AUSSIE BUSINESS GURU OWNS THE CONFLICT ISLANDS
Story: Dallas Sherringam
Images: Sharon Micallef
Most business people one day dream of having enough money to buy a tropical island escape, but Australian business guru Ian Gowrie Smith went one better and bought 21 islands.
The Conflict Islands have become a national travel sensation thanks to the extensive nightly TV ads featuring a castaway stranded on the remote island chain while P&O passengers are happily holidaying on a nearby tropical beach.
A farmer’s son from Griffith (NSW), property guru Mr Gowrie-Smith bought the entire island chain and economic necessity let to a meeting with P&O to discuss using them as a cruise destination.
Described as a “serial entrepreneur and a consistent rich lister” by the media, he bought the island chain 10 years ago as a real estate investment. It is located in the stunning Trobriand Island Group located off the South East tip of Papua New Guinea in the Coral Sea.
Those long term plans included a Caribbean style ultra luxury resort for the super rich. This would allow him to leave the rest of the islands untouched.
But in the meantime he had to pay the bills and, as a devoted conservationist, he also had to put an end to the shark and turtle fishing, basically poaching, in the lagoon. To do this he needed a partner and in a moment of inspiration he realised he needed a cruise ship partner to preserve his paradise,
P&O have always been the innovators in developing new destinations in the Pacific and the Conflict Islands seemed perfect.
P&O and 1980s rival and eventual partners Sitmar Cruises (Fairstar) made their name on the stunning tender only destinations like Mystery Island, Dravuni, the Isle of Pines and Champagne Beach. Cruises in 80s averaged 14 days or more.
They added Mare and the Loyalty islands in the 1990s as customers looked for shorter 10 day packages which are now the P&O Australia norm in the cruise industry.
A generation of cruise passengers visited these same destinations year after year but as they grew older they started looking at new horizons for cruises out of Australia. Untouched PNG lay just north of Australia and provided the perfect answer for P&O.
But it wasn’t just a simple case of anchoring offshore and heading for the beach in tenders. The investment included power, a wharf that could withstand a cyclone, watercraft, storage and shelters.
Apart from the occasional visit by a fishing boat, the coral reefs and waterways are much the same as they have been for a million years or so.
The commitment by both parties has paid off big time with the cruise passengers’ expectations fully met by a destination like no other.
I recently cruised to the Trobriands on P&O’s Pacific Aria out of Brisbane. The Conflict Islands were our final destination on the 15 day adventure, but they proved to be s a stunning finale.
We approached the island group’s main lagoon on a sparkling tropical morning with the blue water given an extra dimension by the shimmering sand underneath. The picturesque group surrounds the central lagoon which features one of the world’s most biodiverse reef systems.
In the distance was Panasesa Island with rarely visited beaches and shaded walkways that would soon be teeming with passengers going about the business of tropical escape.
This was the highlight and climax of our extensive cruise aboard the friendly, modern Pacific Aria through New Guinea and the Coral Sea out of the Queensland capital.
We had visited Alatoa in Milne Bay, Wewak on the North West coast and volcano ravaged Rabaul on New Britain, but this was not paradise.
They were a glimpse into town life in New Guinea and a poignant reminder of the dark days of World War Two. In Rabaul many passengers went to hauntingly beautiful Military Cemetery at Bita Paka.
My good friend John Kelly from Shoal Bay (NSW), an ex serviceman himself, was asked to lay a wreath and say a few well chosen words on behalf of the passengers. Such places are made for misty eyed quiet reflection by visitors who don’t speak much, but understand what it means to give everything you have for your country.
But we were now looking for untouched places, islands like Mystery Island where you could quite happily spend a year or two escaping the rat race.
Pacific Aria provided the answer, heading south again, cruising through the narrow opening of a collapsed volcanic caldera at Vitu Island which caused a 20m tsunami in the 19th century. The rainforest inside the flooded canyon was so close to the ship that you could almost reach out and touch it.
Then it was on to the Trobriands, a truly untouched world of beautiful tropical beaches, friendly locals and pristine reefs, where the weather averages 25 degrees all year round.
First up was Kiriwana, largest of Trobriands and an island covered in fragile rainforest. Until P&O started cruising there a handful of years ago, Kiriwana had seen few tourists under its shady trees.
Next up was Kitava with its unique outriggers and children singing and dancing under the massive palm trees which have a serious side to it. A recent discovery could unwittingly provide the answer to the ailing health of the western world, particularly amongst seniors. You see, the local people who smile all day have been the subject of much debate amongst medical researchers because of their excellent health and traditional diet
Local foods such as tubers (yams), fresh fruit, coconut and fish make up the backbone of the Kitavan diet. There is practically no diabetes, cardiovascular disease leading to stroke, acne, congestive heart failure, dementia or blood pressure problems among the people of Kitava. Interestingly, they only exercise at a similar rate to people of the western world so this does not play a role.
Experts say the Kitavan diet comprises an abundance of foods that have a low glycemic index rating and that are rich in soluble fiber, magnesium, potassium, and omega-3 fatty acids. All of these characteristics may contribute to the exceptional health benefits associated with the Kitavan diet.
Our final day on the Conflict Islands’ cruise HQ on a coral quay provided the perfect end to a great holiday.
For more information visit www.pocruises.com.au, call 13 24 94 or see a licensed travel agent.
PIC1: The stunning lagoon and beaches of the Conflict Islands
PIC 2: Spend a day in paradise at Kiriwina Island
PIC 3: Schoolkids in traditional outfits on Kitava Island
PIC 4: Canoeists at Alatoa with Pacific Aria in the background
PIC 5: Outriggers provide lagoon cruises on the beach at Kitava