Back in March last year, three friends and I went trekking in Bougainville. Our aim was to reach the remote, spectacular Lake Billy Mitchell, which is set in the crater of a dormant volcano, not far from the active volcano of Mount Bagana.
This post describes the highlight of the walk – Lake Billy Mitchell – and provides an overview of the trek itself. It also includes some information on the tour company who organised the trek (Zhon Bosco Miriona from Bougainville Experience Tours) and also travel and accommodation in Buka and Arawa.
(Thanks to Mads for help with the write-up, to Nick for the pics, and to Ads for the company.)
Lake Billy Mitchell (aka Erovit)
The highlight of the walk is Lake Billy Mitchell, which was named after an American general who is, according to Wikipedia, “regarded as the father of the US Air Force”. The local name for the lake is Erovit, which roughly translated means “place where the waters boiled up and overflowed”.
The lake is surrounded on all sides by the crater’s edge, which rises up to altitudes around 1,100-1,500m at different points and then drops steeply down about 200-300m before reaching the lake. The lake itself is quite large, perhaps 2km in diameter, and has a small island in the south-western corner. Check out this wonderful aerial pic of the lake.
We climbed up the eastern side of the crater, which meant that when turned our backs to the lake, we could look beyond the jungle-covered river valley that we had followed on the way up and see the Bougainville coast in the distance. It was quite a view.
It is also possible to wade up the river to the mouth of the lake: check out this short YouTube clip.
We began the trek from a guesthouse inland from the village of Manetai in Central Bougainville. Manetai is about 2.5 hours drive south along the main trunk road from Buka/Kokopau (and about 1 hours drive north of Arawa). The guesthouse is owned by Joachim and Philemina and we were the first tourists to visit. They were great hosts.
Like several other treks that I’ve done in the region, the walk to Lake Billy Mitchell follows a river system that flows from the mountains out to the coast. Indeed, we got to know the Bove River intimately on the walk, crossing it or wading our way along it at least 120 times before we lost count. Consequently, for much of the trek we were threading our way over river stones or clambering around boulders on the river banks, all of which makes this a fairly challenging walk.
It’s not possible to camp at the lake itself – the crater’s edge rises up on a sheer gradient on all sides and is thickly covered by jungle or ferns – so our guides set up a camp for us at a point several hours walk from the lake itself. It took us about 5-6 hours to get to the camp and, ideally, we would’ve stopped there for the day. However, because we had only allowed two days to get to the lake and back, we pressed on to the lake itself in the afternoon.
The camp site is known as Dakanwa, which roughly translated means “where the dry riverbed starts”. And true to its name, the walk subsequently changed from wading back-and-forth through the Bove River to threading our way along the river bed.
Ultimately, two of us turned back early, fearful that they’d be unable to make it up and back before nightfall. Nick and I pressed on and managed to get the lake and back again by 6pm, shortly before nightfall. However, we only had about 15-20 minutes to take in the spectacular views at the top: the round trip took us 11 hours at a fairly decent pace.
In short, two days is not really sufficient if you want time to enjoy the trek and minimise the risk of injuries. But over three days, I reckon it’s a terrific, if challenging, adventure:
- Day One: walk to base camp
- Day Two: walk up to the lake and back to base camp
- Day Three walk back out again
(Each day should involve about 5-7 hours of walking.)
For almost the entire distance, the trek runs through jungle with significant shade, with just one stretch of about 20-30 minutes where the river opens out and is exposed to the sun. Although much of the walk is challenging because of the uneven, rocky ground, it is rarely technical.
Buka has a small ‘central business district’ (ie, main road) located by the beautiful and fast flowing Buka passage. Basic supplies for the trek can be purchased in local trade stores. Apart from a jumping-off point for your travels in the rest of Bougainville, the Buka town area has little to recommend it for the traveller. However surrounding islands such as Madehas, Sohano and White Island are great for snorkelling, fishing and picnics, and easily reached by banana boat. The upturned Japanese light bomber located in approximately 3-4 metres of water in the Buka passage provides an interesting focal point for snorkelling. Unfortunately Bougainville has no dive infrastructure.
Accommodation in Bougainville is basic and relatively expensive. In Buka town itself, Kuri Lodge (973 9155, or 973 9151) is a Bougainville institution with a pleasant waterside setting and passable meals, but very average rooms. The newly-opened Destiny Guesthouse is close by and shares the water views with nicer rooms. Linchari Guesthouse and Hani’s Inn (973 9930, 973 9066) are also decent options.
By far the best and cleanest option in town is Malabolo Resort which offers beautiful views, setting and food. It is located about 10km outside town in the Hutjena area – PMVs into town run frequently and are inexpensive (K2/psn). However, at around K500 per night, the Resort itself is pretty hard on the wallet.
Buka and Kokopau are sister towns, separated by the narrow, fast-flowing Buka passage. Numerous banana boats cross the passage daily, taking folks from Buka to Kokopau on the mainland. From there, the main trunk road runs along the east coast of Bougainville to Arawa (about 5 hours drive) and then through to Buin in South Bougainville. The road crosses numerous rivers and is occasionally impassable due to flooding, even for the hardy troop-carrier drivers. However, several bridges were being built by the Japanese government when we visited and should be completed soon.
Arawa, Kieta and Panguna mine
It’s hard to visit Arawa and not be in awe of the state of the town. The pre-crisis planning and infrastructure (squash courts, petrol stations, footpaths and well planned streets) are still in evidence, notwithstanding the effects of the conflict and subsequent lack of maintenance. In town, the Arawa market is superior to the Buka market with a wider variety of goods for sale.
To the south of Arawa, it is worth taking a drive out to Kieta, Happy Valley and as far as the former international Airport of Aropa to fully appreciate what was lost during the ten-year ‘crisis period’. Outside of Arawa, a side trip to the old mine port of Loloho can also be worthwhile (it is on your way into town when coming from the north).
From Arawa it is also possible to arrange travel up into the old Panguna Mine area, however as this involves passing through the Morgan’s Junction road block into the ‘no go zone’ travel would need to be arranged in advance and may be risky.
Accommodation in Arawa is more limited than in Buka. Poonang Navi Inn, run by the friendly Pam and her daughters Lulu and Matilda is a standout and worth coming home to after a hard trek. Great food, clean, comfortable rooms, hot water and friendly staff make it the place to stay, but make sure you book in advance as it is often full (as it was during our stay). The Arawa Women’s Training Centre also provides clean, albeit basic and safe accommodation.
As Arawa is not yet hooked up to PNG Power the whole town is powered by private generators, which can only be run in the morning and evenings. The poor quality of town water supply means that only tank water should be used for drinking and washing.
Other treks in Bougainville
Whilst we were organising the trek, we heard about several other interesting treks that would be well worth considering.
The Numa Numa trail: this trek crosses the island from east to west, following the tracks along which Japanese and American troops fought during WWII. The trek starts near the town of Wakunai (accessible from the main trunk road) and finishes in the town of Torokina (accessible by banana boat). I know of one group who did the trek in four days: apparently it was fairly challenging but very rewarding.
Extensions to the Billy Mitchell trek: we were told afterwards that locals have found an intact American WWII plane and dog-tags on the far side of the mountain that houses Lake Billy Mitchell. It may also be possible to walk over the other side of the island.
Mount Balbi: our tour organiser, Zhon Bosco, also mentioned a walk up Mount Balbi in Central Bougainville.
Bougainville Experience Tours
Bougainville Experience Tours (BET) is a tour company based in Arawa, Central Bougaiville, owned by Zhon Bosco Miriona.
Zhon Bosco organized our trek, including our accommodation in Manetai, and we were generally happy with the service he provided.
He offers packaged tours for individual visitors and small groups of travellers who are interested in bushwalking, trekking, snorkelling, bird watching, cultural festivities and visits to local villages. In particular, Zhon Bosco has taken tours of birdwatchers who have read “Birds and Bird Lore of Bougainville and the North Solomons” by Don Hadden (2004).
- Phone: +675 7162 6393, or +675 7626 3583
- Fax: +675 7650 2566
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org