New Golden Dreams: Discovering Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville Island

New Golden Dreams: Discovering Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville Island

mining hope

On the road to Panguna, near a ripening banana plantation, the island’s only tour operator, Bosco Miriona, slams on the brakes and reveals a startling information. “I almost got shot here,” he said.

“We were ambushing by the side of the road when the Papuan patrols swooped in on us and started shooting, so we crawled away on our stomachs. I smelled burnt. My braids were on fire,” he said with a smile of habit Red, rotting gums chewing betel nuts. “We were very young at the time,” he added. “War is like a big adventure, like a game.”

No more long braids, Bosco drove me inland from Arawa for an hour or so, into the Dauphin Mountains, with ‘California Dreaming’ playing on his stereo. We passed damaged electricity pylons that the BRA blew up to cut power to Panguna, then a burned workers bus and a downed crane.

Nestled on the edge of Panguna is an unforgettable sight: an open pit so deep it could have given Professor Lidenbrock’s research a head start Journey to the Center of the Earth In Jules Verne’s epic. It is also at the center of Bougainville’s painful past and likely future, with an estimated $58 billion in gold and copper still to be mined. “There used to be a mountain here,” Bosco added.

Delving into the abyss of Panguna, I found unimaginable optimism in an opportunistic ad hoc town where thousands of Bougainvilleans eke out a living amidst the ruins of a dystopia. Copper-blue slime oozes from the walls of the pit, while gold diggers—sometimes whole families, including children—use pickaxes to dig across the broken slopes. A miner named Justin Morris showed me a hunk of gold ore that he said was worth K100 an ounce (over £20) – more than he earned a week selling sweet potatoes at the market.

In mining areas, Bougainvilleans have cleverly repurposed abandoned infrastructure. The Meccano-style exoskeleton of the former miners’ dwelling has been sealed with tin sheets to create new housing. Tony and Ross keep freshwater fish in the old outdoor swimming pool. Geoffrey sells betel nuts at a newly built school to subsidize his teachers’ wages – but he’s quick to add, though not to his pupils. Meanwhile, Sylvester guards the ruined bank, and a converted vault houses 303 weapons decommissioned after the peace accord.

“Do you know what we did with the key to the vault?” he asked. “We threw it into the ocean.”

Nowhere on the island are the weather-beaten silhouettes of the halcyon days unforgettable. We trudged through a 400-meter-long ore suspension plant, roofless, its steel girders exposed to the blue sky overhead. Glass and copper-colored ore crunched underfoot, and the dump contained disembowelled metal pipes and discus-shaped crushers that once crushed ore to be transported to suspension tanks filled with toxic chemicals.

“We cannot reopen this mine,” Bosco said, now lost in thought. “We have to find another way to build our economy.”

This can be achieved through tourism. Over the next few days, on excursions from Arava, I experienced Bougainville’s intoxicating multiplication in the swirling clouds of the past.

Bosco’s hometown, Topinang, would entice Adam and Eve with delicacies more enticing than apples: hibiscus and wild ginger flowers mixed with banana, taro and cocoa trees, with vanilla vines twining around their trunks like vipers in the Garden of Eden. Bosco is the deputy head of the Eagle Clan in the village; their institution is friendship, not blood. However, society is matriarchal – so one day his wife’s land will go to their daughter, and her future husband will live with her and build their house.

Another morning, we hiked along the volcanic ridge to the pearly Koharu Falls, admiring views of the 2,715-meter Mount Balbi, an active volcano surrounded by donut-shaped clouds like a raucous prize . The click of my camera reminded Steven of a machine gun. Later, at the Kieta Pier on the east coast, we see the Zero fighter jet mounted on a pedestal, a memento of the Japanese occupation.

In 1943, with Japan’s momentum stalling, the U.S. Air Force launched Operation Revenge, targeting the plane of Admiral Yamamoto Fifty-Six, who commanded the attack on Pearl Harbor. The wreckage of that plane lies in the jungle to the south, out of my reach. Instead, I spent my last three days exploring the hallowed east coast – all the gold in the Panguna couldn’t offset the fun of it.

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