The name ‘Bougainville’ might put a few worry lines on loved ones’ faces, but the reality is a lot tamer than spring break parties at Daytona Beach (when we visited, at least). Now the most turbulent aspect of the Island is its volcanic landscape.
Bougainville Island is the main Island: green, rugged and little-developed. The topography is grandiose, with thick forests, towering volcanoes, tumbling rivers, azure lagoons, plunging waterfalls, giant caves and impenetrable valleys that slither into the mountains. More often than not, swirling banks of cloud add a touch of the bizarre. For now, visitors can have the Island pretty much to themselves. There’s huge potential for small-scale tourism, but still nothing in the way of organised activities; it’s DIY travel.
Starting from Kokopau, you’ll head due south and traverse several coastal communities where time seems to have stood still. Why not pull over in picturesque Tinputz, a one-hour drive to the south? There’s a friendly guesthouse.
A good base, Wakunai is where you can arrange a three-day trek to Mt Balbi (2685m), or follow the Nooma Nooma track that crosses the Island to Torokina, on the west coast (count on a three-day minimum). From Mt Balbi, you can see the active Mt Bagana (1730m). In Wakunai, your best source of information is Suzie Akoitai.
Continuing further south, you’ll drive past the infamous Morgan Junction, where you can catch a glimpse of the roadblock that blocks access to the ‘no-go zone’ and Panguna (still off-limits at the time of writing). High in the centre of the Island, the dormant mine of Panguna is one of the world’s largest artificial holes. Bougainville Copper Limited was the operator of the open-cut mine. Copper was discovered at Panguna in 1964. There are talks of re-opening the mine once the situation is fully stabilised. Stay tuned.
About 10km south of Morgan Junction, you’ll reach Arawa and Kieta, which are virtually contiguous. Both were severely damaged during the conflict. Whole neighbourhoods have been abandoned. Four kilometres northwest of Arawa is Loloho on Arawa Bay, the port to which the copper concentrate was piped down from Panguna, the site of the power station and home to many of the mine workers. There’s a palpable feel of nostalgia in Arawa. The old buildings and the workers’ quarters, still visible, testify to a prosperous past. Some people still conjure up this glorious past, ‘when Arawa was the richest town in PNG’.
The Arawa-Buin section (about three hours by vehicle) was still a bit tricky when we visited, due to the odd checkpoint controlled by so-called Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) diehards (locals prefer to call them raskols) south of Aropa. They sometimes turn foreigners back or ask them for whatever money they need. Don’t panic: this ‘checkpoint’ is apparently very occasional, and by the time you read this, there should be no more checkpoints or roadblocks on the Island. Monitor the news when you arrive in Buka.
About 260km south of Buka, Buin really feels like the end of the line. It suffered less damage than Kieta and Arawa during the conflict. During WWII, Buin hosted a large Japanese army base and the area has many rusting relics. The Japanese had plans to resettle a huge number of civilian Japanese at an area called Little Tokyo.
Admiral Yamamoto’s aircraft wreck is the area’s most historically interesting wreck. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour, left Rabaul in a ‘Betty Bomber’ on 18 April 1943 with a protective group of Zeros, not realising that US fighters were waiting for him near Buin. The wreckage of the bomber still lies in the jungle a few kilometres off the Panguna-Buin road. It’s signposted, near Aku, 24km before Buin. From Buin it’s a skip and a hop to Kangu Beach, the obvious launching pad to the Shortlands in the Solomon Islands.
Last updated: Jul 22, 2009
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