Robbie didn’t last longer than the tree-lined harbour of Rabaul, East New Britain’s provincial capital,where one sultry afternoon agonising pain from kidney stones had him bouncing off the walls of our borrowed apartment. Robin Cooke,the government volcanologist helped me get him to hospital. Eruptions and earthquakes were so frequent and severe in Rabaul that his official observatory seismograph had fallen off its stand during the last big one. Decades later in 1994 the whole town, precariously sited within a caldera flanked by active volcanoes, would be engulfed in heavy ash fall and destroyed, Robin being amongst the fatalities in this cataclysmic event.
That evening over a drink in the Aussie tavern I naively asked:“What do you guys do in a quake?”Propping up the bar, the locals looked at me, baffled: “Pick up yer beer, mate!”
Without Robbie I had no choice but to proceed alone on the Navy’s patrol boat early next morning. The very large and very Papuan Captain graciously moved out of his tiny cabin for me, and the all-male crew could not have been more polite. We put to sea but it wasn’t long before the engines failed and I was handed over to another similar vessel. That got us a couple more days through the flying fish and past the distant coconut clad volcanic islands of New Ireland, when the same thing happened again.
Near Kavieng we visited an old Planter’s Club that literally rocked on its wooden pillars and crumpled to the ground before my eyes – or am I imagining this episode? Eventually we reached the remote Feni Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago that was our destination, but, having anchored offshore within tantalizing sight of its sandy beaches and gently swaying palms,I was unable to land because the outboard on the dinghy failed to start.
“Don’t worry, it always happens at this time of year!” declared the unlikely-named Colonel Manyana, cheerfully leaning on his desk in a starched white uniform when, back in Port Moresby headquarters and reunited with JBS, we admitted to my having single-handedly disabled the best part of his entire PNG naval defence force. Colonel Manyana grinned shaking his head in sympathy, “It’s the end of our annual budget cycle and without any funds for maintenance the boats are always breaking down.”
I left John and Judith waving farewell from their back door in the English summer sunshine, and drove back through the lengthening shadows past the Stonehenge monoliths – it was nearly the longest day with its midsummer rituals, the ancient power of these places still potent.