PlanetRovers – Tonga

August 12-25, 2000
Malo e lelei!

We arrived in Tonga after about 18 hours of travelling. We started in San Francisco, drove to LA, flew to Honolulu (where we had to get off the plane during the stopover in the middle of night), then to Fiji (where we had to go through customs because we stupidly didn’t check our bags all the way to Tonga), and arrived in Tonga, weary yet still excited.

We got off the plane and stared at the airport in disbelief. This was easily the smallest international airport that we had ever seen. There were only two gates: one for arrivals and one for departures. We waited in line for customs, amazed at the lack of anything automated and marveled at the size of the place. It was like coming out of a time warp and waking up in 1940.

Once through customs, we picked up our luggage and exited the airport to greet the flurry of taxi drivers. One in particular found Henry to be a perfect target and attempted to talk him into a ride. It was all quite overwhelming, so we shook off the driver and parked ourselves to get situated. After exchanging some money and searching unsuccessfully for the city bus, we decided on Toni’s Guest House and sought out a taxi driver. Fortunately, Henry’s friend returned to hassle us some more and offered a decent price for the ride.

He shuffled us into his car, which was old and dirty, but no different than any of the others that were sitting there. The driver did try to talk us into going to a place that would pay him a commission, but we didn’t bite. Little did we know that in addition to the fare, we were also paying for a city tour. While interesting and informative, after such a long journey, the last thing that we wanted was to spend an hour in this taxi. So, after 45 minutes, Henry all but demanded that he take us to Toni’s.

Given the relatively low level of available amenities in the city, it was definitely a worthwhile place to stay. The place is owned by Toni, a British ex-pat and run by Kesi, always helpful and smiling. It’s kept pretty clean, has a decent kitchen, a nice porch, and plenty of entertainment offered by “little Ton” – Kesi’s 3-year-old little boy. I don’t know how many times we heard “What’s your name?” or “What you doing?” come from his little toothless mouth. All of this definitely overshadowed the cold showers and hard beds.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the city, Nuku’alofa. We were amazed at the trash everywhere. As well, it didn’t seem that the Tongans did much but stand around in the streets (which they don’t, but it’s more pronounced on the weekends). We walked up to the water and met the same – people everywhere – and the harbor wasn’t much to look at. It’s a far cry from any big city that we know of. There are pigs, chickens, roosters and even some cows roaming EVERYWHERE. In fact, the animals make more noise in the morning than the people.

We weren’t very impressed with our first day in Tonga.

But that changed the next day when we took Toni’s island tour. He showed us the beauty of the main island, Tongatapu. There were beautiful, white sand beaches surrounded by coral; lots of Mormon churches; an underwater cave with a refreshing (i.e. freezing) freshwater swimming hole that Henry bravely conquered; more Mormon churches; a little lagoon with water so blue you can hardly believe it’s the ocean; some more churches (Church of Tonga, Methodist, Catholic); some whale watching that proved to be only mildly worthwhile due to the lack of whales; more Mormon churches; and the blowholes that are created by the thrust of the crashing waves pushing the water up through the holes in the coral; and lots more churches. We ended the day with a relaxing sit on a wonderful beach.

We also took a day trip to one of the outer islands, Pangaimoto. There is but one resort on the entire island, and it encompasses only a couple of beachfront fales and a small bar/restaurant. There’s not much to see (we circumnavigated the island in about 45 minutes), but that’s the beauty of the place. We spent most of the day reading, Henry swam a bit, and relaxing. It was a quiet escape from the noise of the city.

For the most part, we spent the rest of our time in Nuku’alofa just bumming around. We ate scrumptious delicacies from the bakery (the one by the Internet in the Royal Bank of Tonga is the best), had some excellent fruit from the town market, ate some TERRIBLE ice cream (this is definitely to be avoided), and chatted with little Ton.

On our scenic thirty-five minute flight to the Ha ‘apai group of islands, our nineteen seat prop-plane revealed the true beauty of Tonga. The small coral islands drifted by until we landed at the tiny airport on the island of Lifuka.

Upon arrival at the tiny airport we were greeted by the King’s entourage and a school band. No, not for us! The King was to be leaving on the plane that we just arrived on. To give some perspective on the size of the airport – there is one runway, a tarmac that would fit two small airplanes, one building and a tiny 25 car parking lot. The baggage handler was barefoot in a red jumpsuit and pulled the baggage cart by hand. The baggage claim turned out to be a window where bags were placed ever so nicely. There were no taxis so we ended up catching a ride with a Methodist minister.

He dropped us at a small store by the wharf and advised us that a boat would be leaving for ‘Uiha shortly. After twenty minutes we were shuttled into a 17 foot skiff with a 25hp outboard motor. Our company was a family of nine (six barefoot adults and three equally barefoot children). The ten Tongan dollars we each paid was the perfect price for the experience.

We covered 10 miles in just short of two hours. At the channel crossings, the swells were easily 4-5 feet. In a tiny boat, the waves seemed to be tidal.

We reached the island after dark. We were promptly shuffled into a dingy open bed pick-up and went about dropping everyone at their respective corrugated steel-roofed homes. We were then whisked into yet another dingy truck and followed by barking dogs until we finally reached our digs for the night.

Hesse, the owner of the fales (bungalows), met us and advised us to pay the taxi. We had no idea we would have the privilege of paying for such service. Hesse squared us away in a room for the first night then moved us into a fale for the remainder of our stay. Hesse and his wife, Kolani, have four bamboo fales in the town of Felema. The beach is named Esi-O-Ma’afu. We spent most of our six days relaxing on the very private beaches or reading in hammocks.

The island of ‘Uiha is about three miles long and a half mile at its widest point. Felema is on the west side of the island. We took one afternoon to venture to the other side of the island and found it completely deserted. As we walked along, we found a lonely tidal pool and decided to splash around. A little further, we found a great beach that offers a great view of a few of the uninhabited islands.

‘Uiha has no electricity or paved roads and only one store to buy some groceries or sundries. We both agreed that this was the furthest away from civilization we had ever been. There is one phone on the island and whoever answers has to go for a run to whom the call is placed to.

The beauty of the island is not describable. The blues and greens of the water, the leaning palms, the distant volcano and the endless coral formations all make the island a surreal Pacific paradise.

Hesse and Kolani prepared traditional Tongan dinners every night. For six Tongan dollars, it would be an understatement to say that it is a bargain. The nightly fish or clams were usually caught that day or as we watched.

At the end of it all Hesse took us back to Lifuka where we met up with a fella, Jonathan, we met at Toni’s. We spent a day and a half on Lifuka. Being in Pangai, the island’s only city, we felt like we were in a metropolis after being in ‘Uiha. The first morning in Pangai we realized we did not miss the 5:00am rooster calls or the Sunday church music competition that began around 5:00am as well.

Our plane ride back was a photo-op not to be missed. The clear, sunny day gave us a great sightseeing flight. When we returned to Nuku’alofa, it seemed we had arrived in New York City. We ran around the city trying to eat some sweets and turned in for a 7:00am flight to spend one day in Fiji and then on to New Zealand.