In many ways, the islands that comprise the erstwhile North Solomons Province (Buka, Bougainville and a scattering of smaller atolls) feel different, and the influence of the PNG mainland is a distant memory. Look at a map, and you’ll see why: the islands are closer to the neighbouring Solomon Islands than they are to PNG. The international border between the two countries passes just a few kilometres south of Bougainville Island. The Shortland and Choiseul islanders in the Solomons are very close to Bougainvilleans, culturally and ethnically – both have jet-black skin. Around PNG, Bougainvilleans are known as ‘blackskins’ or ‘bukas’.
This region is best known for its tumultuous history. Until the secessionist rebellion, it had the most productive economy, best education and a well-run government. Between 1972 and its 1989 closure, the Panguna mine made 45% of PNG’s export earnings. But ‘the Crisis’ shattered all progress and much infrastructure was devastated.
After years of conflict, life has largely returned to normal. There is no longer any fighting and most of the region is safe to explore, even if the civil war still looms large in the psyche of many islanders. Bougainville is now poised for a great regeneration, thanks to a wealth of natural resources, including gold and cocoa, and its status within PNG – it has brokered a special autonomy status to control its own destiny. There’s huge potential for ecotourism, diving, surfing, trekking, caving, cycling, kayaking, birdwatching and fishing, but there’s little in the way of infrastructure and organised activities (for now).
Wherever you go in this province, you’re unlikely to cross paths with other travellers. All the better for you: this less-visited part of the country remains something of a ‘secret’, which adds to the sense of adventure. Note that In 2014 the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) altered the time zone (forward one hour) to match the Solomon Islands.