Samarai, Wednesday - After lunch we clambered into the Zodiac for a two kilometre ride from Orion to Kwato Island, the last island of this voyage. The Kwato settlement was established by the London Missionary Society’s Charles Abel in 1891. He practised a practical Christianity and, while the Abel family has gone, their heritage lives in an active church and an outstanding boat and house building tradition. Charles Abel chose a fine place for his mission: petite islands, craggy mountains, azure sea.
It’s not wholly correct to say the Abels have gone. From the beach, we walked underneath a leafy canopy of raintrees and hibiscus up a wide, well-formed track which switchbacked to the top of a hill. Here stood a fine stone and wood church with a commanding view of Samarai and the China Strait. Just behind the church was a small graveyard with a monument testifying to the earthly remains of Charles Abel, his wife Beatrice (Bea) and many family members, the most recent who had died just this year.
To my surprise, also in this graveyard were the remains of my onetime Government Broadcasting Service colleague, John Smeeton, and his wife Marjorie (Badi) Smeeton. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, since I knew that John (and his broadcaster son Ian) had come from Kwato. John, a gentle and avuncular man in his sixties when I knew him, died in 1991 at the age of 82. He rests in a truly exquisite place.
Earlier in the day, we walked around the decaying remains of Samarai. A fellow guest on Orion, retired planter Jim Grose, who was a member of Papua New Guinea’s first House of Assembly from 1964-68, told me he had last been here as a passenger on the Malaita in 1949. Samarai, along with Port Moresby, was one of Papua’s original towns. A busy trading post which later had the unusual distinction of being bombed by the RAAF in WW2 to prevent the Japanese making use of its buildings.
The 24 hectare Samarai Island is one of PNG’s heritage listed areas. Not that such nomination seems to counts for much. Many of the original buildings and warehouses stand, but they have been allowed to deteriorate for lack of money. The once fine wharf is broken and unusable. People continue to live in Samarai, and the power station still runs, but – apart from the faint promise of an embryonic cultured pearl business, the place is fading away.
Samarai is somewhat symbolic of today’s Papua New Guinea. Removed from the aggrandising opportunities provided to the elite, bereft of readily extractable resources, almost beyond government, it is largely reliant upon itself for a meagre level of survival. It’s a real shame.