After centuries of conflict and exploitation, the farthest-flung outpost of Papua New Guinea is on the cusp of change. Discover the turbulent history, tropical beauty and proud culture of Bougainville
The world’s-newest-country-in-waiting possesses the raw ingredients of paradise. French Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who named its main island after himself while collecting territories off eastern New Guinea in 1768, would surely have appreciated this astonishing natural beauty – if he’d bothered to set foot ashore. As I stood on the coast, I imagined his skin prickling with sweat rising from the florets of dark volcanic hills that punctuate the rainforest. And I pictured his eyes squinting at luminous turquoise-blue lagoons, beyond which coral reefs thwart the surging Solomon Sea.
If he were alive today, too, the admiral would likely have pooh-poohed any notion that one day Bougainville might be independent. He would probably have pointed to the unrest and other challenges that plagued South Sudan and Timor-Leste, the most recent recipients of statehood, and scoffed.
Now, however, it’s Bougainville’s turn. I visited not long after December 2019’s referendum, in which 97.7% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from Papua New Guinea. And I arrived not aboard a wooden galleon but by a two-hour flight from Port Moresby, across teal-blue ocean in which coral atolls are scattered like bleached-white lifebuoys.
The referendum was a proviso of a 2001 peace accord granting Bougainville greater autonomy, although the result is non-binding so independence will come only after approval by the national parliament. The peace accord had ended a long civil war that began in 1989 and escalated into the deadliest conflict seen in Oceania since Japan’s Second World War invasions, costing an estimated 20,000 lives.
That conflict had been sparked by mining. Back then, Panguna was the largest copper and gold mine in the southern hemisphere, generating billions of dollars for the then Australian-owned Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) and the Papua New Guinean economy. Little of this wealth stayed on the island – so, as local resentment rose, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) mobilised and shut down Panguna by sabotage. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force arrived to restore order, and civil war erupted.
Steven Tamiung, an ex-BRA veteran, waited for me at the airport on Buka Island, in the archipelago comprising the autonomous region of which Bougainville is the largest island, roughly the size of Cyprus. We boarded a boat across the gushing tidal strait separating Buka from Bougainville and commenced a four-hour drive south by public minivan to Arawa, hub for a week-long exploration. With greater curiosity than Admiral de Bougainville could muster, I aimed to discover whether the scars of the past were healing, and if a brighter future not tainted by copper and conflict awaited what might be the world’s newest country.
From the start, Bougainville’s extravagant beauty held me in its moist grasp, breathing warmth upon the senses. We slipped beneath coconut-palm canopies interlinked overhead like a Gothic cathedral’s vaulting, while the intense Melanesian sunshine permeated a rainforest that’s hybridised with jackfruit, citruses and breadfruit. The forest is scalloped by vegetable gardens so overwhelmed by jungle that it’s a wonder farmers ever find their crops of taro and sweet potato.
Unbridled nature and conflict were never far away. We soon passed a track-less Japanese tank corroding where it was destroyed back in 1942. Steven recounted how the pressure cooker of nationalism had simmered away through successive occupations. Germany annexed Bougainville in the 1880s, then Japan invaded in 1942. After the Second World War, Australia administered Bougainville before handing it to newly independent Papua New Guinea in 1975. Yet the catalyst for conflict was Panguna.
“Panguna awoke us,” Steven told me. “We became tired of foreigners taking our wealth and polluting our land.” Bougainvilleans feel closer cultural affinity to neighbouring Solomon Islanders, he said. Signs of emergent nationalism are visible throughout: ubiquitous Bougainvillean flags (featuring a tribal headdress resembling a chef’s toque blanche) and tee-shirts emblazoned ‘Kawas pawa’.
“It means ‘black power’,” said Steven. “We’re the blackestskinned people in the Pacific region, and proud of this.”
Thunder rumbled over the knife-edged mountains that loom over Arawa, which will be Bougainville’s post-independence capital, as a downpour hammered rat-a-tat-tat on the corrugated roofs of wooden stilted houses. The scent of damp earth and a heightened greenness reinforced a feeling that Arawa is being subsumed by nature.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. When BCL ran Panguna, Arawa thrived. A cosmopolitan town of largely Australian mineworkers and their families, it had a tennis club, a marina, an international school, supermarkets and neat suburbs of bungalows. When the mineworkers fled, Arawa’s bright lights dimmed, and today blackouts blight the forlorn infrastructure of this tranquil little backwater.
From my simple 12-room guesthouse – where former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stayed while overseeing the referendum – I strolled to one of Arawa’s few restaurants, the Gold Dust Inn, where the evening special was mud-crabs. The town centre is essentially a grassy field; the 2001 Peace Accord was signed near a huge tree that the locals jokingly call the ‘world trade centre’ because vendors sell betel-nut beneath its spidery shade.
A further source of local amusement is the ‘Irishman’s tank’ I found listing by a riverbed – fashioned from a JCB for the rebels by an Irishman, this Frankensteinian contraption broke down on its first assault. He raised funds to buy it a cannon but fled overseas with the cash and was never seen again.
To truly comprehend Bougainville, though, I needed to visit Panguna.
Near a ripening banana plantation on the road to Panguna, Bosco Miriona, the island’s sole tour operator, slammed on his brakes and made a startling revelation. “I was nearly shot here,” he said.
“We were setting a roadside ambush when a Papuan patrol surprised us and began shooting, so we crawled away on our bellies. I smelled burning. My dreadlocks caught fire,” he laughed, revealing the red decaying gums of a habitual betel-nut chewer. “We were young at the time,” he qualified. “The war felt like a big adventure, like a game.”
No longer dreadlocked, Bosco drove me the hour or so inland from Arawa into the Crown Prince Range, ‘California Dreaming’ pummelling his stereo. We passed mangled electricity pylons blown up by the BRA to cut power to Panguna, then a torched workers’ bus and a fallen crane.
Perched on Panguna’s rim is an unforgettable sight: an open-cast pit so deep that it would have provided a fine head start for Professor Lidenbrock’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in that Jules Verne epic. It’s also the epicentre of Bougainville’s anguished past and possible future, with an estimated $58 billion of gold and copper still to be mined. “There used to be a mountain here,” added Bosco.
Descending deeper into Panguna’s abyss, I found unimagined optimism in an ad-hoc town of thriving opportunism where thousands of Bougainvilleans eke out a livelihood amid dystopian ruination. Copper-blue slime oozed from the pit walls while gold miners – sometimes whole families, including children – pawed at crumbled slopes with pickaxes. One miner, Justin Morris, showed me a chunk of gold ore he said was worth 100 kina (over £20) per ounce – more than he’d earn in a week selling sweet potatoes at market.
On the mine floor, Bougainvilleans have ingeniously reused abandoned infrastructure. The Meccano-like exoskeleton of the former mineworkers’ accommodation has been boarded out with tin sheets to create new housing. Tony and Rose rear freshwater fish in the old outdoors swimming pool. Jeffrey supplements his teacher’s pay selling betel outside a newly built school – although not to his pupils, he quickly added. Meanwhile, Sylvester guards the ruined bank where a repurposed vault secures 303 weapons decommissioned after the Peace Accord.
“You know what we did with the vault’s key?” he asked. “We threw it into the ocean.”
Everywhere on the island, the weather-beaten silhouettes of halcyon days are hauntingly photogenic. We scrambled through an ore suspension plant easily 400m long, roofless, its steel girders exposed to the azure sky above. Glass and copper-coloured ore crunched underfoot within a gutted junkyard of disembowelled metal piping and discus shaped crushers that once pulverised ore bound for suspension tanks laced with toxic chemicals.
“We cannot reopen this mine,” said Bosco, now pensive. “We must find another way to build our economy.”
This could happen through tourism. Over the following days, on excursions from Arawa I experienced Bougainville’s heady fecundity amid the swirling dark clouds of the past.
Bosco’s home village, Topinang, would have tempted Adam and Eve with delights more alluring than apples: hibiscus and wild ginger flowers mix with bananas, taros, and cocoa trees around whose trunks vanilla vines coil like Eden’s serpent. Bosco is a sub-chief of the village’s Eagle clan; theirs is a system of fellowship more than bloodline. The society is matrilineal, though – so one day his wife’s land will go to their daughter, and her future husband will come to live with her and build their house.
Another morning we hiked along a volcanic ridge to the pearly Koharu Waterfalls, drinking in views to 2,715m Mt Balbi, an active volcano ringed like a hoopla prize by a doughnut-shaped cloud. The clicking of my camera reminded Steven of a machine gun. Later, at Kieta Wharf on the east coast, we visited a ‘Zero’ fighter plane mounted on a plinth, a reminder of Japanese occupation.
In 1943, Japanese momentum had stalled and the US Air Force launched ‘Operation Vengeance’, targeting the plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had overseen the attack on Pearl Harbor. The wreckage of that plane lies in jungle to the south, too far for me to reach. Instead I spent my final three days exploring the divine east coast – and all the gold in Panguna could not outweigh its delights.
A speedboat hurried me to Bakawari or Pokpok (Crocodile) Island, where a spit studded with coconut palms stretches out to sea like a reptilian snout. Our boat thudded into Pokpok’s soft, sandy shoreline and I waded ashore through a curtain of rainforest to a wooden guesthouse with three rooms. My sea-facing room was pared-down paradise. Power is generated a few hours each evening; there’s no fan, no internet, just complete escape. “We built this as a family house back in 1989, months before the war started,” said Laurelle Pentanu.
I was welcomed with a sing-sing, a rich tradition throughout Papua New Guinea. The islanders wore tobacco-coloured grass skirts and flowery leis, singing stories of fishing, the waves and the transition to independence. They sashayed gently to the accompaniment of supersized mambu (bamboo) panpipes beaten by flip-flops to create a sonorous hypnotic rhythm. “We formed the group to remember our way of life,” said village elder Michael Getsi. “We fled to the jungles when the fighting came here during the war, then returned as refugees in our own country.”
The islanders are unused to seeing foreigners, Laurelle told me, but are grateful for the 200 kina (over £40) she pays them to perform the sing-sing. “They are subsistence farmers,” she said. “The wartime made them self-sufficient, used to being cut off from the outside world.
“We’re happy to have you here,” a local said to me after the performance, before wondering if I’d come to seek hidden Japanese gold.
Over soporific days I paced a beach writhing with tiny crabs and lungfish hopping between rockpools. I drank coconuts while listening to the whoops and whistles of unseen birdlife. Every morning children paddled here in milky-wood dugouts from other island villages to attend school.
But my footprints in the soft sand along this coast are not those of a tourism trailblazer. A local boatman, Kevin Tane, took me to neighbouring Arovo Island, where a once luxurious beach resort built for Australian mineworkers lay in ruins. “People stripped away the girders and timbers to rebuild their houses after the war,” Kevin said. “At the weekend, this beach used to be full of families and yachts moored in the lagoon.” Like myself, they would have undertaken snorkelling safaris to encounter a blizzard of zebrafish flitting above blue starfish, anemones and gorgonian sea fans.
Back on Pokpok that evening, Laurelle’s father, Simon – Bougainville’s current speaker of parliament – invited me to a kaikai held in his honour. Villagers offered thanks for his recent escape from death when his vehicle was washed away in a flooded river while on parliamentary business; blessings were said and a feast prepared. The Oliver Twist in me begged a second bowl of tama-tama, a moreish, creamy dessert of mashed taro, coconut milk and banana.
Simon thought that independence might be achieved within five years, yet conceded that reopening Panguna would prove divisive. “For some islanders, Panguna will be essential to our new economy,” he said, “but others do not want it open because of painful memories.” Nearly two years after the referendum, Bougainville’s independence remains uncertain, with COVID-19 putting negotiations on hold.
As we talked, fireflies flickered along the shoreline and I experienced a wave of optimism. Bougainville might make its way in the world as a fledgling nation, I thought, harnessing resilient character and abundant resources – not just minerals but also the likes of cocoa production and ecotourism. Its natural beauty and gripping testimony of the recent past would make a rich addition to the itineraries of travellers already making long journeys to visit Papua New Guinea.
“I’ve great hopes for Bougainville,” echoed Simon. “We won’t be beggars. Everything grows here. People are happier here than the millionaires in Port Moresby.”
“We may have no electricity – but night-time’s for sleeping anyway,” he called out as I boarded a boat back to my guesthouse. The horizon now obscured by night, we floated out into the inky darkness of the Solomon Sea – where the ghost of a passing French admiral had long since sailed by.
The author travelled with Reef and Rainforest (01803 866965, www.reefandrainforest.co.uk) who offer a 10-day Bougainville tour featuring nights in Arawa, Pokpok and Buka, including international flights with Air Niugini from Singapore.
Tropical Bougainville is hot, humid and wet year round, albeit tempered by cooling ocean breezes. Expect rain and temperatures of 24°C to 30°C. June-September is marginally cooler and wetter. Both the Mona Festival and the Chocolate Festival are held in August. The biannual Reed Festival, which features cultural performances, takes place in Arawa around mid-year.
British Airways (britishairways.com) flies from London to Singapore. Air Niugini (01293 874952; airniugini.com.pg) flies from Singapore to Port Moresby (PNG); and then onward (thrice weekly, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) from Port Moresby to Buka.
Locals use shared vans call PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles), which leave when full and drop passengers off on request. The main route runs between Kokopau (for Buka Island Airport) and Arawa; and takes around four hours.
Accommodation is a little overpriced for what you get but, beyond that, travelling on Bougainville is not expensive – there are few priced attractions to visit or items to buy. Local transport is inexpensive. The only restaurant the author found charged PGK40-60 (£8-12) for dishes and PGK10 (£2) for beer.
Airways Hotel (+675 324 5200, airways.com.pg) is a fabulous option, set on a tropical hillside overlooking Jackson international Airport in Port Moresby. It has modern rooms and a concourse of shops, with an old Dakota airplane as an eye-catching centrepiece. B&B doubles from PGK675 (£134).
Poonang Nava Inn (+675 7026 2334, firstname.lastname@example.org) in Arawa offers simple lodgings with small rooms, friendly staff and a breezy shared terrace. The restaurant isn’t great. B&B doubles from PGK270 (£55).
Uruna Bay Retreat (+675 7120 9875, email@example.com) is a chilled beach-facing wooden house on Pokpok Island with three rooms plus two small bungalows. Doubles with meals cost from PGK190pp (£39).
Destiny Guesthouse (facebook.com/destinyguesthausbuka) in Buka has large, top-floor balcony rooms that possess sweeping views over the sea-inlet. Staff are lovely, meals are hearty. B&B doubles from PGK375 (£87).
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