Setting sail for the last frontier

WELCOME: Kitava Island residents gather on the beach to greet passengers.
WELCOME: Kitava Island residents gather on the beach to greet passengers.

Hot, sticky and exhausted, we arrive back on board after a day exploring Rabaul - part port town, part ghost town and former battle site on the eastern tip of New Britain, Papua New Guinea.

Thinking a cool shower before sunset drinks would be in order, the routine is halted by Captain Salvatore Lupo's announcement: "The volcano is erupting."

We scramble to the open decks and watch Mount Tavurvur belch ash and smoke hundreds of metres into the air. It is amazingly quiet and we could be watching a movie, save for the ash that blows over the ship as we head out of the harbour in the late afternoon.

Tavurvur, the most active of Rabaul's dozen or so volcanoes, has been on its best behaviour all day - subdued in the morning as we walked in its shadow along the bubbling hot springs of a volcanic lake, and now, as if on cue, it gives us a seismic send-off.

Not so in 1994. On September 19 that year, Tavurvur and neighbour Vulcan exploded simultaneously, raining tonnes of ash and mud on the port town for weeks, claiming five lives. Vulcan, now dormant, is harmless but Tavurvur is a dangerous wild card.

That doesn't seem to bother the folk who still live in old Rabaul, particularly the villagers who display their crafts for sale on the bubbling lake shores. Today, the old town has a population of 4000, down from 17,000 in 1994. With the destruction of 80 per cent of the houses, thousands moved to the new capital, Kokopo, 20 kilometres to the east.

Driving along grey, dusty roads between the wharf and Tavurvur, we are captivated by two colonial-era hotels, dug out of the ash, a little battered, but still open for business. We are mid-way through a 10-day cruise to Papua New Guinea and each day brings a new highlight.

On board P&O's Pacific Dawn, it's the second sailing of a new itinerary that visits Milne Bay at the eastern tip of the mainland and a clutch of remote islands that have never been visited by a ship of Dawn's dimensions before. P&O spent three years developing this program, building wharves and jetties, and ensuring local communities were willing and ready to welcome 2000 passengers, four times a year.

The itinerary includes visits to World War II battle zones where tanks and landing barges decay in the jungle and to islands edged by white beaches accessed only by canoe. At each port there is a rapturous welcome from dancers bedazzling in their tribal head-dresses, face paint, bangles, beads and costumes of every hue.

It's a multi-layered itinerary, and the passenger list is equally intriguing. Every second person I meet has a PNG story or reason for taking this journey. Many were born there, others worked there in pre-independence days, others love the lure of this last frontier and many are connected by war.

On board are four veterans of the 1942 Battle of Milne Bay, in their early 90s. They are returning, in comfort, to see the beaches and airstrips where the Allied troops defeated the Japanese land forces in the first morale-boosting victory of the Pacific campaign.

We cruise the Coral Sea for two days before arriving at Alotau, capital of Milne Bay Province.

While the focus is on the 1942 battle sites, guided tours also explain the intricate system of matrilineal land succession, the cultural importance of yams and pigs and marriage rites.

From Alotau it's over to Kitava, one of the four islands of the Trobriand group, and an idyllic beach stop. Many choose to flop on the sand and hop aboard traditional canoes to be paddled across to an even smaller island for snorkelling, but first we set off on a guided walk.

Led by Bobby, one of several islanders who have volunteered as guides for the day, we visit neat villages, a church and school. Eventually, the whole population of Kitava, about 2000 people, turn up at the beach to dance, mingle and set up stalls. Wooden bowls inlaid with mother-of-pearl and collections of shell necklaces and armbands that Trobriand islanders have traded across the Pacific for generations are for sale.

From Rabaul, we call at Kiriwina, the largest of the Trobriand Islands. Passengers join locals in a game of cricket, a sport introduced by missionaries early last century as an alternative to tribal fighting. Free of traditional rules, it is punctuated with joyous singing and dancing.

Our farewell from PNG takes on a sombre but uplifting note during a memorial service as we cruise through the Kawanasausau Strait. Passengers line the top decks to pay tribute to the Milne Bay war heroes, both departed and those on board, as a veteran casts a wreath into the sea.

The writer travelled courtesy of P&O Cruises.