There is no grander sight, nor more impressive reminder that you are in a different country, than to sit on deck in the evening and watch a volcano erupt. A blast of red cinders flies skywards to be caught in the wind and carried off as dying ash. The preposterous idea that there may be a way into the centre of the earth becomes reality and the desire to peer into the crater is as strong as it is absurd.
There are many active volcanoes throughout the earthquake belt which crosses the country through Bougainville, along New Britain to Madang. The first sight of a volcano will be enjoyed when sailing north along the east coast of Bougainville immediately past Kieta. The classic outline and possible smoke and steam drifting from the crater will be seen again at Rabaul, then they become a familiar sight along the north coast of New Britain.
While the sight of a volcano lazily smoking against a blue sky, or in the shade of lofty cumulus cloud, becomes commonplace, occasionally one will perform in a most splendid way as happened for us when approaching Cape Gloucester on the western end of New Britain.
We had sailed hard from Unea Island to Cape Gloucester in a southerly gale and were negotiating the semi-charted reefs offshore from Cape Gloucester when, from behind dense rain clouds, Mount Munlulu blew its stack. A filthy black cloud of smoke and dust towered above the rain clouds then, caught in the wind, it came rushing towards us and our poor visibility suddenly deteriorated to zero, just as I needed everything going for me as I tacked urgently from one reef passage to another.
Despite the rather unfortunate timing and the acrid fumes which filled our nostrils, the grandeur of the sight could not be denied and it was all I could do not to lose my sense of direction by paying too much attention to the volcano. Later that night, at anchor close under the volcano, we were rewarded with small but regular eruptions of red fire and streaming lava.
Naturally one always hopes that a really dangerous eruption will not occur when anchored close by. Fortunately this is rare. The most recent serious eruption occurred on the 21st January 1961 when Mount Lamington, near Popondetta, went off like an atom bomb killing 32 Europeans and about 4000 natives in an area of devastation totalling about sixty-eight square miles.
Prior to the Mount Lamington disaster, Mount Vulcan in Rabaul Harbour blew in May, 1937. This remarkable volcano emerged from the sea during disturbances in 1870 then lay dormant for nearly seven decades. When it blew again, in 1937, at least two Europeans died along with hundreds of natives and it is believed that a ship, the S.S. Duris dragged anchor and disappeared down the crater as the mountain split in half.
Such was the force of the eruption that a layer of pumice floated on the harbour ten feet thick causing ships to force their way through and in most cases lose much of their topside paint. For some time after, vessels could not get close alongside the jetties in Rabaul Harbour because of the pumice and had to have the bags of copra carried across the pumice from jetty to vessel.
While we were in Madang in September 1978, there was an evacuation alert sent out to the inhabitants of nearby Karkar Island where the volcano was threatening to blow. It grumbled a bit but did not erupt in any dangerous way.
The chance of a visitor being in the wrong place at the wrong time is very slight. There is no pattern to eruptions, but then there are very few eruptions of a threatening nature.
The boatman is especially safe because he is mobile. If the sight of a volcano blowing its top becomes rather too spectacular, he can always sail past or up anchor and get out of it.
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