10 Bougainville experiences
Raw and unexplored by tourists, Bougainville has everything from smouldering volcanoes to beautiful blue water for snorkelling.
The moment you touch down and adjust your watch to Bougainville time (one hour ahead of mainland Papua New Guinea time), an adventure begins. There are volcanoes, waterfalls, caves and World War 2 relics to see, as well as island hopping and snorkelling.
The region is raw and unexplored by tourists, but whoever ventures there will be warmly welcomed by Bougainvilleans.
Here’s our list of 10 of the best experiences. Blue wonder ... a local takes the plunge in Bougainville.
1 Stay on Pokpok Island There’s something magical about Pokpok (aka Crocodile) Island, with children splashing and giggling in the shallows, chickens roaming the beach, and hornbills and white cockatoos flapping overhead. And don’t worry, the island gets its name for being the shape of a crocodile, not because it’s a haven for them.
2 Trek overnight in the mountains of Rotokas
To delve into the forest-covered mountains of Bougainville you’ll need a couple of days, a passion for adventure, and an experienced guide, such as one provided by Rotokas Ecotourism.
Hike up to the village of Sisivi and enjoy a local welcome as you stay overnight
Uruna Bay Retreat, the only tourist accommodation on the island, provides a place to kick back and relax. Or, with the reef right off the beach, you can snorkel over giant clams, shoals of inquisitive fish and reef sharks. Then head off kayaking in the sheltered bay, explore nearby uninhabited islands, or hop in a banana boat with your host and catch your dinner by hand-line fishing.
in a traditional-style house, then trek onwards for a full-on day of waterfalls and caves deep within Bougainville’s lush forest canopy. Get set to wade through rivers, tread up cascades on grippy, porous volcanic rock, and maybe even climb the vines at the entrance of the Ukoto caves.
Or perhaps scaling a volcano is more your style? Rotokas Ecotourism organises
Accommodation is a three-bedroom beachside house with kitchen and bathroom, or two smaller wooden bungalows, both with rustic ensuite bathrooms, and all just 30 seconds from the water’s edge. See email@example.com. treks to smouldering Mount Bagana, to the south, and Bougainville’s highest peak, Mount Balbi, to the north; you can pitch a tent in the jungle on a two or three-day camping adventure. See rotokasecotourism.com.
3 Go island hopping Bougainville has many islands to explore – the biggest challenge is getting to them, which adds to the adventure. In Buka, ask around the boat stop to find someone to take you to White Island, Christmas
4 Visit a village
Children playing, cockerels crowing and smoke billowing from the haus kuk – with the majority of Bougainvilleans still living in villages, you might say a visit to one is the best way to see Bougainville.
There are several village stays offering overnight tourist accommodation, including Pidia Village Mini Guest Haus outside Arawa.
Here, you can paddle an outrigger canoe, take a walk at low tide around the stunning peninsula, or get a hands-on lesson in making the local delicacy of tama tama, (a sweet treat of cooked taro, cassavas and bananas, often reserved for special occasions and visitors). Otherwise, just chill out and enjoy taking turns with the local pikinini at splashing off the rope swing into the sea.
If you want to go on a day trip to villages near the towns of Buka, Arawa or Buin, ask your guest house operator. A visit will need to be organised ahead of time by someone who has a close connection to the community, so it’s best to discuss the possibilities with the guesthouse in advance of your trip. To book at Pidia Village Mini Guest Haus, visit them on Facebook. Island or Sun Island. If you’d rather not venture quite as far, Sohano Island is about five minutes away and can be circumnavigated on foot in about an hour.
In Arawa, ask at your guesthouse for suggestions of islands to explore and how best to arrange a boat. For something a little different, Metora Island, 30 minutes from Arawa, is a tiny, ever-shifting sand island, where birds take a well-earned rest among thousands of hermit crabs.
5 Wander the markets and small stores of Buka, Arawa and Buin
The marketplace is the hub of town, an explosion of chit-chat, colour and neatly organised produce in small heaps – from spikyred rambutan, to the always present banana, taro and kaukau – as well as treats like fried fish for lunch and buai (a betel nut that’s chewed with crushed lime and mustard as a stimulant).
The main market in Buka operates every day except Sunday; Arawa opens Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; and Buin market is open on Thursday and Saturday mornings. Smaller markets are available seven days a week all across Bougainville.
Spend a couple of hours wandering around the many small stores. It’s a great way to mingle and get to know the people. Plus, the stores are a treasure-trove of unknown quantities, from second-hand clothing, to icecream cones, to packets of Em Nau crackers for a snack on the go.
6 Snorkel off the beach, off a boat or off the islands
PNG has incredible snorkelling (see our PNG snorkelling hit list on page 46), and Bougainville is no exception. There are many top snorkelling destinations, and you can have most of them to yourself.
Gaze upon graceful angelfish, anemonefish protecting their patch, and shoals of shimmering neon blue, yellow and silver damselfish.
The islands off Arawa, including Pokpok Island as well as the outer reef, offer particularly good snorkelling spots. Your boat skipper will be able to advise on the best spots in the area.
In Buka, organise a trip out to White Island, Christmas Island or Sun Island.
7 Watch a sing-sing or bamboo band performance
People travel from all over the world to experience a colourful sing-sing or the hypnotic beats of bamboo bands at big festivals in PNG. In Bougainville you might get the chance to watch a performance in a smaller, more intimate setting, which is something to be treasured.
Look out for public holiday celebrations and other advertised general public events in Buka and Arawa, where a sing-sing or bamboo band is often included.
Performance-focused events include the Reeds Festival (bi-annual) and Cool Culture Competition (annual), held in Arawa around mid-year.
8 Catch a lift in a public motor vehicle (PMV)
Travelling in Bougainville’s PMV fleet of open-back trucks and 10-seater Landcruisers is the most common method of transport throughout the island. The main and largely unpaved road snakes its way along the east coast, sandwiched between the Crown Prince Ranges and the Pacific Ocean. It’s undeniably bumpy, but a great experience. There’s never a dull moment on a PMV trip – stopping off at market stalls for a bunch of peanuts, replacing a flat tyre, and responding to the many waves from people you pass by. Plus, with Bougainvilleans being super welcoming, you and your travelling companions will all have shared a few stories by the time you say goodbye.
PMVs from Arawa going north to Buka depart around 5am or 6am, Monday to Friday, and arrive at Buka about 10am. The standard cost is PGK60 a person. They can be booked in advance and pick-up is at your guesthouse.
PMVs from Buka going south to Arawa depart around midday, depending on how long they take to fill up with passengers, arriving in Arawa around 5pm. Bookings are not necessary; instead simply take a two-minute banana boat ride across Buka Passage to Kokopau, and then select your PMV.
9 Explore World War 2 relics
Bougainville offers visitors the chance to view rarely seen World War 2 relics in the bush, including Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ plane in the Buin District.
An insightful local guided trip to Rigu Lagoon, 20 minutes from Arawa, provides a look at Japanese trenches, machinery and other artefacts, as well as a chance to hear fascinating stories about the lagoon.
From Buka Island a five-minute boat ride takes you to Sohana Island, a World War 2 Japanese seaplane base, which can be circumnavigated by foot in less than an hour, with no guide required. To arrange a tour of Rigu, contact DJ Garden Lodge in Arawa, facebook.com/ djgardenlodge. To discuss other tour options, contact Bougainville Experience Tours, bougtours.com.
10 CONSIDER A LONGER STAY AS A VOLUNTEER
There’s no better way to experience a destination like Bougainville than staying for an extended period. It enables you to get involved with community initiatives, make friends and get a feel for day-to-day life.
Volunteering organisations in Bougainville include Volunteer Service Abroad, in New Zealand, Australian Volunteers International, and Horizont 3000 from Austria.
Island hopping ... go fishing, snorkelling or exploring among the islands of Bougainville; or trek into the interior (below) and visit a village.
Pure delight ... snorkellers and swimmers are rewarded with pristine jungle-fringed water (this page); fried fish for lunch (opposite page).
Tradition ... a Bougainvillean sing-sing group (this page); catching a ride in a PMV (opposite page).
War bird ... there are World War 2 relics to be seen throughout Bougainville (right); a golden sunrise on the island (below).