Sunday, April 6, 2008


Sorry I’ve been out of communication for such a long while (no doubt you are used to it by now…). For the best part of the last month I’ve been tied up trying to produce a ‘Subdivision and Stormwater Management Policy’ (it really is as boring as it sounds) for the Physical Planning Board. I actually started to write a post about it, but – try as I might – I just couldn’t make it sound interesting. Maybe I’ll write about it some stage in the future – after all I think its reasonably good work (its not easy simultaneously managing the quality of storm water runoff and eliminating breeding grounds for those bastard malarial mosquitoes) – but for the time being I’m happy just to let it rest.

So a great deal of the last month has seen me (both literally and metaphorically) up to my knees in a quagmire of sorts, trying to work out some drainage and septic standards for the area, leaving not a great deal of room for any other interesting things (or for writing) to happen. One of the few interesting things that did happen was, of course, my thirty-first birthday. This year, in contrast to the dismal effort that was my thirtieth (at which time I had absolutely no friends and thought I had dysentery) I actually celebrated the event.

It wasn’t wholly my idea. I’ve rarely promoted the news of my birthdays as I’ve never seen them as much more than a cause to drag a few good folk out to the pub after work. I’m not much into the ‘big deal’ birthday because I’m no real fan of being the centre of attention when it’s not on my terms. I’d be happy to have to world sing my praises for (say) winning the Nobel Peace Prize (which is unlikely) or captaining the Wallabies to a World Cup Final (even less likely… for a number of reasons), but birthday plaudits come with no more effort than simply being born… it feels like celebrating a bye as a win.

Not that the celebrations were in anyway a bad thing. As much as I love life up here – and I really do, it’s the absolute last frontier of adventure – it is still a frustrating environment where things rarely happen with ease, and – as all small(ish) communities of expatriates have always done in harsh foreign climes, people tend to survive by either being highly social or by embracing solitude; I tried the former last year and found it not to my liking. So this time around, for something different, we decided to go for champagne and nibbles at the foot of the volcano followed by dinner poolside at the Rabaul hotel (where Bruce and Suzie were, as always, marvellous hosts… but for a quick travel tip, a poolside dinner at the Rabaul Hotel is always a better option than a poolside lunch; all water is essentially colourless in darkness… not so in daylight).

The pre-dinner drinks were amazing. Tavurvur is live in-so-much as it spits out voluminous clouds of gas and dust at fairly regular intervals. You can actually drive reasonably close to the volcano and (being in PNG where they haven’t fenced off every bit of fun left in the world) once you’ve parked the car you can walk as close to it as you like. By day the plumes of dust are spectacular enough, but by night – with no harsh tropical sun to distract you – you can see the red of the heat simmering in the crater, and it spits glowing red missiles of rock hundreds of metres into the air. It’s pretty spectacular.

Of course, ‘champagne and nibbles’ was always going to be a problem for me, and I got carried away with the moment; consuming far too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. I think I used the (lame) excuse that it was hot and dusty at the volcano, so the champers had to be finished quickly lest it taint. Then again, it was my birthday, I’m sure no-one was looking for excuses. Needless to say that by the time we arrived at the hotel (after a slight ‘punctured tyre’ delay and a slightly longer ‘and the spare is flat too’ delay) I was… chirpy.

Dinner was great, and even though some of the finer details of what actually happened seem to elude me, I do remember reflecting at some stage that:

1) chilli mud crab is impossible to eat in polite company after you’ve drunk too much; and
2) what a thoroughly amazing place this was to be having a birthday dinner.

The Rabaul Hotel (formerly the Hamamas) is one of only a handful of buildings that were left standing in the eastern end of town after a particularly petulant outburst from Tavurvur in September 1994 (the story of the eruption is a story for another time). There is virtually nothing around it except metre thick carpets of solidified ash and the carcasses of some former trade stores and government buildings, long since expired. So at night it stands out like an illuminated beacon an in otherwise essentially desolate landscape, sort of like the restaurant at the end of the universe. I love it.

The dust (obviously particularly problematic on September 19 1994) continues to be a problem for Rabaul to this day. On a bad day it falls on the town like a fine mist that you can’t quite see, but you can feel pricking into your face and ears. And it’s relentless; it builds up on any exposed surfaces and forms small piles and rivulets, it sneaks up under louver windows and (I’m pretty sure this was happening) works its way through air-conditioners. In places where it isn’t allowed to settle, like roads, it becomes a brownish grey fug, spray painting everything around.

The dominant winds mainly spare Rabaul Town at this time of year, instead throwing the dust in a wide arc that reaches from Ralauna Village to the airport, frequently hitting us in Kokopo Town. The staff at my apartment compound beat at it with Papua New Guinean brooms (an essentially pointless cleaning devise made out of metre long strands of straw tied at one end; to use one you have to bend your back knees and swing it in a low, wide arc… like you’re cutting cane) but all that really does is stir it into the air for a short while before it settles back down in exactly the same place it was, or (more likely) finds it’s way into my flat. People pray for rain (which we haven’t had all that much of), but all rain seems to do is make it set. Its horrible and persistent stuff and I’ve pretty much had enough of it for this year.

Anyway, that’s the elongated story of my breakfast dinner at the Rabaul Hotel, with a lengthy aside to discuss dust. So I’m thirty-one now… old enough to know better (but not sure yet what it is I’m meant to know), yet young enough to still have a good time; and a good time I’m continuing to have. And that’s pretty much all I have to write about just at the moment; so I’ll cut my losses and leave it there.

Hope you are well wherever you are,