SOME people dream of buying an island. Australian Ian Gowrie-Smith bought an entire archipelago — sight unseen.
P&O Cruises Pacific Jewel has made history by becoming the first cruise ship to visit the remote Conflict Islands, putting the idyllic atoll — and their fascinating owner — briefly in the spotlight.
The 21 islands ranging from 1ha to 97 ha gathered in a pear shape around a sheltered lagoon are about 150km from Alotau at the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.
With pristine reefs and abundant marine life, these serene remnants of an extinct volcano were named after British ship HMS Conflict which charted them in 1886.
In 1978 the uninhabited islands were purchased by Lu Nevels, a part-Native American based in Hawaii who was an American circuit court judge and global real estate speculator.
In 2003 British-based Australian entrepreneur Ian Gowrie-Smith bought the islands ‘on a whim’ without actually seeing them.
Mr Gowrie-Smith has something of a Midas touch in business, with successes in pharmaceuticals, mining and the oil and gas industry. He went to PNG in the 1966 as Prince Charles’ travelling companion when the pair were classmates at Geelong Grammar.
“I purchased the Conflict Islands from the Nevels in 2003, more or less on a whim, sight unseen,” he told me.
“The islands are part of my portfolio of various follies I have acquired around the world, including a game farm in South Africa and a castle in Lithuania.
“Conflict Islands are archetypical tropical islands — white sand, palm trees, warm trade winds, beautiful sunsets over the water of the sheltered inner reef with turtles popping their heads up into the dusky evening air.
“Current development is confined to Panasesa, one of the largest islands. I have built a small private resort and restored the airstrip. It has been used primarily by my family and friends.”
Mr Gowrie-Smith is working towards a sustainable future for the islands including renewable energy, a turtle hatchery, a marine research centre and urging local fishermen from nearby islands to shift from unsustainable fishing practices including hunting turtles.
The visit by Pacific Jewel will provide an income stream and guests disembark via a new $1 million deep water jetty.
“Passengers can look forward to activities and facilities including a new glass bottom boat, kayaks with glass bottoms, and stand up paddle boards for the more energetic,” Mr Gowrie-Smith said.
“There will be drinks, music and BBQ food, island tours and we have our own native sailing canoe called a sailau.
“Our permanent staff of 10 will swell to 46 on the day. My aim in providing alternate employment opportunities is to reduce pressure on over fishing, shark finning, beche de mer fishing and turtle harvesting.
“I hope by building stronger relationships with my neighbouring island communities they will support conservation efforts, including creation of a marine protected area which requires their endorsement.”
Today’s visit by Pacific Jewel is one of 17 inaugural calls to ports this year by P&O Cruises following the expansion of the line’s fleet to five ships.
These includes maiden calls at Wewak, Stewart Island in New Zealand, Ujung Pandang, Jakarta, Sabang and Probolinggo in Indonesia, Langkawi, Koh Chang and Koh Samui in Malaysia, Krabi and Phuket in Thailand, Sihanoukville in Cambodia, Gizo and Honiara in the Solomon Islands and Gladstone and Fraser Island in Queensland.