Mount Tavurvur: Rabaul residents describe life alongside active volcano in Papua New Guinea

Posted 18 September 2014, 22:21 AEST

It has been 20 years today since a major volcanic eruption destroyed the once-picturesque town of Rabaul 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.




  1. A fantastic cup of coffee is the only thing that could make this blog better.

  2. I’ve never ever read anything better!

  3. Lady Smiling says:

    This was truly remarkable. I really like what you did with the curtains.

  4. Which way did he go George?

  5. Way to go on making a great site!

  6. Don’t forget the grilled onions!

  7. Way to go Edward. This blog is amazing!

  8. No one can ever say this site is boring!

  9. Popcorn says:

    Would you like some popcorn?

  10. These two are some real messy eaters!

  11. This post is in fact a fastidious one it assists new net viewers, who are wishing
    for blogging.

  12. suba suba says:

    lmfida Wow, superb blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is wonderful, as well as the content!

  13. Wow! This could be one particular of the most beneficial blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject. Actually Magnificent. I am also an expert in this topic so I can understand your hard work.

  14. I regard something truly special in this site.

  15. more details says:

    Remarkable! Its in fact amazing article, I have got much clear idea on the topic of from this paragraph.

  16. You must take part in a contest for among the best blogs on the web. I will advocate this website!

  17. we prefer to honor several other world-wide-web websites on the internet, even though they aren

  18. Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful article. Thanks for supplying this information.

  19. Very good article post.Really thank you! Much obliged.

  20. Im getting a tiny problem. I cant get my reader to pick up your feed, Im using msn reader by the way.

  21. So that as one So that tends to move in the corner. Adam compares the three big players, michael kors handbags,

  22. Thankyou for this tremendous post, I am glad I observed this site on yahoo.

  23. that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again since exactly the same nearly very often

  24. These are really wonderful ideas in concerning blogging. You have touched some nice factors here. Any way keep up wrinting.|

  25. Utterly pent content material , appreciate it for selective information.

  26. woh I am pleased to find this website through google.

  27. whoah this blog is magnificent i love studying your articles.

    Stay up the great work! You know, lots of persons are hunting around for this info,
    you could aid them greatly.

  28. Thanks for an explanation. I did not know it.

  29. You made some respectable factors there. I appeared on the web for the problem and found most individuals will go together with with your website.

  30. There is certainly a great deal to find out about this issue. I really like all of the points you ave made.

  31. wow, awesome blog.Much thanks again. Will read on…

  32. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger. I ave joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your magnificent post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks!

  33. Major thankies for the blog.Much thanks again. Really Cool.

  34. I think other web site proprietors should take this web site as an model, very clean and wonderful user friendly style and design, as well as the content. You are an expert in this topic!

  35. yay google is my queen aided me to find this outstanding web site !.

  36. I was recommended this web site by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my trouble. You are incredible! Thanks!

  37. with hackers? My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing months of hard work due to no

  38. You have proven that you are qualified to write on this topic. The facts that you mention and the knowledge and understanding of these things clearly reveal that you have a lot of experience.

  39. us election says:

    Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic article.Really looking forward to read more. Keep writing.

  40. wonderful issues altogether, you simply won a logo new reader.
    What could you suggest in regards to your publish that
    you made a few days in the past? Any sure?

  41. Curcuma says:

    Integer vehicula pulvinar risus, quis sollicitudin nisl gravida ut

  42. Very good article. I definitely appreciate this website. Keep writing!

  43. Chia se cach says:

    Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic blog.Thanks Again. Really Cool.

  44. Batch says:

    very nice publish, i actually love this web site, carry on it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.