Bougainville: A Nascent Nation In The South Pacific

What are these semi-clothed women dancing to?

You’re going to find that out in this post, along with the ins and outs of the formation of a new country. No, the new country is not the Nation of Staatenlos, though there is a chance this country could play host to a free private city…

Setting out in the South Pacific

This South Pacific journey begins following a very enjoyable Australia trip. I was traveling Down Under to visit beautiful rainforests and snorkel around the Great Barrier Reef —not too dissimilar from what I did prior to my Outback backpacking excursionI again left Australia reminded of how much I love the country. And by the way, I am planning to spend an entire month there in 2021.

Our destination of the here and now comes as quite the contrast to the first world amenities you find in the so-called Down Under. We are heading to the autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG) called Bougainville. 

PNG proper — Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea from above

Have you previously heard of Bougainville?

If not, it’s time you learn. Because it’s only a matter of time before this South Pacific region and island group becomes a country.

Making sense of Bougainville

The region of Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands yet also part of the country of Papua New Guinea. How do we make sense of this?

You may remember the Solomon Islands as the place where everyone was spitting blood.. I mean betel nut saliva. You may also remember from my prior South Pacific trip that Solomon Islands is a country located east of PNG. But in addition to there being a country called the Solomon Islands, there is also the Solomon Islands archipelago, and Bougainville is part of it.

A country is born?

Bougainville has for years been trying to break away from PNG. At the end of the 20th Century, there was a decade-long civil war fought between PNG and Bougainvillean secessionists that also involved militant groups and a few other countries in the region. In 1998, the Bougainville Peace Agreement brought an end to the Bougainville Civil War. Three years later, Bougainville was granted autonomy. 

Then just recently — in December 2019 — Bougainville voted with an overwhelming 98.3% majority for independence from PNG. Unfortunately, the referendum was non-binding, so the national parliament of PNG has final authority over whether to grant Bougainville independence. But there is optimism they will honor the results of the referendum, and independence could be as few as 5 years away.

Always choose secession 😉

Plus, an independent Bougainville could be a potential landing spot for digital nomads, given all the opportunities that libertarians and anarchocapitalists can offer new fledgling governments who need support 🙂

I am a proud Bougainvillean. Taxes are Theft.

A bit more about About Bougainville

Bougainville is not only the name of the autonomous PNG region, but also the name of an island group — one historically referred to as the North Solomons. This group consists of multiple islands and atolls, of which Bougainville Island is the largest. The neighboring Buka Island is the second largest island in Bougainville, and it’s home to the region’s airport and interim capital, Buka Town.

Tok Pisin, a creole language spoken in PNG, is the lingua franca in Bougainville.

Flying from Australia, I landed in Port Moresby, the PNG capital. There I had to transit from the international terminal to the surprisingly crowded domestic terminal. I managed and caught my connecting flight to Buka Airport.

Connecting in Port Moresby. Off to Bougainville.

Buka and Bouganville’s WWII history

I landed on Buka, which is the northernmost island of Bougainville. Buka Airport and Buka Town are located at the southern end of the island, right beside the Buka Strait. The strait separates Buka Island from Bougainville Island.

Flying into Buka Town

Buka Island and Bougainville have supposedly been inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic period.

This period of extreme isolation ended during the height of the whaling industry when various countries like Germany, Britain, the U.S. and Australia visited the islands to resupply and trade with the locals.

Eventually, the islands were occupied by the Japanese during World War II.

While the Allied Forces never deployed troops on the islands, the Japanese airfields there were considered strategic supply points for the Japanese, so the Allies eventually bombed the airfields.


The island’s most significant WWII contribution is that it was the location where the Japanese commander in chief in charge of the Pacific Theater was shot down and killed by Allied forces. Isoroku Yamamoto’s body and the crash site were found in a Bougainville jungle.

Despite being opposed to war with the United States after his education at Harvard University and subsequent work as a naval attache in Washington D.C., Yamamoto planned and supervised the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.

Eventually, American codebreakers intercepted his flight plans and shot him down over Bougainville. This was considered a major blow to the military morale of the Japanese forces and a turning point in the Pacific Theater.

Today the crash site is a popular tourist destination. You can still see his aircraft exactly where it crash-landed. Unfortunately, I would not get to visit it during my stay, but it is quite a significant piece of WWII history in the Pacific.

Day 1 in the country-to-be

After arriving in Buka I met my tour guide Steven who I would become quite close with over the next few days. The airport was a bit rundown as you can see below. 

The international Airport of a new country?

In the aftermath of the Bougainville Civil War, the region has largely been neglected by the PNG government, so the infrastructure has suffered. Hopefully, when their full independence is granted and they can privatize the copper mine you will read about below, things will get better.

Anyway, Steven took me to my hotel which also wasn’t in the best condition. But I was tired from my early flight and really just needed a bed to lie down in for a few hours.

I was supposed to visit a local island, but it was raining quite hard so after my nap I stayed in the hotel and got some consulting work done. 

After working long enough to see the sun begin to set, I asked a local cleaning lady to cook dinner for me. She prepared some nice chicken dish for very cheap. I went to bed early, hoping for more favorable weather the next day.

Sohano Island

After sleeping for almost 12 hours I woke up early and waited to rendezvous with Stephen. 

Once we connected, we took a boat to the nearby Sohano Island. Before WWII, the Germans had colonized Sohano island. You can see the former headquarters of their outpost here:

German Headquarters.. not quite up to German code, as pointed out by one of my Instagram followers

This island is cleaner and more orderly, relative to the rest of Bougainville. So it’s home to most of the government officials and wealthy people.

We looked around Sohano Island as much as was necessary before going back across the narrow Buka Strait. We docked in Buka Town just so I could grab my things and head to the main island.

Monument with Bouganville and Buka islands on either side of the narrow Buka Strait


We crossed the strait quickly and landed on Bougainville Island. Our driver was about 45 minutes late, so we had a drink and explored a little bit. 

There wasn’t too much to see, but I snapped a picture of some local kids and what looked like an open-air deposit of cans and recyclable bottles.

Being saved for recycling?

As you can see the Bougainvilleans are quite dark-skinned, much darker than most of their PNG counterparts.

New Friends 🙂

After having a run-in with two crack addicts who my guide said “weren’t right in the head” our driver finally arrive. We embarked on the 4-hour journey to Arawa, the government center of Bougainville.

Finally, time to explore the main isle

Arawa is the largest city in Bougainville and should probably be the capital. However, it was destroyed so badly in the Bougainville Civil War that they moved the capital to Buka for the time being.

The four-hour drive was mostly a muddy road through the jungle, but picturesque nonetheless.

Upon arriving in Arawa, we changed drivers and drove up into the mountains to visit the aforementioned copper mine.

Panguna mine

The Panguna mine was once the largest copper-gold mine in the world with over a billion tons of ore grade copper and 12 million ounces of gold. While it is not active anymore due to the civil war, it once generated over 40% of Papua New Guinea’s GDP.

The Panguna mine

The civil war was predicated on the fact that almost none of the massive profits of the mine went to Bougainville residents. The profits were split mostly between PNG and the Australian mining company that operated the mine.

It was quite impressive to see considering it was once a large mountain and now is one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. 

Once a mighty mountain

For now, there is basically nothing happening there, as the civil war is over and the Bougainvilleans wait to officially become independent before they start utilizing the mine again. Even all the equipment the Australian mining company left behind has been stripped down by the locals and sold as scrap metal.

Stripped down mining equipment

There are still a couple of local villages that have some people living there, but it’s pretty barren otherwise, with a couple of completely rundown old hotels that the Australians would stay at — like this one:

Not quite a Marriott

A local village up by the mine

The reason some people still live up by the mine is the prospect for alluvial gold mining from the river that flows out of the area. It was Sunday when I was there, so no one was working, but normally it is packed with prospectors.

10 people average 3g of gold (95% purity) in 2 days. This gives them around 120€ on the local market. That’s quite a lot of money for them, even when it comes down to just 6€ per person per day.

Bougainville Sutter’s Mill?

After viewing the river we headed back to Arawa. I would be staying on a different island and needed to get there before the weather turned bad. The island on which I’d be spending the night was called PukPuk in the local language, which means “crocodile.” You can see why below 🙂

This prehistoric giant crocodile has been asleep so long an island grew on top of it 🙂

Crocodile Island

We took a boat over to Crocodile Island and were lucky because the weather didn’t turn bad until about one minute before we landed on the island. I got to my hut relatively dry.

Racing the rainclouds

My guide cooked a nice dinner for me, and then it was another early night in bed, as I was exhausted and had no internet at all.

I woke up and tried to snorkel a bit, but there wasn’t much to see in the water, so I abandoned that idea pretty quickly, but snapped some pictures of the beach.

Nice beaches

There was a church on the island called Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, which was quite well maintained. I was supposed to find our driver waiting for us at the cathedral. 

Our Lady of Assumption

Once again the driver was late by almost an hour, so I just laid down in the grass and had a nice relaxing nap.

Eventually, our driver, a guy named Bosco, came. Steven and I drove off with Bosco to explore the rest of the island. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, but we went to a local market and stopped at a disco for a beer.

Local beer and disco venue

It was Monday afternoon so there wasn’t much hope for a party going on at the disco. But it’s said that on weekends and big holidays, the locals have a lot of fun there.

After a couple refreshing beverages we drove to the harbor, which also was an example of how much the PNG government has neglected Bougainville lately. There was only one boat in the whole harbor, and it was a ferry that looked like it hadn’t moved in a while.


The single boat in the harbor

We went to check out the “White House” or government building of Bougainville. But in this interim period between autonomy and full independence there isn’t much going on there.

The “White House”

That being said, Bougainville is quite an interesting soon-to-be country with a lot of potential. I pitched Bougainville to some people affiliated with the Free Private Cities movement, who are involved in creating libertarian or anarchocapitalist ministates. It’s possible they may fly down and negotiate with the potential heads of government in Bougainville… in which case I’ll most certainly be back 🙂

Locals in a Few Settings

The main attraction of the day was visiting a local village where the men came out and played music while the women and children all danced and sang for me. They were singing in Tok Pisin. According to my guide, the songs were mostly about birds and things like that.

Dancing and singing with the locals

I explored the village a bit and took some pictures of a pretty little waterfall and a cool (if a little structurally questionable) hanging rope bridge over the river.

Would you walk that bridge?

From there, we left Crocodile Island to get back on a boat and return to the main island.

Upon returning to Bougainville Island, my guide’s car broke down. We had to stop the car on the street and wait to see if someone would come who could help us fix it. Nobody came so eventually I had to walk to the nearest town and take the local bus. This wasn’t quite the hike that was my trek with the Cossacks of the North Caucasus

The bus was going in the opposite direction of Arawa, so it slowed down my trip quite dramatically. But I got to experience the local public transport, which is something I otherwise would not have gotten to do.

When we arrived in Arawa, I had a short walk to my hotel. There I enjoyed a nice dinner of pork knuckle that a lady cooked for me. 

Leaving Bougainville

I met with Steven the next morning, and he took me to the airport where we would say our goodbyes. Steven and I had a nice time together, and I recommend using him as your tour guide if you are ever in Bougainville. He was very curious about the world and my business, so I even gave him some free consulting about where to buy and store gold and gave him the contacts to some providers I know :). Steven seemed to be enthusiastic about the idea, so hopefully, I was able to help him out in that regard and give him a bit of a bonus for the great job he did guiding me around his homeland. Steven is actually trying to establish his own tour business – you can contact him at:

Luckily the weather was nice that day and there were no Allied forces in the sky to shoot us down. I got to see Bougainville clearly from above, and it was quite scenic. There is an active volcano in the middle of Bougainville called Bagana, which I got to see, as well as a crater lake volcano called Billy Mitchell. All in all, it was a very beautiful 40-minute flight, and it’s not the worst place in the world to get shot down in a dogfight, I guess.

Landing back in Buka Town

We landed in Buka, where we dropped off some passengers and picked up some new ones before departing Bougainville for Papua New Guinea proper, which you get to hear about in an upcoming post. 

Want to find out how Bougainville compares to the rest of PNG? Stay tuned.