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Baining Fire Dancers Rabaul

Rabaul in Papua New Guinea is a major coastal town in the East New Britain province, on the island of New Britain. You won’t see Rabaul on every Papua New Guinea cruise itinerary but it is an increasingly popular stop for ships visiting PNG. It is Rabaul’s location and history that makes this a popular tourist destination for visiting cruise passengers keen to explore the history and culture of coastal Papua New Guinea.

Rabual and the Tavurvur Volcano

It may seem strange that numerous colonial-era settlements chose Rabaul as a location for a town as it is close to three active volcanos. The main reason the location was chosen for occupation is Simpsons Harbour which is not only deep but also easily defendable. Rabaul has been destroyed no fewer than three times due to the Tavurvur, Vulcan and Rabalanakaia volcanos, and also bombing raids. Rabaul is no stranger to catastrophe and also rebirth due to its location next to the volcanos and its war history.

Japanese WW2 Relics in Rabaul
Japanese WW2 relics in Rabaul

Plenty of tours tick off Rabaul’s three ‘big-ticket’ items. Number one is the town’s WW2 history, the second is the Tavurvur volcano and then there is the Mini Mask Cultural Festival which is held for visiting cruise ships. Many tours operate from the port area but do your research beforehand and choose a reliable tour company, not just a driver with a minibus for hire. Cruise ships offer quality tours but they’re usually a higher price.

Papua New Guinea weather

Out of all the popular cruise ports in Papua New Guinea, Rabaul is the closest to the equator. It’s not just hot but also very humid, even in winter.  Think of it as a natural sauna set at more than 30 degrees Celsius with 100 percent humidity. Dress in light, comfortable clothing, wear practical shoes or sandals and drink lots of (bottled) water throughout the day. Sunscreen is essential and mosquito repellent is also advisable, especially if you are heading inland on a tour. It’s a good idea to bring wet weather gear as it rains a lot in Rabaul.

Rabaul day tours

Rabaul WW2 tours

Rabaul cemented its place in history when the Japanese Empire invaded and established its forward operation base in Rabaul during WW2. Chosen for its large harbour and natural fortifications, Rabaul proved to be the perfect hub for the Japanese. Rabaul was so challenging for the allies to attack that they eventually gave up and went to other islands in the Pacific instead of attacking Rabaul.

It is possible to explore many relics that highlight the Japanese occupation and the battle of Rabaul on a Rabaul WW2 tour. The must-see spots are the barge tunnels and bunker systems that stretch for hundreds of kilometres under Rabaul.  One particular bunker not to miss is Admiral Yamamoto’s which is still in excellent condition and located in the heart of the township itself. Other fascinating locations to visit include the Kokopo War & Cultural Museum and the Bita Paka War Cemetery.

History by the roadside Rabaul
Historic relics in Rabaul

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Rabaul volcano tours

At the time of writing there are still tours that travel close to the volcano to see the hot springs and lava fields. However, this might change due to the White Island eruption in New Zealand. What these tours offer is an insight into the volcanology of the area and its 14 active and 23 dormant volcanoes. Trek up the slopes of Tovanumbatir, one of the eight active vents which form part of the massive Rabaul volcano, to visit the Volcanological Observatory.

This observatory monitors volcanic activity throughout the region and assists in predicting any possible eruptions on Rabaul and beyond. Many volcano tours also stop at a village or two for a chance to meet the locals and see their way of life, buy souvenirs and donate to the schools. Along with passing through the old town of Rabaul which was abandoned due to the 1994 volcano eruption, there is also a visit to WW2 aircraft wrecks.

Baining Fire Dancers Rabaul
Baining Fire Dancers in Rabaul

Mask festival on the volcanic ash plains

At the time of writing this tour activity was still available but the location might change in the future. This event which is put on especially for cruise passengers is a mini version of the annual Rabaul Mask Festival which is held to celebrate the diversity and heritage of Papua New Guinea. The cruise line’s mini mask festival features multiple dance groups, fantastic colourful headdresses, exciting rhythmic chants, singing and elaborate dances. It is an event which showcases the vibrant colours and traditional culture of Papua New Guinea. More activities are on offer where the festival is held such as art and craft markets and there is the opportunity to tour a nearby local school or village.

Bitapaka War Cemetery, Kokopo
Bita Paka War Cemetery

Money in Rabaul

While the locals will accept $AU or $US, changing this back into kina (the local currency) is expensive for them due to the limited exchange facilities available throughout Papua New Guinea. Pre-purchase kina before you leave home or get some from an ATM in Rabaul to help out the locals. If locals ask you to exchange some of their Australian dollars back to kina, try to help if you can. It’s not a scam, they’re just seeking currency they can actually use to buy much-needed items for their families.

Be environmentally responsible

There are plenty of things to buy in Rabaul but be mindful of sustainability. While you will probably see beautiful shells and coral for sale, harvesting these items is damaging to the local reefs. Don’t perpetuate the problem by buying these items. Instead limit your nature-inspired purchases to the hand-carved wooden items for which the islands are famous. The craftsmanship is stunning and the environment will thank you.

Disclosure: The writer visited Papua New Guinea on a cruise at his own expense.

Want to know more about cruising in Papua New Guinea? Don’t miss our Ultimate Guide for Cruising in Papua New Guinea and our tips for cruisers visiting Kiriwina, Kitava and Alotau. We’ve also got some tips for Cruising in Papua New Guinea with Kids.

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Trevor Templeman is a photographer and writer who travels the world capturing the essence of locations through their landscape, architecture and people. His words and photographs are published in magazines, newspapers and online around the world.