Malo E Lelei Tonga – Welcome to Tonga
“An island with two mountains and in the deep, wide ocean…” Well, there aren’t two mountains in Tonga and there isn’t any railway. But the song of the Augsburger Puppenkiste is otherwise very true. The Augsburger Puppenkiste was a German marionette theater company that adapted children’s stories for television in the 1960s and 70s. Here the children’s novel of Michael Ende ‘Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver’ (German: Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer). With a remix of the main song from that novel the dance floor project Dolls United was very successful in the ’90th.
But let’s come back to Tonga. It’s an island, more precisely 170+ islands. And it’s located in the deep, wide sea, more precisely in the South Pacific. And it has a king. The current king is not called Alfonso the Quarter-Twelfth but ʻAhoʻeitu ʻUnuakiʻotonga Tukuʻaho, called “Tupou the Sixth”.
Tonga – Where today is yesterday or tomorrow
With a small ATR 72-600 I arrived in Tonga after two hours of flight from Fiji. And that was a good thing, because I didn’t have to count days when booking the hotel. Because if I had flown further to Niue, just only 600 km away, I would have had to be very careful with the date. The international date line runs between the two islands. Today is Tonga on July 19th, 2020. On Niue, however, it is exactly one day earlier, i.e. July 18, 2020. So from Tonga’s point of view it’s yesterday on Niue, while from Niue’s point of view, on Tonga it’s already tomorrow. Confusing? Anyway, you can use this imaginary line to either celebrate your birthday twice a year – or not at all. Or to celebrate New Year’s Eve twice or to skip it… And if you want to go around the world in 80 days, then you should think carefully about which direction to start 😉
Anyway, Tonga advertises with the slogan “Where the day starts”. Because here every calendar day and every new year starts first.
Little tourism – more naturalness
Already in the plane and on arrival I noticed that I was the only foreigner. That may have been a coincidence, but in general the large tourist flows are rather left to the neighbouring Fiji Islands, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. But maybe that’s why Pacific serenity and a certain sense of tradition have been preserved in Tonga. Many men still wear their traditional clothes when travelling. A skirt, and above it a wide belt (or short mini skirt), braided or in the form of a bast mat. I am at the small international airport Fuaʻamotu on the main island of Tonga, Tongatapu. About 10 km south of the capital Nukuʻalofa.
After the way from the plane over the apron the entry formalities were relaxed in the small arrival area. Combined with the wish for a pleasant stay in the Kingdom of Tonga. But first I had to hand in my drone to customs. I was supposed to pick it up again the next day at Nukuʻalofa after a briefing on the local flight regulations.
Sundays is a day off on Tonga
Good thing the next day wasn’t a Sunday. Because Sunday is a legal day of rest on Tonga. And a day of rest here actually is a day of rest. Of course all the authorities are closed then. But also all markets and most of the shops and restaurants. Buses and taxis do not run. The domestic flights and ferries between the islands do not operate.
Maybe you should consider this when you arrive and depart Tonga.
But where it is loud and bustling on Sundays on Tonga, that is in and around the churches. And there are plenty of them. Nowhere else in the world have I seen so many churches so close together. Most of them are from the Methodist denomination, which was founded in England and now with the largest number of members in the United States. Which is also active in Tonga with schools and churches, both financially and missionary. So the inhabitants of Tonga (what are their real names, Tongans, Tongalese, Tongaer? – according to the Internet Tongans) are very devout and almost all church members. And the people attending church services, mostly in traditional Sunday dress, do not just follow the words. Here they also sing above all. And this at a volume that can surely keep up with the trumpets of Jericho…
Tongatapu and Outer Islands
The driver of the hotel was already waiting for me in front of the airport. We went to the north of the island to the hotel in Kanokupolu. Past farmland and through small villages. For the 40 kilometers on the well- developed road we still needed almost 90 minutes. This was not only due to the large number of free-running dogs and the speed limit of 40 to 60 km/h. But also because of the generally calm and relaxed driving style of all road users.
The main island is not Tonga’s vacation paradise. If you are looking for a South Sea feeling, you should travel to the two more northern groups of islands that belong to the kingdom, Ha’apai and Vava’u. In the far north, there are also the Niuas, a fourth group of islands consisting of peaks of submarine volcanoes. But since I only had five days there, I stayed on Tongatapu and chose a small locally run hotel, the Vakaloa Beach Resort.
Cyclones – Tropical storms in the South Pacific
NEWSFLASH: Since April 2020 the Vakaloa Beach Resort does not exist anymore like before. The cyclone ‘Harold’ has devastated it heavily. Also the website is no longer accessible. It was the most violent cyclone since the cyclone ‘Gita’ hit the island in February 2018. Even then, the resort was damaged and still rebuilt in May 2018. How long might the reconstruction take this time? I wish those affected a lot of strength, courage and success!! I don’t know if and how the other parts of the island that I photographed at that time survived the new cyclone.
In May 2018, on my way to the hotel, I still saw the damage of the tropical cyclone ‘Gita’ three months earlier. It was the most severe one since records started. Palm forests and plantations were damaged. So do some wooden houses. The corrugated iron roofs of many houses were torn down. Some houses were so crooked that they are in danger of collapsing and are no longer habitable. Others have collapsed completely. The people make do with tents or containers. Also in school lessons. Because all materials for repair and reconstruction first have to be imported (and paid for) by ship from New Zealand and Australia. Likewise, food and everyday products. Only staple foods can be produced in part by agriculture, fishing and cattle breeding. Tonga is still a very original Pacific state and little industrialized. It is therefore difficult for the small country to do the reconstruction on its own. And so aid from Australia and New Zealand is highly welcome.
The next day the driver took me to the customs office. Because I should pick up my drone there. Since it was still lunch break, I had time to look around the city and on the markets. And to have a quick look at the landmark of Tonga, the royal palace directly by the sea, and the royal tombs. The palace dates back to 1867 and is made entirely of wood. The parts were manufactured in New Zealand and then assembled on Tonga. In addition, there are also some nice buildings from around 1870, but you won’t find any high-rise buildings in Nuku ʻalofa.
When I came back, I was told at customs that a Civil Aviation Authority officical would give me a briefing on drone flights. And the people wanted to know a lot about Germany. In return I learned that one of the former kings had studied in Germany. And that there is a “Perpetual Friendship Treaty” between the German Empire and the Kingdom of Tonga, which was concluded in 1876 and renewed in 1977. James Cook had already named the flat coral islands “Friendly Islands”, in Germany they got the name “Friendship Islands”.
The employee of the civil aviation authority was a nice young man, who was visibly uncomfortable explaining the regulations. After completing the forms I was kindly dismissed. Until the closing time of the banks at 3.30 p.m. there was just enough time to exchange money.
New acquaintance on Tonga
On the way back the driver asked me if I would mind if he took a little detour. He was supposed to pick up some meat for the hotel. Of course I didn’t mind! Because that way I got to see more of Tonga.
While loading the goods into the car, a Tongan suddenly addressed me with “Guten Abend” (Good evening in German). Hello? German language in Tonga?!? That cleared up in the hotel lateron. She is married to a German. From Wiesbaden, only 30 km away from Frankfurt. Hans-Jürgen Briest, who has been living in Tonga for 30 years now and writes books (Link in German only). I talked a lot with him, about Tonga, the people and culture, the country and life. And the Vakaloa Beach Resort belongs to his son-in-law and his daughter.
What a coincidence that I chose this hotel in Tonga by chance three weeks earlier in Brisbane… And this acquaintance also made it possible for me to attend a Tongan wedding, which was celebrated one evening at the Vakaloa Beach Resort.
The next three days passed with lazing around, playing with abandoned dogs, flying my drone, walking along the beach, talking and eating. Eating a lot. The Tongans love to eat. Traditional and high in calories. Sometimes 14 courses. And as a result, many people in Tonga are by our standards – well – too fat. But fat people on Tonga are still considered beautiful, wealthy and healthy. There have been state-run sports and nutrition programs for weight reduction since 1990. And King Tupou IV himself lost 70 kg as a role model in the 90s. From before 210 kg to 140 kg. Nevertheless, a body mass index of 30+ is still not uncommon on Tonga today.
Drive around the island
At the end of my stay on Tonga, I still wanted to have a look at the island. And to rent a car for the trip. Because the 150 km of a tour around the island with different stops is not possible in one day using public transport. But I was advised against this in the hotel. Because to drive yourself, you have to buy a Tongan driver’s license for TOP$ 40 first. The international driver’s license is not enough here. So I was offered to take my hand and to drive me. The international driving licence is not enough here. Therefore, I was offered to take me by the hand and drive. Beside the driver, two other hotel employees joined me, which made the tour very entertaining.
Our first stop was the Tsunami Rock. Or Maka Sio’ata. Nobody knows exactly how the 9 meter high boulder came ashore in the middle of a meadow. 400 m from the sea. It is believed that there was a volcanic eruption under water and it was subsequently thrown ashore by a tsunami. In contrast, a legend says that the god Maui hurled the rock ashore to kill a giant, man-eating chicken. Be that as it may, the 1,600-ton rock looks very impressive.
The Mapu’a ʻA Vaea Blow Holes are far less mysterious. The waves push the water from below into natural channels of the coral rocks on the coast. Pushed up there, the water gushes up to 18 m into the air. This looks like geysers and was the most impressive natural spectacle on Tongatapu for me. You can watch it for hours.
The next spot was the Hufangalupe Land Bridge. Here the sea has dug under the coral rock and the water gathers a bit inland in an open crater.
But be careful when walking over the Land Bridge. I was told that tourists have already fallen to death there because of small holes in the ground under the grass and bushes.
Moreover, the rock on the edge of the crater is quite loose.
The Hina Cave is located at the beach of a beach resort. But because of my escort it was no problem to get in. There are several such caves in the coral limestone rock of the island. But the Hina Cave has the most beautiful legend: Hina and Sinilau once lived happily on the beach. One day, Sinilau went out to sea for fishing. And never came back. Hina waited days and nights. Finally, she lay down in that cave and died of a broken heart…
Burden of Maui
In the far northeast of Tongatapu we reached Haʻamonga ʻa Maui. It looks like an archway made of three petrified coral blocks. The two side parts are about 5m high and 4m wide. The block on top is 6m long and 1.5m wide. And each part weighs 40 tons. It is said to have been built around 1200. But why, there is no agreement on that. Some think it’s the entrance to the old royal palace. Because in former times there was a capital of Tonga at this place. Others think it’s the gateway to another dimension. I went through it several times, but didn’t notice anything 😉 And finally there is the view that these stone blocks have something to do with astronomy and the determination of seasons. After all, the sun probably shines on June 21st (the beginning of winter on Tonga) at sunrise and sunset directly on/through the archway. In this respect a partnership with Stonehendge might be considered…
Captain Cook’s Landing Place
After a nice break with a late lunch at Nukuʻalofa, we finally reached Captain Cook’s Landing Place. It is located in the north of the island in a protected lagoon. Cook already knew where he could safely park his ships in 1777. The lagoon is quite picturesque, but the area is not really spectacular.
Especially not at the view point because a large concrete platform was tipped on the ground and provided with a grid. Rather unsuitable to take pictures, too bad.
I spent the last day at the hotel again, stretching my legs in the sand, looking at the sea and letting the drone circle over the water. You can find a few shots of it in the video below (1m 30s).
In the evening I said goodbye to Hans-Jürgen Briest and the next day I left for New Zealand. Auckland is waiting.
There is so much more to tell about Tonga. About the culture, the lifestyle and the Fakaleiti. But because this story has been so long anyway, I want to come to an end at this point.
But a little bit I would like to take with me from this wonderful island: Serenity, warmth and joy. As people showed me here.
Malo ʻo Nofo a Tonga – Thank you and goodbye Tonga!
Cheers, Rüdiger 😎