes – not spelled “Cloughs” as I had assumed, which probably explains why, when I went looking for him – I found nothing!

After we went to the memorial, we went for a bit of a wander through the market areas.  It seems that these markets were the local markets – produce, food stuffs, not a lot of local crafts etc, and around the back (in an area, we probably shouldn’t have wandered into) plenty of beytelnut and ‘coral lime’ for sale in little baggies that looked decidedly like bags of coke or heroin!  Yeah, we were not in the right part of town for a bit there.

I found the centre of town to be a bit depressing, there were locals everywhere not really engaged in work or commerce, and other than the booming shuttle bus and taxi boon that occurs when a cruise ship is in port, the shops and services in the area looked worn out and downtrodden in a very Noumea kinda way.  It’s possible that more tourists coming to town will provide employment opportunities, but then again, it is equally possible that more tourists coming to town will further smoosh the local culture.
Alotau beytelnut chewing
On a practical note – there are buses running into town from the docks costing 5K each, but we found that a taxi coming back from town back to the ship cost the four of us only 5K in total… I paid him 10K.  It was so hot.

Cruise Papua New Guinea

School holidays were upon us, and I thought I’d look for a holiday for me and the Not-So-Small-Child to go and spend 7 nights at a beach somewhere – preferably with decent snorkelling to be had.  So I started looking at options like Airlie Beach, Magnetic Island, Lady Elliot, Tangalooma and was appalled by the prices… even for shoulder season.  $200 a night, not including transport, transfers, or food?  Meh.  So I did what I usually do and went looking at cruises to see if there was anything good going to the South Pacific Islands – figured a short loop around Vanuatu and New Caledonia or Fiji might be nice, but instead found ourselves looking at 10 days to Papua New Guinea.  Friends of ours were already booked to go and I found a great last minute price, so we decided, ‘Why not?’  Papua New Guinea it is.

papua new guinea cruise itineraryI had no idea what to expect and for a change, the various cruise forums that I lurk on and help administer were a little vague on the details.  P&O seem to have been going to PNG for a while now, but it’s a relatively new itinerary for Princess and there seemed to be scant little info available.  I have some friends who went last year (with P&O) but they honestly weren’t much help… said, ‘there’s not much to do, we just went to the beach’.  So I guess they weren’t really interested in any of the WWII history or cultural and anthropological experiences that these islands have to offer.  I mean, culturally, this area is where the trail blazing anthropologist, Malinovski found his famous (and somewhat scandalous), free loving, Trobriand Islanders.  This Milne Bay Province is where the Japanese suffered their first defeat at the hands of Australian ‘chocco’ soldiers in WWII as they engulfed the Pacific, like a plague of locusts.  So, I was pretty confident we would find plenty things to do – as well as going to the beach to do some snorkelling!

There were a few things different about cruising to PNG compared to the other island that I guess would be useful to anyone who was considering doing this trip – the first being that a photocopy of you passport is required on boarding along with a PNG entry visa form, and these have to be stapled together before checking in.  The reason I mentioned this, is we were being checked before entering the port terminal to make sure we had all these documents (this caused a line up), then being given our usual health questionnaires (which also causes a line up), and then being stopped by yet another port/terminal employee who was stapling our passport photocopy page onto the PNG entry visa form page (causing yet another line up)…  If we had been instructed to staple the two documents together (passport page on front of visa entry page), perhaps we wouldn’t have had to line up so many times and it would only have been checked and stapled at one point.  They created about three bottleneck points by not telling us what they needed in advance.  So much for priority boarding huh?!


Goodies vs Baddies After All.

Incase you don’t know what’s happening in the middle east. ?

President Assad ( who is bad ) is a nasty guy who got so nasty his people rebelled and the Rebels ( who are good ) started winning ( Hurrah!).
But then some of the rebels turned a bit nasty and are now called Islamic State ( who are definitely bad!) and some continued to support democracy ( who are still good.)

So the Americans ( who are good ) started bombing Islamic State ( who are bad ) and giving arms to the Syrian Rebels ( who are good ) so they could fight Assad ( who is still bad ) which was good.
By the way, there is a breakaway state in the north run by the Kurds who want to fight IS ( which is a good thing ) but the Turkish authorities think they are bad, so we have to say they are bad whilst secretly thinking they’re good and giving them guns to fight IS (which is good) but that is another matter.

Getting back to Syria.
So President Putin ( who is bad, cos he invaded Crimea and the Ukraine and killed lots of folks including that nice Russian man in London with polonium poisoned sushi ) has decided to back Assad ( who is still bad ) by attacking IS ( who are also bad ) which is sort of a good thing?

But Putin ( still bad ) thinks the Syrian Rebels ( who are good ) are also bad, and so he bombs them too, much to the annoyance of the Americans ( who are good ) who are busy backing and arming the rebels ( who are also good).

Now Iran ( who used to be bad, but now they have agreed not to build any nuclear weapons and bomb Israel are now good ) are going to provide ground troops to support Assad ( still bad ) as are the Russians ( bad ) who now have ground troops and aircraft in Syria.

So a Coalition of Assad ( still bad ) Putin ( extra bad ) and the Iranians ( good, but in a bad sort of way ) are going to attack IS ( who are bad ) which is a good thing, but also the Syrian Rebels ( who are good ) which is bad.

Now the British ( obviously good, except that nice Mr Corbyn in the corduroy jacket, who is probably bad ) and the Americans ( also good ) cannot attack Assad ( still bad ) for fear of upsetting Putin ( bad ) and Iran ( good / bad) and now they have to accept that Assad might not be that bad after all compared to IS ( who are super bad).

So Assad ( bad ) is now probably good, being better than IS ( but let’s face it, drinking your own wee is better than IS so no real choice there ) and since Putin and Iran are also fighting IS that may now make them Good. America ( still Good ) will find it hard to arm a group of rebels being attacked by the Russians for fear of upsetting Mr Putin ( now good ) and that nice mad Ayatollah in Iran ( also Good ) and so they may be forced to say that the Rebels are now Bad, or at the very least abandon them to their fate. This will lead most of them to flee to Turkey and on to Europe or join IS ( still the only constantly bad group).

To Sunni Muslims, an attack by Shia Muslims ( Assad and Iran ) backed by Russians will be seen as something of a Holy War, and the ranks of IS will now be seen by the Sunnis as the only Jihadis fighting in the Holy War and hence many Muslims will now see IS as Good ( Doh!.)

Sunni Muslims will also see the lack of action by Britain and America in support of their Sunni rebel brothers as something of a betrayal ( mmm.might have a point.) and hence we will be seen as Bad.

So now we have America ( now bad ) and Britain ( also bad ) providing limited support to Sunni Rebels ( bad ) many of whom are looking to IS ( Good / bad ) for support against Assad ( now good ) who, along with Iran ( also Good) and Putin ( also, now, unbelievably, Good ) are attempting to retake the country Assad used to run before all this started?

So, now you fully understand everything, all your questions are answered!!!!

(via Hassan Ali on Facebook)… all of which lines up pretty damn with this: