Derek and Malagan


Arrival In Rabaul and the Rabaul Hotel

The Half House

The House

Toa's Message


The Office

The Town and its Environs




The Cinema







Return to Lost Lives

Rabaul in the 1920s A Child's Eye View
by Derek Westoby O'Dean

The Town and its Environs

My guess is that, in our day, there were about one hundred Europeans in Rabaul with quite a few Chinese and several Japanese surrounded by about 60,000 natives most of whom, at any distance over sixty miles from town, lived in what was known as 'uncontrolled territory'. They had had little or no contact with Europeans and lived a life little removed from the Stone Age.

Rabaul itself spread along the east shore of the harbour with two main streets and one intermediate street parallel to the shore. The first of these was Mango Avenue (why I don't know as it was overarched with magnificent flame trees but no mangos) and the other main street furthest from the shore was aptly named Casuarina Avenue as it was lined with noble She Oaks.

The town did not extend much to the south past the burnt wharf at the shoreward end of which BP's, the major store, was sited. It petered out to the north after Chinatown where Ah Koon's store and the native market were situated. Ah Koon's was, I think, the only two storey building in Rabaul at the time and I spent my threepence a week pocket money either there or at BP's. To the east of Ah Koon's, over Casuarina Avenue, was a grove of rubber trees which I was scared to go near as there seemed to be an impenetrable blackness between the closely ranked trunks even in broad daylight. This grove was appropriately flanked by the cemetery, which got a lot of business in those days.

Up the hill behind Chinatown were the Botanic Gardens, a comparatively cool and idyllic oasis, in which I believe a rose bloomed once and once only and through which flowed a small attractive stream of pretty light green water which actually looked cold and very inviting.

From the northern end of the town the road led west round the corner of the harbour and became Malaguna Road past St George's Church (St George's Channel separates New Britain from New Ireland) with the Catholic Church, convent and school a little further along. Between Malaguna Road and the shoreline were the boatbuilders, slipways and what industry there was. Malaguna Road before turning south and becoming the road to Kokopo about 17 miles away along the west shore of the harbour joined Tunnel Hill Road which led to the villages along the northern extremity of the island.

Tunnel Hill Road went through an unlined tunnel cut out of the black volcanic earth and, though not very long, was a heart stopper as, every now and then, large lumps of earth would detach themselves and plop down on the roadway which would be closed until the blockage was cleared. I can't recall anyone having to be dug out after a fall.

Ravuvu was on the road to Kokopo, which ran along the water's edge practically the whole way. Ravuvu's notable feature was a swimming baths formed by a palisade of bamboo stakes on three sides with a walkway round the top. Here we used to be taken swimming from school in a large car with the hood down and I can remember, on one occasion, the boy who was driving being egged on to go faster by some of the more adventurous spirits in the class when we already doing 55 miles per hour. This he obligingly did as there was no adult with us to exercise restraint.

Ravuvu Pleasure Resort was opened in 1926 and I couldn't understand for quite some time why it didn't appear on our maps when I was in New Guinea during World War Two until I realised that it disappeared when the new volcano, Vulcan, arose on that spot during the 1937 eruption.

Rabaul or Simpson Harbour to give it its correct name was to my childish eyes immense and an ideal haven for shipping on which the life of the town depended. It was skirted by a narrow coastal plain fringed in many areas with coconut palms, backed by the Matupit active crater and the dormant Mother and Daughter mountains to the east and a continuous rain forest clad range of hills elsewhere.

The harbour itself is the crater of an immense long extinct volcano with its plug, the Beehives, arising roughly in the centre as several needles of eroded volcanic rock.

To the south-east of Rabaul was the active volcano of Matupit, connected by a narrow spit to the mainland and the main source, in our day, of goorias (earthquakes). The record for one day, in our time, was seventeen goorias, with the populace starting to get a little edgy. I remember hearing that the Germans, in their thorough way, built a causeway to Matupit which must have been an island in their day. The causeway didn't last long - one morning they found it had disappeared due to some up or downheaval during the night. It was at Matupit that Marc had a narrow escape from a puk puk( crocodile). It tried to sweep him off his feet with a swish of its tail but Marc did a quick agile skip and smartly vacated the area.

Between the town and Matupit was the racecourse at Rapindik, which doubled as an aerodrome - rarely in our day. However it had its moment of fame when Parer and McIntosh landed there.

To the east of the town loomed the Mother mountain flanked by the North and South Daughters, all extinct volcanoes. The Mother was covered in kunai grass which, from the town, looked like a close mown lawn but, in reality, was six feet high with each blade having saw tooth edges which could cut to the bone.

On a foothill of the Mother was Namanula, where the Administrator, judges and doctors lived and where the hospital was situated .As it was elevated it received whatever breeze was blowing and was, therefore, a much more pleasant place to live than in the town, which sweltered in its volcanic basin and, in a south east wind, was blanketed in sulphur fumes from Matupit.

Kokopo was a pleasant spot about 17 miles from Rabaul, perched on an eminence overlooking St George's Channel across which, on a clear day New Ireland was visible, with the Duke of York Islands in between. Kokopo possessed a hotel. Dr and Mrs Flood, great friends of my parents, lived there and on one occasion, memorable for two events, I went to stay with them. It was the first time I had spoken on a telephone. The call was to my parents in an effort by the Floods to alleviate my homesickness. It was also the first occasion in New Britain on which I had tasted cow's milk which came from some small cows owned by the local natives. Tinned milk, Libby's or Carnation, was the staple in Rabaul and probably the reason we drank China tea with lemon to which I became addicted from about the age of four. The only other time I tasted real milk in Rabaul was when the Floods sent some in for me appropriately, for Rabaul, in a beer bottle.

I used to accompany Keepok sometimes when he went to the markets to do our shopping. The currency used in the markets was trade tobacco, which consisted of evil looking sticks about 9" by 3/8" by 3/8" looking like liquorice twists. It cost threepence a stick. The boys used to break the sticks into crumbs, which they rolled in tubes or cones of newspaper to smoke like outsize cigarettes. This was an early example of recycling causing them to eagerly pounce on discarded newspapers. I don't remember the going rate for most of the market produce but clearly recall that one stick of trade tobacco used to buy us a large bunch of delicious sugar bananas of which I was very fond and which used to form a significant part of my diet.

Mangoes and coconuts were in our garden for the taking. My parents had a mango each for breakfast, while most mornings a boy would shin up a tree, knock down a coconut and either pierce the eyes or cut the top off for me so that I could drink the milk, which was always cool and most refreshing due to the insulation provided by the husk. The coconut is a most amazing tree as its components all have their uses, the nuts of course for food and drink, the shells for fuel (for ironing) among other things, fronds for roofing and in one case arrows from the spines of the leaves for my small bow.

Previous © Derek Westoby O'Dean, 2002
Online edition created by J & J Evans, October 2002