I went to the airport early morning and embarked on my journey to Kokopo. I decided to go there since I saw some wonderful pictures on Instagram and heard from an acquaintance that it was safe to visit. This area was well known for its volcanic activity and Japanese war ruins, which interested me as well. Rabaul was once a major base of the Japanese Navy and had over 100,000 soldiers stationed there. So I arrived at the airport around noon on a Saturday and got to Kokopo, which was around 15 km away. In the plane, I talked to an Australian priest and hoped that I could share a taxi ride with him to Kokopo, but he told me that he had a pickup from the church. I was hoping I could piggyback with him, but he did not invite me, which was really strange because I was the only foreigner on the plane. Perhaps, there was not enough space. I did not ask. Thus, I had the option of taking a taxi for around 50 Kina ($17 USD) or take the local transportation for 3 Kina ($1 USD). I went with the local option and got lucky with a front seat of the van. They usually shoved two people in the front seat and I was not in the mood of getting squashed so I told the driver that I will pay for two seats, that included my backpack. It was a leisurely ride to Kokopo, took about 20 minutes from the airport. There was not much along the road except for grass, garbage, and the few odd houses on the way. The driver offered to drop me off at my hotel for 20 Kina more, but I knew that was a scam and I could walk from the bus station to the hotel in minutes. Besides, Kokopo was so small. It had two main streets and that was it.
We arrived at the bus stop and it was full of people and there was a big super market across the street. It seemed like there was a fair in town, but actually, it was just locals and out of town residents buying their weekend goods. I got off the bus still a bit worried, since the whole “super dangerous” was in my mind. I asked a local lady about my hotel (Kadat Esplanade Guest Haus) and she pointed towards the water and I walked about 300 meters to get there. When I was walking towards the hotel, I was not even sure if it was actually the hotel because the building seemed like it was falling apart from the side. As I got to the front of the hotel, it did not even look like a hotel, but rather, it was a pub! I went into the pub and there were a few tables with Papuan men drinking beer. I asked the bar guy about accommodation and he was expecting me. “You are Niki right? We were expecting you.” I had called the night before to reserve my room for 150 Kina ($50 USD). He took me to the reception area, which was around the corner from the bar. Guess what? It was not even a reception. It was just a window! I mean, it was literally a window and he gave me the keys to the room. We walked through a big open area towards the hotel room. There were room numbers and doors on each side. It felt like being in a haunted mansion somewhere in Romania (known for its Dracula castle). The place was filthy with dirty white walls that seemed like it was last wiped 5 years ago, dust all over the place and there was not a single sole. I asked him how many people were staying there and his reply was, “only the owner lives here.” Geeze! He showed me my room and it was really Spartan. Imagine paying $10 USD for a single room in South America and you know what you will get. This room was probably equivalent or even worse than South American standards. The only good thing was that it had air conditioning that actually worked, but of course, made a big loud noise. It was really hot in PNG and without aircon, I would have probably died. At the end of the day, I was only going to stay for one night and my intention was to look around for better housing.
I went for a walk after dropping my stuff in the room. The town was still busy with people. I noticed lots of fishing boats at the waterfront and figured that the boats had come from the nearby islands.
The people were there for shopping at the capital. Kokopo was the capital of East New Britain district, but the population was less than 30,000. It literally took me 30 minutes to walk around town, and I only saw supermarkets, a few lodges and a main market. I checked out some of the other lodges, but the prices were absurd. They were charging around 250 to 300 Kina for a tiny boxed room, but substantially cleaner than Kadat. Basically, it was not really worth staying in Kokopo. All the shops in the village were all owned by the Chinese. There were around 7 or 8 big supermarkets and the Chinese dominated all of them. I did not expect to see them in PNG of all places. I bought my SIM card from one of the outlets, had a mediocre Chinese dinner and was back in the motel (I don’t think I can call it a motel either) by 6pm. I did not want to be outside in the dark and risk anything since after all, this was still PNG.
I woke up early the next morning and went to Rabaul via the public van. The front seat was originally taken, but the Papuan moved to the back and gave the seat to me. I paid the driver for two seats again. The ride to Rabaul was around 30 minutes and it was an easy ride. I was told previously that it would be a rocky dirt road with lots of potholes, but to my surprise, it was not that bad at all. It was one main road that curved its way next to several volcanos. The Rabaul area was known for earthquakes and volcanic activities. I got to the Rabaul bus station and decided to take another local bus to Rabaul Hotel, instead of walking 1.5km. It was a really hot day and my backpack weighed 30kg combined. The bus came within 10 minutes and I was dropped off at Rabaul Hotel for .80 Kina only. This was my stop for the next five nights.
I checked in at the front desk (this was actually had a proper front desk and one restaurant) and saw three white guys sitting by the swimming pool. I had not seen any tourists into my PNG trip and was anxious to speak to some foreigners. I introduced myself to Rowdy, Jeremy and Aaron whom were there for work. I thought, “what kind of work?” They were working at the Rabaul Volcanic Observatory for a few weeks and had come from Portland. They were working for one of the agencies of the US government that monitors volcanos. Since it was a Sunday, they had their day off and were waiting to go on a customized tour. I asked to join and they invited me along.
We rented a van out for half a day and started our tour. Our first destination was the submarine base in the west part of Rabaul. This was where the Japanese hid their submarines and were able to come within 10 meters from shore to load cargo. It was an ideal location for submarines to be undetected since this area had a sudden vertical drop, the side walls of a crater underneath the ocean. The Japanese had dug tunnels in the hills for access to the submarines. There was also a heavy artillery gun at the top of the hill to spy out for any enemies approaching the area from sea.
It was possible to snorkel around the area, but I was afraid to do so since I heard many stories of salt water crocodiles. I was not going to take a chance. Although, Jeremey and Rowdy went for a swim and came back after about 30 minutes. They did not see much but saw the vertical drop of roughly 100 meters.
After drinking some fresh coconuts from the tree in front of us, we proceeded to the Japanese hospital and the barge. We first went to the hospital, which was an extended network of tunnels that the Japanese dug. Of course, they used slaves and prisoners to dig the tunnels and was told that it extended for 20+ kilometres. There was one tunnel that lead to the airstrip where the important commanders took off when in trouble.
Upon entry, a Papuan lady took us around the tunnel with a flashlight. Without one, it would have been impossible to see anything. Right beside the hospital was a storage space for barges. There were around 5 or 6 barges inside the cave and there was a simple footpath on the left hand side. The cave was quite long but we were only able to see until the 3rd barge. The 4th and 5th barges were not accessible via the footpath. It was nice to see the barges, but not sure if it was worth paying 10 Kina for 10 minutes. There were local kids selling necklaces and other gift items. The prices were reasonable, but negotiating is always a good idea.
The short half day trip came to an end and we went back to Rabaul Hotel for a swim at the salt water pool. The Americans started having their first beers, but I was on antibiotics and had to wait for another week. I had a gum infection while in Australia and had a small surgery on my top part of the gum. It healed fine so I was healthy again.
Travelled in February 2017.