I fell in love with the South Pacific Islands when I first visited the Cook Islands in 2007 and have since made trips to Samoa (twice), the Cook Islands (again), Vanuatu and Tonga. People in those countries don’t have many resources or goods – yet they are cheerful, happy, and kind to others. Family is most important to them, and they value their traditional ways even in this modern era. Those islands’ rustic charms and slow-paced lifestyle are simply irresistible to a laid-back and lazy person like me!
The following is my travel journal from Tonga – and everything I mention here actually happened.
Saturday, June 10, 2017
I’ve been in Tonga since Tuesday; the only kingdom among the South Pacific Island nations. My initial plans were to stay in the capital Nuku’alofa (on the main island of Tongatapu) for a few days before flying north to the Ha’apai Group, and then on to the Vava’u Group further up.
My guest house is located directly behind the Royal Palace (!!) but other than that, there’s nothing much to see in Nuku’alofa itself, and there’s no beach to speak of in town. The highlight here was a short boat trip to Pangaimotu – a tiny island with a pub/restaurant, decent beach and a couple of shipwrecks.
My trusty Lonely Planet guidebook warns that Tonga’s domestic airline has a bit of reputation for chopping and changing their flight schedule in the eleventh hour. But today, where I was scheduled to fly out to Ha’apai, I discovered it was even worse than that…
When I first booked my Ha’apai flight back in March, it was scheduled for a 12:00 noon departure. But it was pushed back to 2:30pm one month out… and then further back to 3:30pm three days before the flight… and finally to 5:10pm the night before.
I turned up at the domestic terminal an hour and a half before the departure time just as I was told to do – no problem there. However, literally 5 minutes after I had checked in and handed over my luggage, there was an announcement that the Ha’apai flight was now cancelled because the aircraft couldn’t arrive back on Tongatapu in time, and it was now too dangerous to touch down or take off in the dark as there were no lights along the runway! Now I was forced to pick up my luggage, turn around and catch a taxi back into town (hey, I just GOT here, you know…?).
Sunday, June 11, 2017
The real problem was, as the Tongan law stipulates, it is illegal for anyone to work on Sundays in this country – therefore there’s no flights scheduled on Sundays. So I’m back at the same guest house for two more nights, stuck in VERY quiet Nuku’alofa (except for the church bells) with nothing much to do. And thank God for the Chinese restaurant, which was just about the only joint that opened its doors on Sundays!
Monday, June 12, 2017
I had originally planned to stay in Ha’apai for three nights, but there was no point going there for just one night now. So I changed my itinerary and flew directly to Vava’u instead. (And in doing so, I lost my $95 deposit for my Ha’apai accommodation.)
Quite unexpectedly, there was a bit of excitement on the Vava’u flight this morning. Once everyone was seated, there was an announcement by cabin crew to welcome aboard none other than Her Majesty the Queen Nanasipau’u of Tonga, who arrived fashionably late. She sat in the bigger single seat at the rear of the aircraft in Row 12, while her security guard and lady-in-waiting were seated right behind me in Row 11. (Now I know the Tongan royals don’t have their own ‘Airforce One’!)
I arrived in Vava’u one day too early, but luckily my accommodation had a vacant room for me that night. My room here overlooks beautiful Port of Refuge, which provides safe anchorage for sailors from all over the world.
In Vava’u I was hoping to go on a cruise tour to visit some outer islands; however, my wretched luck has it that all the boats were out for some government survey for the entire week and no island tours were available.
Now I changed my plans again on the spot and instead climbed Mo’unga (Mt) Talau – the highest peak in Vava’u – all 131m of it! (At least the lookouts on the mountain provided great views.)
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Today I hired a mountain bike and ventured out to the villages of Pangaimotu (not to be confused with Pangaimotu off Nuku’alofa), ‘Utungake and Talihau. It was a tough ride but the pretty Talihau Beach at the end of it made it worthwhile.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
Tonga is becoming a popular destination for whale watching, but the tourism industry here is still developing. I looked for some postcards to send to my family and friends but couldn’t find any souvenir shop for starters! The two postcards I did find at the local bookshop featured pigs and dogs but not whales (yes, you’ll see lots of pigs and dogs roaming around here).
As for the local transport, there seem to be no timetables for anything (buses, boats…) so it’s rather hard to plan your day. Whilst in Vava’u I tried to catch a boat to one of the nearby islands, but the local boat operator wasn’t sure if there was another boat coming back to the main island that same day, so I reluctantly abandoned the idea.
In the end, it seems like I will return to Australia without seeing a single whale or pristine beaches I hoped to see (except for Pangaimotu and Talihau). More often than not, you’ll need to throw your travel plans out the window here, but I’d still urge anyone to visit Tonga – where people are always smiling, friendly and helpful; the qualities that are gradually being lost in our self-obsessed modern society.
Another Sunday in Tonga tomorrow. Yet another quiet day (except, of course, for the church bells), where you will not feel guilty for doing nothing all day.
When I arrive back home in Sydney, I will resume my busy city life again. First, I will need to negotiate with my travel insurance company so that I can get back all the extras I had to pay for rearranging my itinerary…
FOOTNOTE: 10:15pm, Monday, June 19, 2017
Back in Nuku’alofa now, enjoying my last evening in Tonga. Then, out of the blue, I felt the whole hotel building shake for about 5 seconds. An earthquake of magnitude 5.8 at the epicenter 139km west of Tongatapu. What a great “icing on the cake”!
Main image: Aerial view of Vava’u Group, Tonga