Papua New Guinea was not a destination on my bucket list. And I’d never heard of the Conflict Islands, located 11 degrees from the Equator off the most easterly point of PNG mainland, part of Milne Bay Province and hailed as one of the world’s most complex and bio-diverse reef systems. The name wasn’t helping my enthusiasm. However, an offer of a seven-night P&O cruise on Pacific Eden with a friend to these islands, actually named for the naval survey boat HMS Conflict by the ship’s captain in 1880, was too tempting to resist.
The island life
Exotic. Tropical. Pacific. Island. The words alone are enough to awaken the vision of most people’s dream destination. But islands are everywhere and it’s rare that reality of any kind lives up to the dream. That’s the allure of travel for you; always surprising and rewarding for those who take chances to look around the next bend. To visit exotic unknown tropical islands is an exciting adventure; to discover you’re doing it in the company of the islands’ equally exotic and colourful owner adds another dimension entirely.
Ian Gowrie-Smith bought the atoll comprising the 21 islands of the Conflict group – which sits about 80km from the nearest point in Papua New Guinea – from an elderly Hawaiian couple 15 years ago “…because he could.”
Holiday like a royal
The millionaire entrepreneur from Griffith in NSW who attended Geelong Grammar’s Timbertops with Prince Charles and was often his travelling companion, has had an amazing diversity of interests including pharmaceuticals, mining and oil and gas exploration. Gowrie-Smith acquired the island group sight-unseen and described his first visit as underwhelming, arriving via a long and uncomfortable trip by fishing boat in poor weather. Only the small patch of coral he found outside his rustic bure the next morning, gave any pause to the thought he may have made a massive mistake.
Panasesa the headline destination
Fast forward to now, and Pacific Eden’s tenders ferried a record 900 of 1500 passengers the short distance to the new landing jetty stretching across the reef, to the shore of Panasesa, the only inhabited island of the headline destination, in picture-perfect weather and light, warm trade winds.
To the beat of a different drum
The pristine white sand obligingly dazzles, the impossibly turquoise clear waters mesmerise, palm trees sway and the local islander band sing a lilting welcome accompanied by instruments including bamboo drums beaten with a thong. Somehow, here at the end of the rainbow, there is every dream tropical island experience you could possibly ask for, awaiting to tick every box.
Pina coladas and palm trees
Frozen pina coladas or mojitos at one of two thatched rustic beach bars? Check. A reef tour and snorkelling from a platform anchored meters from shore, providing an easy, safe and spectacular snorkelling experience along the drop-off to deeper waters, with ridiculously coloured fish of all sizes, plenty of coral to explore and some of the world’s best diving. Check.
50 shades of blue
Aforementioned white-sand beaches fringing the island allowing plenty of private spots to laze and play castaway. Check. A shady walk through beautified sandy pathways to discover the flora and birdlife. Check. An authentic outrigger sailing experience with talented local crew happy to give you the history and insights into local life or sound a blast on a huge conch shell as they effortlessly float the boom and full sail across to ‘come about’ while the boat itself remains in the same position. Check. Best of all? A turtle interaction tour on which you visit the hatchery, interact with or hand-feed baby turtle hatchlings and perhaps even get to release one.
Idea for conservation program hatched
Gowrie-Smith has also come along way since his perhaps initially impulsive purchase. A growing passion for conservation of the atoll’s ecosystem and keen sense of responsibility to ensure sensitive development, economic management and involvement for the local indigenous people has led him to establish the successful Turtle Conservation Program and hatchery to grow and protect the two species of turtles remaining of the five that once called the island home.
Slow and steady
The endangered Hawksbill and more prolific Green sea turtles’ eggs are harvested within ten hours of being laid and the hatchlings reared in tanks until they are released back into the ocean, much more able to fend for themselves and avoid the huge mortality rate in finding their own way to the sea. A volunteer and donation program has been established to keep advancing this important initiative.www.cici.net.au
Eco warriors unite
From negotiating the deal with P&O to allow cruises to visit the islands, building a new demountable jetty for tenders to easily access Panasesa island and a beautification program to diversify the palms and flora on the island, complete with extensive kitchen gardens, to the infrastructure and training for the various tours available for visiting passengers to enjoy, development of the Conflict Islands as a sustainable tourist destination is well and truly an achievement their remarkable eco-warrior owner can be proud of and the responsible tourist can enjoy, with or without the owner to show them around.
The islands are now exclusively accessible for tourists via P&O Cruises. The Conflict Islands cruise departs from Cairns QLD for seven nights, visits the PNG port of Alotau, and Kitava and Kiriwina Islands, both part of the Trobriand Islands group in Milne Bay Province of PNG before spending the day at Panasesa in the Conflict Islands. P&O Cruises
3 of the best Conflict Islands