Our boat draws up to the shore and we step off onto the black earth, thick with volcanic ash. Tavurvur Volcano, that volatile beast that lords over Matupit Harbour and nearby Rabaul, rises ahead of us.
The Rababa hot springs just a few hundred metres from its base, steam and bubble away, and the scent of sulfur hangs in the air. Moss-coloured mountains surround the volcano and ash wafts from its cone. It’s breathtaking.
“Hello! Hello!” Our small group of five has been so transfixed we’ve failed to notice a group of seven kids gathering around us. They’re laughing and smiling and wanting to know our names and ages. An older girl, clad in a red T-shirt, steps forward and presents us with three huge eggs, about two-and-a-half times the size of regular chicken eggs. She motions for us to follow her over to the hot springs. Carefully, she places the eggs in the water one by one and tells us to wait.
A few minutes later, lunch is served: fresh megapode eggs, almost all delectable yolk, for PGK2 each. The megapode (or New Guinea scrub fowl) relies on heat produced by the volcano to incubate its eggs at a constant temperature of 33 degrees, burying them up to 1.8m deep in the warm ash and soil around the volcano’s base. These kids, in turn, rely on the eggs as a source of income.
Our bellies filled, we farewell our new friends and jump back into our little boat. We don’t have far to go: just a few hundred metres across the water and we’re at the feet of Tavurvur, the country’s most active volcano that last erupted on August 23 but has since settled down again.
Now that we’re this close, it actually looks smaller than it did before. I imagine it will only take me 15 minutes to climb. No need for water or sunscreen, pfft!
Alas, half an hour after I start trudging through the crumbly ash, slipping and sliding and doing my darndest not to think about how silly I’d been to not bring water or sunscreen and to wear silk pants while climbing an active volcano, I know I was wrong. I also know, however, that I must continue or risk regretting not doing this for the rest of my life. Word has it the view from the top is spectacular.
By the time I reach the top, I’m 99 percent parched. My shoulders are neon with sunburn and I’m struggling to breathe from the ash and sulphur fumes filling my lungs.
But I push on and do what I came here to do. I peer over the edge of the crater and into the mouth of Tavurvur.
I see that Tavurvur is angry. It’s not red seething lava as one might imagine, but a black, smouldering pit. It’s belching smoke and that sound I assumed was the ocean on the other side of the volcano is actually a ripping and a roaring from deep inside its belly.
I only stay for about two minutes, but goodness, are those two minutes worth it. Not only for the views of the bay, and the lush jungle licking the craggy volcanic peaks, but also because in conquering Tavurvur, I feel like I’ve conquered a small part of the fear that lies inside me.
Back in the boat, hydrated and covered in sunscreen, we whiz across the ocean on our way to Duke of York Island. It’s a bumpy ride once we hit the open seas and it takes about an hour to get there.
We draw up to a blindingly white slash of sand fringed by palm trees, and hastily change into our swimmers. The warm, azure waters are practically begging us to take a dip. Luckily we’ve brought snorkels with us – some of the best snorkeling in the world is said to be here and we don’t want to miss out. Just a few metres off shore we bob over a flat coral bed. As the bubbles clear we spot magnetic blue starfish spreading themselves over rocks, schools of tropical fish in the most startling colours darting here and there, and chunks of coral that look like huge heads of lettuce, with the sunlight spraying down over it all.
We manage to tear ourselves away from the underwater wilderness only when our fingers start to pucker, flopping down on the sand to soak up some sunshine and munch our picnic lunch.
Just when we think the day can’t possibly get any better, it does. Our skipper ushers us back onto the boat and putters past more islands. Our boat circles Blanche Bay for a little while; local fishermen in dugout canoes wave to us as we drift by, seemingly aimlessly. We start to wonder what we’re doing here when all of a sudden, there is a pod of dolphins, just two metres from our boat.
One of them leaps out of the water and does a double flip, its sleet-coloured body glistening in the late-afternoon sunshine. The cheeky dolphins then disappear into the watery depths, only to resurface a few minutes later, right at the front of our boat, putting on another show. We can hardly believe our eyes; we never imagined this sort of experience could exist outside of a theme park.
Air Niugini flies Cairns to Rabaul twice a week (Mondays and Fridays), from PGK3595 economy return.STAYING THERE
Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort offers three types of air-conditioned rooms, starting from PGK555 a night, including continental breakfast. See kbb.com.pg.SEE THERE
The volcano tours are available through Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort for about PGK600. See kbb.com.pg.