Papua New Guinea: conflict of interest

The Conflict Islands in faraway Papua New Guinea, uninhabited save for the holiday resort on the island of Panasesa, is a diving, fishing and culinary paradise.
The crystal clear turquoise water along the coral beach of the  resort on Panasesa Island in the Conflict Group of Islands of the Mine Bay Provence, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National
The crystal clear turquoise water along the coral beach of the resort on Panasesa Island in the Conflict Group of Islands of the Mine Bay Provence, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

I mean, the resort doesn’t have an infinity pool,” says Ian Gowrie-Smith, with a wide gesture of his hands outside the window, “but we have the world’s biggest infinity pool right here.” And as the owner of the Conflict Islands Group, he has much to be happy about. Currently I find myself situated at 10° 46’0’S, 151° 47’0’E and swaying to and fro on a privately chartered boat moored within the lagoon of the Conflict Islands atoll. Consisting of 21 untouched coral islands, the atoll is situated in the Louisiade Archipelago of the Milne Bay province in Papua New Guinea. A two-­hour, privately chartered plane ride from the provincial capital of Alotau, it’s the epitome of remoteness, at the edge of the Pacific, and any intrepid travel junkie’s dream. My host for this trip is the energetic Gowrie-Smith himself,­ a man who has big dreams for this peacefully remote part of the Pacific, where time has stood still. The Conflict Islands Group is among more than 600 islands located in a province that boasts over 10,000 square metres of reef.

Covering 375 hectares, the Conflicts are one-and-a-half times the size of Monaco. Encircled by the temperate waters of the Coral Sea, they boast some of the most extensive underwater biodiversity in the world. The lagoon that sits at the centre of the atoll is about 22 kilometres in length and 10 kilometres in width. It’s a concept that I find hard to grasp, as my perception is blurred by water and sky merging into a perfectly spectacular blue horizon, decipherable only by the clouds billowing up from the ever-expanding vista around me.

I learn from our host that these islands were named after the HMS Conflict, which discovered the atoll in 1866, and that they’ve mostly stayed uninhabited. That is until the recent development of Panasesa Island by Gowrie-Smith. It now boasts a very exclusive resort, along with its own landing strip for short charter flights from Alotau or the capital, Port Moresby. And he’s hoping for more to come. Plans are in motion to develop the islands along a very conservative route. With hand-picked and like-minded investors (whole islands are available to buy from US$4 million; Dh14.7m), he’s hoping to plot a course that will see this very unique part of the world protected, creating a sustainable island paradise that balances human and environmental needs not just above the water but below it, too. As we make our way ashore on a small motorboat, we’re gliding atop translucent water, mimicking the liberating sensation of flight. The only elements that ground us are the glimpses of reef fish and corals slipping past our wake, all of them begging exploration. The superb visibility in the protected shallows bodes well for our upcoming scuba dives.

Pulling onto the shore, my mind’s eye is filled with images of new-world explorers, island dwellers and stories of old. They swim through my thoughts as I lightly launch myself over the edge of the boat into the shallow surf. The cool seawater comes as a welcome reprieve from the rising midmorning heat. As I walk ashore, into the shaded respite of palm trees, I’m handed a chilled coconut with a straw. There’s nothing quite like locally ­grown, organic, tasty electrolyte replenishment to welcome one’s arrival in paradise.

I take a stroll along one of the cleared pathways that cross Panasesa Island. The jungle­-like interior is thick with overgrown trees and shrubs. Creepers fill the gaps and climb skywards, barricading the sunlight like a big green carpet. Here and there, beams of sunlight find their way through gaps in the canopy and glisten as they light the coral sand path that I’m walking along. There isn’t a soul in sight.

I round a corner and a perfect coral beach emerges. The ever-present Pacific clouds pass along the horizon, reminiscent of visuals straight out of a Terrence Malick script. Seduced by the beauty around me, I take my time before deciding that I’d like to discover some more. A highly recommended exploration tip is to head out along the beach and walk the full circumference of the island. If you pass the landing strip, be sure to take a picture of the makeshift terminal building. It’s perfectly suited to the island’s needs.

Coastal water temperatures range between 26­°C to 28°C all year ­round; this, combined with the rich underwater life, produces a diver’s paradise. An easy endeavour is to explore the well-­known dive sites or, alternatively, you could head off to the more remote parts of the atoll, where you could possibly be the first diver in history to enter those waters. The options are limitless –­ they solely depend on how far you’re willing to travel by boat to get to the sites.

Sinking beneath the water, I’m instantly faced with some of the most extensive marine biodiversity on the planet. I’m told that previous dives have heralded counts of more than 430 species of coral, 950 species of invertebrates and 1,100 species of fish, many of which are found nowhere else. Reef and shore fish flourish. Tiny ghost pipefish, gobies, trevallies, boxfish, angelfish, parrotfish, coral trout, schools of barracuda, reef sharks and even giant manta rays, killers whales and hammerhead sharks all call these waters home. The most popular dive sites are located along the reef drop-off. It’s an easy excursion, as the current carries our dive group past the expanse of underwater marvels worthy of the Discovery Channel.

For novice and experienced divers alike, the Conflict Islands represent one of the last options to experience untouched diving, a rarity these days for even the most experienced diver. For those less inclined to dive, Nomad Sport Fishing has exclusive access to the Conflict Islands for six weeks of the year. There’s a maximum allowance of 48 visitors per year over these six weeks. Fishing is not permitted during the rest of the calendar, therefore it promises to be one of the most sought-after fishing spots in the world. Nomad’s packages include being stationed at the lodge and offer a variety of options based on individual needs and preferences. Other activities include snorkelling, kayaking, sailing and birdwatching. Be mindful to keep an eye out for ospreys, also known as sea hawks – magnificent fish-­eating birds of prey that can be spotted gliding along the shoreline looking for their next catch.

The resort itself has a range of facilities that include a club house with spacious dining and lounge facilities and, unfortunately, very reliable internet access for those who just can’t bear to be away from technology for too long.

I’m given one of the six air-­conditioned beachfront bungalows, featuring modern luxuries with en­ suites. It’s a perfect little spartan reprieve for a good night’s rest before the next day’s activities. Make the effort and rise well before sunrise. Walking through the previous day’s explored paths gives a completely new experience of the jungle-canopy trails that lead across the island. Arrive before sunrise at one of the many secluded beaches to watch a spectacular tropical sunrise.

All meals are prepared by a dedicated chef based at the lodge. From à la carte to buffet style, the options are not limited. Guests are welcome to enjoy a variety of local creations from the island’s vegetable garden or offerings sourced from nearby. Freshly caught yellowfin tuna sushi was the favourite meal of my stay (locations for each meal can be tailored to whim – you can choose to dine from the comfort of your own bungalow veranda or even the shores of a deserted island nearby with a sunset meal for two – bonfire included).

The price of being at the edge of the planet watching the sun set over the world’s biggest infinity pool starts at US$5,000 (Dh18,365) per person for a minimum seven-night stay. But if you’re jaded by the usual marketing ploy of empty, plastic­-free beach imagery used to sell equatorial island beach resorts, only to arrive and discover that you weren’t the only one, then this is the destination for you.

Published: May 25, 2014 04:00 AM


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