Buka Island is separated from the main island of Bougainville by an 800 metre wide strait, called the Buka Passage. Buka is home to the capital of the ABG and most official administrative functions are carried out here.
The region’s largest operating commercial airport is also located in Buka. Tourist attractions include exploring various natural caves located along the eastern coast, game fishing and experiencing the ‘Mona’ festival which celebrates the craftsmanship of traditional war canoes.
The smaller nearby islands south of the strait are also noteworthy, featuring sandy white beaches and clear waters for snorkelling or scuba diving.
A Japanese fighter plane is located in the strait only a few metres from the surface, which makes for an excellent beginner snorkelling trip. Cruise ships such as the Oceanic Discoverer are also beginning to feature Buka as a stop on their tours between the Solomon Islands and East New Britain
Wakunai and surrounding mountains – Balbi and Bagana
Wakunai is located approximately one and a half hour’s drive south of Kokopau (the small town located at the tip of Bougainville Island and the main destination when crossing the Passage from Buka). Wakunai was once the heart of world renowned cocoa plantations that produced some of PNG’s highest grade export cocoa.
Various tracks to volcanoes, Mt. Balbi and Mt. Bagana are accessible from Wakunai.
The Keriaka limestone plateau, south of Mt Balbi also contains Benua Cave, (4,500,000 cubic metres) one of the largest underground caverns in the world.3The sinkhole is large enough for a helicopter to descend and land at the bottom of it.
The caldera lake Billy Mitchell is also a feature of the trek to Mt Bagana. Mt Bagana is an impressive sight during the day as smoke plumes above the summit. However, it is an even more spectacular sight at night as on occasion, one can witness the glow of lava trickling from the edge of its crater.
The Numa Numa Track which runs close to Mt. Bagana is also of World War II historical significance.
The 60 kilometre track was used by Japanese, American and Australian forces at various stages during World War II.
It takes approximately three days to walk the track, renowned for its panoramic views of Mt Bagana and Mt Balbi, from Wakunai to Torokina. Local Wakunai landowners are keen to develop the use of this track in a manner similar to that of the famous Kokoda Track.
Arawa and Kieta
Arawa located on the east coast of Bougainville Island, is approximately a 4 hour drive south from Kokopau.
Arawa was the capital of Bougainville prior to the ‘Crisis’ and was a major ‘mining boom’ town during the era of peak production at the Panguna mine.
During this period, Arawa was one of the best serviced towns in PNG.
The Crown Prince Ranges form an impressive backdrop to Arawa. These mountains are known for the abundance of bird life and the track to a decommissioned gold mine dating from the German colonial era. The coral reefs off the coast of Arawa are also a source of some excellent spear fishing and locals are often seen diving for fresh crayfish.
Kieta is approximately 20 minutes drive from the centre of Arawa. Kieta was formerly considered the ‘recreation hub’ of Arawa and Kieta. Yachting was a favourite weekend activity and the size of the Kieta Yacht Club reflected this. Unfortunately, an old jetty is all that remains of the yacht club, however, the idyllic landscape of clear waters and the nearby islands, provide a perfect backdrop for water activities. A major resort was built on Arovo Island (accessible from Kieta) and it was a popular weekend holiday destination during the early 1980s.
Discussions with Arawa Tourism Industry representatives revealed that they were especially keen for local women to be involved in developing tourism attractions such as ‘homestays’ in nearby villages, treks and displays of traditional basket weaving.
To this end, recently graduated hospitality students from Divine Word University (Lae, PNG) have conducted some hospitality seminars to educate the community about the potential of tourism and to pass on basic hospitality skills.
Panguna was home to one of the largest open cut mines in the world and regarded by many as the catalyst that led to the Crisis. The Crisis forced the closure of mining operations in 1989 and to date no decision has been made by the ABG to permit the resumption of mining anywhere in Bougainville.
The size and scope of the Panguna mine pit and the rusting, eight metre high trucks that were used to transport loads of up to 16 tonnes of ore, leave a lasting impression.
A visit to Panguna would be a worthwhile experience for all tourists interested in the history of Bougainville and particularly the tumultuous period of the Crisis and its aftermath. Panguna is also home to some amazing birdlife that has flourished in the last 20 years since the end of the mining production era.
The local Panguna landowners we spoke to were keen to develop ecotourism in their area.
Groups of birdwatchers from the United Kingdom have recently travelled through this area to Panguna in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the elusive Blue Moustached Kingfisher and other species endemic to the Panguna region.
Besides attractive birdlife, Bougainville is renowned for its orchids and many of the species can be viewed in the Panguna area.
A town located on the west coast of Bougainville Island, Torokina has potential due to the various World War II relics that remain in the area. It was previously a main base for the American forces and a number of WWII weapons and munitions were left behind as evidence of the magnitude of their presence. American war relics teams are currently securing the area clearing it of any live munitions.
Locals are keen to establish a museum for the World War II relics to safely store and display various artefacts.
Japanese government war veteran recovery teams have also visited the area in search of remains of Japanese soldiers.
Torokina can be reached by a 3-4 hour boat ride from Buka, however the beauty of the coastline and the opportunity to trawl for tuna by handline makes the time pass quickly.
The Numa Numa Track is also accessible from Torokina.
Local tour operators walked and assessed the track in May 2010.
Tourism awareness campaigns have begun amongst the various isolated, indigenous villages along the track.
Located at the southernmost end of Bougainville Island, Buin was also a major Japanese base during World War II.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the bombing of Pearl Harbour was shot down over Buin and his plane wreck still remains in the jungle outside of Buin (however, there are some complicating circumstances surrounding access to the site
Another World War II relic of significance is ‘Little Tokyo’, a large underground bunker used by Japanese forces during their Pacific war campaign.
This relic can be accessed via tracks from Buin or Kangu Beach.
The various ship wrecks located off the coast of Buin are also virtually untouched and are spectacular dive sites due to the pristine condition of the surrounding waters. The Solomon Shortland Islands are also nearby and would be an excellent adjunct to an excursion to Buin.