Words Karen Halabi
Photos Karen Halabi, Anthony Horth and Takuyu Nakamura
February 2016 from issue 42
Papua New Guinea
Find the remote
Sailaus are not tourist crafts; rather, they’re the main form of transport for locals to get around in this part of the world. They are the truck, car, school bus and telegraph for these island communities, racing along at speeds of 12 to 15 knots, delivering people, goods and news to wherever it is they need to be. They’re unique because they’re shallow enough to skim over reefs and land on islands inaccessible to Western-style yachts.
We’re sailing in the Conflict Islands, the most far-flung atoll in Papua New Guinea’s southeast Milne Bay Province. They’re part of the Louisiades group of about 600 islands. With only about 160 of them inhabited, this is one of the world’s final frontiers.
Twenty-one pristine islands, encircling a central lagoon formed from the rim of a sunken extinct volcano, make up the Conflicts. In the past there was 24 of them, but the others have since disappeared underwater. These days, the whole lot is owned by Australian-born entrepreneur turned eco-warrior Ian Gowrie-Smith.
The islands are deserted, except for a tiny resort on the 64-hectare Panasesa Island. Here, you’ll find six beach bungalows, created by craftsmen from nearby islands with rosewood for the floors and carved timber columns, in an idyllic setting that includes little else other than a dive shack, clubhouse with dining area and bar, and a couple of vegetable gardens. Previously this tiny patch of paradise was off limits to the public – a private hideaway for Gowrie-Smith and his close friends and family when they could make the long journey. Even now, when the resort is at capacity, the island’s population peaks at 12.
A reef 300 metres off shore fringes Panasesa Island, creating a spectacular iridescent blue lagoon. There’s just one way in for arriving boats – a small break in the coral wall that must be navigated with care. The colours are spectacular and, even from the boat, the life beneath the water is clearly visible. Parrot fish are busy, scraping the algae from coral that, eventually, becomes the finer-than-caster-sugar sand forming the white island beaches.
Back during World War II, US troops cut a swathe through Panasesa’s coconut palms to create a grass strip capable of landing small planes. These days, coconut shells line each side of the runway, which ends at the ‘international’ terminal: a small thatched hut with a sign.
A sand path leads from the accommodation to the far side of the island. It’s possible, on reaching the beach, to wade into the water and snorkel to the fringing reef. Here, the coral wall drops 40 metres into the deep, its vertical mass alive with fish and coral.
And while the marine life is spectacular, it’s not confined to the ocean’s depths. One night I watch as, just metres from the bungalows, a hawksbill turtle makes the slow journey up the sand to lay her eggs. In about two months, with a little luck on their side, the hatchlings will make the treacherous trip back to the ocean.
In the morning, we head across to Itamarina, an even smaller island almost five kilometres from Panasesa, for more snorkelling and a beach picnic. The boatmen who ferry us there on their sailau are not from the Conflicts. Instead they have sailed from nearby Brooker Island to pick us up. Juda, it turns out, paid for his sailau with pigs. They’re also a common currency when it is time for a man to pay for a wife.
Located in the centre of the atoll, Itamarina is the crown jewel sparkling in the lagoon. Sitting on the sand, it would be easy to pretend you’d been marooned on a desert isle, but the rations – brought across from the resort in a metal dinghy – are more substantial than those that could be scavenged by the average castaway. We sit beneath a thatched shelter and eat fresh seafood, salads and pork barbecued on a spit before returning to the warm azure water to swim.
The following day the dive boat manoeuvre between coral bommies rising from a sea of blue and green. On board is a floating think tank of marine biologists, island historians and underwater photographers, who’ve come to explore the area and document their findings. We are heading to the waters surrounding the largest island in the group, Irai. It is long and flat, with an amazing seven kilometres of spectacular, blinding-white beachfront. Once again, it is completely uninhabited and utterly unspoiled. The diving, we’ve been promised, is outstanding, particularly off the northwest and southwest tips.
Milne Bay Province has 1126 dive sites in total and is the most bio-diverse marine region in the world – twice as many species are found here as on the Great Barrier Reef. But even among such stellar company, these reefs are considered standouts. So varied is the marine life in this corner of the archipelago, the Conflicts and its surrounds are being considered for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
One night I watch as, just metres from the bungalows, a hawksbill turtle makes the slow journey up the sand to lay her eggs.
Our destination on this fine morning is a dive site known as Beluga. More than a thousand species of fish have been recorded here – including a rare clownfish only seen in a couple of other spots in the world – but the site also boasts swim-throughs in the shallows at five to 10 metres and a vertiginous 50-metre wall.
Alex, the resort’s dive instructor who hails from Germany via Bondi, leads us through this remarkable environment. As we descend into a silent world, I’m surprised at the incredible visibility.
Going down the wall is like passing a vertical garden with blooms of every colour. Ribbon corals unfurl and sea grasses and ferns wave in the current. Soft sponges appear in the shades of the rainbow – purple, red, green, yellow and orange. Peer into the massive farms of coral, formed over hundreds of years, and you’ll spy scores of tiny fish. Brilliant sapphire-blue pygmy angelfish with orange highlights and banded clownfish weave past, as if teasing us. I extend a hand and they speed away.
Minute school fish swim past in a silver trail like confetti at a wedding. Eels poke their noses out from the coral then swiftly pull back in again. Even the smallest of sea creatures – waving nudibranchs (shell-free mollusks) and tiny snails – are blessed with dazzling colours and intricate patterns.
On the seabed, there are sea cucumbers – like fat slugs, they squirt if threatened – cuttlefish and all kinds of soft corals and sponges. Giant clams hide between the rocks and Christmas tree worms, with their blue, yellow and green spirals, magically retreat as we come close. Monumental vase corals tower over the landscape.
Alex points out one curious-looking species then waves a finger in front of her mask indicating not to touch it. It is the infamous puffer fish (in some Japanese restaurants it’s sold as fugu, considered one of the most dangerous foods in the world) that inflates like a balloon when touched or startled.
At a depth of 25 metres, the seabed suddenly drops away and there is no sight of the sandy bottom. We have reached the hypnotic ‘blue zone’. Out there, where there is ever-darkening cobalt and seemingly very little else, swim the big fish. Tuna, giant mackerel, grouper and massive Napoleon wrasse, with their hump heads and fleshy lips, glide past us and out into the mysterious depths.
Too soon, Alex signals it’s time to surface. “What makes the diving so exciting here in the Conflicts,” she says when we gather back on the boat, “is the diversity of dives and the fact there are still so many undiscovered sites.”
Central to Gowrie-Smith’s future plans is the preservation of both the islands and the surrounding reefs and ocean. In the past, 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 threat created by commercial long-line fishing, where the incidental catch of seabirds, turtles, sharks, unwanted species and juvenile animals can have a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Instead, Gowrie-Smith is determined to create a tourism industry involving small, responsible operators dedicated to preserving this tiny patch of paradise and providing the islanders with a much-needed livelihood. After all, it’s a rare opportunity to save one of the finest underwater worlds left on the planet.
Alotau is the closest airport to the Conflict Islands serviced by scheduled flights. Air Niugini has flights from Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns to Alotau via Port Moresby.
A seven-night stay at Panasesa Resort starts at about US$4000 a person for a twin share. The price includes transfers from Alotau, meals and activities, including two dives a day, snorkelling, kayaking and fishing.
Panasesa is open from September to April, although the entire resort can be booked by a large group at other times.
Despite some stories to the contrary, travel to Papua New Guinea’s islands is completely safe. Australians can no longer apply for a visa on arrival in PNG, but they can be obtained in advance, free of charge, from the PNG Embassy in Canberra or the consulate offices in either Sydney or Brisbane.