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Saturday, November 7, 2020

Return to Paradise

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I was lucky because my first job in the islands was in Rabaul after which everywhere else was just an anticlimax; everywhere else except perhaps for Western Samoa where I lived and worked several years later and where the movie "Return to Paradise" was filmed which in turn was loosely based on one of James A. Michener's stories in his book "Return to Paradise".

But back to Rabaul which had been my jumping-off spot in the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea when I arrived there in early January 1970. It was everything I had expected of the Territory: it was a small community settled around picturesque Simpson Harbour. The climate was tropical with blazing sunshine and regular tropical downpours, the vegetation strange and exotic, and the social life a complete change from anything I had ever experienced before! And to top it all, I loved the work which offered challenges only available in a small setting such as Rabaul where expatriate labour was at a premium.

Much of those happy memories came back to me when I read the story simply called "Rabaul" which is also contained in Michener's book "Return to Paradise". I quote from it here without, I hope, running foul of any copyright laws. After all, the incomparable Michener has been dead since 1997, and the publishers shouldn't mind either as I know you'll be rushing out to buy the book after having read this one story. Here goes:



Before the catastrophes, Rabaul was the loveliest town in the Pacific. Lying near the equator, it demonstrated how idyllic tropical life could be.

It was a picture town. Wide avenues were lined with flowering trees. Handsome homes were surrounded with gardens of profuse beauty. A botanical park contained specimens from across the world, and the town was kept extraordinarily clean. There were no mosquitoes, no malaria and the nights were cool.

The Germans had built Rabaul in 1910 on a scimitar-like arm of mountains that cut off a bay of great beauty. The town was completed in 1914 and immediately lost to the Australians, under whose supervision it became even more charming, with a social life patterned upon archaic eighteenth-century customs.

There were two clubs, the Rabaul and the swanky New Guinea. Manners were impeccable. At formal dinners women wore gowns from Paris. Men were obliged to wear patent-leather pumps, black trousers, stiff shorts, hard collars, bow ties, white mess jackets. Perspiration was measured by the bucket and par was three fresh shirts for an evening dance. But "the conventions were protected."

Men visiting Rabaul who refused to wear tropical whites were asked to leave. Women who wore shorts were visited by the police and informed of the next ship south. The police also dealt ruthlessly with any white man who had visions of beachcombing with some dark beauty. He was tossed out of the territory, fare paid if necessary. It was all right, however, to welch on debts owed to Chinamen, many of whom went into bankruptcy because of unpaid chits.

Each family had five or six servants - ninety cents each a month - and no white man was permitted to lift or carry. White women often did no work at all. There was a good library, movies, a gay party life and a plane from Australia twice a week.    more


You may have already gathered from the use of the word 'gay' that Michener's book was published as long ago as 1950. Much had already changed by the time I arrived, and the final blow came on 19 September 1994 when Rabaul's volcanoes blew up and destroyed the town.

Read the rest of Michener's story "Rabaul" - click here - until the fitting end, "... and the noonday brilliance of Rabaul have enchanted many white travelers who have stayed on for many years and built happy lives. Often on a cool night when the beer was plentiful and the stories alluring, we have envied the men and women of the South Pacific."

And so say all of us! (Now go out and buy the book!)

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