Bougainville Island lies to the east of New Britain and is geographic, the largest of the Solomon Islands. At 120 km (75 mi) long and 65-95 km (40-60 mi) wide, its spine is formed of two mountain ranges running from north to south, including seven volcanoes, some of which are active. The mountains slope down to plains and coastal lowlands that include both mangrove and freshwater swamp forests, as well as untouched rainforests.
Bougainville is an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, with its own government and parliament on Buka Island, from which it is separated by a narrow, 100 m (330 ft) stretch of water, the Buka Passage. In the next few years, Bougainville is expected to become independent.
Bougainville is a remarkable person – friendly and hospitable, they are extremely strong-minded and determined, as recent history shows. During the 1970s, the infamous Rio Tinto mining company set up shop here to exploit the island’s vast copper and gold reserves. The resulting pollution, ecological destruction and totally unreasonable distribution of profits exploded into a lengthy guerilla war.
The mine was forced to close in 1989, but PNG, with the help of Australis and mercenaries from Sandline International, attempted to quash the rebellion, killing 10 per cent of the population and destroying the island’s infrastructure. Failing again, PNG blockaded Bougainville for six years, obliging everyone to return to self-sufficiency and bush medicine. The last Australian military personnel withdrew in 2003, and today the islanders are busy rebuilding houses, townships and the economy.
Fringed with reefs, Bougainville is a lovely island, full of natural resources. Hiding within the lush tangle of rainforest is one of the world’s largest caves, spectacular waterfalls and hot springs. Its rivers are rich with fish, as is the sea, and coconut and copra are being replanted. The gorgeous Tonolei Harbour is one of the only tuna breeding grounds in the world.
How to reach
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By air from Port Moresby to Nissan island, to the north of Buka, then by sea, or by sea from the Solomons.
When to visit
At any time – it is always hot, wet and humid.
- The wreck of the famous World War II Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s plane.
- Kangu Beach, at Buin, Bouginville.
- Organise a boat trip to the Shortland Islands. Only 20 minutes away, the islanders cross the border every Saturday to sell their fish at Buin Market.
You should know
The Upe, a traditional hat and the symbol of Bougainville, is still worn by young men in the west of the island. The island was a major battleground between US and Japanese forces during World War II, and war relics including live ammunition and bombs still lie in the jungle.