The Kingdom of Tonga - Where Time Begins
Trip Start Feb 02, 2006
19Trip End Aug 09, 2006
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On arrival, we were directed across the tarmac of Fua'amotu Airport on the main island of Tongatapu, into a cricket pavilion which acts as the International Terminal. We were ushered past a large jolly woman with a warm smile who, it transpired, was Passport Control, and through into a hall for Baggage Collection which was being conducted by two burly Tongans hurling bags through a set of double doors. We selected a couple of bags we liked the look of and stepped out into the warm, colorful Tongan afternoon.
As we stood there, an elderly man with a genial face and a welcoming smile approached us to ask if we would need a ride into town. Before answering, we considered the offer
We checked in at Misa's Guesthouse and went to explore. It was Saturday afternoon on the warm, dusty streets of Nuku'alofa and the activities to mark the King's 88th birthday were winding down for the day. On the main grassed area behind the Treasury building a Bucking Bronco was being wrestled into submission by some hefty local women and a staged area was being dismantled by a team of volunteers. We walked through the food market, past the Royal Palace and along the promenade to an old motel which has been converted into the Ministry for Land and Agriculture. Tonga's time-zone location has encouraged many businesses to adopt 'International Dateline' in its title and Nuku'alofa offers the International Dateline Cinema, Bakery and Supermarket amongst others
That evening we joined everyone else in Nuku'alofa at the Billfish Bar and Restaurant to watch the New Zealand - Australia rugby union match, and met some of the palangi (foreigners) making a living out here. We were also introduced to the Tongan national team who were in celebrating their 97-point victory over the Cook Islands that afternoon and when the bar closed at midnight we were invited back to the International Dateline Hotel with the team to continue the celebrations.
Getting drunk is about the only worthwhile activity on Saturday nights in Tonga because nothing happens on a Sunday, except going to church and eating. It is illegal in Tonga - a criminal offence - to swim or to work on Sunday. However, we managed to get hold of a couple of bikes and cycled over to the Mapu'a Vaca Blowholes on the west coast. These were impressive, but it was the opportunity to discover the many villages on a Sunday that was most special. In each little community we found great feasts set out on long tables attended by the whole village
After a couple of days spent further exploring Tongatapu, we boarded an internal flight north to the Ha'apai Group of islands at Fua'amotu Airport's domestic terminal which operates out of a double garage. Having had two overcast days before, we were delighted to fly in flawless conditions and the views down to the small islands, dense green with a rim of pure white, was the stuff of postcards. We landed in the main island of Lifuka and made our way into the 'capital' Pangai, a single dusty track lined with well-worn wooden buildings. Very little activity was on display. The bank, shop and tourist office were all closed. The most popular place was a shack with a pool table inside. Parked outside this was a police car - the first we'd seen in Tonga - sporting seat covers decorated with playing cards.
We decided to head for the island of Uoleva, which is noted for its long pristine beaches and almost complete seclusion. We were taken there by an old man who had two boats and three teeth and arrived 45 minutes later at a perfect, untouched beach, where golden sand separated the clear water of the sea and the deep lush green of the forest. It was the kind of place Tom Hanks gets lost with FedEx boxes. We spent three nights on Uoleva at Captain Cooks Resort without electricity or running water. We rose each morning to watch the sunrise before anyone else in the world, and spent the days alone on a mile-long beach making giant sandcastles, reading and letting the pace of Tongan life wash over us. On our final day one other person laid out her towel 400 metres down the beach. It felt crowded.
And on Saturday we returned to Tongatapu where Nuku'alofa is being decorated in purple and black ribbons ahead of the funeral of two members of the Royal Family who died in America last week. The women are dressed in black, and Tonga will close down for three days later this week.
The only problem with Tonga is that things are so relaxed that schedules are utterly ignored and so we had to return from Ha'apai three days in advance. Flights are frequently cancelled and almost always delayed; our 45 minute flight was delayed 5 hours. But if you're prepared to work around this, Tonga is a truely special place to visit.