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Cook got it right

Cook got it right

story by: Jane Jeffries

As the explorer noted, the islands of Tonga are truly the ‘Friendly Isles’.

Arriving at Tonga’s international airport is a happy, colourful scene. Tongans are welcomed home with song and tourists hurriedly complete the formalities. As we savour the warmth outside the terminal there is no doubt we’re on island time, as we sit on our suitcases waiting for our pick-up. Our driver arrives but, alas, in the short time it takes to load our luggage, one of the bald tyres of the old van deflates and the prospect of getting to our hotel before lunch slips away.

However, we are here to embrace the real Tonga, so different from the rushed, stressed, modern way, and this is our first test. With a bit of a team effort, we change the tyre and are back on the road. With no centre markings, it is hard to know if the Tongans drive on the left or the right of the road as we zig-zag to avoid potholes. They are a bit like inverted judder bars, slowing us to a crawl, but this is good because children and dogs play on the roadside.

Tonga is made up of 170 islands and, like all archipelagoes, some of the islands are well known and others are never heard of.

The Vava’u Islands in the north are popular with the sailing fraternity and also famous for humpback whales which you can swim with. There is, however, a lot to discover on the main island, Tongatapu, where most Tongans live. 

Our plan is to base ourselves here for a few days and discover the fabric that makes up the heart of this kingdom, the only monarchy in the South Pacific.

Wanting to get out on the water, we find that the majority of tourist operators who provide dive trips, swimming with whales and other water activities, are in the capital Nuku’alofa. For the adventurous, the lagoon, reef and islands can be explored by sea kayak with a guided group or alone, but we take the soft option and visit one of the islands by boat. Our choice is Fafa Island, one of several north of Nuku’alofa. With its white sand, this secluded palm-covered atoll is surrounded by a lagoon and coral reef. After only a 30-minute boat ride from the mainland, we are there and are quick to get our snorkelling gear on. In the tepid water of the southern beach, the coral, sponges and creatures on the reef are nature’s phenomena. It is a designer’s dream of patterns, textures and colours. Rich tapestries cover the ocean floor, interspersed with myriad colourful fish, including Nemo, his dad and Dori. Unperturbed, they dart in and out of the coral, feeding.

Several hours later we emerge, ravenous and wrinkly. A delicious tropical lunch is served as part of our day-trip package and we spend the rest of the afternoon walking in the bush and relaxing on beach beds. It is also possible to stay on the island, in its small resort of only 13 bungalows, built in traditional Tongan style.

Back on the mainland, the next day we decide to take in some of the sites, with our first stop at the mysterious Ha’amonga ’a Maui. Referred to as the Stonehenge of the South Pacific, it was erected about 1200 AD and is 5m high and made of three long, coral limestone slabs, each weighing more than 40 tonnes. Shaped like an arch, it is an amazing feat of engineering given the primitive tools available to the Tongan people at the time. Apparently, the stones came from nearby Wallis Island and, although there are many theories about why it was built, no one is exactly sure. Leaving the Pacific Stonehenge, we stop briefly near the town of Houma to see the spectacular blowholes.

Along this southern coast the sea has eroded the volcanic rock to form narrow tunnels. As the water is forced up through these tunnels, at high tide it erupts as high as 30m into the air. Further on, around the northern tip of the island, we pass the landing place of 17th century Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. He and his crew were the first Europeans to visit the Kingdom of Tonga. Captain Cook also visited on several voyages and found the islanders to be so friendly he nicknamed the Tongan archipelago the “Friendly Isles”. A plaque on the eastern shore of Tongatapu’s lagoon commemorates his landing in 1777.

Bats are not my favourite creatures, but I could not resist stopping to eye up the preserve of huge Tongan fruit bats. They are called flying foxes because their heads and faces are shaped like foxes. Their metre wingspan makes them impressive creatures to see. Hanging upside down from tree branches, the flying foxes are considered sacred and are the protected property of the King of Tonga.

Back at Nuku’alofa, we head to Talamahu Market where the tables radiate colour in an orderly repetition of tomatoes, peppers, melons and cucumbers. It is a busy, local affair where people visit as much to socialise as to buy their produce. After our market visit we drive around the outskirts of the island, where housing is poor and primitive and much of it built from recycled material. The houses may be basic, but the many village churches are impressive and immaculate, they form the heart of these communities and their gentle, deeply religious people. Sundays are big church days for the locals and they welcome visitors with open arms. The congregations on the island can be heard from afar singing in soaring harmonies.

Tonga is an authentic Pacific experience with so much to offer but no frills, so be ready to embrace the rawness.

YOUR TONGA

1 If you want to glimpse the King and Queen, go to the Centenary Church (also known as the Royal Church) at 10am on Sunday. The couple usually arrive in their black London taxi or Humber Pullman limousine and sit on a raised platform at the front of the church. You’ll also enjoy the magnificent choir and brass band in this splendid church.

2 Chef Zero is a tiny restaurant in Popua, on the eastern side of Nuku’alofa. Because it is a little hard to find, it truly is a hidden gem. Amazing food at great prices, BYO wine and beer.

3 One of the best and most accessible spots to snorkel in Nuku’alofa is between the two wharves. Join the local kids here after school and swim along the reef towards Vuna Wharf to see beautiful coral and myriad fish. No swimming in town on Sunday.

4 Ask the super-friendly staff at the new Visitor Information Centre where to go and what to do. They have limited free internet access here.

5 On Sundays, head to one of the outer islands for a relaxing time in the sun. Pangaimotu, Fafa Island or Royal Sunset Island Resort are good options where you can relax over a meal and a beer.


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