Edit Blog Post
Published: June 10th 2012
29th May ‘12 – 2nd June ‘12 The Kingdom of Tonga!
We landed at Nuku’alofa airport at 10.30pm and were led to the duty free shop – turns out this is the cheapest duty free in the whole of the South Pacific so after the ridiculous price in Sydney, which meant I didn’t buy any I dived in to get some cigarettes.
We were met by a lovely guy called Peter (with an unfortunate cauliflower growth by his mouth) who was our lift to Toni’s Guesthouse where we were going to stay. As the ATM at the airport was out of order he stopped at one for us and also took us to a local shop where we were allowed behind the barred window counter to choose some food and drinks.
The guesthouse is made up of 3 different houses, 2 of which have dorms and the yellow house where we stayed which had 3 bedrooms. At 11 pm at night it was hard to form an impression of the place other than it seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere down a bumpy mud track. The room was nice enough though, clean and en suite.
After removing the centipede that was making its way across the bed side cabinet we got to bed…. And discovered the sheets were damp…. And then the dogs started howling, oh well….
After a night spent listening to barking dogs, squealing pigs, chickens and cockerels we must off drifted off as we woke to more of the same plus the sound of someone banging continuously. We got up and were quite excited to start exploring; after all we were in Tonga!!
It turned out that the guesthouse was in a small village close to town but too far away to walk. This is why the guesthouse runs a shuttle bus back and forwards a few times a day into town for $1 Tongan a go. So we jumped in and went back down the muddy track to the main road, passing small one storey houses surrounded by little gardens and vegetable patches.
Everywhere was lush green tropical scenery, with lots of palm trees. The town – is actually the capital of Tonga and I must say it made Apia in Samoa look huge! There were several dusty streets with small shops, then a
few big modern looking places with nothing much in them. The supermarkets sell virtually nothing, we bought some instant noodles, corned beef and cheese slices, as apart from some tins of tomato soup that was it!
We had a look at the market, which sold lots of strange looking vegetables such as huge cassava tubers, we bought some onions and then got totally ripped off buying a few apples. They had quite a few souvenir stalls all selling the same things – woven mats and shell jewellery, or you could get Kingdom of Tonga T Shirts which we resisted.
The find of the day though was the bakery we came across while walking about, it sold mince pies, crusty bread and some cakes. So we bought a couple of pies, a cake and a donut. There were a couple of cafes but they were very expensive but we decided to have a splurge and get some lunch. We chose Friends as it had tables out in the garden and a band playing. The band was two old boys on guitars and a man and a woman on ukuleles. So we ate our sandwich and cooked breakfast to the
sounds of the South Pacific, until they decided to treat the kiwi tourists to Take the ribbon from your hair!!
We carried on exploring the town and found the tourist information office in an old traditional building with a thatched roof and two carved wooden pillars by the entrance. Inside there wasn’t a lot of information, but they did have displays of posters from various accommodation around the island and I managed to find three very interesting leaflets on Tongan dancing, useful Tongan phrases and the Royal Village – which isn’t in the town.
We found the Royal Palace which you could peer at from outside the iron railings (you can’t go inside), it looked rather like a large house and also several very large churches (which are locked).
All the buildings in the town and a lot of the houses are decorated with swags of black and purple cloth, this is a sign of mourning. The old king died early in the year and the new king also died 6 weeks later! The new new king decreed that the customary year of mourning wouldn’t be enforced for the new king so I guess they are combining
the two and should be about 6 months through it by now. The people, both male and female wear long skirts with straw mats tied around their middles. The men tend to have a basic mat but the ladies have very elaborate woven straw belts with long dangling straw decorations on them. This is a sign of mourning – when worn with black clothes and worn with everyday clothes is a sign of respect – comparable to wearing a tie in England. All the school boys wear the mats as a gesture of respect to their teachers and apparently teachers wear them to show their respect to their pupils.
We discovered a unisex hairdresser’s and as it was only about £4 for a ladies trim I decided to give it a go. The lady who washed my hair – as it was deemed to unruly to just cut! And did the trimming was lovely, she was called Sitsy and told me to come to her if we needed anything during our stay in Tonga. The trim however wasn’t quite as lovely and I am now slightly lop sided hair wise and got sent out with soaking wet hair, but
that wasn’t a problem as it was so hot it soon dried.
We also came across quite a few grave yards, all the graves are sort of above the ground, so large earth mounds with lots of plastic flowers and pebble edgings. The more elaborate graves have massive bedspread looking banners hanging above them which are all embroidered.
After a few hours we had seen just about all the town had to offer and caught the shuttle back to the guest house. This was my first introduction to Toni the owner, we had read some very dodgy reviews about him on the internet so I was quite intrigued to see this ‘rude’ man. Turns out he is from Manchester, must be heading for his 70s, with a grey ponytail and has been in Tonga for about 23 years. To be fair on first meeting he did seem very surly and had a very dry sense of humour which I doubt many people would understand.
My initial impressions didn’t improve when we went to use the internet, he reluctantly found a lead to plug the netbook in and then just said I don’t understand these things you’ll have
to wait for Monni (one of the other members of staff). When a young German lad came up to see if he could get connected via his phone he just got a no shouted at him!! So I could see how he earnt his reviews! The internet connection was rubbish also.
Later that night back in the Yellow Guesthouse we met the other guests – Marianne, a German/Tongan girl who was working out here on an internship and a Tongan guy and his very Tongan looking girl friend who was from New Zealand. They were all really nice and gave us some good ideas for places to visit both in Tonga and in Fiji.
When we went to make some tea we discovered the Tongan couple had left their dirty plates in the sink and the whole place was overrun with ants! Some ant type creatures had discovered our loaf of bread in the cupboard and it had to be binned, so tea was a cold mince pie and noodles!
I went to bed with ear plugs in, hungry and sleeping in damp sheets again.
It was remarkably quiet this morning – I
have no idea why but it was great and we both managed to get a decent night’s sleep.
As we had decided to visit Pangaimotu island today we caught the shuttle to the town and then walked to the bakery for some breakfast. They had the most delicious cheese topped buns so that was my breakfast and Howard had a couple of hot mince pies. We walked down to the wharf past people sat by the roadside selling coconuts and kasava tubers, found what we thought was the right wharf – there were no signs anywhere. After finding a café we checked where the ferry departed from and had a cuppa while we waited.
About 10 minutes before the ferry was due we wandered across to the waiting area – a long bench with a little roof full of holes and surrounded by rubbish and found 4 other people from Toni’s also waiting.
After 20 minutes or so a young guy walked up and asked us if we were going to the island when we said yes he said ok the boat’s ready. Well we couldn’t see a ferry anywhere, turned out it was a tiny little
Tongan Tom Jones
boat which we clambered in and off we sped. It only took 10 minutes to get across to the weeny little island, all that was there was a restaurant cum bar and a sandy beach which ran right round the island and lots of palm trees – now this was what I thought Tonga would be like!
The island dog adopted us and walked right round the island with us, running into the sea to collect large shells which he brought out to us! Dog Friday was great while we were walking but once we got back to the restaurant he went slightly loopy pulling cloths of tables and dashing in and out. We tried to ditch him but he kept after us and each time we stopped he kept trying to catch our hands in his mouth. Although he didn’t try and bite it was un nerving and the final straw was when he jumped onto my back – I know he just wanted to play but I didn’t like it, luckily he seemed to get the message and took himself off to harass someone else.
I had cheeseburger and chips for lunch to make up for
the cold pie tea and then we met son of Gulliver – it was uncanny he had the same markings as our Gully but was tiny and boney.
At 4pm the hooter sounded and the boat back arrived, so the 6 of us got aboard and left the island empty of visitors.
On the shuttle back we got the good news that there was another couple who wanted to do the island tour the guest house organised and appeared to be the only way to see the whole island. This was great as they needed 3 people to run it. However once back at Toni’s we were told they had changed their minds but not to worry as maybe tomorrow some new people might arrive and want to go.
Well no tour of the island so we decided not to rush to get up. We did however have some excitement for that night as we booked to go to the Tongan Feast!!
So we spent the day as per usual with a trip to town, this time we went to peer at the Royal Graves through the railings and saw the Catholic Basilica
and Church. We had another look at the market and bought some more water. So after another hot, sticky trudge round town we went back to the guesthouse and the fan. Once again no one wants to do the tour so we have agreed to pay for 3 and just do it regardless tomorrow before we leave.
And so to night time and the Tongan Feast, I must say I was really looking forward to having a decent meal for once and the fact that it was in a cave with traditional songs and dancing made it even more attractive!
The reality was somewhat different……….a minibus full of us went from Toni’s which surprised me as it was quite pricey, more than the island tour, but anyway we arrived at the beach resort where it was being held and walked down a wooden stairway to get down to the beach and the cave. Then our ears were assaulted by the sound of songs of the 80s being played by the live band. We went into a covered area (not very cave like) where we sat on bamboo pole benches with long bamboo tables covered with banana leaves. I
The only double headed palm tree in the South Pacific allegedly
ordered a Tongan beer which was the cheapest drink at £2.50 for a tiny bottle so no one else bothered buying a drink.
The band continued playing at full blast and our host for the evening, who also owned the resort was the singer. He reminded me of a Tongan Tom Jones and was shaking his hips and belting out the numbers. By now all of us are pretty cheesed off having expected traditional music but when Tongan members of the audience started getting up and sticking money on members of the band that they particularly liked it got more interesting, then a few people got up to dance and we found that even in Tonga there is a Billy! Every country around the world we visit there is always one person who dances like our Billy and really really enjoys themselves doing it, it always makes me smile!
The host then stopped the music (hooray) welcomed members of the audience, including a Fijian Chief and his English wife (couldn’t spot them sadly) and then said as the food was ready we would say grace. He then said a very impassioned prayer for quite some time and then
Healthy village 2011
told us about the food, which included a suckling pig.
We then got up table by table and joined the queue and as our host suggested tried a small bit of everything before going back for seconds. Our plates were a kind of hollowed out half a bamboo pole. The food was dished out by the staff who told us what each bowl contained and so by the inability to hear properly what was said I ended up trying octopus. It was only after I had eaten these little cubes of fishy tasting things that Howard told me that was what it was! I also tried another Tongan speciality – lu pulu, which is corned beef mixed with coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves. I don’t know what it is with the South Pacific and corned beef but they certainly seem to love the stuff and it is one of the only things you can guarantee being able to buy in the shops!
I must say after the Maori meal the Tongan feast was a bit of a let-down, the food wasn’t that nice and there wasn’t much of it either. The suckling pig was tasty but you
only got a few bits, there was however a really delicious tasting massive fish which was good but by the time it came to seconds it was all gone.
After the meal we were all feeling a bit despondent but then we were told to all get up and were led outside and this time we did go into a real cave, where we sat on yet more uncomfortable bamboo pole benches and then the actual cultural section of the evening started.
The cave was lit with flaming torches and the staff had all changed into traditional clothes – the men wore skirts of leaves, with leaves round their necks, arms and ankles and the women wore different knee lenght dresses for each dance and had flowers behind their ears. The ladies arms and legs were also glistening with oil. Once again when someone particularly admired a dancer they would just get up during the dance and stick money onto their skin, I also read that young men would use this as an opportunity to put money and so touch the legs or arms of the girls that they fancied.
The dancing, music and singing was great.
Coral rock arch
The women were so graceful and dignified and the men were leaping around wildly and really energetically as they performed a series of different dances. We were then told the story of the cave and how two lovers lived there, a beautiful maiden and her warrior. He would go out fishing each day until the day of a great storm and he didn’t return. She stayed in the cave waiting and waiting for him, gazing out at the sea trying to glimpse him, until she died of a broken heart and here in the cave she remains. In one section of the cave is a rock formation that looks remarkably like a woman lying on her back and this is said to be that very maiden.
Then the cave plunged into virtual darkness, then suddenly one flaming torch appeared high up near the roof of the cave, followed by another two all held by men who had climbed high up the side of the cave and so the fire show began. It was pretty spectacular and one man in particular was really skilled with his flaming fire stick and whirled it around faster and faster getting it closer and
you don't want to get washed over here!
closer to his body, you could see the sweat pouring off him.
When the show ended the ‘warrior’ dancers were all lined up outside and shook everyone’s hand as they left the cave.
We were then given the choice of joining the band for a rock and roll disco or leaving, our group decided to leave….
2nd June ’12 Our final day in the Kingdom of Tonga and onto Fiji.
So at last and just in the nick of time we were going to go on an island tour! Despite there being more new guests no one else wanted to do the tour and the staff were just as puzzled by this as we were!
So Howard and I had a minibus to ourselves and Toni himself as our personal guide. We began by heading right up to the north of the island and on the way Toni pointed out all the various flowers, plants and trees growing on the island and the methods of cultivation. We also found out that China and Japan appeared to be trying to out do each other in providing aid to Fiji, mainly in the form of improving roads
and building health clinics. The roads were just referred to as China or Japan road! And the latest China road that was being re tarmacked meant we had to take a detour. This involved going along a very bumpy, pot holed grass filled road that resembled more of a farm track than a road but was apparently typical of Tongan roads before China and Japan stepped in. Toni was guessing it would lead out to the main road again and luckily it did or we would have spent about an hour trying to reverse back down it!!
On our tour we saw a gazillion churches, every small village had at least two and then there were whole stretches along the road where the Mormons had arrived and built churches, schools and halls, these churches they apparently re build regularly with bigger and better steeples! By the end of the tour I could spot and identify Mormon churches with no problems!!
We then arrived up at Abel Tasman pint and stopped to have a look at the plaque and views out over the sea. This area was also where Christianity first introduced into Tonga by the missionaries. Toni had
Bottle graves cemetry
quite strong opinions as to the reality of what being a Christian meant to the Tongan people, as everyone belongs to a church – who take a tithe from everyone and the ministers live in big houses in luxury, where the ordinary people have very little. Also the incidence of crime and robbery is very high, which is why all the shops have iron bars over the window counters. In Tongan society the family always looks after its members, so if the church decides it needs more money from the congregation then whether they can afford it or not they will ask family who may be overseas for the cash – these members then often have to turn to crime to find the cash rather than loose face.
It was interesting to hear about how Tongan society works, the concept of stealing is not recognised as if someone takes something from another person they class it as borrowing and so the police cannot prosecute them. During a birthday party for his mother in law Toni’s tea service which he brought out from England was used and afterwards most of it had vanished, he reckons the church minister is now
using it, having ‘borrowed’ it!!!
We passed through Kala’au village which had won the Healthy Village award in 2011 and the billboard proclaimed the fact that this village was both tobacco and alcohol free – now there’s a first!
As we went around this area we saw various signs for different holiday resorts but Toni informed us most of them had stopped running now, mainly due to neglect so they couldn’t attract the tourists (who appear to be few and far between anyway). This is also compounded by the system now in place where by if a Tongan sold the land to a foreigner they can now claim the land back and then lease the buildings back to them and many people cannot afford to do this and subsequently the resorts just fall into disrepair.
Toni took us to one of the better beach resorts for lunch and it was an idyllic setting, with small thatched bures dotted along the cliff overlooking a beach and waves crashing against the rocks but there were no guests there! We just bought drinks and ate our own sandwiches and that was probably the only business they did that day.
After lunch the Tongan owner who had lived in New Zealand, quite a young lad came up to chat to us – primarily about tattoos, he had some amazing traditional warrior tattoos! But before we parted he asked us if we came back to Tonga would we please come and stay at his resort, I felt really sorry for him he was trying his best and had what looked like a great place but just no business.
We then went to visit the Houma Blowholes and they were pretty amazing, not quite as stupendous as the Samoan ones as there weren’t any massive holes, rather a series of cracks but they stretched for miles along the coastline and the sea was so rough and magnificent that once again I was utterly captivated. When we arrived Toni warned us there may be ladies selling souvenirs and as we pulled up we saw a few sitting under a tree, but bless them as we were watching the waves they just waited, then one came up and started talking to me about Tonga and what I thought of it. She then said once you have finished watching the waves would you look
Captain Cook was here!
at my souvenirs, all of which she had made by hand herself, well what could I do, we were at the premier tourist site and were probably the only people to visit that day (we did not encounter any other tourists during the whole trip) and those ladies still just sat there all day long in the hopes that someone might come along. So I ended up buying a necklace and hoping that that would be enough for her to buy some food.
Then it was onto Hufangalupe – a massive coral rock archway over a large deep hole which led out to the sea, this area though was all over grown with just a rough dirt track to it and yet it led to a great natural phenomenon. We then walked out to the cliffs with views right down the coast line and once again there were fearsome waves breaking against them. Toni warned us not to go to the edge as the waves could reach up and over the top. He then told us about the group of Mormon’s who he had brought out on the tour and one of them had insisted on going to the
Captain Cook's Landing
edge to take a group photo and had been washed over and died!
As we drove along we came to an area famous for its flying foxes and sure enough up in the trees were a very large quantity of them, dangling upside down off the branches, I must say I was glad I was in a minibus. The same goes for when we were shown the giant spider webs lining one of the road sides and I turned down the chance to go and feel how strong the webs were!
We then got to the historical attractions, which was said in a very tongue in cheek way by our trusty guide. We visited the Ha’amonga Trilithon, which is known as the Stonehenge of the South Pacific according to the Tongan visitor guide, but other people told us it just a couple of big rocks! Turns out it is two upright stones about 5 metres high with a horizontal stone about 6 metres long across the top. It was built in 1200 ad by the eleventh Tu’i Tonga (Tongan Kings) and is supposed to represent his two sons and was to remind them to always stay united. Once
Toni's Yellow Guesthouse
again it was in a bit of an overgrown field with a huge pig running around it.
From there we went on to see the Terraced Tombs (The Langi Tombs) of which there were two you could see clearly, they were a large rectangle shape and made of big stone blocks but only about 3 levels high. One of them was still topped with a grave and pebbles. You were not allowed to climb on or touch these tombs at all, so we very carefully stood in the calf high grass and peered at them.
This area was all part of the Lapaha – the Royal Village which I had picked up a leaflet about on our first day in the Visitor’s Centre, so although it wasn’t that spectacular I was really glad we had had the opportunity to see them.
We then followed a dirt road down towards the coast to see another cemetery which contained a lot of graves with empty bottles around them in layers – this was said to reflect the layers in the Langi Tombs and so the more layers of bottles the closer to heaven you were. We were not allowed to set foot outside of the bus here and even when Toni turned the bus around he had to be careful not to go onto the cemetery ground – in case the devil got us.
We continued our island circuit and passed the point which is said to be where sunrise first occurs on the earth. From here we arrived at Captain Cook’s Landing Place. There was supposed to be ‘Ovava (banyan) tree here which was the offspring of the original tree which Captain Cook was supposed to have rested under after anchoring the Endeavour out in the lagoon. We didn’t see a banyan tree but there was a stone memorial with a plaque marking the event and on the other side another plaque commemorating the visit of the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne to this site in 1970 – I didn’t bother with a photo of that plaque.
Once again a site of interest was going to rack and ruin, the gates were padlocked but you could get in via a gap to the side, the area looked neglected and the souvenir/visitor centre hut was all closed up.
Toni told us that it amused him greatly to go and sit in the grounds when the red roses they had planted were blooming (him being of the house of Lancashire!!), he also referred to Captain Cook as Jimmy as he reckons no northern worth their salt would stand on the back step shouting out James come in it’s time for your tea……. And he might well have a point lol.
On the way back to the guest house he told us the tale of how Tonga populated the other South Pacific Islands… legend has it that Tonga sent all the trouble makers to New Zealand, all the very tall people to Samoa, the sons of the Chiefs and Royalty were sent to Fiji and all the more effeminate men were sent to Tahiti….. make of that what you will!
It was a great tour, Toni was really knowledgeable, informative and funny. It gave us a different view of the man and he was really open about his life in Tonga. He had never been out of the UK before he read an article in the Reader’s Digest about the King of Tonga and how he would ride around on his bicycle and as he was so large he had 6 of his guard, 3 on each side, running along side him incase he toppled over!! As a result of this article he just packed up and flew out and here he remains! It was clear he loves Tonga warts and all and how he loves his job. He has no intention of ever returning to live – he reckons he could never handle to cold again and wants to be buried in Tonga in his own way mainly so he can annoy the Mormons!
Soon it was time to say our goodbyes and the lovely Peter took us to the airport. There was time for a final meal – a sandwich and a meat pie!!! Then we were boarding. I got rather a start when an enormous Tongan lady with a huge straw skirt round her waist stopped next to me, she took the straw skirt off and put it in an overhead locker then rammed herself into the seat next to mine and I spent the next 1 ½ hours scrunched up with an elbow in my ribs!
It’s no wonder that the Pacific Islanders are known to be obese though, the inflight meal consisted of a cake, a chocolate biscuit and a packet of crisps!! And so we said goodbye to the Kingdom of Tonga.
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