We want to cry. But there's no time for tears.
Instead from the luxury expedition ship Orion as she glides up-harbour under a perfect Papua New Guinea sunrise, we're peering misty-eyed towards the town of Rabaul. No, what was the town of Rabaul.
Rabaul had been our town. Its where our married lives began 43 years ago, where our eldest, Brad was born, where we lived for ten years, helped found the Yacht Club, learned to sail, tried to master golf, joined the local branch of the Lions Club, bought an interest in a restaurant, and even won the Garden Club's "Best New Garden" competition.
But now, on a balmy March morning in 2006 we can already see the Rabaul we knew is no longer. On the morning of September 19 1994, after two days of ominous rumblings, Tavurvur and Rabalanakaia Volcanoes on one side of the harbour, and Vulcan on the other, had erupted savagely in quick succession.
And two under-harbour vents as well. Violent explosions accompanied each eruption, with clouds of sulphur dioxide and ash spiralling an unbelievable 30km skywards, creating blazing electrical storms and torrential rain.
Yet while catastrophic, with the constantly shaking ground warning of what was to come, in only two days prior, over 30,000 people had been evacuated from Rabaul to Kokopo and Kerevat 20km away.
And despite the entire business centre and two-thirds of homes being destroyed under the weight of tens of thousands of tons of black ash, just four people died under collapsing buildings, and one by lightning.
Orion ties up at the Main Wharf and we're met by Simon Foo who is head of the local Tourist Board, and East New Britain Tourist Officer, (GET NAME) JASFJALF; they're here to show us around what for ten years had been home.
First stop is the old Australian Broadcasting Commission studios where I'd scribbled news stories as a journalist. It's now an electrical parts store; miraculously a local Tolai announcer mate we ask of, drives past at that very moment in a million to one coincidence. He's retired now and brakes to a shuddering halt; hugs and family details are quickly exchanged, before we head towards town.
Homes in this western part of Rabaul survived the eruption, but once we reach Mango Avenue we find that what was once a thriving CBD of scores of affluent shops, restaurants, hotels, motels, clubs, supermarkets, offices and lush tropical gardens is gone. No doubt forever.
Just a handful of buildings dot a new, unending plain of black volcanic ash up to 1.5-metres deep, 2m kunai grass and stunted trees; concrete steps that once led into plush shops now go nowhere, power poles still lean crazily, concrete stumps resemble tombstones marking where businesses died that week in 1994.
The Hamamas Hotel (formerly The Ascot) is one that survived – because the owners shovelled raining ash off their roof for twelve unbroken hours.
We hire a helicopter. The view's indescribable; like the town, the airport's gone, the immaculate golf course is unrecognisable, streets of once proud homes with immaculate gardens now resemble an unkempt housing estate waiting to be built. Formerly densely-populated Matupit Island village has sunk into the harbour. Back on terra firma we drive up Namanula Hill in search of our home; all we find are a few concrete blocks. Ash and jungle swamp our award-winning gardens… all other 40-odd homes on the one-time dress-circle hill have also been totally obliterated.
We drive out to bayside Kulau Lodge Restaurant that we once co-owned; the now-owners host us to a nostalgic lunch. Then Nonga Hospital where we find the ward in which Gwenda had Brad 38 years ago; an interview on Radio East New Britain about our days "before" follows, and a call into delightful Taklam Lodge Motel at Kokopo (the 'new' Rabaul 19km from the old) brings welcome afternoon drinks.
Finally its back to Orion for a last night's indulgence. Next morning we're out to Tokua Airport at Kokopo for the flight home; the old Pacific War Japanese-built airstrip here was built on a coconut plantation by the Japanese during the Pacific War, and hurriedly rehabilitated after the Rabaul eruptions.
The 5-star Orion will re-visit Rabaul* again in Spring and Autumn 2007, sailing 10-nights from Cairns to Milne
Bay, Deboyne Lagoon, the Trobriand Islands, Ghizo, Kennedy Island (where JFK's PT109 was sunk,) the new Georgia Islands and Rabaul. She then cruises 11-nights to the Sepik, Madang, D'Entrecasteaux Islands, Samarai, Milne Bay and back to Cairns.
Rabaul has officially re-located to Kokopo; most locals refer to both towns collectively as "Rabaul." Details from travel agents, phone 1300 361 012 or visit www.orioncruises.com.au