Buka Island, Papua New Guinea

Photo: Jeremy Weate via flickr

Something is brewing in the South Pacific. It’s not a cyclone, but one could pop up at any time. It isn’t climate-change protests, though these low-lying islands would be the first to disappear as sea levels rise. It isn’t even coronavirus cases, since these isolated islands have been able to cut themselves off, for the most part, from the rest of the world. This change could be big and exciting. It would be the creation of a new country.

Bougainville is currently part of Papua New Guinea. The autonomous region, which lies at the northern end of the Solomon Islands chain, is the easternmost part of the island nation. The remote area consists of Bougainville Island, Buka Island, and a handful of small islets and atolls. The volcanic islands are far from everything and relatively unexplored. They’re home to azure lagoons, dense greenery, giant caves, hidden lakes, plunging waterfalls, and tumbling rivers. No wonder they’re considered the Jewel of the South Seas.

Now the Bougainvilleans want to govern themselves. Their islands have been inhabited for nearly 30,000 years. Since the 18th century, when the French arrived, the Austronesian people claim that their land has been occupied. The Brits, the Americans, the Germans, and the Aussies all followed the French. The Japanese invaded the islands during World War II. They became an Australian territory and then part of independent Papua New Guinea after that.

This wasn’t a peaceful time, though. The Bougainville Civil War was triggered by the Panguna mine, which contained one of the largest copper deposits in the world. It brought wealth to the country, though the islands didn’t reap the rewards. A 1998 peace agreement eventually gave the islands autonomy. It wasn’t enough. Last month, more than 98 percent of Bougainvilleans voted for complete independence. Their home could soon be the newest country in the world.

That would make Bougainville the world’s 196th country. It would also mean that you have another country to add to your list. If you plan it right, you could be one of its first visitors. Currently, there is little tourism infrastructure. This would be a true do-it-yourself trip. That’s not a bad thing. The islands are full of untapped potential. A coast-to-coast hike through the volcanoes in the Emperor Range. Caves and rivers that have never been kayaked. Scuba diving with endangered dugongs in the Solomon Sea. World War II relics, including the wrecked bomber of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly empty waves—the Aussies might have already beaten you to the best surfing spots.

Your journey begins with a two-hour flight from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. You’ll land on Buka Island. The second-largest island is home to Buka (the capital) and a coral reef that rings the entire island. You’ll cross the narrow Buka Passage on a boat to reach Bougainville. From there you can head down the east coast to Wakunai (the starting point for hikes), Arawa (the former capital and mining center), or Buin (the southern tip and former Japanese military base). It’s sure to be the adventure of a lifetime.

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