Saibai Island

Torres Strait Island Regional Council

Saibai Island Office:

Phone (07) 4083 2800

Division 3

Councillor Ron Enosa

Saibai Island Facts:

  • Saibai is a fairly large low-lying island only 4 km from the Papua New Guinea mainland.
  • Close north is uninhabited Kauamag Island, separated from Saibai by a channel that is seven kilometers long, between 180 and 650 meters wide, and nearly blocked at its east end.
  • There is regular trade between Saibai and Papuan villages; the locals, carrying a permit, may cross the border, something outsiders may not do.
  • Strict quarantine regulations are in force.
  • Saibai Islanders have close family, clan, and religious ties with neighbouring Papuans.
  • The Island is flat, predominantly a mangrove island, with the highest point being 1.7m and prone to flooding during the wet season, which coincides with king tides.
  • A bitumen airstrip allows year-round access.
  • The Island is about 20km by 15km, but only a small proportion is inhabited.

Language:

The language spoken on Saibai is Kalaw Kawaw Ya (KKY).

Population:

The population is transient, but is recorded between 350 and 400 people.

The main village of Saibai, in the northwest, has a population of approximately 180. The second village, Churum (Surum White Sand), in the southwest, numbers approxmately 130.

History:

Saibai Islanders have always traded and had good relations with neighbouring Papuans, their great enemies being traditionally the Kupamal of the Fly River Delta area and the Thugeral of what is now southeast West Papua.

The Saibai Islanders accepted Christianity in 1871 with the arrival of the London Missionary Society. The missionaries took the sacred Adhibuya stone from the Aith people of Saibai, which was venerated because it protected locals from the Kiwai, and gave them battle power (kœubu puy battle magic).

After Saibai Island was devastated by abnormally high tides wave after WW2, a group of Saibai Islanders, led by Bamaga Ginau, eventually accepted Government assistance to resettle on Cape York. The reserve that was established was named Bamaga and Seisia (Red Island Point).

The Saibai Islanders were adamant that their islands would remain Australian after Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, and they succeeded in their desire.