PNGAA Library

Volcanoes: Charles Betteridge

In one’s life there is always the unexpected that happens when you least expect it, and it can have a lasting effect on you and this can be in any shape or form. Some of these instances are minor, but the other ones are not, and they stick in your memory for years after.

Throughout the thirty-three years that I lived and worked in PNG, plus a further two years in the other Pacific Island nations, I faced quite a number of instances that in some cases nearly took my life or affected me in a totally different manner. And so, I begin with these ‘special moments’.

I’ve been through numerous earthquakes from small to large, volcanoes suddenly erupting without warning, flash floods, tidal waves, tribal fighting (especially in the PNG Highlands), being shot at, and of the numerous ‘hairy’ drives in many parts of PNG; removing dead and injured people in traffic accidents and, of course, the many attempted break and entries and being confronted by large sharks while snorkelling in the Gazelle Peninsula.

The whole of PNG (including Indonesia’s West Papua) is still a very young country compared to the island continent of Australia. In fact, the whole of New Guinea is still settling down and it also stands on the very edge of a massive continental plate that is still moving northwards towards the Equator. The whole of the northern rim of PNG has a ‘Ring of Fire’ along its northern fault line consisting of hundreds of volcanoes from small to massive giants, including Mt Uluwan in the West New Britain Province. This volcano is the sixth largest in the world standing 2334 meters high. It is one of the most active volcanoes in PNG and also one of the most dangerous. Its last eruption was in 2007. I have flown over it and have driven up to its base, which is just over 40 km across. So it is with volcanoes that I will start this adventure in PNG.

Anyone who has ever flown over PNG can only be amazed at the ruggedness of it, with its high mountain ranges and its many coastlines, long rivers and huge coastal plains. One thing that stands out amongst all of this are the numerous volcanoes, active and dormant, that are scattered all over the place from small ones a few hundred meters tall to the giants that stand several thousand meters tall, and the numerous volcanic islands that stand off the coasts of PNG to the north.

Over many years past, there have been some massive volcanic eruptions that changed the shape and structure of PNG physically, especially up in the northern regions along the coastline of East and West New Britain starting at Rabaul to the east and down past Kimbe to the west. The area around Rabaul is the most active in PNG and the last major eruption was by two volcanoes erupting at the same time in Rabaul on 19 September 1994. This twin volcanic eruption destroyed 93% of Rabaul.

Further to the south on Bougainville Island there are several large dormant volcanoes standing at least 2000 meters or more tall with massive cones that are now filled with water up to a hundred meters deep and up to a kilometre wide, while several others are large ones that are still semi-active. During the 13 months we were on Bougainville (1973-1974), there were several eruptions from one of the giants of which lava flows were up to nearly ten kilometres out to sea. The earthquakes that accompanied these eruptions were quite scary indeed.

No matter where you lived in PNG, whether it was on the coast, or further inland and up into the highlands, you can be assured you were not all that far from a volcano, whether dormant or still active. A leading volcanologist who was visiting Rabaul in early 1996 (while I was there) told me that there are really no ‘extinct’ volcanoes. If they erupted once, they will erupt again: whether that is in a few years or a thousand years or more!

Of all the places I have been to in PNG, Rabaul town has more volcanoes surrounding it than any other town in the world. There are seven of them, two of which are always on alert. The township itself is actually inside the crater of what was once a massive volcano that imploded several thousand years ago, and this caused the ocean to rush in and fill the gaping big hole with sea water: thus Simpson Harbour and Blanche Bay were formed. There are two more volcanoes some 25 km away from Rabaul and these are Watom Island and Mt Varzin, behind Kokopo, making a total of nine in the area.  I’ve visited all except Watom Island.

When it comes to volcanoes along the north coast of East and West New Britain, the numbers are staggering. Most are near the coast with a few big ones further inland and some out to sea forming islands of their own. From Bialla, a small town midway between Rabaul and Kimbe, I could see quite clearly towards Kimbe over 30 volcanoes from small ones to monsters including Mt Uluwan. The dirt road between Bialla and Kimbe is about 130 km long and I came across numerous hot springs right beside the road bubbling away like anything and clouds of hot steam rising all the time and these were the outlets of smaller active volcanoes a few kilometres inland. The local people told me that if anyone of these springs stops bubbling then it’s time to get away from that area for an eruption is imminent at any time.

While I was stationed in Kimbe in 1996 and 1997, I drove up to Talasea some 35 km north from Kimbe a number of times but what amazed me the most were the number of dormant volcanoes beside the road all the way up. I counted 38 volcanoes (all dormant), from a couple of hundred meters high up to at least 1000 meters high. Two of these larger ones had been active a year or so beforehand and the lava flow had crossed the road a few times in different locations.

At Talasea there is an island of volcanoes some two kilometres off shore from the end of the road and I could count close to twelve volcanic cones on this island and the largest, Moutn Guria, stood nearly a thousand meters high. According to the records, it last erupted in 1700. As a matter of interest, the local people named it Mount Guria (pidgin for ‘earthquake’) and, believe me, when a volcano starts erupting you can be assured there will be small to large ‘gurias’ before, during and after a volcanic eruption. I experienced this many times during my time in Rabaul in 1996 and 1997.

I was sent up to Rabaul several times in 1996-97 to help re-establish the Ela Motors complex that was totally destroyed in the devastating twin volcanic eruption of 19 September 1994, when the two most prominent volcanoes, Vulcan and Tavurvur, erupted together, starting an eruption that was to eventually destroy practically all of Rabaul town. Prior to this major event I had been to Rabaul in 1970, 1971, 1974 and 1984 and knew what a beautiful place it was. To see it again in 1996 I was blown away at the total devastation the twin volcanoes caused in the 1994 eruption.

During the six months in total I was in Rabaul in 1996-97, Tavurvur Volcano, at the top end of what was once the Rabaul airport was constantly emitting ash and smoke day and night from light emissions to all out eruptions. The hotel I was staying at in Rabaul was only about five kilometres from Tavurvur itself and whenever it decided to erupt the shockwaves from the explosion hit the hotel about two seconds later causing it to shudder and sway a bit, but it was the large plate glass windows in the dining room that were of concern for us for, as soon as the soundwave hit, the plate glass we could actually see the large pains of glass bulging in the middle, then suddenly pop back to normal once the shockwave passed on.

It was during some of these larger eruptions that ‘volcanic storms’ would erupt in amongst the ash and debris as it was shot skyward and huge bolts of lightning with tremendous loud claps of thunder would follow at the same time, and it was during these eruptions that the earth tremors would start from mild to heavy movements. It was the continuous noise of the eruptions that made it so uncomfortable to be anywhere: you simply put your hands over your ears to help reduce the noise as much as possible when an eruption came.

One of my ‘scariest’ moments was on the afternoon of 4 October 1996 as I was driving the 35 km from Kokopo back to Rabaul. It was also my daughter’s 21st birthday and she was over in the UK at the time and my mind was on her as I was driving along around 4 pm. Suddenly and without warning, I heard this horrendous explosion that, very soon afterwards, hit my car as I drove along towards Rabaul. The soundwave hit the side of my car with such force that I nearly lost control of the car and it nearly fell into a four meter deep crevasse near the edge of the road. I managed to stop the car and get out of it when very soon after an earthquake of about 4 on the Richter scale followed which lasted about ten seconds. I was totally alone on this stretch of the ash covered road and I could just see Tavurvur Volcano belching out huge masses of ash and smoke. It had gone into another full eruption which lasted for about twenty minutes or so, but luckily for everyone there was a fairly strong westerly wind blowing at the time which blew the smoke and ash out to sea. I survived that sudden ordeal but, believe me, I was shocked! It took me a few days to finally calm down.

It was reported the next day that people as far south as Bougainville, over 400 kilometres away, could hear the explosions of Tavurvur Volcano when it erupted that afternoon.

One of the most famous of the many Rabaul eruptions occurred on 29 May 1937 when Vulcan volcano rose up out of Vulcan Island that had been formed nearly 50 years previously by another major earthquake. Today Vulcan is about 400 meters high with several large vent holes in it and is the second most dangerous volcano in Rabaul, with Tavurvur the most dangerous. Tavurvur erupted in June 1941 and it was very active again when the Japanese invasion force sailed into Rabaul during WWII on 22 January 1942.

The deadliest volcanic eruption in modern times in PNG was when Mount Lamington, near Popondetta, fully erupted on 21 January 1951 killing over 3000 people. The explosive blast was equal to an atomic bomb being detonated.

PNG will still continue to ‘settle down’ for years to come and, in the process, there will still be many more volcanic eruptions and earthquakes ahead.