Article | 220 days in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. That’s how long I’ve been on the remote Melanesian island – a place which offers hikes through utter wilderness, rarely seen natural wonders, incredible underwater scenes and wide beaming smiles. However, very few people make it to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.
The autonomous region is recovering from a 10-year civil war, referred to as ‘the Bougainville conflict’, which came to an end in 1998. Chances are if you type ‘Bougainville’ into Google, the conflict will be one of the top results. The devastating impact is still clear to see. Occasionally, a local will tell an insightful story of times gone by – times, still fresh in the minds of many. Partially destroyed structures of houses, factories, social clubs and hotels now engulfed by rainforest are a common sight throughout the island, a reminder of historical events. Basic facilities including infrastructure, health-provisions, power, water and communications took an obvious hammering, sustaining considerable damage and have been slow to be restored – all of which compete for valuable resource and prioritisation, impacting the way of life for many of the 200,000+ residents.
It’s also incredibly remote. Most international flights arrive into Port Moresby via Cairns in northern Australia, over 1,500 kilometres away and another flight or two are needed to get to Bougainville itself – an additional investment of time and money. Geographically, Bougainville forms part of the Solomon Islands archipelago and is closer to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands than it is to the capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, over 1,000 kilometres away. On clear day, the northernmost islands of the Solomon’s can be seen from the town of Buin in south Bougainville. Solomon islanders regularly travel between the two by banana boat to trade at the local market.
But regardless of these challenges, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is a place which pulls you in, takes you on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows and promises of adventures through dense rainforest, climbing volcanoes, viewing crater lakes, exploring uninhabited islands, swimming in crystal clear waters and discovering WW2 historical memorabilia. It’s these challenges which add to the attraction of it – just organising a trek or any other pursuit for that matter takes a lot of effort, so once you’ve completed it, you definitely feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Unlike my home country of New Zealand, it’s not possible to simply pack my rucksack and hit a trail in Bougainville. There are other considerations which have to be taken on board – do you have permission for all the various lands and villages you’ll be passing through? The answer is probably no and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to discover who to ask, let alone get in contact with them to seek permission. Also, the local community has to be spoken with to ensure everyone is clear on what’s happening and is happy. Therefore, most of the multi-day pursuits of hiking and visiting islands needs to be organised through one of the few tourism outfits, which have a selection of trails they offer – these include Rotokas Eco Tourism and Bougainville Experience Tours.
However, after 220 days in one destination you inevitably meet people and make connections which open up new opportunities to explore the island with an individual rather than on an organized tour. Individuals whom of which are willing to go out of their way to engage with the local communities to ensure everyone is satisfied and negotiate a fee if necessary. The majority of the off the beaten track places and/or multi-day outdoor pursuits I’ve completed during my time in Bougainville have been pre-planned and organised through one of these organizations or an individual with whom I’ve established a relationship. However, there are those unplanned and spontaneous things which happen that wouldn’t necessarily be available for a short term visitors and just wouldn’t be possible unless you’re in the right place at the right time – this must be the key advantage of long-term travel and is particularly beneficial in somewhere like the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. These new friendships have not only enabled me to incorporate numerous activities into my weekly routine including a weekly bike ride to the nearby beach of Loloho to swim and snorkel, but they have also enabled other opportunities, such as being invited to a local Sing Sing Festival and being asked to photograph and film the event.
One observation I’ve made during my time here is that Bougainville requires you to adopt a laid-back attitude. This takes time to adapt to but the sooner you do, the happier you’ll be. Things happen when things happen in Bougainville and nobody shows any particular signs of stress from this freeform style of living. This can understandably be frustrating and somewhat challenging for short-term travellers, however it’s one of the true joys of Bougainville for the long-term stayer. I guess it’s the Bougainville equivalent of Fiji time – eventually you adapt. The fact that two different times are commonly utilised throughout the island says it all – PNG time and Bougainville time of which is an hour later and people appear to switch between the two.
I’ve had numerous experiences of a Public Motor Vehicle (PMV) picking you up a few hours later than agreed and upon arriving we all just continue onward thinking nothing of it. An example which springs to mind is I had just finished 3-days of walking in the mountains of Rotokas and had organised a driver and his truck to take me the one-hour trip back to town. On on way home the driver took a phone call and minutes later I was dropped off at the side of the road and asked to wait. In a conversation of Tok Pisin and English, it transpired he had some VIP to collect from Buka. So I waited. I spent the time reading, playing cards, chatting with locals and waiting some more. I waited for 5 hours before he returned, picked me up and we continued onto Arawa – now accompanied by five Fijian lads… There were no other options but to accept it and make the best of the situation. Similar things happen all the time – all of which add to the Bougainville experience.
The thing that stands out most though? The people of Bougainville. They demonstrate an attitude to life which is refreshing to be part of, open, honest and a real willingness to make new friends and share a good story. They welcome you in with open arms – actually, it’s more of a prolonged handshake than open arms, but you know what I mean. The prolonged handshake took a while to get used too! I have had occasions when I’ve held someone’s hand for 2-3 minutes upon meeting them. Try it, it’s not as easy as you might think! It’s the people of Bougainville, the people you stop and chat with at the market, the shops, on the street or at the beach that leave a lasting impression on those fortunate enough to spend time here. I’ve recently made a new friend called Juinor, 4 years old, who was waving at me in the supermarket. I waved back and upon leaving his parents introduced themselves and said their boy had told them we were friends from beach – it turns out I had lent him my mask and snorkel several weeks before!
I continue to learn about the ways of life in Bougainville on a daily basis and it never fails to amaze me. A recent event reminded me of the cultural differences compared to New Zealand. My partner and I have been trying to organize a multi-day walk to a crater lake in the south of Bougainville. This led to a chain of messages and phone calls interlaced with English and Tok Pisin – incidentally, both of which are official languages of Papua New Guinea. Eventually, after failing to determine enough information to do the walk on the weekend we had wanted, we organised alternative plans for an overnight island stay. However, as only happens in Bougainville, or possibly other places of which I haven’t experienced, the individual we had been speaking with turned up on the doorstep. That’s not too unusual you might be thinking – however, the individual lives 4 hours away and we had not told him where we lived! He introduced himself and we chatted about the walk, which we would plan to do in the future, if possible. An insight into life in Bougainville – where nothing or no one goes unnoticed by someone and everyone knows someone who knows you!
In summary the combination of remoteness, opportunities for intrepid adventure, the unknown challenges, diverse heritage and the people of Bougainville ensure the few that make it to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville rarely leave disappointed. It’s a place which stays with people long after they leave of which is evident by the number of people who’ve reached out to me since being here. They share fond memories and photographs of the time they spent on the island both before and after the crisis and enjoy seeing how it looks now through my stories, videos and photographs. It’s fair to say the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea is infectious and unlike any place I have experienced.
Author: Adam Constanza – Freelance Travel Writer, Wellington – New Zealand | www.travelinspired.co.nz
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