I fly from Vanimo, the country's westernmost point, to Bougainville, the easternmost. The last time I was in Bougainville was 1997 at the height of 'the crisis' - the brutal 10-year secessionist war. I'd come to Buka with a naïve and misplaced sense of 'adventure'. Buka island was then controlled by the PNG Defence Force, while the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) controlled most of the Bougainville island.
I was soon to realise that a war zone is not adventurous at all, but terribly sad. Buka township was thronged with soldiers bearing AK-47s. The people were grim and desperate, and I felt like an idiot, a voyeur, a pervert trivialising ten years of suffering by blowing through for a few days as a tourist.
So it's with delight that I return to find the region in post-war economic boom times. The people are smiling and happy to see visitors. The province is probably PNG's most beautiful - white-sand beaches, mountains and rivers, a clutch of islands and atolls serviced by water-taxis, amazing diving, and Buka Passage, the deep 300m-wide tidal trench that separates Buka from Bougainville. When the tide is running fast the passage has great undulations, whirlpools and eddies on its surface from the massive volume of water ripping through. The boats are pitched at 45 degrees and run crabwise across the current, and dugongs, dolphins, whales and flying fish pass through its waters.
Hardcore remnants of the BRA still control the area around the abandoned Panguna mine (the original source of malcontent) in the mountainous interior of Bougainville island. This is now called the 'no-go zone', but the rest of the province is quite safe. I'm able to catch a ride down to Arawa, three hours from Buka and formerly the provincial capital. Arawa too is coming back to life, although evidence of the conflict is everywhere - vast neighbourhoods of gutted buildings lay abandoned to the virulent jungle. It's possible to travel further south by road to Buin, but the road is bad and there's only more devastation to see, so, after overnighting in a basic guesthouse, I head north back to Buka.
The region also saw massive WWII action, and there are relics everywhere. The Japanese occupied Bougainville for most of the war, but lost nearly 60,000 troops to the fighting, tropical disease and starvation in the jungle. For decades afterwards there were apparent sightings of former Japanese soldiers still hiding in the jungles of Bougainville and the neighbouring Shortland Islands of the Solomons. There's a sobering monument to the fallen on a clifftop of tiny Sohano Island at the southern mouth of the passage.
Even by PNG standards, facilities and infrastructure for travellers in Bougainville are poor, but the region has great potential for small-scale tourism. As I prepare to leave again for a few last days in Port Moresby and then home to Melbourne, I'm gripped by mixed emotions. There's been so much suffering here, but there's also a palpable sense of relief, optimism and hope for the future. I'd like to be one of many travellers who visit Bougainville in the years to come.