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.
From a visitor viewpoint, the main areas of Bougainville are:
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.
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 island is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the region both above and below the waters with spectacular reefs and lagoons.
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.
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 Nugini  has flights every day of the week from Port Moresby to Buka Island, from where a short water taxi ride ride gets you to the main island of Bougainville. The flight takes about two hours, and like all travel within Papua New Guinea, is expensive.
There are also daily flights from Rabaul.
Airlines PNG and Travel air also fly to Buka.
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.
Chebu Shipping is a new company (operating since the end of 2014) with passenger ships connecting Buka to Rabaul, Kimbe and Lae. It departs from Lae on Sundays via Kimbe (Monday), Rabaul (Tuesday) and reaching Buka on Wednesdays. From Buka it does the opposite route on wednesdays, arriving to Rabaul on Thursdays, Kimbe on Fridays and Lae on Saturdays. The prices between Lae and Buka are 420 lower deck, 440 upper deck and 630 first class. First class has a berth and includes meals.
From the Solomon Islands
There are reports of travellers arriving by boat at Buin from Shortland Island in the northern Solomon Islands. The immigration situation is complex though, and this route is not encouraged by officials from either nation.
There are immigration offices in Bougainville to get your exit/entry stamp. The one in Buin did not have a stamp as of September 2014 but it's a good idea to report at the first one you come across and get your stamp as soon as possible. These are the addresses :
Buka Town - Tsirin Motors Building upstairs next to Post Courier office, Haku Street. Ask locals to direct you to Jomik trading, which is on the opposite side of the streat.
Arawa Town - Central Bougainvile District Treasury Office Upstairs Section 15.
Buin Town - next to Montai Guest House opposite road eastern side.
The situation regarding this border crossing might change without notice. There is some useful information about the border crossing here.
There are no sealed roads in Bougainville. 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.
Within Buka there are frequent PMVs from the market running up to Kubu and beyond. Around 1.5 kina a ride.
Banana boats charge 2 kina to cross the passage to Kokopau or the islands in the passage.
From Kokopau PMVs leave for Arawa between 10 am and 1 pm (except Sundays). 50 kina. From Arawa they leave around 4 am. From Arawa to Buin PMVs run most days, including Saturday when they leave very early in the morning for the Saturday market in Buin.
From Buin to Shortland island (Solomon Islands) you can hire a banana boat or hitch a ride with Solomon Islanders who come for the market on Saturday. There is also a Thursday market in Buin that is not as big.
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. 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 on the northern tip and this is a lovely excellent place to take a stroll or just relax. At the northern tip of the island is the Tchibo Rock, which is said by local legend to have magical properties.
There are many boats waiting to take you over the passage for 2 kina.
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 surroundied 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 World 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 18th 1943, and the wreckage lies in the jungle about three km 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.
There is currently only one specialist Bougainville tour operator. Given the remoteness of the location and the relatively little that is known about the island, even those travellers who would normally shun an organised tour might want to consider this option. Two of the four principals of this operator are Bougainvillean.
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.
There is a branch of the Bank of the South Pacific , tel: +675 973 9752, located in Buka town. It has three ATM machines and offers foreign exchange facilities. There is also a branch with an ATM machine in Arawa. Some supermarkets and City Pharmacy also give cashback on foreign cards.
You can buy prepaid Digicel sim cards at the Weibel house in Arawa and a few places in Buka.
Eat and Drink
There are a few simple restaurants in Buka, but options elsewhere 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.
There are a number of formal places to stay on Buka Island which cater largely to NGO representatives and government employees.
Main Bougainville island
There are not many formal accommodation options here.
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.
To the Solomon Islands - see the Get In section for details.