Bougainville is very off the beaten track and far from easy to get to. It is an island with vast untapped potential for tourism with magnificently rugged, jungled terrain and amazing coral reefs offshore. After suffering a brutal civil war from 1988 to 1997, the island is doing its best to return to some sort of normality, and tourism is seen as a key part of the future. In a 2019 non-binding referendum, it voted to become an independent country.
From a visitor viewpoint, the main areas of Bougainville are:
- Arawa — the former administrative capital and main city which was the centre of the mining business before operations ceased during the war. It is a fairly arduous journey south from the main arrival point for visitors at Buka Island. Large parts of Arawa remain derelict and deserted after the troubles during the war. At the height of the copper mining-led boom, Arawa was thought to be the richest town in Papua New Guinea outside of the capital. The adjoining town of Kieta is mostly thought of as forming one entity with Arawa, which is sometimes called Arawa-Kieta.
- Buin — on the southern tip of the main island from where you can see the Solomon Islands. This was a Japanese military base during WWII. There are several relics from that era including the wrecked bomber of Admiral Yamamoto - the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour.
- Buka — during the civil war, Buka town replaced Arawa as the centre of government and most businesses also switched their operations here. This is very evident today as it is certainly the most bustling town in Bougainville. The airport and the majority of places to stay are all here. Buka is located on the island of the same name, just to the north of main Bougainville. The narrow strait between Buka Island and Bougainville is called the Buka Passage and is a key visitor attraction.
- Kokopau — is the arrival point on the main island after crossing from Buka. For virtually all visitors, this is the starting point on Bougainville for a journey southwards through some very picturesque coastal village communities, which include Tinputz at the most northeasterly point of the island.
- Morgan Junction — nowhere on Bougainville is evidence of the civil war more apparent than here. This is the old gateway town to the Panguna copper mine which caused all the problems. Although disused, the mine remains one of the largest man-made holes on earth. The area is subject to many barricades marking the no-go zone which is still in place some ten years after the peace accord was put in place. Located south of Kokopau, and about 15 km north of Arrawa.
- Nissan Island (Green Island) — probably the best known of the myriad tiny islands and atolls around Bougainville, this island is about 100 km north of Buka Island. There is an American WWII airstrip here with many attendant relics, including a rather surreal swimming pool that was apparently built for President Richard Nixon who was an executive officer at the American base here during WWII. There is a guest house on Nissan but no way to book as there is no telephone service on the island.
- Tulun Islands (Carteret Islands) — a group of six tiny atolls located about 100 km northeast of Buka Island. The islands are only one to two metres above sea level and under great threat from rising sea levels. The islands were once inhabited Polynesians who were displaced by Bougainvilleans 300 to 400 years ago. There are no facilities of any nature here. Just about as off-the-beaten-track as you can get.
- Wakunai — a village on the east coast about 60 km south of the crossing arrival point from Buka. Wakunai is the starting point for the famous treks to Mount Bali and other points in the Emperor Range, and is also known as a good place to purchase local handicrafts.
The island was named after the French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville (whose name has also been lent to the creeping tropical flowering vines of the genus Bougainvillea). In 1885 it came under German administration as part of German New Guinea. Australia occupied it in 1914, and administered it from 1918 until the Japanese invaded in 1942, and then again from 1945 until PNG independence in 1975, as a United Nations mandatory power.
A large mine was established at Panguna in the early 1970s by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The formation of this mine was to prove perhaps the most controversial and formative event in the island's history. Disputes over the environmental impact, financial benefits, and social change brought by the mine renewed a dormant secessionist movement. The independence of Bougainville (Republic of North Solomons) was unsuccessfully proclaimed in 1975 and in 1990.
In 1988 the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) increased their activity significantly. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) attempted to put down the rebellion, and the conflict escalated into an all-out bloody civil war. The PNGDF retreated from permanent positions on Bougainville in 1990, but continued military action. The war claimed an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 lives (an eighth of the indigenous population).
The conflict ended in 1997, after negotiations brokered by New Zealand, and a peace agreement finalised in 2000 provided for the establishment of an Autonomous Bougainville Government, and for a referendum in the future on whether the island should become politically independent. Elections for the first Autonomous Government were held in May and June 2005. In a 2019 referendum, 98% of voters expressed their support for Bougainville to become an independent country.
A key attraction of Bougainville is its volcanic landscape. The main island is vividly green with rugged, towering volcanoes. Much of the island is difficult to penetrate and very little explored.
The climate is very similar to that of the neighbouring Solomon Islands. It is extremely humid throughout the year, with a mean temperature of 27 °C (80 °F). Although seasons are not pronounced, June through August is the cooler period, and northwesterly winds from November until April bring more frequent rainfall, and occasional squalls or cyclones.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is a tourist information office at Buka.
- Tourism Development Office of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, PO Box 3, Buka Island, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com.
There are several indigenous languages in Bougainville. These include both Melanesian and Papuan languages, none of which are spoken by more than 20% of the population. The larger languages such as Nasioi, Korokoro Motuna, Telei, and Halia are split into dialects that are not always mutually understandable.
For most Bougainvilleans, Tok Pisin is the lingua franca, and at least in the coastal areas Pisin is often learned by children in a bilingual environment. English and Tok Pisin are the languages of official business and government.
Air Niugini has daily flights (except Sundays) from Port Moresby to Buka Island (half going via Rabaul), from where a short water taxi ride ride gets you to the main island of Bougainville. The flight takes about two hours (less without the Rabaul stop), and like all travel within Papua New Guinea, is relatively expensive. PNG Air has flights into both Buka and Arawa-Kieta airport.
Truly adventurous types might want to try securing passage on a weekly ship which departs from Rabaul on New Britain island. Try Star Ships (tel: +675 97 9821070). It is unlikely that you would be able to make a formal booking; rather just turn up in Rabaul and have plenty of time on your hands.
There are reports of travellers arriving by boat at Buin from Korovou in the northern Solomon Islands. The immigration situation is complex though, and this route is not encouraged by officials from either nation.
Sealed roads are nearly nonexistent in Bougainville, though the road connecting Buka and Arawa is sealed in parts and improving. (There is one wet crossing that can be impassable during and after heavy rains.) A gravel track connects Arawa and Buin in the southeastern quarter on the main island, and there is circular road around the perimeter of Buka Island which is graveled in part. Otherwise "roads" are primarily rough dirt tracks. The southwest of the main island is especially remote and cannot be reached even in 4WD vehicles. Troop carriers left over from the war as well as Land Cruisers are used as public transit vehicles, and are widespread.
By boat/water taxi
These ply the strait between Buka Island and main Bougainville on a regular basis. To get to the outer islands, ask around in Buka to find a boat charter.
See and do
The Buka Passage
A boat ride in and around the narrow channel that separates Buka Island from main Bougainville, the Buka Passage, allows visitors to experience several small islands and tiny uninhabited atolls. It costs K2 for a commuter trip (e.g., Buka to Sohano) - just go to the beach and ask the boat drivers who is leaving next. Inquire in Buka town for boat charters.
The most well known and most visited island in the passage is called Sohano, and there are visitor facilities here including simple eateries and places to stay. There is a Japanese war memorial and plane wreck on the northern tip, and this is a lovely excellent place to take a stroll and meet friendly locals, or just relax. At the northern tip of the island is the Tchibo Rock, which is said by local legend to have magical properties.
Bougainville has many rushing rivers and adjacent cave systems. The area is ripe for exploratory kayaking - you will likely be attacking virgin territory!
The outer islands
Bougainville is surrounded by tiny islands quite close to shore, most of them uninhabited. These would quell the hunger of even the most avid island enthusiasts, but if you want to get really away from it all, there are options to visit island groups much further afield. Try Nissan Island or even the Tulun Islands. Ask around in Buka for boat charters or even hitching a ride on a regular departure.
There are as yet no diving operators based at Bougainville. That will surely change over time though as reports from the odd liveaboard that has made it here describe the diving as some of the very best in the whole world. The Solomon Sea reefs off the west coast are very healthy and home to a prolific range of marine life. Reports suggest that globally endangered dugongs are as common here as anywhere in the world.
Keen divers may find it worth approaching Papua New Guinea Dive which is the industry association for the country. They may have information about scheduled liveaboards headed for Bougainville.
Australian adventure tour groups have discovered excellent surf around Bougainville and you will of course have it to yourself. Reports suggest that the best period is November thru March.
The most popular serious trek here is a three-day hike to Mount Balbi (2,685m). This is best started from a base in the village of Wakunai on the east coast south of Kokopau. Reliable and knowledgeable guides will be available in the village.
It is possible to organise an extension to this trek all the way across the Emperor Range to the west coast, which would take about one week in total. Mount Balbi is an active volcano with regular plumes of smoke and sulphurous vents. Mount Bagana is an even more active volcano to the south and is visible from Mount Balbi. Mount Billy Mitchell is a dormant volcano also in the Emperor Range, and has an especially beautiful 2 km wide caldera lake.
World War II relics
There are several remnants of the Japanese occupation of Bougainville during WWII, but none more famous than Admiral Yamamoto's Mitsubishi bomber wreck. Admiral Yamamoto, famous as the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbour, was shot down here by US fighter planes on April 18, 1943, and the wreckage lies in the jungle about three kilometres off the east coast road to the south of Arawa, about 25 km north of Buin. There is a signpost which is hard to miss. As well as this wreck, terrestrial WWII relics include several tanks and some other airplanes, and offshore, there are sunken boats to keep divers interested.
If you are looking for an authentic local item, Bougainville is known for the high quality of its basket-ware, perhaps the best in all of Papua New Guinea. The small town of Wakunai on the east coast is noted as a good place to purchase basket-ware and other local artifacts. A few handicrafts are available at the Buka Market.
There is a branch of the Bank of the South Pacific, tel: +675 973 9752, in Buka town. It has two ATMs and offers foreign exchange facilities; there are a few additional ATMs elsewhere in town.
Buka has a lot of options during the day, from chicken and chips to fish-on-a-stick from the markets, which you can eat by the beach watching the hordes of small boats being deftly manoeuvred by the captains. At night there is a limited number of restaurants by the water. None are above average and shortages are common. Options outside of Buka are largely limited to local roadside food or preferably homemade food.
Most formal accommodation options will provide full board with three meals a day if you request it.
The local staples are fish (near the coast) and chicken, with pigs usually being reserved for special feasts. Cassava, tapioca, yams, and "choco", are the most common carbohydrate grown locally. Fresh fruit is as excellent as you would expect.
One of the most traditional dishes is called "tama tama", made by pounding cassava, tapioca, or banana, until it becomes a starchy dough. It is almost exactly like African "fufu", and the Bougainvilleans are aware of the connection.
- 1 Reasons Bar & Grill (waterfront road, towards the south end of the street). NGO favourite, with an elevated deck overlooking the water, plus a bar with tv. Seafood is the best option and pizzas aren't too bad. Often busy at night. K30-60.
- 2 Kuri Village Resort. Next door to Reasons, the restaurant is out above the water. Less reliable though - you never know what will actually be available. K40.
- 3 BWF Cafe, back of the market. A women's collective or something opened this little cafe within the market. It's one of the best places for simple but tasty and healthy meals at a decent price. Sometimes it's the best place for vegetarians but sometimes they have no options. K10-25.
- ARoB Pizza Inn (north end of town), ☏ . M-Th 4PM-7PM, F SA noon-7PM. New pizza place with Austrian-trained locals taking 1.5 hours to make doughy, sparse pizzas. K30-60.
- 4 DoB's Inn, a few km along the coast from Buka. Part of the SIL guesthouse run by the Diocese of Bougainville, this restaurant offers somewhat fancy food on a cliff above the sea. They don't make much use of the views but you can have drinks and appetisers in the Haus Win before moving to the interior restaurant. Some dishes are great, including vegetarian dishes, but the steaks are as overcooked as anywhere else in PNG. K70.
"Homebrew" is a locally produced alcohol liquor, sometimes as strong as 90°.
There are a number of formal places to stay on Buka Island which cater largely to NGO representatives and government employees. Most are located within a short distance of each other on the waterfront, making it easy to get out to the restaurants at night.
- Hani's Inn, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. They have 21 rooms, singles and doubles. Only the double rooms are air-conditioned. Guaranteed power (this is an issue) from their own generator. Shared bathroom facilities. K99-K154.
- Kuri Village Resort (waterfront at west end of town, past Destiny and Reasons), ☏ . Located on the waterfront overlooking the Buka Passage, this is the most upmarket place to stay anywhere in Bougainville. All rooms are air-conditioned and they offer packages including all meals (basic room rate does not include any meals). Quality of food varies. K220-770.
- Lumankoa Guest House, ☏ . All of the 19 rooms are double, but single occupancy is not a problem. K176 including breakfast and dinner.
- Reasons (west end of town, next to Kuri Village Resort), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Expat favourite with functional rooms with waterfront balconies. K500+.
- 1 Lynchar Hotel, West end of town (past Destiny, Reasons), opposite side of the road from the waterfront, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Decent hotel but not on the water, so should be a lot cheaper. K400+.
- 2 Destiny Guest Haus, Buka Town (West end of waterfront, next to Reasons), ☏ , , ✉ email@example.com. Waterfront rooms, cheaper than Reasons but with new aircon and tvs. Non-waterfront rooms as well but they would need to be a lot cheaper. K385.
- 3 Sohano Ocean View Apartments, Sohano Island (1 minute boat ride from Buka for K2), ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and a peaceful atmosphere on the island
Main Bougainville island
There are few formal accommodation options here.
- Arevai Guesthouse, ☏ . Thirteen rooms. K70-90.
- Arawa Women's Training Centre, Arawa, ☏ . Four double rooms and six triples offered here. No air-conditioning but the rooms do have fans. K85-140 breakfast included.
- , Arawa (Section 10), ☏ . Double rooms with aircon or fan. Great food. K100-150 breakfast included.
- Nissan Island Guesthouse. A handful of rooms here on very remote Nissan Island. There is no way to book as there are no communication lines to this island. It seems unlikely that they would be full if you just turned up!
There are two other guest houses on Nissan both at Tartumpos Balil. Kulu Guest House situated right at the tip, and Balil Lodge nearby. For the same reason of lack of communication, you cannot book and they receive very few guests.
In some central and southern areas of the main island, to this date there are virtually no foreigners. These areas should not be visited by independent travelers without seeking local advice. The safest method, given the values of the culture, is to be accompanied by a local. In their culture, it is of the utmost importance to ensure the safety of a friend or guest. Travel to the no-go zone and Panguna mine can be made, but is only possible through a well-connected local. There are still guns in the hands of ex-combatants (unofficial reservist force), and while they are no longer carried out in the open, never forget that a local may have quick access to a gun. You should never get in a heated argument with a local as it may quickly attract a crowd and will put your local contact in an awkward position, and without a local contact, the situation could easily escalate out of control. Do not be alarmed at the sight of bush knives or large machetes; it is very normal for locals to carry them.
The north of the main island and the whole of Buka are quite safe for independent travel.
Always respect the no-go zone barriers around Morgan's Junction and Panguna.
This is a tropical island and Malaria is endemic. Check with your local health care providers well in advance of departure at for the most appropriate preventative medication.
Be sure to treat any open scratches with topical antibiotics. Preferably you, or someone in your party, will have first aid knowledge. Feel safe in asking the locals for bush medicine as it is very effective.
Saltwater crocodiles exist within the major river systems, so exercise extreme caution.