The Autonomous Region of Bougainville has two main islands, Buka and Bougainville, plus a scattering of smaller islands and atolls. The province is located north east of mainland Papua New Guinea.
Bougainville is a jewel of the South Seas; while Buka has become a thriving business centre. The volcanic island of Bougainville is covered in heavy jungle, and is home to one of the world's largest caves, Benua. The island's highest point is Mount Balbi (2685m), a dormant volcano.
The Autonomous Region of Bougainville has been known for its picture-perfect beaches and bays since French explorers spread the stories of its beauty, almost 200 years ago. The influence of the French is still found in the Polynesian languages spoken on the Takuu and Nukumanu islands. In fact 23 languages are spoken throughout the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
Travelling to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville
Air Niugini can take you from Port Moresby to Buka three times a week aboard the swift and comfortable F100 jet services. Flights are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with the aircraft returning the same days.
The descent over the crystal waters gives a taste of what’s to come, and the friendly welcome at the airport is only a few minutes’ drive from the town and taxis or PMVs are now plentiful. While roads, including the main road down to the east coast, are still being re-built, coastal shipping is still thriving between Buka and Kieta, near Arawa in the south.
Things to Do
Accommodation and shopping
A number of guest houses and a small island resort provide comfortable accommodation. Coupled with the market and a good range of shops, cafes and coffee shops, on the main waterfront, you’ll be sure to enjoy your stay.
Explore the underwater wonderland on Buka’s coast. This treasure trove of tropical fish life is ideal for swimming, diving and snorkelling. The clear waters of the Buka Passage offer an excellent spot, yet visitors are warned to take care of the strong currents. For a more sheltered spot, explore the many little islands near the southern end of the passage. Visibility in this area is almost unlimited, with wartime wrecks including a Japanese Zero aircraft only a few meters deep.
Visit the off-shore islands
Boats go out regularly to the islands off the coast of Buka and Bougainville. These islands are great for swimming and fishing. Sohano Island is just a few minutes by boat from Buka and until 1960 was the seat of provincial government. Sohano still has colonial-period buildings with manicured lawns and gardens.
The outer islands of The Autonomous Region of Bougainville are isolated, tranquil and beautiful, with white sandy beaches and clear aqua water – a perfect place to relax in the sun. The steep cliffs of Sohano Island also offer excellent swimming beaches.
If you love to explore by foot, there are many pleasant trails just outside the town. However, it is recommended that visitors take a local as a guide.
Trekking - Numa Numa Trail
This is an arduous trail that stretches 62km from Numa Numa at Wakunai on the east coast of Bougainville, over the Crown Prince Range of Bougainville Island to Torokina on the west coast.
It is not was well developed and walked such as the Kokoda or the Black Cat trail and is covered in many places by jungle.
WWII relics litter the trail as it was used extensively by both the Allied Forces and the Japanese Army in the Battle for Empress Bay and Bougainville.
Arts and crafts
The crafts and customs of Buka and North Bougainville are fascinating for anyone interested in the culture. Featured on the provincial flag is a tall hat, known as Upei. The Upei is a woven headdress worn by young men at their initiation and marriage ceremonies.
At the Saturday markets the Siwai and Telei folk of the mountainous southwest present their famous Buin baskets. These are (justifiably) South Pacific’s best basket weavers, creating perfectly round hand baskets with delightful colours and intricate lids. Also look out for the intricately and skilfully woven Buka baskets, which are made from jungle vine.
The Autonomous Region of Bougainville wooden carving is also well known, with Tinputz carving geometrical designs and the folk of North Bougainville producing rather abstract animal and human forms. To the south the village artisan at Rorivana turn out realistic human carvings.
There are more bird species on Bougainville than there are in on the mainland of New Guinea. It has 98 resident non – marine bird species and is second only to Guadalcanal in bird diversity among Pacific Islands east of the Bismarck Archipelago.
Though many of these bird species are identified there are some that still thwart the avid researchers attempt to identify, including one bird that the locals call ‘Odidi.’The name comes from its bird song which can be heard sometimes in the morning.
Some of the birds you can spot in Bougainville include the Pied Goshawk, Solomon Sea-Eagle, Bougainville Crows, Island Imperial-Pigeons, Mackinlay’s Cuckoo-Dove, Ultramarine Kingfisher, Beach Kingfisher , Cicadabird , Steel-blue Flycatcher, Island Monarch, Black-and-white Monarch, Shining Flycatcher, Bougainville Monarch , Yellow-throated White-eye, Brown-winged Starling , Pacific Swallow and more.
This giant sinkhole has the largest cavern in the world (length = 470m, width = 150m and height = 170m). It is in the Torokina Area along the Keriaka Plateau. Impressively it contains an 18m tall stalagmite. There are many other caves on the main Bougainville Island and some easily accessible on Buka Island.
There are around 60 lakes in Bougainville including the largest Lake Lahala which is near Buin in the South of Bougainville. You can hike to see impressive Caldera lakes of Bougainville, namely Lake Billy Mitchel and Lake Loloru. These are fresh water lakes with marine life and surrounded by dense jungle.
Bougainville lies on the Pacific rim of fire, as a result the island is the home of six active volcanoes. Three of these active volcanoes are accessible by foot for arduous hiker.
Mt Balbi is an active volcano on the northern side of the main Bougainville Island and is the highest point in the province. The Mt Balbi has six craters, one of which has a beautiful crater lake.
Mt Bagana is one of the most active volcanoes in Papua New Guinea and lies in the center of the island. Mt Bagana is more active than Mt Balbi.
The other volcano of interest is Billy Mitchel, a few kms north east of Mt Bagana. Lake Billy Mitchel is in its 2km wide crater. The volcano is named after an American General considered to be the Father of the American Airforce. The lake has a depth of 90 metres and is surrounded by thick jungle.
You can hike to all volcanoes within a week, if you make your base at Wakunai, a one and a half hour’s drive south of Kokopau Town. Located across the Buka passage from Buka town, Kokopau is a transit hub that connects the administration center of Buka to the rest of the main island. Physically, the hike is very challenging.
For the more adventurous or those with a sense of history, Bougainville holds many wartime secrets in its jungle-covered hills. This is where the United States Marine Corps began their advances against the Japanese after a horrible battle for Guadalcanal in the nearby Solomon Islands. Admirals Yamamoto’s aircraft was shot down here and the rarely visited wreck can be found hulking in the rainforest gloom.
Japanese Admiral Yamamotos Plane Crash Site
About 25km north of Buin along the south of Bougainville lies the wreck of the Japanese Betty bomber which was intercepted and shot down by Allied Forces on 18th April 1943.
On board that plane was Word War II’s most famous Japanese commander and mastermind of the Pearl Harbor Attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
He was on an inspection tour of forward positions in the Solomon Islands when his aircraft (a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bomber) was shot down during an ambush by American P-38 Lightning fighter planes.
His death was a major blow to Japanese military morale during World War II.
The site is covered in thick jungle and there are still some landowner issues, but if you arranged yourself early and got in touch with one of the local tour companies, they can get you there.
Torokina World War II Sites
Torokina, on the West Coast of Bougainville is the site of important invasions and land and sea battles between Allied and Japanese Forces.
You can find a lot of WWII relics here including unexploded ordinances.There is an airstrip here and much of the road network built during WWII is still intact.
Torokina was also famous in pre-crisis days for the heavy surf that could be found there. To get to Torokina you can organize a charter boat in Buka.
Little Tokyo is an underground military base that the Japanese Forces, who held Bougainville for much of World War II, wanted to resettle a larger number of civilian Japanese at.
According to the locals the big white bunkers are all now covered in very thick jungle and it looks like a place that time forgot.
Little Tokyo can be accessed via Buin, South Bougainville.
For War buffs, this island 100 km north of Buka has an American WWII airstrip and other relics including a WW2 swimming pool. There is a guest house there. You can hire a speed boat or catch one of the regular shipping boats that travel out that way. If I was you, time your visit well, hire a speed boat out there and catch the regular ship back. You can do this for Carteret Islands as well.
The culture of Bougainville is an ancient one, very connected to a spiritual earth that nurtures them.
They often refer their land as the Holy Land (which means – Land that is sacred and must be protected).
Women hold special and spiritual significance here with lineage* traced through the matrilineal clan system, where the clan is traced through the Chief Meri of the clan who is also the titleholder and custodian of the tribal land. (*Only in Buin is lineage and ownership through male descendants.)
This matrilineal culture is similar to other New Guinea Islands. They have many customs, cultures and practices, the best way to really understand this is to go there yourself and live in a village for a few days.
Their culture is omnipresent in everything.
The Reed Festival
The Bi-Annual Reed Festival is a cultural event for the Bougainvillean people to show their culture, beauty and diversity over several days through cultural dancing, songs, plays, drama and other traditional and creative arts.
The Reed Festival is staged in Arawa and performers come from all over Bougainville.
The festival provides the opportunity for young Bougainvilleans to learn about and partake in their own culture from the older generation.
One important part of the Reed Festival is the ‘Cool Culture’ component that incorporates cultural activities and displays by the local children.
The Mona Festival is held annually in Buka town to celebrate the seafaring tradition of Bougainvilleans.
It is staged in July of every year and attracts cultural performers from all over the province.
The Mona Festival is sometimes referred to as the Canoe Festival.
The name ‘Mona’ actually refers to a large sea going canoe which was used in traditional times for the purpose of trade or to conduct lightning raids on other communities and islands in the Solomon Sea.
The Mona is not a ‘dugout’ canoe made out of hallowing out the trunk of large trees.
Instead the canoe is crafted out of hewn planks (using stone tools) of hard lightwood, expertly held together using special vines.
The Mona was made water tight using the sap from the seeds of a certain tree.
The canoes could hold up to 10 rowers and could move swiftly over water.
See the Bougainville Tourism website for more information.
Manee Village Resource
The Manee Resource Center is a cultural project in the middle of the Kongara mountain forests, above Kieta and Arawa.
The center is built for the preservation of certain old traditional knowledge of people in this area. It is entirely self funded.
Two brothers felt that the young people and the generations after them would forget their culture and the importance of the forests and jungles, so they have been building this place to preserve what could easily be lost.
Cycling in Bougainville
For the adventurous cyclist, the roads in Bougainville and Buka Island are in great condition for cycling. They are mixture of crushed and compacted coral in some places and bitumen in others.
You could cycle around the whole Buka Island in under a day and you could cycle from Kokopau to Arawa between 2 - 3 days, setting up overnight camps in the villages etc.
You would have to bring your own bicycle or by one from the local stores as there are no cycles for hire here. You would also need to cycle with local guides.
Safety, Security & Advice
Always Have a Guide or a local with you.
It is important to have a local guide with you in Bougainville, for historical and cultural reasons.
Respect Their Hospitality
Bougainvilleans have a custom of making sure that their guest is safe. They will go out of their way to make sure that you are okay.
It is important that you also respect them by not putting them in an awkward position by being dishonest about your intentions in Bougainville and that you do not start heated arguments in public with other locals.
Respect Sacred Sites
The Bougainvilleans have many sacred sites. Pay attention to your guides if they point out sacred sites and ask them what the local customs are regarding these sacred sites.
Don’t Discuss Politics
If you are not from Bougainville, it would do you well not to discuss local politics.
Respect the Morgan Junction and the No Go Zone
This place was central to the Bougainville Crisis and the barriers are still up, though traffic flows easily to and from.
If you want to travel to Panguna, you have to go through the No Go Zone barriers.
Plan in advance with your local guide.
Make sure you are on anti-malarial treatment and you have medication.
Bring anti-biotic and a first aid kit with you when travelling through Bougainville. All cuts and abrasions should be treated and covered as soon as possible. Tropical ulcers can start quickly here.
Salt Water Crocodiles
Be wary of salt water crocodiles when wandering through or near rivers and lagoons along the coast lines.
If you are paddling at night, beware of dugongs. These harmless creatures can easily spill the canoe and put you in water at night.
For more travel information on the Autonomous Region of Bougainville visit: www.bougainville.travel
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