The Funny Kingdom: An introduction to Tonga

 

What: 12 days in the Kingdom of Tonga: Ha’apai 7 days, Vava’u 5 days, Tongatapu 1 night.

Where: 4 hour flight from Sydney, Australia, in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Australia … 19.8°S, 174.4°W

How: We flew on a direct flight from Sydney with Virgin Airlines to Tongatapu (capital)

Budget: mid-range

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Tonga… what?

If you are thinking where the F**K is Tonga? Be reassured – you’re not alone! Pretty much every person I know had no idea where Tonga is (including the lady at the bikini shop who made me repeat 10 times where I was going on holiday before wishing me a good trip to Bali…).

It’s understandable. Located in the South Pacific and sharing it’s neighbourhood with the 2 Samoas, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, Cook Islands – and other places you never heard of such as Wallis et Futuna and Niue, this small kingdom has a population of just over 100 000 inhabitants. Of the 176 islands of the Kingdom only 54 are inhabited but all are remote and astonishingly beautiful.

If I could say one thing about Tonga it would be : How refreshing!

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Sleeping at the Airport

We arrived at Fua’amotu International Airport around 3 am. There was no one there to harass us with cheap souvenirs to buy. Only one taxi man politely suggested we get a ride with him. Just the time to discuss our plan and we organised to share a taxi-van with a British couple and their windsurf board, which the taxi-man carefully placed on the roof of the van … unattached of course.

Because we were carrying the “unattached” wind-surf board on the roof, the taxi driver could not drive faster than 5 km/h so it took us ages to get to the other side of the field at the domestic terminal which must have been a 20 min walk. Our flight for the remote Ha’apai island group was waiting for us a few hours later in the late morning.

The airport was exactly what we were expecting; a very basic concrete building with a guard, a couple of plastic chairs and a big buzzy neon light. Forget the VIP room here. If the idea of sleeping in the grass surrounded by roosters and packs of dogs does not repulse you; then sleeping at the airport is the thing to do. We did not bother booking a room for the few hours between flights and endured the mosquitos and the cool breeze. I regretted not having more clothes and mosquito repellent but it was a small price to pay for the beautiful days to come in Ha’apai.

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*The Ha’apai Group: Uoleva

Note: Despite the Cyclone Ian that hit the Ha’apai group particularly hard in January 2014, I see no reason for visitors to avoid this paradise. A lot of tourist facilities were partially or totally destroyed but most places were ready to received people when we were there in September 2014. The beauty of the islands is still undestroyed and despite several people still living in emergency tents, a lot of energy was put to rebuilt tourist infrastructure and they are praying hard for tourists to come. It’s better to make arrangements in advance and be patient with the response, Internet and phone lines are often unreliable there.

Getting to the Ha’apai group as fast as possible was a great idea considering the remoteness of the place and the limited flight options. Located right in the middle of the Kingdom, between the Vavav’u and the Tongatapu group, Ha’apai was without any doubt the highlight of our trip to Tonga. There is not much to do there except enjoy the clear waters, the snow-white powder sand, empty beaches and fresh drinking coconuts.

Our arrival in Ha’apai was memorable. First, to get on the plane you need to jump on the scale – you can’t be shy about sharing your weight there. In any case I guarantee you won’t be the heaviest person on board… which may give you the reassuring impression of travelling light. Impressively heavy Tongans make a strange contrast with the “child-size” space inside the mini airplanes (Real Tonga airlines has only 3 planes and we took them all!). Often called the “2 minutes noodle planes” (non-approved in Australia and New Zealand – two airplanes were donated by China in exchange for political favours, i.e.: fishing rights) these machines offer a spectacular view from the air. Despite the thought that we may not survive the flight, the wobbly, wobbly ride was totally worth it! On top of the amazing view of the corals and tropical waters we even had the chance to see a group of whales breaching, something not so rare according to the pilot.

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We had a reservation on the deserted island of Uoleva already and knew where we were going but had no idea how to get there. When we landed and walked from the plane to the airport and realized that they had close the main road to make it the official plane-landing stripe, we knew there will be no taxi waiting for tourists there. We asked the guy at the counter and he called “someone” who appeared to be his cousin to come and drive us to Pangai, the capital. Our first idea was to walk but for about $10 we were driven to “someone’s” house and told that Taiana was coming to pick us by boat. That gave us about 2 hours of errance in Pangai which was about enough time to know everything about the place.

We inevitably stopped by Mariner’s Café for a late morning coffee and beer, the only bar in Pangaï and the place we would go back over and over to get all our questions answered. There is one other restaurant in town but Mariner’s Café is the only reliable place … unless you’re a major fan of eating corned beef in a can – which is possibly the only other option.

Uoleva, Ha’apai group: somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

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Uoleva island is a remote island lost in the middle of the pacific. You can’t get more Robinson Crusoe than this: a little shack on a perfectly white and sandy beach in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our stay at Uoleva was particularly memorable and it was the cheapest place we stayed in the whole Kingdom of Tonga ($25/night). There are some moments in life where a hammack, warm beers, cold shower and some fresh kékés are just what makes you happy! There is no electricity during the day and no restaurant on this tiny island. The peanut butter jar and fruits we brought went a long way and it was well worth paying an extra for dinner and breakfast. Be aware that there is nothing on the island – no shop, no fridge and you will have to bring everything you need for your stay, alcohol included.  We enjoyed spending the day walking the 10km empty white beach all around the island and playing in the clear and wild water – exactly what I had in mind when thinking of a lost Pacific island.

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The only thing I could think of during our stay was: how long will this place remain unspoiled by mass tourism? Even if the locals seems absolutely indifferent to tourism development I suggest the intrepid travellers get there before time makes it a well- frequented destination. When we were there a windsurfing “resort” was under construction on Uoleva. I would be surprised to find that beautiful island not totally transformed in less than 10 years… on second thought, maybe not!

Next: Swimming with the whales…

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