Samarai Island: Once A District Nerve-Centre

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?
 

“Oh Kwato Is A Green Place…”

Looking up from the Kwato wharf - on the left is the big badila (nut) tree and the raintrees. But what was most disturbing was the fast rising sea level on this foreshore.

As our dinghy pulled up along side the wharf at Kwato, I was struck with the beauty of this island where my siblings and lots of relatives grew up and lived. I went to school here. The big badila tree reminded me of waking up early in the mornings to collect the nuts that the flying foxes have dropped on the ground the evening before.

We used to sing “Oh Kwato is a green place, a home for the flowers…”

The walk across the cricket ground and up towards the main road brought back lots of memories. But hey, the big gisoa (mango) trees were gone. The place did not look right. I searched for a small landmark which my Grandfather left and what a great relief that brought tears to my eyes. It was still there.

The iconic Kwato Church. One of the two stone churches in PNG. Both are over 100 years old. How majestic the dubu looked.
 
This is the first time I am able to take a shot like this. My Nikon D90 did not fail me – more like the panoramic lens. This is a Papuan dubu design. We walked around it and then looked beyond – now one could take in a 360 degree view from this vantage point. The dubu is situated on a small plateau on Kwato. Isiiii kapole hinage…the day was sunny and bright and was the right time to visit Kwato. Met up with some relatives and wish I had time for more meetings but we were on a schedule so next time.
 
We walked up to Tupi and met up with Uncle S who incidently saw us earlier on during our climb up towards dubu. He was with a couple of the guys repairing parts of Aituha ( short distance from the back of the Church). His house has a priceless view of the Papuan mainland and surrounding islands.
 
He had a great collection of hibiscus and other beautiful flowers. Uncle S let us take as many shots as we wanted of the flowers and here’s one of them of the magnificient pink and white hibiscus at the front of the house.
 
Magnificient pink and white hibiscus - '"...a home for the flowers..." alright. Amatoi lailai Uncle S for receiving us so graciously and letting us take photos of your beautiful flowers.

We bid Uncle S goodbye and headed down the old Sipi Road towards the B & C building and the wharf. It was a wonderful two (2) hour tour of Kwato Island. Thank you much Jenny (Driftwood Resort) for letting me be the tour guide for this trip to Kwato.

Doini Island beckoned as we quickly had some cold drinks and headed towards the wharf.

I reflect on this week and what has happened or has not happened depending on one’s perspective. I think PNG went through a process that showed how mature Papua New Guineans have become in looking at political developments and how these events impact on our daily lives. Whilst the seriousness of the impasse and the legal judgements and constitutional dos and donts were debated in Facebook and other media and our freedom hung precariously in the balance, I was amazed at how well we handled ourselves as a nation. Not even Australia can say anything nasty about Papua New Guineans anymore. The smear campaigns their papers run and their politician’s perceptions of PNG as a failed state are blown right out of the water. Politically we are more mature than anyone I know. 

PNG leaders must sort themselves out and resolve their differences because we the silent majoity are taking our democracy very seriously and are putting them on notice with every hour that goes by.

I can’t help thinking that Peter O’Neill now is like the Grand Chief Sir Michael in the early 70s. History is replaying itself again it seems, as the young takes over the reins to take this country to another level. Its proud and risilient citizenry watches silently in hope and positive expectation as another era in our democracy is born before our very eyes.

PNG is a beautiful and amazing country. Let’s keep it that way.