Peace on the Conflict Islands
Ahead, the first sign of land, a tiny emerald green dot in the distance floating in a sea of iridescent green-blue. The crew jumps from one side of the traditional sailau to the other, using their body weight to swing the boom. One stands on the bamboo outrigger, another in the bowels of the boat using a coconut shell as a bucket to furiously bail water out of the bilge. There’s plenty of action but hardly a sound as we slice through the water.
We’re headed to the Conflict Islands, the outermost group of islands in the Louisiades, an archipelago sprinkled like confetti off the Papua New Guinea coast. Due east of Australia’s northernmost tip, Cape York, the Conflicts have been invisible on the travel radar, largely because this far-flung coral atoll is one of the final untouched frontiers.
Not many people come here – even the sailau crew is from an island in the Trobriands, hours away. Canoes, pigs, yams and sago are the most valuable things to these Melanesians. In between leaping and bailing, they tell me their islands’ yearly yam festival, which includes a tradition that women are allowed to choose and bed any man they fancy for one month of the year. They ignore my whoop of delight. They break out in peals of laughter, however, when I tell them Australians think PNG is full of tribal warriors and a place where you can be raped, killed or cooked in a pot.
“Not here,” they giggle mischievously. “Only in the highlands.” Juda tells me he and his men are peaceful, seafaring people. “The only thing we eat here is the fish,” he teases, pointing to a school of flying fish off the bow that are trying to race our boat.
I want to ask more about that yam festival but we’re already arriving at Panasesa, the third-largest of this uninhabited and undeveloped group of 21 islands. They sit like a precious sparkling emerald necklace surrounding a spectacular central blue lagoon, 22 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide, the only remains of a sunken volcano.
Here to greet me is the owner of this island fiefdom, Australian-born Ian Gowrie-Smith, who bought the islands on a whim, sight unseen, in 2003. This little piece of paradise is one of only a few privately held freehold atolls (or, for that matter, island groups) in the world. Like the two eccentric owners before him, he’s done nothing with them except build a collection of beach bures – straw huts – on one of the islands. His rustic resort, Panasesa, is now open to receive guests.
Gowrie-Smith smiles enigmatically when I ask what he paid for the islands, named after HMS Conflict, which sailed by in 1880. His skill for negotiation and making things happen perhaps comes from his days with Rift Oil and other oil, gas and gold exploration ventures, or perhaps his days setting up billion-dollar pharma companies, which made his name as a corporate warrior. These days he’s swapped the suit for bare feet and now he’s playing ecowarrior. He has also swapped the corporate fiefdom for an island one, though without subjects.
Gowrie-Smith’s love for PNG was spawned when he first came in 1966 as Prince Charles’s companion during the royal’s southern hemisphere schooling interlude. His plum private schoolboy accent comes from his days as Charles’s school buddy at Timbertop.
As we speak, his partner, Elisabeth, dashes past in a sarong chasing a pig that has been brought across for the welcome beach barbecue tonight. But it’s not a pursuit. A vegan and animal liberationist, she’s trying to liberate the pig that’s been earmarked for dinner. The swine dashes to the airstrip, a coconut shell-lined swath cut through the jungle by US troops during World War II, and disappears.
The islands are achingly, hypnotically beautiful. Blinding white, powdery sand meets palm-fringed jungle and clear turquoise waters. It’s difficult to describe without leaning on postcard clichés. But this is one postcard location that lives up to the image. I feel the modern world slipping away as I switch into total beachcomber mode. Over the ensuing days I browse shells and drink from coconuts, watch baby turtles hatching in the sand, swing from a rope hanging on a palm tree and a hammock strung between two others, and go diving.
The diving is breathtaking, some of the best in the world – the atoll is an underwater wonderland to match the one above water. Giant soft corals, rare tropical fish –
twice as many species are found here as on the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, this is the most biodiverse marine region in the world. So varied is the marine life that the site known as “Beluga” and its surrounds off the island of Irai is up for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. According to the Conservation Foundation, it has the second-best coral index score recorded and the largest number of species noted in a single dive.
Between eating, sleeping, diving, fishing, snorkelling and kayaking, I ask the lord of the island why he’s opening up his personal piece of paradise to the public. His voice lowers, becoming serious: “I realised I don’t really have a choice. If I don’t do something to help create employment for the local islanders, they will just continue to plunder the reef. I need to do something that will give them opportunities so they don’t have to do that.”
“In the past,” Gowrie-Smith says, “local fishermen harvested all the sea cucumbers and turtle eggs they could lay their hands on, to sell as delicacies to Asian traders. There’s also the looming threat of commercial long-line fishing, which would devastate the ecosystem.”
Sea cucumber and giant clam harvesting, and shark-finning, which currently sustain the locals, might be replaced by more sustainable means of earning a living and Gowrie-Smith thinks ecotourism is the answer. He wants to help the islanders change their economy, “get them to leave the underwater treasures alone by giving them the chance to show them off”.
Gowrie-Smith has a vision of developing the Conflict Islands to save them, by turning the atoll into an exclusive eco-travel destination and marine protected area. There is only one caveat for interested developers: “They must be passionate about protecting the environment to ensure the survival of the Conflicts’ unspoilt pristine wilderness.”
Therein lies a potential conflict of interest. It’s the kind of thing Gowrie-Smith must have been acutely aware of when mining for oil and gas on the PNG mainland. The Conflicts, he says, present a rare opportunity to save one of the finest underwater environments left on the planet.
He plans to give one of the islands to a marine research foundation and will consider proposals for any sort of eco-development on the others. He is also hatching plans to build a coconut bio-diesel plant to power the islands, marina berths for yachts and an international airstrip to allow access from Cairns and elsewhere.
Gowrie-Smith certainly has the track record. He’s already turned his focus to wildlife conservation elsewhere, converting barren land into the exclusive ZuluWaters Game Reserve in South Africa. I get the feeling he’d be quite happy just to put his feet up in paradise. But there’s too much to do here. It’s going to take more than a few pigs and canoes, but he’s well and truly up for the challenge.
I spend the afternoon swinging in the hammock on the deck of my thatched bure. With hardly a soul around, I could be marooned on a deserted island. I wander to the southern beach to snorkel off “The Wall”, a vertiginous drop that is a kaleidoscope of colour.
I imagine time would stand still if you stayed here long enough.
That night there’s no barbecue pig on the spit – the pig escaped. Funny that. But there’s a feast of freshly caught fish, coconut salads, yam and sago, stars in the clear sky, a warm breeze off the water and a large open-pit fire. The Conflicts might just be the islands that time forgot.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Peaceful Conflict". Subscribe here.