Fancy owning a tropical island in one of the world's last unspoilt paradises? Or buying a parcel of land and building a holiday home on one? How about enjoying some of the world's best fishing and diving locations? Answering 'yes' to any of those questions need not be simply entertaining a pipe dream because all of them are on offer. I'm speaking here of the little-known Conflict Islands in the Louisiade Archipelago, in the Coral Sea, which Club Marine recently had the privilege of visiting.
The islands are named after their discovery in 1886 by HMS naval survey ship The Conflict and are located at the top of the Coral Sea, due east of the northern tip of Australia, 130km to the south-east of Papua New Guinea in the Milne Bay Province.
There is no record or evidence of the Conflict Islands ever supporting long-term indigenous occupation, although archaeological research on various other islands in the Milne Bay province indicates that people have occupied the region for around 2600-2800 years.
In 1895, London-born Henry Wickham took out a 25-year lease on the Conflict Islands with British New Guinea's Crown Lands Ordinance. The lease was conditional on him growing sponge, cultivating pearl oysters and harvesting coconuts for copra.
However, all his efforts failed and he was eventually forced to leave the islands.
The Milne Bay natives have used voyaging canoes for thousands of years, and the traditional sailing canoes, 'sailaus', are still the main form of transport for locals to get around the Louisiades Islands, some 185km to the east of the Conflict Islands. The sailau on which we enjoyed a sail out to a neighbouring island, Itamarina, travelled from the Louisiades to the Conflicts to be part of our visit there.
Privately owned and operated, the Conflicts comprise 21 pristine islands in an atoll configuration, abundant with natural lagoons and coral reefs.
The central lagoon is stunning, with its rich deep blue-to-purple water that blends into sparkling turquoise near each island's shoreline, where pristine fine white sand beaches can be found.
Hosted aboard the cruise ship Oceanic Explorer anchored in the lagoon, we spent several glorious days exploring the main island of Panasesa and several other islands. Snorkelling, kayaking, fishing and diving in this tropical wonderland was an amazing experience.
We began our visit with a tour of the Panasesa Resort Island and then spent several hours snorkelling along the reef, marvelling at the colourful marine life. The next day, we were transferred to Itamarina Island for a sumptuous lunch on the beach and, later that day, went scuba diving. Drinks and a wonderful barbecue dinner on a spectacular sand spit on Panasesa Island capped off our third day in this island paradise.
I elected to focus on other activities rather than going offshore fishing, a decision I mildly regretted when I heard the stories and saw the pictures of those who availed themselves of this opportunity. Nevertheless, every day was pure delight with perfect weather, crystal-clear water and spectacular island scenery. This is a place I certainly would like to revisit.
One of the oldest reef systems in the world, with very little impact through mainland farming run-off, land clearing or commercial fishing, the region is full of marine life and stunning corals. Its incredible diving is listed in the top three world sites, according to National Geographic magazine.
Assessments conducted in Milne Bay have recorded nearly 430 species of coral, 950 species of molluscs and over 1100 species of fish, many of which are found nowhere else. Deep troughs and good, strong, clear ocean currents surround the Conflict Islands, making them one big pressure point, where millions of fish feed in the rich currents that wash against the walls of reefs surrounding the island group.
The natural lagoons and sandy beaches make it ideal for green and hawksbill turtles to nest, rest and feed. Migrating orca, minke, pilot and humpback whales, manta rays, dolphins and reef sharks all regularly visit the island group.
There are over 50 dive sites recorded at the Conflicts so far, but this is only the tip of the iceberg, with many more expected to be discovered. The proximity of the sites means divers can enjoy up to three dives each day.
The Conflicts boast not only a rich population of tropical coral fish, but also a wide range of species. Nomad Sportfishing Adventures is the exclusive fishing charter operator in the Conflict Islands and recommends this destination for just about any type of giant trevally fishing, chasing yellowfin tuna on poppers, deepwater jigging, sailfish and marlin trolling, flyfishing the flats, or any type of general light tackle sportfishing. If you are interested in an extensive fishing trip to the Conflict Islands, you might want to visit the Nomad website for full trip details.
Conservation via ownership
The current owner of the Conflict Islands is Ian Gowrie-Smith, a London-based Australian businessman who, over his 40-year career, has successfully founded and developed companies within the pharmaceutical, mining, oil, gas, property development and conservation sectors. His latest project is to preserve these pristine islands.
Gowrie-Smith is now seeking interest from potential investors or purchasers to invest in a freehold share of these magnificent 21 Coral Sea islands. "I only have one caveat for buyers - they must be passionate about protecting the environment to ensure the survival of the Conflict Islands' unspoilt pristine wilderness.
"My intention in buying the islands was to never sell them, but to pass them down to my children, and their offspring. I very quickly realised that I had something unique and it deserved to be protected. Under the former owners, these islands were abandoned and undeveloped. It slowly became clear to me that occupying only one island was not enough to monitor practices like giant clam and turtle killing, and shark finning.
"I realised I had to have active physical possession of most of the islands, and sustainable practices both by the incoming parties as well as by the PNG nationals. This involves a social contract of some kind in which the neighbouring islanders get sufficient education to realise that they are being exploited in an unsustainable manner and that income from tourism and working for incoming parties is in their best interests.
"Because my goal is to preserve and protect this untouched ecosystem I am seeking individuals or foundations to partner with me so we can protect the islands, and together sustainably develop them."
One of the most distinguished opportunities on offer is Irai Island, a 3100m long island within the group, which includes 7000m of unspoiled beachfront land. This could allow for the construction of a jet runway up to 3000m, capable of landing a private jet from anywhere in the world.
Other opportunities will include the option to buy into one of the private residences with exclusive communal facilities. Plans include a marina, a 1500m runway, a dive and fishing centre, tennis courts and a beach club. For further information, go to: conflictislands.com or email email@example.com.
Panasesa Resort in the Conflict Islands boasts a range of facilities, including a clubhouse with spacious dining and lounge facilities and internet access. Accommodation includes six air-conditioned beachfront bungalows, featuring modern luxuries with en suites which are serviced daily. A private chef is on hand to prepare daily gourmet meals, with produce picked mainly from the island's own herb and vegetable gardens.
Tailored holidays for couples and groups are hosted at the resort, as are individual stays at restricted times during the year.
Pricing for a seven-night minimum stay starts at $5000 per person (twin share) and includes accommodation, all meals and leisure activities, including two dives a day, snorkelling, kayaking, recreational fishing and other island activities. It also includes either a return private air charter ex-Port Moresby, or a commercial flight from Port Moresby with boat transfers from Alotau in Milne Bay.
There are various ways of reaching the Conflict Islands, including a four-hour flight to Port Moresby from Sydney, followed by a two-hour private charter flight to Panasesa Island. Alotau is another jumping-off point from which the islands can be reached after a four-hour boat trip.
International visitors are well catered for with flights on Air Niugini, Airlines PNG, Virgin Australia to Port Moresby, or to Alotau from Brisbane, Cairns, Cebu, Denpasar/Bali, Hong Kong, Honiara (Solomon Islands), Manila, Nadi (Fiji), Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo-Narita.