Mount Tavurvur: Rabaul residents describe life alongside active volcano in Papua New Guinea
Last month, residents received a reminder of the ongoing geothermal threat of Mount Tavurvur when it erupted again, sending clouds of ash 18 kilometres into the stratosphere.
Vulcanologists believe it might have been only a small taste of what might come, if predictions of a catastrophic Krakatoa-style eruption one day eventuate.
ABC reporter Nick Grimm discovered that locals like to think this nightmare scenario may still be many hundreds of years away, as they continue to live alongside an active volcano.
Children play on the black volcanic mud that lines Rabaul’s Simpson Harbour.
Around them smoke drifts through the banana trees, their foliage turned brown.
Small fires burn here and there as people clear away the dead vegetation from around their simple shanty homes.
“Yeah, just trees. We cut them down,” Natalie Kiapen says in halting English, pointing out how she and her neighbours are cleaning up the damage around their homes.
She tells me the smoke from the bonfires is nothing compared to the clouds of hot, sulphurous volcanic ash that was blown across the area in the latest eruption at a volcano that broods just across the harbour.
“It is really hard to breathe with the sulphur, the smell of the sulphur.
“So some of us, like the little kids, we send them away to some places where the volcano did not reach it. And us, we just stay here.”
In the past few weeks, images have flashed around the world showing Rabaul’s Mount Tavurvur’s latest eruption.
Amateur video captures the loud crack of the explosion and its shockwave. A massive ash cloud was thrown 18 km into the stratosphere.
This time, however, Rabaul and its surrounding areas were luckier than they were 20 years ago, when a major eruption all but destroyed the coastal town.
Stately colonial buildings and tree-lined avenues were mostly destroyed as tonnes of ash fell on Rabaul, once regarded as the garden city of PNG.
“In 1994 there were earthquakes for 24 hours and they could tell the pressure was building,” says Susie McGrade, who owns and operates the Rabaul Hotel.
The hotel, something of a local landmark, was one of the few buildings left standing after the eruption because Ms McGrade’s father Gerry and his staff remained behind and swept away the volcanic ash before its weight could collapse the hotel’s roof.
“We didn’t really have much choice when it erupted in 1994,” Ms McGrade says of their decision to stay put in Rabaul.
“We had a huge mortgage over our heads and we weren’t very badly damaged and the reason was we never left.
“The sad thing was the kina devalued and wasn’t worth as much but our mortgage was still a high mortgage, so we had no choice [but to stay].
“It was a good decision anyway because there was a lack of hotel beds and we were running 99 – most times 110 – per cent occupancy because day rooms were being used as well, so it was the right choice at the time.”
Living in a volcano zone ‘is a nuisance’
Thirty thousand people were evacuated from Rabaul in 1994.
Most evacuees never returned, settling instead in other parts of PNG’s East New Britain Province.
Some, like Susie McGrade, remain on their land in defiance of the ongoing volcanic activity.
We’ve just got to live with what Mother Nature gives us or we have to leave.Susie McGrade, Rabaul Hotel employee
“We’ve had eruptions that have had no warning, but they’re not killers and the town is still three kilometres away, so you’re not having rocks landing on your head. But it is a nuisance.”
Rabaul sits on the shore of Simpson Harbour, one of the deepest and most sheltered waterways in the world. It is also a massive volcano zone.
Formed by twin volcanic calderas, there is an ongoing threat that volcanic upheaval could lead to the dangerous scenario that emerges when hot magma hits cold seawater.
Vulcanologists say the result could be a Krakatoa-style explosion of catastrophic proportions which would wipe out everything in the area.
“If the harbour goes up, we’re all two seconds behind each other,” Ms McGrade says.
“It probably will happen. They say within 1,500 years there will be a big eruption.
“We’re on the rim of fire. We’ve just got to live with what Mother Nature gives us or we have to leave.”
Eruption threatens farmers’ livelihoods
The religion that Christian missionaries brought here in the 1800s remains a reassuring presence in the lives of many of those living in the shadow of the volcano.
Local churches are packed for Sunday prayers.
Ms McGrade says the most pressing problem facing locals right now is the loss of food crops caused by last month’s eruption.
“Lots of people don’t have gardens so the government is dispensing rice and tinned fish and that sort of thing.
“There is only two per cent of the population that is employed, so the other 98 per cent have to grow a garden.
“They’re subsistence farmers and until the garden comes back they suffer because it kills the bananas, it kills the tapioca, it kills the the cassava. It’s a very bad time.”
Natalie Kiapen points out the grey-coloured gravel that covers the ground outside her home.
“This is the sand which the volcano erupted here,” she says.
“If you dig it you will see the real soil underneath.”
Closer to the volcano, some areas have been turned into bizarre moonscapes, buried beneath tonnes of pumice thrown up by Mount Tavurvur.
When the rains come, much of it will be washed into the harbour.
In spite of the constant threat and inconvenience from volcanic eruptions, locals like Ms Kiapen are determined to remain at Rabaul.
It is after all, in most respects, a tropical paradise. The harbour is full of fish and coconut trees are plentiful.
“Here we live in our home,” Ms Kiapen says, reaffirming her family’s commitment to stay.
“We have experience in 1994, that’s why. We don’t fear this volcano.
“We just stay here and enjoy everything,” she tells me, with a carefree laugh.