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Old 28-07-2005, 05:41 PM
***aCe*** ***aCe*** is offline
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Trekking in Rabaul - Simply Spectacular!

It was the first time I'd travelled thousands of miles to then 'escape' from my destination but, with the views on the 45-minute drive from the airport to the town of Rabaul, it didn't seem a bad idea after all.

In parts, the road cut through meters of grey ash. It formed crumbling powdery banks which threatened to collapse. Huge brooding volcanic cones dominated the landscape, billowing ominous plumes of black smoke.

The sun hung suspended in a hazy blue void, its light percolating through a veil of dust. The acrid smell of sulphur clawed at my eyes and nose.

We passed within a stones throw of Vulcan, a 230-metre mound of pumice and ash which was, until 1937, a low-lying island. During the eruptions of that year it joined the mainland and entombed 500 natives who had gathered there for a sing-sing.

As threatening as this scene appeared, our 80 kilometre 'Escape form Rabaul' trek was not to flee erupting volcanoes. It was a commemorative walk, following trails taken by Australian troops in1942 as they escaped the Japanese invasion of New Britain, Papua New Guineas largest offshore island.

Rabaul overlooks one of the finest harbours in the world. Formed when the rim of an extinct volcano collapsed, it made an ideal naval base of strategic importance.

In January 1942, after three weeks of air bombardment, the Japanese attacked from the sea. An estimated 17000 men were landed and overwhelming odds soon broke the Australian defence. Soldiers and civilians became fugitives. In an amazing display of strength and determination, small groups battled inhospitable jungle and rugged mountains to reach the coast. Here some escaped the island in small boats while others were captured and massacred by enemy troops.

On the advice of our trip organiser, we reversed the itinerary and escaped from the wilderness back to Rabaul, and civilisation. The journey would take us across the sparsely populated Baining Mountain Range, along the shores of the Toriu River and over its many tributaries.

Our adventure began with a 4 hour, 120 kilometre banana boat ride around the Gazelle Peninsula to Open Bay. We skimmed across a millpond ocean, accompanied by a pod of dolphins, their sleek bodies catching the light of the morning sun. Flocks of birds cruised low in search of a fish breakfast.

The magnificent coast was rimmed by white sand beaches, coconut palm flats and green undulations, rearing up to a frieze of high blue mountains topped by cotton clouds. Small islands dotted the horizon, each wearing a peaked cap of green.

From Open Bay it was a short bumpy ride on an old village truck to the trailhead. We followed our machete toting bushman guide as he slas hed an opening in the wall of green. Stepping through, our hiking boots were met by a sodden floor of leaf litter.

For the next four days we slipped and tripped our way through the vibrant jungle. Past dripping ferns, stilt legged palms and giant bamboo thickets. Our muddy path twisted between the roots of forest titans, some rising to dizzying heights without a bend in their trunks. Here creepers ran riot, weaving a lacy patina.

The whoop and caw of canopy dwellers echoed down to compete with the shrill of cicadas. Hornbills perched in their top storey apartments and silky flying foxes hung from branches like plump ripe fruit.

At any point in time we had to share our patch of jungle with a multitude of insects. By day, fabulous butterflies with lustrous wings of cool blues and fiery oranges drifted by. At night, tiny firefly beacons gave a festive feel to our camp. Always present were the irritating voracious biters and we were an easy feast.

As the sun headed to its zenith, the forest sweated and so did we. Welcome relief was to be found in the many streams we traversed. Some required rock hopping, others had fallen tree bridges, but most required soggy footwear as we soon grew weary of the shoe removal ritual.

Trekking Rabaul......
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Old 28-07-2005, 05:43 PM
***aCe*** ***aCe*** is offline
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The entire time we were cared for by Baining bushman guides and a fascinating 11 year-old girl.

She wore only a blue floral skirt slung low on her hips and under her small protruding belly. A large woven basket rested on her back, supported in the traditional way by vine straps strung across the top of her head. Her lithe frame carried her effortlessly through the green tangle, a gentle sway of her hips and the pale soles of her feet the only indication she was moving at all. She sang as she went.

She helped prepare the meals cooked over an open fire. Track food consisted of lashings of rice, noodles, vegetables and tinned meat and fish.

Encounters with the inhabitants of this rugged region were always a pleasure. Some fishermen provided an unexpected brunch delivered in a leafy bundle. The opened parcel revealed succulent fish from the Toriu River and generous chunks of roasted tapioca.

Provisions of corn, roasting bananas and sweet potato were obtained from a traditional family hamlet of eighteen members. We sat and ate freshly pulled peanuts still attached to their stalks with the giggling village children, while our guides purchase tobacco leaves and rolled huge cigars.

Helpful locals were perhaps the only similarity between our trek and that undertaken by those escaping in 1942. With each hardship we endured along the track, they were never far from our thoughts.

Their meals were taken on the move. Supper could consist of one can of meat between eight and a single biscuit. They were in unfamiliar territory with no guides and no plan other than to find freedom.

Rest was an unaffordable luxury as enemy patrols kept them on the move. Fires often had to be hastily extinguished as scout planes buzzed over head. They were poorly clothed and ill equipped, with no protection from thick undergrowth, a relentless wet season and bitterly cold nights at altitude.

Some drowned in the swollen rivers. Others perished from heat exhaustion malaria, dysentery and pneumonia.

On the last day we emerged from the depths to teeter along the narrow spine of a mountain range. On either side, massive trees slanted from the valley floor, their feathery crowns almost in arms reach. We were high enough to see the wild shapes of distant razorback ridges.

Soft drinks and beers were waiting for us followed by a long hot shower, a 'return to civilisation' feast and bed.

I drifted off with thoughts of incredible hardship, fear and courage. Of the 1300 Australian troop stationed in Rabaul at the time of the attack, only 339 survived. They bravely fought a rear guard action as they attempted to escape.

Many of the 400 remaining civilians also perished. They were herded on to a prison ship and drowned when an American submarine torpedoed the vessel.

All those who headed south and surrendered at the Tol Plantation were massacred by the Japanese.

The sacrifice made by these individuals had allowed me the freedom to explore and enjoy everything that was East New Britain. I would never forget the visual feast of rugged mountains, steamy jungles, meandering rivers and of course, those simmering volcanoes.

Story by Jacinta Bowman - An Australian tourist


A boat ride....
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