Fire on the Mountain

Playing in the shadow of a volcano in Papua New Guinea.

Oct 4, 2010
Outside Magazine
Papua New Guinea

New Britain's Tavurvur volcano gets feisty

IN 1994, a 2,257-foot volcano erupted on the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea, burying the city of Rabaul under seven feet of ash and prompting 30,000 people to evacuate. Only 3,000 returned, leaving the town essentially like Kauai pre–Captain Cook, only with more pyrotechnics: The island is populated mostly by members of some 50 indigenous tribes, and the resident volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan, are still very much active. Go now and you can lounge on a black-sand beach and watch Tavurvur burp up lava and small columns of ash as many as four times an hour.

I arrived two years ago to find an ashy town—the swimming pools were gray—set on an active caldera with countless adventure options just beyond the city limits. One can scuba-dive at a reef wall that served as a berth for Japanese submarines in World War II; sample grilled crocodile at a sustainable farm in New Britain's jungle; or take a helicopter flight over inland waterfalls so remote, nobody has bothered to name them. But the highlight of New Britain is the paddling. On my third day in Rabaul, I drove five minutes south to Matupit Island and rented a dugout canoe with a guide from the Tolai tribe. We paddled across Simpson Harbor while a hot ash cloud boiled overhead. Afterwards, my guide brought me back to the Tolai village and served me bananas poached in coconut milk, which he said was a traditional feast commemorating the arrival of Fijian missionaries—whom the Tolai ate.

GET THERE: Air Niugini flies here at least twice daily from Port Moresby, on the south side of PNG's mainland (from $300; Lodging in Rabaul is limited to the Hamamas Hotel (doubles from $59; Ask the staff about tours of the OISCA farm ($18 with crocodile lunch; and rides to Matupit. The Tolai guides will find you; a day trip is $9.