Tonga for beginners 2006

ImageWhat would you do with a week in Tonga I asked one of the Tongans who turn up regularly to go fishing at Karaka Bay. He thought long and hard. "Go fishing." he replied.





ImageWith fifteen minutes before my frequent flyer mileage expired a decision had to be made. I could have gone anywhere in Australia, but nowhere had any appeal except as a gateway to other adventures, and for those I would have needed a vehicle which did not make sense when on my own. Cairns was the greatest distance but it seemed to have nothing going for it. Was it possible to go to Tonga?

No one had ever asked, but yes it was. I walked out of the Thai Airlines office with a ticket to Tonga.

What would you do with a week in Tonga I asked one of the Tongans who turn up regularly to go fishing at Karaka Bay. He thought long and hard. "Go fishing." John Mackay had been up with the family for a couple of weeks. "Watch the parades." Basil Hafoka was my closest Tongan friends. "Go fishing." He gave me a delicious smoked fish just in case I did not catch anything.


Image Preparing for any trip is always great fun, and I knew almost nothing about Tonga in spite of constantly greeting Tongans as they walked up and down the hill or pestered me to borrow a dingy. Clive bought me the Lonely Planet guide book. He also had more success with the internet than I did and together we sorted out some accommodation close to the docks and downtown.

May came, along with some of the wettest weather we had had in years. I was exhausted and badly in need of a holiday. With all my gear packed, and only jobs to do which needed more time than I had, there seemed to be every reason to have a good meal and a good night's sleep. Most unusual for me.

ImageSaturday 13 May 2006
Karaka Bay - Nuku'alofa

I was awake two minutes before the alarm was due to go off and departed from Karaka Bay at 6.40am. Out to Papatoetoe to leave Lisa there and Clive took me on to the airport, departing at 7.15am. We were right on schedule. 7.30am. Two hours before my 9.30am flight to Tonga. It felt good to be departing as the dawn heralded a new day and a new adventure.

A coffee with Clive and then on my way. Bought some duty-free film, but they only had packs of four which left me with the feeling that film was definitely on the way out. That gave me four free throw-away Chinese photo albums which I never managed to give to anyone, and also entitled me to a bottle of port for $5, so took that with me to have a port each night. Finally I left the bottle in the Hideaway.

I only took carry on luggage, and could have reduced it even further but did not know quite what I was heading into. Everyone else seemed to have enormous quantities of what I presumed must be food. I seemed to be the only palangi, and the only person who did not know what was going on.

A window seat and an empty seat beside me in the 2/4/2 configuration 737-400 made for a very comfortable and pleasant Air NZ flight. More than anything else there was not a single scratch on the windows, providing perfect viewing. From my port side there were fantastic views of Little Barrier and the Mokohinaus. Also the Hen and Chickens. We should have been able to see the Poor Knights, but they were obscured by cloud.

There was then only the blue sky to enjoy until Tongatapu appeared. We banked to the port and then swung around 180 degrees to reveal an island looking exactly like the maps I had studied, but now studded with millions of coconut palms rising from the plantations.

Steps were wheeled out and we descended into the lazy tropical heat. That blast of hot air when you get out of a plane always feels good. Memories flood back. Dubai. Delhi. Rarotonga.

Everything was very laid back. We all needed to fill in our entry forms as none had been delivered to the plane. I declared my raisins as "food" which did not raise an eyebrow. Why would anyone only want to bring raisins? Three strumming guitars of course provided entertainment while all this was going on, with colourful Pacific shirts to go with the music.

A sign greeted me, and in minutes I was off in a minibus for a wonderful tour of half the island. The airport is on the southern side, Nuku'alofa is on the north. I discovered much later that there is a bus run by one of the tourist agencies at a cost of around T$5. A minibus "transfer" or a taxi seems to work out at around T$25.

A hotel was being built close to the airport. At first I wondered why. Later I realised the advantage of being able to rush over the road to catch a flight as well as having somewhere to stay when waiting for all the flights which do not seem to happen. This is the gateway to all the other islands, but internal air travel can be very expensive.

The road was sealed and there was a steady stream of traffic. Driving seemed to be very relaxed. I never saw anger or accidents. The speed limit is 40km/hr in villages and 65km/hr on the open road. To my amazement when I was out with Joe I discovered the police with a speed trap. The fine was T$2 for every km over the limit, but apparently if you give the police T$10 they are happy, and forget about fining you. Flat sealed roads make ideal conditions for cycling.

The atmosphere reminded me of Rarotonga, the way it used to be before the tourists moved in. Instantly I knew I am going to enjoy being here, as old memories came flooding back. Plantations. Coconut. Bananas. Mango. Taro. Yam. Small villages. Little concrete block shops all over the place, with a wire grid over the shelf along the front for customers, and lines of shelves along the back with almost nothing on them. Cans, drinks and essential household items.

However behind the innocent facades of the shops a problem was brewing. In November 1998 Tonga broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and Taiwanese in Tonga were given 48 hours to leave. The Chinese were invited to move into the recently built but now empty Taiwanese Embassy. The issues are complex but the battle between China and Taiwan casts a long shadow over the whole of the Pacific. Votes are swapped for aid. Tonga was granted membership of UN in September 1999 once the obstacle of opposition from China had been removed. The Chinese have now taken over the majority of the shops and there is considerable resentment. In a few years there will be another Fiji.

Roadside stall
All along the way there were also hundreds of small roadside stalls selling mostly taro in "flax" kits. The bio-degrable ideal. Once that was taken for granted. Now Tonga could lead the world. Rubbish only began appearing as we approached Nuku'alofa.




ImageGraveyards were very different from anything I had experienced. Enormous decorations seemed almost like bill-boards. They all looked very recent and apparently are replaced if they become tatty.

The Crown Prince's mansion looked like a cross been a 20 acre lifestyle block at Karaka and a USA magazine. As pretentious as it was obnoxious. Not a good direction for the Kingdom to head in. Over the road his sister's mansion was heavily protected and enclosed. She had been able to grab and then sell a number of satellite slots with rumours that she had become a multimillionaire as a result. The idea of a kingdom can have great advantages but there are also risks when the humility of the old Royal Palace gets tossed about by materialistic expectations with Enron ethics.

A big basketball stadium associated with a school. Pigs. Chooks. An open air market. All along the road little stalls were selling woven kits of Taro and other produce. Tomorrow was Mothers' Day and there was to be much feasting. The Lagoon. Basil Hafoka's Basilica. Downtown. The waterfront with distant views of many small coral atolls.

Tom's Guesthouse. We did not get off to a good start. Epeli wanted me to pay for the transfer. I refused as Valerie had made it very clear that the cost was included in the cost of my room. Epeli then said that if I did not pay the transfer he would make me pay the tax. Valerie had clearly stated that the tax was also included in the cost of the room. Looking back I should have read the signs and simply walked off to find somewhere else to stay, but I was not in the right head-space for that. I had convinced myself this was going to be a hassle-free holiday in the "Friendly Isles". 

It turned out that I was the first guest to arrive since the place had been renovated. It was the strangest "upgrade" anyone interested in tropical architecture could have imagined. Nothing Troppo here. Bathrooms had been built on the outside of the house where the windows had been, so that rooms were now totally enclosed. A little "cooper-louvre" daylight entered the room if the door to the bathroom was left open. Dark timber bedsteads and furniture filled the small rooms. Florid "Smith & Brown" bedspreads only made it all seem more oppressive.

Epeli and Lindy had married back in 1972. They had separated, both had remarried, her new husband had been murdered in New Zealand, and Epeli had become separated again. They had got together again and had just taken over the role of running Tom's. She was threatening to return to San Francisco and even had a ticket to leave in several days time. He was trying to convince her to stay and she ended up postponing her flight. I had not taken an airline novel with me to read, and I did not need one.

Explored the town, which did not take long. "Sione's Wedding" was one of the eight or so films showing each day at the local cinema. I intended to go, but ran out of time. "Friends" was the up-market establishment in the middle of town where palangi seemed to gather, whether in Tonga long term or short term. One half was information centre, shop, booking office and internet cafe, the other was a restaurant with pleasant tables out under a verandah.

In the other half of Friends I enjoyed snapper, fruit salad and great coffee. They import Karajoz and I never did find anywhere where you could get a cup of their excellent local coffee. A pity. Tonga has great potential but seems to lack pride. The problem is not the wrapping paper off junk food blowing around in the streets. It is the importing of the junk food in the first place when the soil is so rich that you seem to be able to grow almost anything.

ImageSunday 14 May 2006

Fried eggs for breakfast. Papaya, pineapple and banana. Ernest from Hamburg is the only other person staying at Tom's. He seems to be spending half of each year in Tonga, in an idle beachcomber kind of way.


ImagePedalled off to 10am Mass in the Basilica of St Anthony of Padua, designed by Basil Hafoka. There was a brass band, with three on trumpet, a tuba and a trombone, and about a third of the congregation seemed to be the choir, so really this was a concert with religious interludes rather than the other way around. Lots of ritual, lots of participation. Many have ta'ovala but hats were not a feature so that the mood was very different from Rarotonga.


ImageAfterwards I talked to a few of the locals and met Filomena and Soa Lintai. She is Portugese, and although Tongan he has spent much of his life in London. They had returned to live in Tonga with their two daughters Leilani and Katalina. We talked about heritage, culture and traditions. I put forward the idea that Tonga could lead the world in issues like sustainability because the boundaries are known and you know exactly what crosses them. With enough idealism real planning would be possible. An ethical and moral position in relation to the earth.

Electricity is produced from diesel and the diesel is of course imported. In contrast the SE Trades seemed to me to offer an endless source of wind energy. The only place in the world where there was no tsunami warning following the Tongan earthquake a few weeks ago was Tonga. There was a power outage from the quake and so the warning did not get through.

ImageThey invited me to call at their home to carry on the conversation. I decided to first return to Tom's to share in the meal cooked by Lindy to celebrate Mothers' Day. The special delicacy was corned beef out of a can wrapped in coconut leaves and then wrapped in aluminium foil to be baked in an umu, although in this case the oven was the umu. The taro was simply boiled.

ImageBetty Hafoka Blake, Basil's sister had also been at Mass at the Basilica, and she lives almost next door to Filomena and Soa. I called in to find her celebrating not only Mothers Day but also her birthday. Betty was one of the thousand women chosen to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and her life has been devoted to women's rights and issues of justice. She works out of a small LLP office just over the road, and later I discovered that Filomena also works there. Women's rights have apparently been a big issue in this patriarchal (but what about Queen Salote?) society, but it seemed to me that they are a force to be reckoned with. Forty women were heading off in a month or so to a meeting in Seattle. Wow. Sisters are doing it themselves.

This was the old family home of George, Betty's husband, and the walls were decorated with all the old family photographs. I was able to meet all the relatives and even enjoy Basil's wedding photo. Tongans are spread far and wide around the world, but the land tenure system gives stability at home. The family feast had finished. I shared some dessert. Children, grandchildren and other relatives drifted off to their own lives. The house had a pleasant tropical feel to it. Appropriate architecture.

Two houses down the street I found Filomena with Leilani and Katalina. Soa was not yet back from a meeting, although he did arrive before I left. I was only making contact with the activists but their lives seemed to be a constant round of meetings, just as they would have been in New Zealand.

Leilani was working at the Liahona Mormon High School, where all the schooling is run from Hawaii via the Net. The children end up with Hawaiian qualifications. Her role was to be a motivator who helped them organise their time and taught them self discipline. She ensured that the assignments got done but had no input into teaching content. My feeling was that Tonga needed people like her to be leaders rather than merely technicians serving another culture. She hoped to go on to study at either Oxford or, interestingly, Massey. I hoped that she would realise the very special role she might play in Tonga.

I pedalled off to explore a little of the town, but the sun sets early in the tropics so I was back at Tom's around 7pm.

ImageMonday 15 May 2006
Nuku'alofa - Tongatapu - Nuku'alofa

Roosters and another excellent breakfast.

My theory was that it must be possible to explore the island by bicycle, and logical to spend one day in the East and another in the West. I spent a day discovering that it was all more complicated than that as poor maps and an almost complete lack of signpost leave you constantly lost in a featureless landscape. Getting directions is tricky as everyone is too helpful. They assure you that whatever you want is just down the road and send you riding off into oblivion.

My first move was to swap my bike, which had neither gears nor brakes, for a better model, as I went past the rental depot. I also managed to acquire a small handlebar basket which was really useful as I did not need a camera pack on my back. The bike was however not designed for a human being and riding long distances became increasingly tortuous. It was also a long time since I had ridden a bike and I ended up padding the seat with a towel I found on the side of the road.

The coastal road to the west of the palace was pleasant enough, but then it simply runs out when it meets a fetid rubbish filled swamp. Retraced my steps and eventually found a road running south to connect to the main west road. Stopped to get something to drink and amazed to find water imported from New Zealand. Fatai and other little villages. The junction where the three roads converge. On to a blue "milestone" with 33 on top, arrows pointing left beneath that, and symbols of a car and a bicycle below that. It seemed to be telling me to turn left, but I could not work out why. Perhaps the 33 meant 33km from Nuku'alofa. I would find a few more of these signs, in various stages of disrepair, around the island but no one, not even Joe, could tell me what they were for. Perhaps they were a remnant of some forgotten aid scheme from twenty years ago.

The turn to the left took me a few hundred yards down to Ha'atafu Beach. It was about as close as you get to a swimming beach in Tonga. It seemed odd to arrive back home without having had a swim, or for that matter without having seen anyone else having a swim. Sat a while in the shade of a tree. Met a Kiwi who had sailed up in nine days and was flying back home. He had been out on 'Atata with his family and was reeling from a T$600 bill for food. A warning to avoid resorts.

On north until the road faded away into a track and then I walked on out until the land dropped away into the sea. You look across to 'Atata and other small islands in the distance. There is a bronze plaque to mark the site where Abel Tasman landed on 21 January 1643.

Retraced my steps to the constant drum of women beating out tapa cloth. At first I did not realise what the sound was. It seemed like the rather erratic playing of a Fijian log drum. It is the only sound to break the silence and it is everywhere. Tapa is made from Mulberry bark with Tapioca used to glue the pieces together.

I was becoming increasingly exhausted, needing to take breaks to rest, and decided to head straight back to Nuku'alofa. There were several car yards on the edge of town, modest and unadorned. A coffee and mango smoothie at Friends was very welcome. Back to Tom's for a meal.

ImageTuesday 16 May 2006
Nuku'alofa - Tongatapu - Nuku'alofa

Woken by the crowing of the roosters. Breakfast.

I had decided to try the rental car alternative to cycling. This involves getting a Tongan driving license at the local Police Station. I pedalled off and called at the Visitors Centre along the way to book in for the Hideaway. Also checked out the cost of flying to Va'vau. T$360. Also found that Air NZ have an office in town, although I never did find it. (phone 23828 or 23192) Thought I had better check in case I decided to stay an extra week.

ImageI was checking out the notice boards when a beaming smile said "Why don't you come on a tour. We are leaving now." It was Joe. "How much?" "T$40" "When do you get back?" "Around 4pm." Obviously this was the all day tour, and I knew the cost for one person was T$90. I locked my bicycle and left it at the Visitors' Centre and jumped into the minibus. It seemed that this would be better value than hiring a car, and it certainly was.

The Palace. The Royal Tombs, which remain strangely sombre and unadorned in contrast to other graves. The "flying foxes" hanging by the dozen in a tree I had cycled past on the previous day without realising what the sound was. Later I would see them swooping over the jungle canopy at dusk from the Lookout on 'Eua.

We passed a grass paddock dotted with coconut palms. A herd of very contented cattle were grazing at a stocking capacity far beyond what we could achieve in New Zealand. Yet milk and meat are imported into Tonga. The farm is run by the Mormons, but I cannot see why anyone else could not do the same. The problem seems to be that when an entrepreneur does well they find that their venture is taken over by the government or the nobility. Naive NZ Aid folk think the problems are technical, when in fact they are political, as they are in so many other parts of the world.




ImageI had been rather dismissive of the blowholes, but revised my view. The reef itself was exquisite enough with forms such as you find in thermal areas or where paddy fields cascade down Nepalese hillsides. Then the high tide somehow finds its way under the coral to find an endless number of holes. At first there is a spurt of spray, but then a massive geyser erupts. For several kilometres in both directions there are thousands of geysers in ever changing rhythms. You need to be there at high tide.

In a half derelict building at the end of the road a salesman was marketing his massages. Joe had one. A freebie for the tour guide who brings in the clients I presumed. At T$20 for 15 minutes I was tempted, but only if it would provide amusement for the four others in our minibus. They did not seem very interested.






ImageBack to the main road and the triple headed coconut tree. An oddity for tourists who collect oddities. Joe discovered he had left his mobile back at the massage. While he went to collect it I had time to explore a coffee plantation. Joe assured me it is the only coffee on the island, but for that to be true Royal Coffee would need to be grown elsewhere. There was a prolific crop of beans. The economic potential of the island seems to be unlimited. Close by was Liahona Mormon College where Leilani works helping students with their internet learning from Hawaii. It is a massive complex, immaculately kept, and seemingly totally culturally irrelevant. The Mormon Temple is adjacent and a genealogy service is just over the road. It seems as though everyone is competing for the Tongan soul.

We stopped at a small store to stock up for lunch. It was surprising to find New Zealand Tip Top ice cream at T$1.50 - less than it would cost in St.Heliers. Bought some "Tongan cakes", about the size of meat balls and with the texture of Maori bread.

There is a plaque to mark the spot where Cook landed in 1777 on his last voyage. At that time this was where the main settlement on the island was located. The shoal anchorage makes it now seem an unlikely spot for all this.

We dived off down another unmarked dirt road to the end and then walked a short distance to the 'Anahulu Cave. This is Tonga's most famous cave. The stalactites and stalagmites have however had a hard life as there has been plenty of traffic over the years. Nothing to compare to the Waitomo area. At the end is a freshwater pool where you can swim. Pekepekatae, or white rumped swiftlets, nest in the cave.




ImageThere was time enough down at the beach to have lunch and then walk across the lagoon and explore the reef itself. Rather like an endless rock pool, full of colour. On north along the coast road passing along the way an army patrol on an exercise. The role of the army in Tonga did not seem to be significant. The Ha'amonga Trilithon consists of three coralline stones, each weighing about 40 tonnes, arranged to form a trilithic gate. There is debate but it seems that the stones were used to determine the solstice and the seasons.

ImageOn west to the Fishing Pigs of Talafo'ou. Dozens of pigs wander across the road to dig up shellfish along the muddy edges of the lagoon. I did not see any of them go out far enough to go swimming for the sheer pleasure of it. Rows of stakes stretch out into the tide to form fishing traps. They are very beautiful, but did not seem to be in use. The road along here is the most attractive on the island.






ImageThe large 1893 Catholic Church, looking as though it belonged in the English countryside, was the only building we saw which had suffered earthquake damage. There were some bad cracks and some stone had fallen from the tower. A meeting was in progress to discuss what should be done. The following Saturday I would meet Filomena in the street and she asked if I could help. The cost of earthquake proofing it to New Zealand standards would be considerable. Some said they should simply demolish it. It had however survived every earthquake up to now in the last hundred years and simply strapping it together should se it through the next hundred years. In that time frame Tonga will be very different. It was a project I brought back to New Zealand to discuss with colleagues. A week after I arrived back there was a 6.7 earthquake in Tonga, and another week later there was a 6.1 quake.















ImageClose by were the Langi Namaola Burial Mounds. These are pyramids with terraces formed of stone. They are in the centre of the Lapaha Archaeological Site, an extensive area of tombs, forts, moats, piers and reclamations.

We dropped the German off at the Heilala Holiday Lodge where fale are cheap but more that 4km from town. We dropped the Italian couple off at Friends and the Japanese girl at the Visitors Centre. I invited Joe to join me for a coffee so we drove together back to Friends. An Aussie had explained to Joe how to run a business and helped him set up his venture. Joe now also runs the rental car business out of Friends with six cars, all rented out for today. Most are long term rentals for people visiting the island with work to do. Joe's wife called in to collect some keys. On Tonga everyone seems to know where everyone else is. Most people seem to have a mobile if there is an information gap.

Joe told me that there was a Tongan Feast and dancing every Tuesday and Thursday at the National Museum at 7.30pm. It seemed that this would be as authentic as anything else on the island. I collected my bike from the Visitors Centre and pedalled back to Tom's. Lindy and Epeli were concerned about me cycling around at night with no lights. No one in contrast seems to worry about driving around after a night of drinking, although I was warned to stay off the roads in the early hours of the morning. Epeli loaned me his car to drive the 5km to the Museum. It took a few minutes to get acclimatised to an automatic.

Everyone assured me there was a big sign which I could not miss. Once upon a time there had been. You now needed to recognise the posts. After passing by several times in both directions I found the place. There was a sign to say that the Museum was open until 9.30pm on Tuesdays. That was also "once upon a time" so my idea of spending an hour looking around at Lapita pottery and Tongan crafts fell very flat.



ImageThe evening began with a kava ceremony. I would have joined in but could not take the risk when I was driving. Then the feast. A whole pig roasted over an open fire. Wonderful raw fish. A wide variety of other dishes including, surprise surprise, canned corned beef wrapped in banana leaves and foil and cooked in an umu. The Tongan dancing had little to do with warrior traits for the men or sex for the women, such as you would find in other Pacific islands. It was all more gentle. Some had stories, but as far as I could work out the dancing was modern rather than traditional. The dances came with an explanation but it was impossible to follow her English. A pity.

At T$25 for the night it was good value. Perhaps a hundred tourists turned up from somewhere. A large New Zealand tour group. The locals knew where their bread was buttered and the tour guide became the celebrity of the night. A group came ashore from a USA destroyer which was anchored in the bay. They were coming to the end of a four and a half month Pacific tour of duty, having visited Guam, Malaysia etc. There is competition to capture more than the souls of the Tongans. It was all over by 9.30pm and I was back at Tom's before 10pm. Having the car was wonderfully convenient.

Another guest had arrived. A Tongan woman working for an airline in USA.

ImageWednesday 17 May 2006
Nuku'alofa - 'Eua

Church bells at the adjacent Wesleyan Free Church began ringing at 4.30am and carried on continuously. It was impossible to sleep.

The weather had changed dramatically and threatening clouds suggested rain was on the way. It was.

The woman who had arrived with her child late last night from USA to visit her sister who lives on 'Eua was up early and had had breakfast so that she could go down to meet the boat at 7.30am. Her sister came over and then they went back together on the boat when it returned at 12.30pm.

Ernest was well into breakfast at 7.45. As I was eating Epeli presented me with an invoice. Not having my glasses with me I put it to one side and carried on with my papaya, banana, eggs and toast. Later I discovered to my horror that he had made it out for $120/day, which for my four day stay came to a total of $480. I had been expecting an invoice at $90/day to give a total of $360, with perhaps something extra for three extra meals. He also expected it to be paid on the spot, and I discovered that there were no Visa facilities. I had no way of calculating what I might need for the Hideaway. Finally I asked Lindy to ring him at work and he agreed that I could sort it out when I came back. I postponed challenging the bill, as it was obvious that he could not be trusted to keep his word which made any agreement worthless. There was a peculiar mix of generosity and overcharging.

Packed up all my gear and left my Tokyo computer bag with my books, my blue soft bag with shoes and warm clothing, and the towel I had been using to pad my bicycle seat in the golf cupboard.

Returned my bicycle and he was very happy. No problems there. A brief look at the Visitor's Centre and then walked back to Tom's.

Suddenly there was torrential tropical rain. Sat out on the verandah trying to write up some diary notes. Epeli arrived home from work and we yarned. I did not want to confront him about the bill. Why should I need to? He offered to drive me to the wharf, but I preferred to walk. Along the way I needed to shelter from more rain.

Everything was being loaded onto the "Araimoana" and there seemed to be no system so I drifted on board and found myself a seat. Amidships as everyone seemed to think the crossing was going to be rough. Everyone else seemed to have spread out their mats and all their gear and settled in as though this was going to be a two day trip rather than a two hour one. Large LPG containers were loaded onto the "roof" where they would seem to make the boat top-heavy, but it was obviously better than storing dangerous goods inside. Timber was also carried on the roof. There were five life rafts up there but no sign of any life jackets. Perhaps you just grab a length of timber and hope you wash up on some atoll.

ImageThe Ferry was scheduled to leave at 12.30pm and we were on our way by 12.45pm. A beautiful young woman in traditional ta'ovala waved farewell. She must have been a friend of one of the crew. It can be difficult to tell exactly who the crew are. Every flat space in the bridge had someone asleep on it.

The lagoon was calm. We passed endless small uninhabited islands. My monocular was useful for looking across to the coastline with the fishing pigs and the lines of stakes which formed fishing traps.

Out in the open sea the chop was short and the boat rolled heavily, from time to time sending the seat I was trying to sit on careering across the deck. To my amazement a good proportion of the Tongans were seasick. I wondered what their ancestors would have thought.

Michael McGowan (phone 50-360 Pangai) invited me to go to a wedding tomorrow, but I could not work out how serious he was, or exactly where the wedding was.

The trip took exactly the expected two and a half hours and at 3.15pm we crept around behind a small breakwater which provided the only shelter from the rolling surf. The locals told me that it was not seas which force the cancellation of trips but rather the inability of the boat to make it through the gap.


ImageThe arrival of the boat is the big event of the day, as it is on any island. A car had come across in the hold, at a cost of around T$250. Clearly 'Eua is a graveyard like the Hokianga. Cars take a one way trip. A front end loader rattled up and down the ramp moving out pallets of "concrete block" and Chinese floor tiles. They were then hand loaded onto trucks.

I was the only palangi to be seen so Taki has no trouble identifying who he was to meet. He worried that I might not want to wait until his two tyres were unloaded but I was really enjoying myself and did not want to be whisked away. When the tyres were finally thrown into the old Land Rover we only drove a few hundred metres to the local garage to drop them off. The garage was interesting in that there were no pumps or even any cans of petrol. A few buckets seemed to contain diesel. I knew I was going to like being here.



ImageWe rattled around the coast road and it only took five minutes to reach the Hideaway. It was exactly like the images in the brochure, with the beach perhaps a little further away than I had expected. In the 2002 cyclone the waves were crashing against the verandah, so it would be very dangerous to be any closer. The platform down by the beach was destroyed in a storm in February and they were rebuilding it.

Room 6 was at the end of the line so that no one walked past the door, which I could leave open at night. Perfect. A large room with a double bed and a single. I instantly decided to stay another night, and regretted not having come across earlier. The Hideaway was full. Taki has decided to built six extra rooms, Tongan fale style, but wisely did not want to become too big.

It was wonderful to have a room which was not claustrophobic and which related to nature.

Off for a walk to explore the local area. It takes only ten minutes to reach the next village. There were pigs everywhere. A small side road leads down to the beach. Three cottages formed the basis of a new tourist venture, but they seemed to be deserted. In fact there was a single occupant, Richard Lye, an Aussie from Melbourne. He had sailed across to the Bay of Islands and then taken 12 days to sail up to Nuku'alofa. Horrendous conditions had left him at a low ebb and he jumped ship, leaving the others to go on to Va'vau. Richard was out fishing, but not having much luck as his lure kept getting dashed against the rocks by the surging tide. Management was not a feature of his accommodation. The LPG had run out and he was cooking over an open fire. There was enough water for cold showers. His only problem was the noise the pigs made when they were fighting underneath his floorboards at night.

There is a gap in the reef here, so that the surf breaks over into the shallow lagoon and then flows from either side to return back out to sea through the gut. In theory you could swim out through the gut to snorkel beyond the reef. Not something I would take the risk of trying.

A church, which I paused to look at, but there was none of the architectural quality you would find in the Hokianga. The road becomes little more than a track as it clambers up the hill to the plateau and eventually connects with the main spine road. Foot deep ruts mean that care is needed even in a 4WD. Plantations. Another village ambles along the main road. A few large churches, a school, the usual small shops. Children playing soccer. A rugby field at the school. One child asked for sweets and money. Some palangi obviously destroy the local culture and change expectations and perceptions. Tourism is a dangerous game.

Back at the Hideaway my fish has been cooked for supper. It was exquisite. In the evening there are two meal choices, fish at T$20 or chicken at T$18. I never worked out if the meal was sourced from the wild chickens which rush around in the plantations.

I shared my meal with Miguel, from Barcelona, who had worked in Tonga for many years laying tiles. His evening plane had been cancelled so he needed to wait over for the morning flight. Most of his sub-contracting had been for Fletcher Construction, who seem to have done the bulk of the building in Tonga, including most of the Mormon work. The outsiders have completely ignored vernacular traditions. The ta'ovala remains really important while architecture is not seen as a form of dress.

I talked late into the night with Taki about "Adventure Tourism", tour guiding, and how they might react to their first death of a visitor from Tongatapu only a week ago. Two brothers had gone out looking for insects, for which they were being paid by a German entomologist. The offer of $2000 for a very rare insect seemed like an easy path to a fortune. They had declined the offer of a guide and had been advised not to stray from the tracks, but had become lost. Not difficult as most tracks are used infrequently and are not marked. Seven or eight times in the past people have become lost, spent the night in the bush and made their way home in daylight.

The two pressed on in the dark and found themselves going downhill. In fact they were going down into a sinkhole. The first plunged in, screaming as he fell, and only crashing against the side several times on his way down. The clothing of the second became caught in the scrub and he managed to climb back up. He somehow found the road and ran for 40 minutes to the nearest house. Meanwhile Taki had realised they were lost, but did not know where to look.

Taki knew of the sinkhole, but not well enough to clamber around at night. The police felt the same. Eventually they located the farmer who had a plantation around the sinkhole, and he guided them, around 11pm., in an initial search, with only a couple of torches between them. They returned in the morning with an 80M length of rope, but it did not even get to the bottom. The army then sent several soldiers over from Tongatapu to abseil down. They found the body with a crushed skull.

Taki wondered what they could have done and what they should do. He was surprised to learn of the number of deaths in New Zealand. I suggested good and accurate information was probably the key. With this each individual could then take responsibility for themselves, as ultimately they must. The death of an American on the Tongariro Crossing a week ago had really been caused by their B&B host telling them it was an easy eight hour walk. They should have been told to take mountain gear and to be prepared for sudden changes of weather.

To my surprise I found that the existing information on 'Eua had been the result of a three year NZ Aid programme, with DCR doing the work. They were now assessing the possibility of a further three year project. Perfect. Taki wondered about the possibility of getting "consultants" to produce better information for trekkers, but I warned him about the risks of outsiders who did not understand the stories or the land. The problem with "consultants" is that, like planners, they are not good listeners.

We also talked about Search and Rescue and I reassured Taki that he had done all the right things. We laughed about Barry Spring-Rice telling Search and Rescue not to bother looking for me for another week. We swapped yarns, such as the time I lost all my students on Tongariro. The trap on 'Eua is that darkness comes early in the forest when the sun is setting on the other side of the limestone bluffs.

ImageThursday 18 May 2006

Awake around 7.45 with the sun already up. It was pleasantly cool. Complimentary tea or coffee was available any time, so it was simple to begin the day with a brew, looking at the surf pounding across the reef. The complimentary breakfast was a plate of toast with butter and jam. A full cooked bacon and egg breakfast was available for $8.

An American back-packer from Oregan yarned to me over breakfast. With his French friend Frank they had been working in wineries in New Zealand. The other guests were a couple from Bern making a journey of several years.

When the sun was shining on the trees the air was alive with flickering yellow butterflies, sparkling like little lights. Thousands of them. Many other butterflies all over the place. Geckos (we would call them skinks) abound. Some with fluorescent blue tails. some with green tails. Amused myself trying to photograph them, but they were too quick.

Taki rang Richard, my Aussie friend, to say that we might do something together, but nothing happened. My understanding was that we needed more people to make the trip viable, but later I wondered if I had misunderstood. I heard nothing from Michael and felt it would be too intrusive to ring and invite myself to the wedding. Perhaps not. Down to the local beach.

The surf rolled in relentlessly, crashing over the reef. Birds fished off shore, but there was no sign of whales or dolphins. It is another month before the humpbacks are due, but sometimes they come early. My monocular was very useful for scanning the horizon. Sat at the table reading and writing with this tropical paradise all around me. Mid-day came and went. A ham and cheese toasted sandwich for lunch.

It is significantly cooler on 'Eua than on Tongatapu. The South East Trades climb up the high cliffs on the other side of the island, cool down, and then tumble down to where we were. I should have brought some warmer clothes with me from Tongatapu. Cyclones come in from the North West. A pig and three piglets wandered past and disappeared into the scrub. Peter, who often guides trips, turned up and split open some coconuts for me to eat and drink.


ImageThe others were heading off on the afternoon flight so I joined them when Taki took them around to the airport. It had about the scale and feeling of Great Barrier. A small concrete block shed.


ImageOf more interest was the sign to welcome people. It was provided by NZ Aid, and explained New Zealand's commitment to eco-tourism and also the "plantation". The was a major NZ Aid project which seemed much more sensible than what we are doing in New Zealand. There is a rich variety of species. Teak, Mahogany, Sandalwood and other species which will not need treatment. A little Radiata. It has all been growing really fast and two years ago Dame Silvia Cartright flew over to officially hand over the project from New Zealand to Tonga. I gather that the only timber milling in Tonga is on 'Eua.



ImageOut the back of the terminal, under the most unlikely conditions, among all the rubbish, preparations for a feast were under way. A small pig was caught and had its throat cut. Carefully singed and shaved it was then impaled on a long pole and spit roasted over an open fire, with a sheet of tin thrown over to temper the heat. Taro were boiled up in an enormous pot and then the embers were moved into an old BBQ. The chicken pieces, which seemed to have come from NZ, along with the lamb flaps, had the skin removed to oil and clean down the BBQ. The meat and chicken then went on the BBQ.

They told me that only ten people were coming to the feast and it was to farewell one of their mates who is heading back to NZ. I could not see how ten people could eat that amount of food.

The flight was more than two hours late and arrived in very marginal conditions with dusk closing in fast. A quick exchange of cargo and people and it was on its way back to Tongatapu where they at least have some lights on the runway. The plane comes down from Va'vau, so that it is frequently running late, with the result that flights are commonly cancelled. I concluded that the boat is actually more dependable.

We rattled back to the Hideaway. I was invited to go to a kava ceremony which was to begin a planning meeting. The kava comes first to calm people down and help them reach conclusions. Geoff, Taki's father, had been advocating a "master plan" for the island for some time. Now it was happening. NZ Aid had put up the money, but I could not work out who was going to do it.

I suggested they should do their own planning just asking for help with "their" process. It seemed that they had already worked that out, and the meeting was for "locals only" to sort out their position before the "experts" arrived. It was interesting to watch the experts arrive and take out their carefully prepared plan. The locals told them to throw it all away and have a look at "their" plan. Over a good many beers there was more agreement than anyone had expected. I offered to go back and help the locals if they found they were being ignored.

We talked about the importance of stories. The family of seven who could not survive on the fruit from their garden. The father jumped of the cliff and committed suicide to give the others a better chance. Slowly the whole family did the same. Now you can go to the garden and throw fruit over the cliff. When you do so the turtles come ashore to eat the fruit. The locals say the turtles are the spirits of the family.

The first planning move they made in Tonga has been really important. Every person was given a plot of land in a village on which to build a house and eight acres of plantation land which was enough to provide a good income for a family. The land cannot be sold so there is no property market and no speculation. Imagine a country with no land agents. The land passes to the eldest son. Apparently you can lease the land for 99 years, which would seem to be a weakness, and there remains the puzzle of the younger family members, but that is not unlike the Medieval system.

It is important to begin planning by recognising the good things which you already have. There is a real risk they might get lost along the way.

Another fish meal to end the day, and again we talked into the night. I felt as though it was the first time in my life that I had spent a whole day just hanging around.

ImageFriday 19 May 2006

Breakfast with an Aussie economist working as a volunteer in Tonga for a year. He had flown in with the contingent of planners. Nice guy who raced off to change into his freshly pressed and laundered tupenu, the black skirt which men wear for formal dress. I wondered how he could understand the locals who come by boat.

Taki knows all about planning. He checked that it was the National Park walk which I wanted to do, decided that we should leave at 9.30am., rang Richard to tell him to come around, and rang Joe to come and act as a guide. Everything ran like clockwork. Taki drove us to the start of our trek.

The road up to the plantation forest turns to the left where the road to the airport turns right. It quickly becomes a 4WD track. The Lonely Planet Guide gives directions but I cannot see how a stranger could untangle the maze of logging roads. There are many tree ferns here and also ground ferns so that there are moments when it seems as though this could be New Zealand.

As soon as we got out of the vehicle we were surrounded by the call of the Red Shining Parrots. We looked in vain, but as we neared dusk they were flying all around us.


ImageFrom our drop off point it was only a short walk to the Lokupo Lookout. It is a spectacular spot. Limestone bluffs drop away 300M beneath you, right down to the beach. You can see almost the full extent of the National Park. Birds swoop above the jungle canopy away below.

Lemon trees seem a complete anomaly but there are many unusual experiences on 'Eua. At first I expressed interest in Red Cave, but on closer inspection it seemed to be just like a thousand other caves, even though the location is spectacular. We took the Lokupu Track down to the beach. It was reasonably steep but not difficult. At the bottom there was an orange tree with fresh oranges to slake my thirst. Joe chopped open a coconut to provide both food and drink. The local Kawakawa was prolific.


Tour guide Joe

Crabs, not a laptop
Joe announced a two hour lunch stop so after enjoying two very generous ham and cheese toasted sandwiches there was ample time to walk a mile or more along the beach to the north. As we went Joe gathered twenty five large crabs out of rock pools. The crabs were fast but Joe was even quicker. All he brought with him was an "executive" bag, which looked as though it was for a computer. Instead it ended up full of crabs.

Our trek then took us south through most of the National Park until we climbed back up. There was a steep scramble to get up to a plateau, a long walk across that, and then another steep scramble up more limestone cliffs. It could have been difficult but there were endless secure limestone or root handholds. So different from New Zealand where every handhold gives way.

The route then led out into plantations of banana, vanilla, and tapioca before circling back around to the Lauua Lookout. This is just as spectacular as the lookout where we began and not too far to the south. There was once a fortress at this site and a large trench marks the position of the defensive palisade. The site is under consideration for World Heritage listing.

By the time we had walked back to the 4WD track Taki had arrived in his Land Rover. It was already 5pm. Back down to the Hideaway.

Richard Lye had arranged to join me for dinner and we talked into the night. With a science background he has now retired as a full time teacher but is back teaching electronics at a high school level. He would make a great teacher and the projects he gets the students involved in all seemed to be great fun.

ImageRichard downloads his photos onto his Powerbook and then uploads them onto the Net whenever he can find an internet cafe. They can be found at He also showed me his "palm" with 6000 books stored on it. Most of the classics are available and the technology does not require any battery while you are reading.

Sorted out my bill with Taki, and could not believe how reasonable everything was. The trek was only T$80.

Bought two small 60g packets of "royal coffee" at T$6 each. ( is an excellent web site through which you can order your coffee, and even calculate the cost, including shipping, in your own currency) I gather that Paul Carruthers, a New Zealander, began growing coffee in Tonga. People talk of him with a slight sense of awe.

ImageSaturday 20 May 2006
'Eua _ Karaka Bay

Taki woke me at 3.30am. (2.30am NZ time) It was still pitch black of course. It only took a few minutes to get ready. Life is easy when you know that packing means throwing everything into your bag because it all needs to go with you. A cup of coffee, and around 4am Taki drove two Tongans and myself off to the wharf.

Taki was coming with us to Tongatapu to spend a couple of days with his family which made the early start seem a little less unreasonable, but he does it for guests all the time, and the transfer is included in the T$28 cost of accommodation. Taki felt that the primary and secondary schooling on 'Eua (with a population of around 5000) was as good as that on Tongatapu but the pre-schooling and kindergarten choices did not compare. Thus his wife was spending the year on Tongatapu so that their little daughter could get the best possible start in life. It seemed to me to be an enormous sacrifice when she might have spent her early years talking to the parrots, the geckos and the butterflies while listening to the relentless roar of the surf. Schooling does nothing to give you a love of place. Schooling teaches you about the world, but keeps that world at arms length.

Along the coastal road, with the white surf showering fluorescence into the night. Many of the houses in the village had a light on. Perhaps they all had produce or people to take to the boat.

The wharf was a hive of activity. The early passengers had already rolled out their mats and gone off to sleep. A live pig was stuffed into a bag for the journey. It offered no resistance.

We were away soon after the scheduled 5am departure time. With a following swell the journey was not as rough as on the way out. The small atolls emerged out of the mist of the dawn. Soon after 7.30am unloading was under way.

The fish market on the adjacent wharf had a small array of colourful tropical fish alongside squid, kina, tuna, snapper and all manner of shellfish. I settled for an egg and sausage breakfast with great coffee at a wharf cafe close by.

The next wharf had an open air market with mostly clothing. I checked out the naval base to discover that Richard was right. New Zealand puts in steps and promotes eco-tourism while Australia provides gunboats. Seeing what NZ Aid is achieving on the ground made me proud to be a Kiwi. I only hope that this aspect of our heritage does not get lost as our culture changes.

Back to Tom's. Epeli and Lindy were both there. I argued that they had overcharged me. They would have none of it. I felt cornered. A long walk down to the bank to cash some travellers cheques. The airport bus was at the Dateline. The driver told me that he left at mid-day and it would cost T$10 to get to the airport. I had the feeling it was not as simple as that.

Met Filomena as I was walking home. I may have only been in Tonga week but it was already possible to meet friends by chance in the street. A great feeling. We walked along together. Earthquake proofing the church became another project to take home.

Lindy drove me out to the airport by car. 12.40pm A comfortable two hours before my flight. Crowds everywhere, but no problems. They gave me a window seat and once again I ended up with an empty seat beside me.

Excellent views of 'Eua as we took off to the east and banked to the south. A three hour flight. A toasted sandwich. The stewardess generously slipped me a couple of small bottles of wine to enjoy when I got home. There was cloud most of the way and we dropped though it to very grey Auckland day. Over the city to then bank around the Manukau Heads to land into the east wind.

Arriving back from Tonga is part of the experience of going there. I declared some raisins, while everyone else brought endless quantities of food. We were quickly through customs but MAF were overwhelmed. It seemed wise to ask about my shoes and they decided that they should be fumigated. I was at the end of a very long queue of taro and fish.

Finally I made it through to find faithful Clive patiently waiting. In ten minutes my shoes had been released by MAF and we were on our way. I collected Lisa at Papatoetoe and went on to a roast dinner with Chris and Clive. Helen was living it up at the 3D Conference Dinner. For me it had been a long day and I was happy to have my Air NZ wine and dream of coral atolls lost in the endless blue of the Pacific.

Dreaming of what might be cannot be compared to the challenge of making dreams come true. It is a great privilege in life to be able to live out your dreams.

Fish market
On Sunday 28 May there was a second earthquake 140km from Nuku'alofa  at a depth of 50km measuring 6.7 on the Richter Scale. No one was injured, but I wondered how my church was getting on.