31 May 2014

Tonga's capital, Nuku'Alofa, photo tour

What a strange name right?
Before picking up the Tonga and Samoa travel guide from a university bookstore in Suva, Fiji, I had never heard of Nuku'alofa let alone know that it was the capital of a country, and I am a huge geography fan!

Tonga is a tiny country made of hundreds of islands a couple of hours flight from Fiji. You can get there from Fiji or from Australia and New Zealand and, as I would later discover, it is a popular kiwi destination for those looking to escape the cold winters. It has only 100k inhabitants and as many living abroad and financing the country through remittances.

I arrived after deciding, very last minute and simply based on the travel guide available at the only bookstore, that I was going to Tonga because swimming with the humpback whales sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The sun setting along the seaboard

Nuku'alofa was simply a base to plan the trip and the gateway to the beautiful archipelago of Vava'u. Around 70% of the population lives in the major island of Tongatapu where the capital is. 
There were not a lot of alternative accommodation options around and so when the taxi dropped me at the one he recommended I felt that I was being cheated. I had selected a B&B from the Lonely Planet which seemed homey and friendly and when the taxi took me to a sea front hotel where they were asking for much more than my initial choice I was sure I had to go back to my original plan.
A three headed palm tree
My first couple of hours in Tonga did not start well. I left my bag at the B&B sofa and when I went to the other suggested hotel and realised that I didn't have it with me I was overwhelmed with panic. Those who have experienced solo travelling and being robbed will understand. I was overcome with stress and anxiety as I frantically looked for my bag initially thinking it had been stolen from the back of the taxi.
Every thought related to how I was going to find a place to sleep that night or how I would find money to even return home passed through my eyes. I started sweating, panting and crying at the back of the taxi. The initially harassing taxi driver now felt terribly sorry and filled with empathy for my tragedy.
Returning to the B&B and finding the bag just where I left it was incredibly relieving and memories of Tonga called the Friendly Island quickly made sense. The name came from Thomas Cook's time when he landed for the 3rd time on the islands and was invited to dinner and celebrations. He decided to name Tonga the Friendly Island. Little did he know that the party was actually an excuse for the locals kings to decide on the best plan to kill him. He did manage to escape as they could not come up with the right way forward. You can today still visit the site of his landing.
One of many Mormon churches

There is a very popular hostel a bit far from town (3km) where backpackers and volunteers stay which is owned and managed by a British national who has lived in Tonga for over 25 years. Toni takes tourists on 1-day island round tours and shares his knowledge and many anecdotes with those who listen. He is charming in his own rustic old manners and likes to complement the facts with plenty of his own personal opinions and humour. He has completely adapted to Tonga's time and culture. He is late, last minute, disorganized and chilled. A great insight into the way things are done in Tonga. 
He also has an intriguing obsession for pointing out Mormon churches and agricultural produce. 
Mormons account for around 20% of the population today and, being the richest church in a strongly religious country, they attract followers with the promise of new, advanced and modern schools. Many families convert shortly before their children are of school age in the hope of sending them to the Mormon schools.

Pineapple being grown

Tonga does barely export anything except for some handicrafts. It is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world and survives on subsistence agriculture for local consumption and remittances and aid. Tourism has a lot of potential but is still incipient. Apart from Toni's tour there are very few other ways to see the island other than independently taking public minivan transportation. That would require quite a lot of time to see everything he is able to show you in a few hours.

Most of Tongatapu's island is made of beaches and very little urbanisation beyond the town. Infrastructure projects are unavoidably financed by the Japanese all along and there are signs everywhere about their contributions. I am told this is because Tonga supports Japan in their whaling industry.

As the country gets less than 100,000 visitors a year you are most likely going to be completely alone on any of the beautiful beaches orinteresting sights. I did not see more than 10 foreigners in my time there and the ones I saw were long-term medical students and a few kiwi divers.

Ha'atafu Beach

Ha'atafu Beach is one of the beautiful beaches scattered accross the island. You get there by following a path from the main circular road in the island and, as expected, there is nobody. The white sand beach is fringed by a reef and swimming and snorkeling is possible at high tide. You can also surf on the reef surrounded by whales during heir breeding season.

Sign at the entrance of Ha'afu beach

Although I went to Tonga primarily to visit the Vava'u archipelago and swim with the humpback whales during the peak summer season I saw them jumping and playing in the horizon from almost any viewpoint in town. Whether you are in the city staring at the sea or stop at any of the beaches, whales spraying water will dot the sea. 

Mapu'a 'a vaca blowholes
When I visited the blowholes they were not very active but you could just imagine how much water would be sprayed around on a more agitated day. It is said that the water can reach 30m on a windy day. Between the sounds of the water splashing against the blowholes and the sights of whales in the distance you may forget to keep an eye on the water and end up completely soaked. The blowholes extend for 5km along the coast

Endless blowholes

Tongatapu's island is only 17m above sea level and the highest point is only 65m. Global warming studies expect that Tongatapu, along with Kiribati, French Polynesia and other pacific islands may disappear under water by 2017.

Beautiful view through a rock formation
A tour of the island will also reveal several burial sites and cemeteries which are spread around. They all look similar with colourful decorations on top of the mounts of sand. Some have glass bottles all around them, some have plastic flowers, others have flags and pieces of fabric.

One of many burial sites
Another of the interesting sits is 'Anahulu Cave which is full of stalagmites and stalactites. The cave can be visited anytime. When you arrive, the guard will collect ticket and turn on the lights for you to an otherwise dark spot.

'Anahulu Cave
Aside from visiting the caves and marvelling at nature's formations you can also swim inside the cool pools at the bottom. As with most of the island's points of interests you will be the only one there.

The Ha'amonga 'A Maui Trilithon could be the Pacific's equivalent to Stonehenge and it is believed to have been used to track the seasons. It is made of three coralline stones that seem to be in perfect equilibrium and was built in 1200 AD. 

Other theories are more mythical and surrounded by legends. The government itself has a board on site explaining a few of the alternative explanations for the structure.

The site lays in a grassy area, no entrance fee, no fences, just another mysterious site one can stumble upon as if discovering an archaeological site for the first time.

Ha'amonga 'A Maui Trilithon
Tongatapu and Nuku'alofa are incredibly interesting and rich places with so much culture and beautiful natural sights that you'd be foolish not to spend at least 2-3 days there to absorb the culture and the Tongan way of doing things.  

Vava'u, although being part of Tonga, is highly influenced and changed by the amount of foreigners and high-end yachts moored in Port of Refuge so, although Tongan culture still trickles through, it is weaker and slightly diluted whereas the capital retains the old world charm, the slow laisser-faire and the air of remoteness.

Make sure to spend at least one Sunday in Tonga. From midnight Saturday for 24h the entire country comes to a halt. It is not only customary but also illegal to work or to do anything other than resting, eating and going to church on Sundays. Do not miss the opportunity to attend the service which will be filled with chants and white hats. Then join any of the lunch feats involving an underground oven made with hot stones, the way feasts are cooked in the Pacific. If you travel alone you are almost surely going to be invited by someone to their family's feast. It will be a once in a lifetime experience!

Have you been to Tonga? Did you enjoy Tongatapu? Let me know your thoughts

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