Once at the centre of PNG’s worst regional armed conflict, Bougainville has put aside its troubled past and is slowly recovering.
Green, rugged and little developed, this large volcanic island has a dramatic setting, with thick forests, towering volcanoes, tumbling rivers, azure lagoons, plunging waterfalls, giant caves and impenetrable valleys that slither into the mountains. For now, visitors can have the island pretty much to themselves. There’s huge potential for small-scale tourism, but little 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; for guided hikes up to Namatoa Crater Lake get in touch with Osborne.
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).
Continuing south, you’ll drive past the infamous Morgan Junction, where you can catch a glimpse of the former ‘no-go zone’ and Panguna. High in the centre of the island, this dormant mine is one of the world’s largest artificial holes. Copper was discovered here in 1964, and Bougainville Copper Limited was the operator of the open-cut mine. The Arawa Women’s Centre Lodge can help arrange visits to the mine.
About 10km south of Morgan Junction, you’ll reach Arawa and Kieta, which are virtually contiguous. Both were severely damaged during the conflict, and whole neighbourhoods have been abandoned. In Arawa, Bougainville Experience Tours leads guided single- and multi-day tours of the area (birdwatching, trekking and village visits).
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. 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.