The history of Rabaul is one of wreckage and re-growth and modern historians will find a treasure trove of World War Two relics, tunnels and caverns to explore within driving distance of Rabaul. Close to the now thriving centre of Kokopo, are the remnants of Gunantambu mansion, built in the 1880s by the legendary Queen Emma. After the eruption of Tavurvur and Vulcan in September 1994, most Rabaul services were relocated in Kokopo, which is strung along the edge of Blanche Bay. The town has grown rapidly and the busy market, selling fresh produce, local cigars and betel nut, is located on the main road from Tokua Airport near Supabake Bakery. The waterfront is the place to find boats for travel to the outer islands or for a spot of fishing.
The drive from the airport, located at Tokua, about an hour from Rabaul, is along a narrow road, winding its way around the glittering waters of the Gazelle Peninsula. Through the coconut trees villages of thatched huts surrounded by colourful flowerbeds and tropical fruit trees look out over calm waters. East New Britain has a fascinating World War 2 history and visitors can explore Japanese caved systems, barged tunnels, aircraft wrecks and submarines.
The people of East New Britain are culturally diversified, with rich and unique traditions. The "tumbuan", featured in many cultural dress costumers, signifies spiritual dancers and traditional ceremonies. The Tolai people of the Gazelle Peninsula have continued to use the traditional shell money called "tabu". They use the tabu as a contribution to the Tolai male secret society of tumbuan and dukduk, for distribution to people at death ceremonies, as payment of a bride price, for settling disputes, to purchase land or even garden food from local markets.
Flora and Fauna
The tropical nature of the province, with its evergreen rainforest vegetation, rugged mountain ranges, and imposing volcanoes, have made East New Britain an attractive and adventurous place to visit. The marine resources are diverse and the tropical environment provides opportunities for bush trekking, mountain trekking, mountain climbing and cave exploration.
War wrecks also litter the reefs surrounding the East New Britain Province. The excellent visibility makes this an exciting dive spot all year round. Dive trips, day tours as well as charter boats for fishing can be organised through any of the accommodations or tour operators. Forty five minutes by boat from Kokopo are the Duke of York Islands, which offer sport diving, snorkelling and picnics under the coconut trees.
The lagoons around this historical group of islands provide all-weather canoeing, wind surfing and water skiing and are a haven for visiting yachts.
Things to see
Kokopo: The East New Britain Historical & Cultural Centre, located across the road from the golf course, has good displays and collections of historical relics and photographs, with plenty of information. The centre is open 8.00am – 1.00pm and 2.00pm – 4.00pm week days; 1.00pm – 5.00pm weekends. There is a small admission charge for entry.
Vunapope Catholic Mission: The Vunapope Catholic Mission is located at the eastern end of Kokopo. The mission boasts pleasant views, and offers a number of interesting old colonial buildings to explore.
Bitapaka War Cemetery: The Bitapaka War Cemetery is located several kilometres inland. To reach the cemetery, turn off the coast road past Vunapope. The graves of more than 1000 allied war dead are located in these well-kept grounds and gardens.
Malmaluan Lookout: Fantastic views over the volcanoes surrounding Simpson Harbour can be enjoyed from this inland highpoint. To reach the lookout, take Burma Road, off the Kokopo-Rabaul Road.
Japanese Barge Tunnels: At Karavia Bay, between Kaluana Point and Vulcan, are a network of tunnels and tracks connecting barges and buildings dating back to the war. In the main tunnel are five barges lined up end to end. Visitors are advised to take a torch.
Rabaul: Some parts of Rabaul still function, but most of the town remains an eerie desolate wasteland, covered by metres of ash. Beautiful Simpson Harbour is still the main port, guarded by the grumbling volcanoes. A market and a few shops still operate at the eastern end of town.
Tunnels and war relics: Some of the 580km of tunnels built by the Japanese are still open and aircraft wreckage can be seen beyond the old airport.
Duke of York Islands: These beautiful islands are undeveloped but are easily visited. Some have accommodation, and tiny Mioko Island has an interesting history. Swimming, snorkelling and canoeing here are perfect.
Things to do
Diving and snorkelling: In Simpson Harbour there are World War II boat and plane wrecks, good walls, and the Beehives (a small group of craggy islands) to explore. At Tavui Point is a Submarine Base where Japanese subs pulled right up to the edge of the reef. This area offers superb snorkelling on the flat coral beds and along the edge of the 75m drop-off, which is also good for diving. Most resorts can arrange dive trips.
Climb a volcano: The island of New Britain is dominated by both active and dormant volcanoes, some of them bellowing great clouds of black ash-laden smoke. All the volcanoes, except Tavurvur, can be climbed. Be aware that heavy rain can make the ground slippery and cause landslides. The deep fissures on the volcano, Vulcan, can make it a difficult climb, and is best tackled on the northern side. Be sure to take plenty of water.
Canoeing: Taklam Tours in Kokopo can arrange paddling experiences around the Duke of York Islands.
Fishing: Sport fishing for blue and black marlin, sail fish and dog-tooth tuna is good in the waters around New Britain and the Duke of York Islands. BThe Blanche Bay area is good for casual line casting. Boats operate from Rabaul and hotels and guesthouses can organize trips.
Swimming: Beaches near Kokopo are perfect for swimming. Hotels in Rabaul have pools and there are good beaches at Pila Pila and Ratung villages in Talili Bay north of Rabaul.
Trekking: Suggested areas for trekking include the Bainings Mountains in the Pomio area, where you can walk from Pomio to Navu; and the Wide Bay area, walking between Milim and Sampun or Tokua and Merai.