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24 April 2019

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I had happy memories of Rabaul before the 1994 eruptions and so felt very sad when I flew in about a year later. I recall seeing only the apex of the roof of what had been my friend Justice Tomarum’s home.

As an old New Ireland hand, I have never ceased to be amazed that, from the time I arrived in Kavieng, beautiful, volcano free New Ireland has been ignored as a better and safer place to have an international airport.

Sir Julius Chan, one of the founders of the nation, has always been MP for the province yet he seems to have ignored his native roots for the commercial benefit of his hotel and shipping business in the dangerous shadow of the Rabaul volcanoes.

I cannot recall any major attempt by any other of the many New Ireland MPs over the past 50 years really pushing hard for Kavieng as the preferred site.

We have had many talks and occasional land disputes by landowners as the airstrip has been piecemeal improved and lengthened but never with the intent of making it more than a mere provincial airport rather than an international one.

Even with the advent of the Lihir and Simberi gold mines, Kavieng was bypassed in favour of Rabaul’s Tokua Airport, though some international flights have been allowed into the Kunaye airfield on Lihir for overseas employees of the mine. I think they may have been charter flights from northern Australia.

Only last week the government is said to have provided K6 million for a 1.4 km extension to Kavieng airport, but apart from the improved length to attract overseas flights you also need all the improvements to terminal facilities and town infrastructure.

There was nothing in the PM’s 200 pig fest speech about wanting to see Kavieng becoming a port of entry for flights into PNG.

Nothing irked me more when flying Air Nuigini from Asia to PNG than, on a clear day, being able to see my destination - beloved Lavongai Island - below our seven mile high jetliner and knowing we were destined to fly another hour and half or so over the Bismarck Sea and over the ranges to land in filthy, dusty Moresby.

There to spend a night in an expensive hotel only to be up at crack of dawn to get an expensive flight that followed exactly the previous day's route to reach Kavieng. Doesn’t seem there will ever be a change to that itinerary in my lifetime.

However there appears to be no logic for preferring the volcanic Gazelle with the ever present foreboding of a worst case scenario of another terrible eruption like 1994 or what has happened since then - such outpouring of ash and smoke that Tokua is closed to all flights and lo and behold they are diverted to the safety of Kavieng.

I don’t know what drives this crazy emphasis on Rabaul being the logical place for a major airport. Perhaps it was because the Germans liked it but they hadn't thought of flying when they moved their HQ from northern New Guinea coast to Simpson harbour.

My only dream now is that when New Ireland autonomy comes the governor and his members willsay, “Right let's open New Ireland to international flights!”

Till then Rabaul, enjoy your festivals.

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