Samarai Island: Once A District Nerve-Centre

23 01 2012
The south side of Samarai Island. The sight of a lone man in his canoe – still the main mode of transport for many people in these islands.

It was a short trip to Samarai from Doini Island – less than 30 minutes. I had never seen the island from this side before.

The Kwato Mission boats, MV Osiri and MV Labini would berth here some Saturdays bringing shoppers from Kwato and the famous homemade Kwato bread and buns. These were a popular hit as the ladies always returned to Kwato with the large empty bread basins.

Simply known as Government wharf - where all the Government workboats used to berth.

Many happy memories of this wharf especially when the mission boats, MV Osiri and MV Labini would berth here for Kwato islanders to do their shopping at Samarai’s two main department stores – Steamships and Burns Philp and many other shops such as the hardware store.
 

The natural swimming pool at Samarai - you can jump into the pool from Government Wharf.

Samarai was the District headquarters for the Milne Bay District before the advent of provinces. It was a hub for many islanders and a government nerve-centre for Milne Bay District in the south eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.
 

The once iconic Anglican Church on the main drag to the town centre. Sadly, it is falling apart. Once gone, a part of our history and heritage will go with it.

To a little girl growing up on the neighbouring island of Kwato in the mid-60s, Samarai had everything from a post office to two hospitals, two prisons, two clubs (mind you the two of everything meant one for whites and one for natives) but one bank, one dedicated hardware store, one bakery that turns out beautiful Samarai bread (the ones that come close to this size of bread could be found at Brumby’s bakery in Vision City in Port Moresby), a fresh local vegetable market and so on.
 
Samarai was an exciting place to be. There were lots of colonial government officers mainly Australian and a number of mixed race families lived here too.
 
We used to visit the dentist on Samarai a couple of times a year – arrrrgh that was a visit no kid wants to make but such was life for 7-8 year olds in the early ’60s.
 

The Robinson Memorial, stands at what could have been a traffic intersection (mostly pedestrian traffic perhaps).

 
This memorial stands on one of the main drags leading to the many lovely colonial residences and the Samarai cricket ground. Many of these houses were built like the ones you can still see today in Cairns, Australia.
 
The message on this memorial is not politically correct now but it must have been in those days or how else would they have got the message etched on the thing in the first place. As a young girl I never paid attention to the message until much later.
 
I don’t know why this memorial still stands with its politically incorrect message. To my knowledge no-one had tried to remove it from this beautiful island. I dare to think now that perhaps its historical heritage value is considered more than by removing it.
 
In fact I think this is a classic example of a memorial that could be regarded as offensive, yet it tells a story of what times were like then. Particularly the colonial mentality that reigned supreme in those days.  How different would Milne Bay have been or for that matter PNG if this message were to have continued into the 21st Century. I dare not think about that. The value now would be in tourism mostly and something to see when at Samarai or in these islands.
 

What remains of the memorable Burns Philp department store. We used to buy Paul's icecream here. I even bought a book on Greek mythology in this store. Those were the days.

Samarai was self-sufficient. It had everything we needed in the islands and more. There was a bank – the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) which was situated in the heart of the town and a tea shop where meat pies and coca cola were the popular items on the menu. 
 
Samarai was the place to be on Saturdays for grocery shopping, native vegetables, smoked fish, cooked chestnuts in coconut, Logea aigaru (unique green leaves that are found in Milne Bay and absolutely delicious when cooked in coconut and as an accompaniment to smoked fish) and many other exciting bits and  pieces such as icecream, apples and meat pies not to mention Buntings biscuits (white) and navy bread biscuits. My faourite sweet biscuits in those days were called ‘MilkyWay’ and ‘Tea Cake’.
 
This island was a heavenly treasure trove for us ‘other’ neighbouring islanders who were fortunate to be on Samarai on Saturdays, ANZAC Day and Kaihea (cultural festival) events.

Memorial Hall at Samarai. We would congregate here after the ANZAC Day march around the island led by the PIR Band. Those were the days.

 On ANZAC Day (25th April) school children would gather to march around the island led by the Pacific Island Regiment Band. This was an exciting time for us. We’d come over from Kwato to join in the celebration. Everyone would congregate infront of the Memorial Hall for speeches etc. We’d also sing hymns and the one I especially remember is “O God Our Help In Ages Past”.

 

We came from Kwato Island to join in the commemoration. We would join the parade with the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR) and march along the identified route which brought us back to the Memorial Hall. I didn’t quite understand why we had to do this but it felt good to be marching in our Brownie uniforms. I was fascinated with the bagpipes that the PIR carried and played as we marched to the tunes.
 
A plaque (photo on the right) honouring the fallen in Gallipoli reminds us that war is not a cool thing then and now.  I could not recall ever having seeing this plaque but that’s probably because we only went anywhere near the Memorial Hall only when invited or when there was a good reason to be anywhere near it such as the ANZAC Day commemorative events.
 

Remains of the main wharf where many a tourist cruise liner would berth such as the Bulolo or Malaita. I was really sad just standing there and looking at this. Oh, if I had a couple of million Kina to spare....

I dug into my memory bank and recalled that hundreds of copra bags full of copra waiting to be shipped would be piled high on one side of the main wharf. We’d look for the dried coconuts that fell out on the side – they made such a lovely snack!
 

Looking across to Kwato and Logea - silhouettes against the early evening sky.

Walking down to Government Wharf and our boat to take us back to Alotau, I felt a pang of homesickness. Well, even a grown-up feels that from time to time. We are all captives of the tranquility of these islands. Especially the peace it brings especially when the day is done and one is in a reflective mood which I admit was my state of mind as we strolled towards the boat.
 
We assembled at Government Wharf and boarded our boat. There was no-one I knew I could wave aioni (good bye) to. Kind of sad. We pulled away from the wharf and as we set the course for Alotau we passed the main wharf and what used to be the Steamships wharf and all I could see was critical infrastructure falling apart and no-one seems to be doing anything about it.
 
Views of the seafront where the Samarai CBD was once the hub of financial, economic, and social activities. 
 

The main wharf and old Steamies wharf - alongside eachother. What a tragedy? or can we still save this heritage site?

 This seafront was a hive of acivity in the ’60s and ’70s which made Samarai Island the place to be. Even during the early ’80s and ’90s. It was a meeting place for all sorts of people I reckon – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Samarai was such an iconic place then.
 
Would we be able to rekindle that illustrious past maybe in another way and make it once again the hub every province needs. Each province needs more than one hub to get services to remote areas of the province.
 

Looking back at the once awesome nerve centre of Milne Bay, I struggled to hold back the tears.

 “Back to Samarai the island of my dreams….” courtesy of the Island Sounds resonates with all those who came to love this idyllic little island, once full of life.
 

In the distance, only a few posts remain of the walkway that led to the 'restroom' over the water.

So the visit to Samarai was a painful reminder that we seem to let our history and heritage fade before our very eyes. We seem to take what was really good and practical in the past so much for granted and which we can use and turn to our advantage in our current development plans and activities. We seem to go for new things rather than building on the ones we already have. Samarai is a very real case in point.
 
It is still worth a visit if you are in Alotau and need to stretch your legs or do some island-hopping over a weekend. Samarai is worthy of a stop.
 
I believe there is time for a major resucitation and facelift. Let’s get government services back to the smaller islands in the southeast of Milne Bay by making Samarai a critical stopover place. It is bound to grow from its hibernating roots if given even a dog’s chance, to revive itself with the help of those who loved the island and still do.  Perhaps the ‘Samarai Island diaspora’ is an excellent start. What sayeth ye?
 

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17 responses

24 04 2014
David Funnell

Should anyone like a copy of the DVD I made in 2008 of Samarai, please contact me on email: electric@funnells.com.au
David Funnell

10 11 2013
Tricia Harley

How sad. I was born on Samarai in 1960 and have such wonderful memories. It breaks my heart to see how it has changed and become. Tricia Harley, Mount Annan.

5 10 2013
faye

I was born on Samarai Island and own a property on the island which i hope to go back and develop soon. Any genuine investors or partners please get in touch. Aiyoni

17 09 2013
Peter Hills

I have great memories of Samarai from my two years with the Bank 1974-76 and still keep in contact with friends made during that time !!

8 08 2013
Pat Davis

My daughter, Wendy, was born at the hospital in Samarai in1960. It is sad to see the remains of what is left of the island, Pat Davis

2 08 2013
Mary

I was there too, 66 to 68. Precious memories, special people I will never forget, wish I could turn back time. xx Mary

9 10 2013
Mary Edmonds

Hi, IslandMeri, I have had a change of mind on a post that I sent yesterday saying Hullo to David. Would you please not post it, I would rather you delete it. Thank you. I love your blog. Mary

20 07 2013
EVELYN

SAMARAI ISLAND IS BEUTIFIL ISLAND . THE ISLAND NEEDS TO REBUILD BACK TO WHERE IT USED TO BEFORE. I’VE BEEN THERE BEFORE.

23 04 2013
David Funnell

Hi all I was on Samarai 1967/68. Returned 2008. Loved Samarai and the outer islands.
David Funnell, Camden NSW

8 10 2013
Mary Edmonds

Hullo David, I have a feeling that we were there around the same time, yeah! :)

Must have been an amazing experience, going back after all that time, seeing the sad neglect.

I would love to go back, but I doubt it will happen, I fondly remember my time there and the magic, the fun and laughter, the gorgeous aroma of frangipani, the freedom, the sun and the water, it truly was ‘the pearl of the Pacific’. Kia Ora.

25 10 2012
Laisa Taga

Mari

Bula. Interesting stories you have. I would if we can talk Paradise – Air Niugini’s inflight magazine?

17 07 2012
John

Hello,
I lived on worked on Kwato Island during 1971. I always intended to go back for a reminisce. Your photos and story remind me of those days 40 years back. Anyone wish to correspond?

John Fickling NZ

11 07 2012
Peter Lovell

I have been compiling some old photos at http://samarai.history.googlepages.com . Hope you enjoy ?

29 12 2013
AO POKA

please can you post some more photos of samarai island? its flash back memories of the island once known as pearl of the pacific. im from central province and married to lad from alotau.many thanks

14 04 2012
M is mulling over Milne Bay Islands and Mull (via Lismore) | Family history across the seas

[...] two blogs provide stories about Samarai here and here. Yam huts on the Trobriands © Les Cass [...]

30 04 2012
IslandMeri

Thanks for this.

IslandMeri

6 02 2012
Heather Munro

Hi:
I lived on Samarai-aged 11 to 13. Shipped off to board in Townsville for Yr7.
Your phots brought back many memories. My father was an accountant for Steamships
Heather Munro
courtneychevalier@bigpond.com

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