12 Exciting Years In Rabaul, East New Britain

Apart from a couple of years away, due to an uprising on Bougainville Island, not far from the island of New Britain on which Rabaul is situated, followed, a few years later by a volcanic explosion which almost devastated the town, I spent the years 1988 to 2000 in or around Rabaul, the capital of the Province of East New Britain.


After traveling via Sydney, to get our visas regulated, and then a few days in Brisbane, to meet up with an old friend of ours from Perth, then to Port Moresby, where we had an enjoyable evening with the few expats that we knew who still worked for my old firm there, Tim and I took the short hour and a half long flight to Rabaul on board one of Air Niugini’s reliable F28 60 seat jets to the (then) picturesque town of Rabaul. I had been before, although Tim hadn’t, but I was always overcome by the beautiful yet slightly scary descent, between a volcanic crater and the town. The runway was on a narrow isthmus connecting the town to what was an island at high tide, and the runway started just meters from the water’s edge at one end and finished just meters from the water on the other side. But, as always, the experienced pilot performed the difficult landing with ease.

The East New Britain Flag


As you know, this series of blogs is mainly about my lifetime experiences using computers, but I can’t resist taking a little time out to write a blog summarize some of the more exciting things, good and bad, that happened during my time in East New Britain.


  • Every 2 weeks I had to get up early and, with an armed police escort, I’d collect 3 bags of money from the office safe, with a total value of over US$10,000, then drive to the airport, board a helicopter, and proceed to fly over our 3 nearest plantations. When I recognized the young, usually, expat manager on the ground, I’d drop a bag containing the equivalent of US$3,000 or US$4,000 in Kina notes (the Kina is the currency of Papua New Guinea) out of the window, in an attempt to land the laborers’ fortnightly wages as close to the manager as possible. Practice makes perfect, but I remember, on at least one occasion, a manager was standing close to a muddy swamp, which the bag landed in. I had to giggle as we soared off, leaving the manager and his trusted assistants wading, waist deep in muddy water looking for a bag containing so much money. The bag was found but did I get a yelling at, the next time the manager came to town.

  • Have a look at the map at the beginning of this post again, and look for the long narrow island which rune North West to South East just to the North of East New Britain, with its capital, Kavieng, at the top Western tip. This island is called New Ireland. Well we managed a plantation at the bottom East tip on the Northern shore, and another, half way up, on the southern coast. One day Roger, the CEO who had recruited me, came into my office and announced, “Okay Phil, you’ve been working hard recently. I’m going to inspect 2 plantations, would you like to came along for the ride.”

    “Sure,” I replied, expecting to go to the two nearest plantations, both of which I had visited before. Instead Roger drove to the airport where we boarded a helicopter bound, in the first instance, for our plantation near the South Eastern tip of New Ireland. Although the island was narrow, the ridge down the middle was very high, about 5,000 feet. The chopper seemed to struggle as we got higher and higher up the Southern slope, and it seemed to heave a sigh of relief when we finally reached the top and were able to see the Northern coast far below us.

    After a tour of the plantation on foot (where I needed three steps to every one of Roger’s), when I learned a lot about the industry I was trying my best to account for, the wife of the Papua New Guinean manager, served us a quick sandwich lunch, before we strapped ourselves back into the small helicopter and put on the giant head-sets.

    The journey North-West along the ridge of New Ireland was nothing short of breathtaking. The top of the long, narrow island, was almost razor sharp, and the view down to the azure sea 5,000 ft below both to the right and the left, was spectacular. After flying just a few metres above the ridge for about an hour, we veered off to the left to descend to the second plantation we were to inspect that day. By the time that inspection was done, it was too dark to fly but, fortunately the single expat manager had a plentiful supply of food and whisky and an enjoyable evening was had by all. We had radioed back to the office in Rabaul that we were going to stay the night and they passed the message onto the wives, including Tim, so nobody was worried. The flight back to Rabaul in the morning was sedate in comparison but it was a fitting ending to a memorable twenty-four hours.

  • Just like the common cold, is a part of life all over the world, Malaria is a part of life in many, if not all parts of P.N.G., including Rabaul. I can honestly say that I had more bouts of malaria during my time in Rabaul and Kokopo than I had the cold. Twice I ended up in hospital for a week, but usually I was able to drag myself to work despite the mountains of drugs I had to take. Malaria struck me, on average about four times a year, and lasted about a week each time. It’s an illness that makes you really depressed with both hot and cold flushes striking you, alternatively one after the other all day long. For 8 years I suffered from this quarterly nightmare until one day, somebody, not a doctor, suggested that, instead on the medication I normally took, I took a drug called Halfan. Twenty-four hours later, I felt as good as gold, and ever since then my week long bouts were reduced to day long bouts. I was often told that people who had suffered a lot from malaria often had bouts that went on for years after they had left the maria stricken area. Since leaving East New Britain I have never had another bout of malaria, even although I have continued to live in tropical countries.

    However, shortly after my first successful experience with Halfan I was talking to one of our English plantation managers while he was in town to stock up on what he needed. After he heard my story about this new “wonder” drug he told me that for two years he had worked for an English Overseas Volunteers Group and thy had banned the use of Halfan. Why? because, although it is a miracle cure for 99% of people, the other 1% dropped down dead after taking one tablet. I was obviously one of the lucky 99%, and there was no reason why I couldn’t go on taking it now for as long as I needed, but would I have taken the first one so eagerly, if I had known that I was playing Russian Roulette at the time?

  • In May 2015 Nepal was hit be an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. Sadly, many buildings were devastated and many people died. Similarly, in 2011 a quake of only 6.3 on the Richter scale almost completely demolished the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. Again there were many casualties. Why is it then that earthquakes, known locally in Melanesian Pidgin as “gurias”, ranging from 4 to 7 on the Richter scale, and I think I remember at least one that was over 8, shake Rabaul on an average of once per month, and there is never any any property damage or injury? The answer simply lies in the way that buildings are constructed.

    When, in almost every other country in the world, inhabitants of buildings would be screaming and rushing for the nearest exit, my little team would stand up, feet slightly further apart than normal, and grab the computers on their desk with their forearms resting firmly on the desks. Those not at a desk with a computer would calmly walk to the nearest printer and do the same. The shaking would normally not last for more than 30 seconds, after which everybody would carry on with their work as if nothing had happened. Even in the pub or club in the evening after, that day’s guria would hardly rate as a topic of conversation, apart from maybe, “did you feel the shake today? Pretty big wasn’t she?” (They were always female, don’t ask me why?) “Yes, maybe she was a 6,” would be the likely reply, before the conversation turned to something more important, like last weekends Australian Rugby League results.

  • There were many pubs and clubs in Rabaul and nearby Kokopo, and 5 or 6 reasonably sized hotels, each with their own fairly good restaurant, not only in the town but also on nearby beaches. The evening social life was great, as everybody knew and was on speaking terms with everybody else. There were quiz nights at the yacht club, and one of the hotels would put on up-to-date movie shows once a week. I became treasurer of the golf club and, mainly due to my work in organizing the New Britain Open, the longest running sporting event in Papua New Guinea, I was made a life member of the golf club. That’s a lot of good now because the golf club is buried 15 feet deep in volcanic ash, But more about that in the next blog. On the first anniversary of the initial explosion we tried to play on top of the ash, but everybody got so filthy the experiment was never repeated. Probably Tim and I’s favorite restaurant was in a hotel on a beach not far from Rabaul, which, even after the explosion missed most of the ash. I can remember spending hours on a Sunday afternoon throwing a coconut into the water which our faithful corgi-cross dog, “Lucky” would swim out to get, and after finding a loose bit of husk to get her teeth around would swim back to me and drop it at my feet, ready for another go. I always knew when she got too tired as she would walk past me dragging the coconut to find a comfortable place to play with the coconut on dry land, which was the happy sign that I could go back to the bar. “Lucky” passed away from old age a couple of years before I finally departed East New Britain in 2000, but she leaves a legacy of the Ramage family in the place that meant so much to Tim and I. Up until her death, she would wait for me to come home from work and accompany me through the back gate of the Ralum club in Kokopo where we lived. She always lay down on the floor in the same corner of the bar where other members would give her a splash of beer in a clean ashtray which Lucky lapped up with pleasure. After she died the club committee put a small plaque on the bar just above where she used to drink her beer which said “Lucky’s corner”. To my knowledge it is still there to this day over 17 years later.

I hoe you have enjoyed this synopsis of what life out of work was like in Rabaul and Kokopo in the 1990’s. The next blog will concentrate on the affect it had on my career, especially my knowledge of computers.

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