On the morning of Wednesday, 15 July 2020, Max Benjamin, the owner and founder of Walindi Plantation Resort passed away in Cairns after a battle with cancer. Jayne Jenkins and Don Silcock, both of whom knew Max well, kindly share their memories and experiences with one of the pioneers of diving in Papua New Guinea
I met Max for the first time over 20 years ago – in the domestic terminal of Port Moresby airport where we were waiting to board a flight to Kimbe Bay. The trip leader introduced him as: “This is Max, he’s the owner of Walindi” which was where we were going to.
My first impressions turned out to be pretty accurate… before me was a man who would look you straight in the eye and quickly understand your intent - no BS with Max, he seemed to be able to read you like a book!
Over the years, I got to know Max much better and always found him to be an intelligent, thoughtful, forward-looking, and very astute person. I also developed deep regard for what he and his wife Cecilie achieved in Kimbe Bay.
If you were to arrive at Hoskins airport in Kimbe Bay earlier this year, prior to the COVID-19 induced state of emergency in PNG, you would find a reasonably new airport. You would pass through a relatively prosperous and bustling town of Kimbe and arrive at Walindi Resort with its central lodge, carefully tended garden, guest bungalows, fully equipped dive shop, three day-boats, and two liveaboards!
It was nothing like that when Max arrived in 1966 and Cecilie arrived in 1972… Both were agricultural officers with the PNG government who learned to dive in Kimbe Bay and thought that what they saw there was the norm for the underwater world.
It was a trip to the Red Sea in 1978 that made them realize just how special Kimbe Bay is and was also the genesis for what became Walindi Plantation Resort. The rest is kind of history now and well documented on the resort’s website by Cecilie.
Less well known though are the things that I personally learned about from my trips to Kimbe over the years. Such as the incredible work done by Mahonia Na Dari (Guardian of the Sea), an NGO established in 1997 by Max and Cecilie on land they donated situated next to the resort.
Or the support that Max and Cecilie have always provided into quantifying the incredible biodiversity and ecosystems of Kimbe Bay and the north coast of New Britain.
Or the more than 100 permanent moorings put in to protect those ecosystems and the support provided to local clans to do their part to monitor and protect their reefs and outer islands from over-fishing and misuse.
Or the Max Benjamin Elementary School, the Walindi Primary School, and the way the actual resort is effectively a village in itself with housing for most of the staff, many of whom have never worked anywhere else!
There is much more that could be said about what Max and Cecilie have done, but it all comes down to putting something back!
As Cheyne Benjamin said yesterday when he let it be known that his father had passed away: “You lived an incredible life, you did incredible things, your legacy will always be remembered, you impacted so many lives for the better. We will miss you, Dad.”
I first met Max in 1989 when I was working in dive travel. Part of my job was leading groups and my first visit to PNG was to Walindi Plantation Resort.
This was going to be my first dive ever in PNG, the images looked amazing. I was told before leaving that if I arrived at Walindi with a bottle of Cointreau it would be well appreciated by Max, and we would get on well.
My first-day diving there was with Max, I was so excited about going to see beautiful corals and reefs. After loading the boat with numerous thermoses of tea (Max liked his tea) we headed out. Max decided en-route we were going search for hammerhead sharks; he had seen some previously and wanted to go back.
I will never forget that dive, hanging in blue water, Max rattling his bottle to call in the sharks. Did we see any? No, but the experience was great. Other times, if Max did not join the dive, he was always at the wharf to greet you and find out what you had seen.
There was a very funny, friendly rivalry between Max and Dik Knight from Loloata over Rhinopias, a beautiful lacy species of marine life, and the competition between them of who had the most Rhinopias in their area filled the airwaves frequently.
I have to add that it was not only at Walindi where was there fun to be had. The PNG booths at dive shows such as DEMA, Antibes, and ADEX were always the best and the parties that they held were legendary.
Max with his fun-loving nature was always the force behind these wonderful events and many a sore head turned up the next day! Visits to Walindi just got better and better over the years. Max and Cecilie were a wonderful team and once you had visited you became part of the family. My abiding memory of my last trips to Walindi was of Max the grandad, so proud and so happy, showing a gentler side of Max, rather than the Max who loved a spirited argument!
Don has covered most of the achievements both Max and Cecilie have set up over the years, always giving back. Together, they have given so much to the community and ecosystem of PNG.
One thing close to my heart where Max and Cecilie have been supportive over the years is hosting scholars from the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society (OWUSS). A scholarship that is dedicated to providing young leaders with exemplary experiences in the underwater world. It strives to cultivate an organization built on mentorship, encouragement, tolerance, and mutual respect, thereby engendering a welcoming environment for all. All scholars that have visited have loved the time gaining both knowledge and hands-on experience at Walindi, Oceania, and the Mahon Na Dari.
It was wonderful to finally get Max and Cecilie to New York a few years ago to experience the OWUSS family and what the scholars that have visited are now doing. Visiting the Explorers Club and New York Yacht Club was a first for Max, I don’t think I had ever seen Max in such a big city before where there was no dive show. He was quite worried because he had no tie, but a quick scrounge through Colin’s selection and he was sorted.
Max, you are a legend and lived such an incredible life. Just a few days before the end you were still planning how to get PNG back on track after the devastating start to 2020. We will miss you, but your legacy will live on through Cheyne and the family.