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Bougainville Region now Safe and Worth a Visit

By Sue Richards last modified Nov 03, 2010 12:18 PM

Published: 2010-11-03 12:18:46
Countries: Papua New Guinea

Our thanks to Spencer Matthews for this detailed update of the current situation in Bougainville.

Over the years 1989-1997 the Bougainville region, in particular Bougainville Island, suffered great destruction of life and property during a civil war – referred to locally as "the crisis". Since the end of that period there has been a gradual restoration of peace. The region is now self governing but still a part of PNG, and had an incident free presidential election in 2010.

"Street crime" directed towards Europeans is extremely rare, unlike on mainland PNG, particularly Port Moresby. However, walking around Arawa township at night, or visiting the local bar there, is not recommended. There is some petty theft so basic precautions should be taken.

Most of the region is safe to travel. The road from Arawa to Kokopau (Buka town) is unsealed and requires some river crossings, but is busy with public transport. The road from Arawa to Buin can be traveled but will require payment of a fee (currently K200 for a years pass) at a roadblock outside of Arawa. The remains of the Panguna mine are past this road block. The only area that is currently unsafe is the Deuro Mountains and Tonolei Harbour in the extreme south of Bougainville next to the Solomon’s Island border. This is due to illegal gold mining.

There are customs posts at both Buka and Arawa. For Arawa, anchor at the main commercial port of Kieta and travel by truck over the hill to Arawa township. The customs/ immigration office is located in a residential house some distance away from the business center. Customs will not come to your boat and the customs officer is difficult to track down. The best way is to start asking people "Where is Nancy".

The anchorage at Keita is well protected and was the sight of a thriving yacht club pre-crisis. Do not travel to the other wharf area near Loloho (5km to the north). This is under the control of gangs involved in the illegal export of scrap metal.

There are limited provisions at Arawa but the basics can be located. There are New Zealand police advisors at Arawa police station who can give you update you on the latest security situation. Walking around Arawa and Kieta you will see the effect of the crisis with most of the buildings still damaged or destroyed. The novel "Mr. Pip" was set in this area and a film adaptation will be made in 2011.

The customs office in Buka is one street back from the harbour and is across the road from the only supermarket in the center of town. The best anchorage is between Sohano Island and Bougainville Island and is well sheltered from the trade winds. The easiest entrance is from the east. The Buka Passage flows at up to 8kn creating large standing waves when wind opposes tide. Best entrance is at slack water, but once through any waves near the channel marker posts the passage is deep and easily navigitable. Entry can be made at any point of the tide if your engine is powerful enough! Rather than take your dingy to shore, simply wave down a PMV boat who will take you in for K2. Buka has an airport and regular connections to Rabaul and Port Moresby.

You can enter Buka from the west but this involves traveling past coral reefs and small islands. Fishing vessels do come through this way.

The eastern side of Bougainville Island has other ports at Wakanui and Tinputz. There is a barrier reef that has been unexplored with regards to scuba diving. Fishing is easy. One the west coast of Bougainville Island the best shelter is at Torokina Harbour, the site of a WWII airfield which was subjected to intense fighting.

Buka Island offers extensive sheltered cruising along its west coast, but the east coast is cliff. As a reminder to take care a freighter (now abandoned) hit the barrier reef just north of Matsungan Island in April 2010 after loosing engine power.

There are internet cafes in both Buka and Arawa with moderate bandwidth. Mobile phone calls are cheap (and everyone has a mobile), but land line international calls are very expensive.

Nissan Island (half way between Bougainville and New Ireland) makes an excellent stopping point on a passage from Buka to Rabaul.