What it’s like touring rich-lister Ian Gowrie-Smith’s private paradise, the Conflict Islands in PNGJune 30th , 2014
SLOWLY, serenely, we’re sliding across the giant lagoon around which the 22 components of the Conflict Islands group are dotted when suddenly there’s a commotion up front. Or is it the back?
In fact, there’s no back or front to the outrigged, wooden canoe/sail boats, known as sailaus, used by the locals in the waters to the southeast of Papua New Guinea.
But it’s clear from the circular arm-motions of the crew that we’re tacking. Sharply. All hands – including the boy whose job is to bail out the boat using an old motorbike helmet – literally leap into action, as their joy-riding passengers prostrate themselves on the warped, wooden deck.
Within seconds the boom is relocated, the bright, green sail turned and the man-sized, steering paddle moved to the other end of the boat – without a hitch or bloodied head. The crew smile at us cowardly “dim-dims”, as foreigners are affectionately known, while the boat picks up speed again.
No worries. After all, local tribes have been managing such boats for more than two millennia. Indeed, the previous night they had happily “commuted” for nine hours to provide a traditional welcome.
For we reluctant sailors, the boat trip is one of many unmissable holiday experiences – one which renowned American author Mark Twain, who crossed the southern seas to Australia, would have applauded.
Man, he argued, was more likely to be disappointed by things he didn’t do than by those he did. His advice? “Throw off the bowline. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, discover, dream.”
Few holiday destinations come more dreamlike than the Conflict Islands, which were named not for any squabbling inhabitants, but a British survey ship wrecked on a western reef in the 1880s.
The 21 islands, which cover 375ha grouped in an atoll configuration abundant with lagoons and coral reefs, are for the most part uninhabited, unspoilt and unknown.
Apart from a brief, ill-fated attempt, around the turn of the 20th century, by an eccentric English adventurer Henry Wickham to exploit the natural riches of his “great and salubrious Treasure Island,” the Conflicts have not been occupied.
Little wonder they have been acclaimed by visiting experts as a “hidden eco-hotspot”, and by their few holiday-makers as “one of the South Pacific’s most beautiful and best-kept secrets”.
For, remarkably, nature has painted the scene in 50 shades of blue, framed by pristine, pale sands, unruly, green jungle and creamy, white breakers.
The colours beneath their sea – whose biodiversity is such that it hosts about one third of the world’s marine fish, are no less vibrant.
“It’s like Picasso’s paintbox down there,” says world-famous photographer Steve Parish. He is one of several experts, who also include an historian and a marine biologist, who give talks during our visit.
Like us, they’ve been brought together by Ian Gowrie-Smith, sole owner and operator of the islands, not just to enjoy the diving, fishing, snorkelling, sailing and turtle-watching on offer, but to contemplate the future of the fragile Conflict group.
So pressing are the threats to the islands that he has chartered a plane from Cairns to Alotau, in Milne Bay, and the Oceanic Discoverer cruise ship for a seven-day, live-aboard tour by family, friends, experts and potential investors.
An Australian-born, UK-based businessman, who has founded pharmaceutical, property, mining, oil and gas companies, Gowrie-Smith describes himself as a “property romantic”, a dreamer and, according to admirers, a visionary.
His present portfolio includes an apartment on Sydney’s celebrated Finger Wharf, a hideaway on the Hawkesbury River, a cottage in Donegal, Ireland, a “modest” castle in Vilnius, Lithuania, and a game reserve in South Africa.
“Why wouldn’t I buy the islands, when I’d bought all this other crazy stuff?” he asks, explaining how he first visited them in a decommissioned tuna boat, found at the southeast tip of mainland PNG, more than 100km away.
“We set off at midnight in horrendous seas. I arrived in pitch dark, hungover, cold, wet and wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for. But the sun came out. Beaches appeared. We caught fish and swam in translucent waters.”
The adventurer, who once accompanied his former Geelong Grammar School buddy Prince Charles to PNG, was hooked. In 2003, he bought the islands from an American couple. A decade later, there has been limited “resort” development, all of it on Panasesa, one of two islands with a runway. It comprises six beachfront bungalows, a clubhouse and activities centre, all in exquisite taste.
So perfect, so idyllic, is the Conflict Islands setting that it seems almost criminal to consider anything that would break the spell, mitigate the magic, Gowrie-Smith concedes.
“Ideally, it should be left just as it is. But doing nothing simply is no longer an option.”
The islands must be policed to prevent intruders killing giant clams and turtles, and “finning” sharks. The jungles must be cleared of introduced species. Sustainable economic opportunities must be created for regional communities.
“Because my goal is to preserve and protect this untouched ecosystem I’m looking for individuals or foundations to partner me in protecting the islands, and sustainably developing them.”
There is talk of developing up to four islands, building more bungalows, setting up a marine research station, devising a coconut biodiesel plant, hosting cruise ships, lengthening runways, even of creating a golf course.
Meanwhile, the Conflict Islands provide the ultimate island getaway. To stay or to buy. The bungalows are luxurious. The meals, prepared by a private chef from produce picked from the islands’ gardens, are scrumptious. And there are diving, snorkelling, fishing, kayaking and sailing experts on hand to supervise a healthy range of activities.
And, with a bit of luck, the locals may take you for a trip in one of their back-to-front sail boats.