Tonga is a small remote pacific island nation roughly a three hours flight from New Zealand. From the UK it seems an unimaginable distance from home and this is exactly why I wanted to explore. Having just finished my first year of travel in Australia, I decided to explore Fiji and Tonga en route to my new home in Auckland.
We spent the best part of two weeks in Tonga and it was a very eye opening experience. Luckily I had my best friend Holly by my side and together the two Holly's navigated the culture shock, sea sickness and distinct lack of internet over these two crazy weeks.
From Fiji we flew into Tongatapu, Tonga's main island and home to it's capital Nuku'alofa. The airport is small and the immigration room consists of three officers at a makeshift desk. After passing through this we found our bags, not on a conveyor belt but in a pile on the floor ready to be picked up. We were met by a local man who took us to our hostel in the capital.
Our first big shock of the trip was the vehicle we would be transferred in. The man showed us to a pretty battered pick-up truck, complete with nothing else in the car expect from a single drivers seat! We settled into the back of the metal shell with our bags as our transfer hot wired the windows to go down. It is here where we sat in anxious silence as our chariot of choice shuddered us to our destination . From the airport we looked out at many school children all dressed impeccably on their walk home, local stalls selling root vegetables and fruit and many homes adorned with the Tongan flag.
We had chosen a hostel online after extensive research. Many of the accommodation options I could find were isolated or rundown, so after finding our hostel right in the centre of Nuku'alofa I thought we had hit the jackpot. Booking.com seemed to have run out of allocation and many other sites showed as sold out for our dates. I couldn't believe it was that busy! After contacting them directly on Facebook, I was able to get us a room. Expecting it to be busy and bustling we were shocked when the hostel had a grand total of four guests, us being two of them. Although clean, well located and comfortable it was rather eerie!
After setting down our bags we decided to set off into the town of Nuku'alofa and check out the sights. The capital of Tonga has a population of 23,000 and this is evident by the expanse of the city walls. Our hostel was on the main road which was home to a few banks, a New Zealand embassy, a couple of shops and two or so cafes. One of these was Friendly Cafe which was the hub of WiFi on the island. We went here for our dinner and were able to catch up online to see what we could do with our time here.
We had planned no activities for our stay thinking we could book them locally but the lack of WiFi and tourist infrastructure made this a lot harder. After speaking to a few people at the cafe and looking through their small tourist guide booklet, we chose to hire a car on the Monday to help us see the main sights of the island.
The next day was Sunday, a day of rest in the Pacific islands. Although in Fiji this hasn't made much difference as we were in resorts, in Tonga this meant the whole town shut down. I knew our current Covid-19 lock down looked familiar! Armed with a leaflet of facts and a walking tour route of Nuku'alofa we felt ready for our exploration the next day as the rest of the island rested.
We woke up on Sunday to a very empty capital. Although it was a day of rest even for the hotel staff, they woke up to provide us with breakfast and the advice to knock on the door if we needed any other meals. Armed with our map we headed out to explore the city. We found this to not be too challenging as there wasn't too much to see! Me and Holly checked out the parliament buildings, some of which were no more than a shed and others which were large and imposing. It turned out that the Chinese government had provided a lot of materials to help build government structure hence the communist feel of the architecture and the security surrounding it. It was very odd to see when other such buildings were such a stark contrast. From further research, China has provided financial aid to Tonga in order to have more command of their waterways and hence claim further sea in the pacific.
We also walked past the Royal Palace. Tonga is home to the only monarchy in the Pacific and it is for this reason that it has also never been conquered. It is said that both Captain Cook and Abel Tasman came by these waters and made harbour but were turned away by the warriors and King of the land. They were not going to attempt to take conquest where they could see another had already claimed. The Royal Family are still here today and although they travel to new Zealand frequently, have a grand palace on the waterfront armed by guards. You cannot go in but we enjoyed looking at the palace from the gates.
On our walk of the capital we also hiked to the tallest point of the city, a grand 14 m above sea level. One thing that surprised me was the large influence of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Tonga. I spend a year in Utah during university and on the flight to Tonga sat next to a Mormon missionary. After recognising him for being an Elder we got talking and he told me about the large impact Mormonism has in Tonga. Not only is it the main religion but the Church also provides huge aid to the country. It is therefore not surprising that nearly every church is Mormon and religion is a large part of their life. On this particular Sunday no one was in the streets but everyone was in the Church. Every Church we walked past, and there were many, had it's doors open with music and singing floating out. We found this to be the same in our further exploration of the island.
We ended up finding a hotel that was open for lunch this day and since we had bought some snacks the day before were able to sustain ourselves for the evening, we were too scared to impose on our hostel hosts for food! Holly and I spent the remainder of our day in our room playing board games and trying to plan out the rest of our time in Tonga.
On Monday the country was back and moving and we decided to hire a car to explore more of the island. We looked up a car hire place and were able to hire a car for the next three days relativity inexpensively and with little paperwork. We had read online that to drive in Tonga you did need a Tongan driving license but we decided to go and see if this was the case at the hire shop. Apparently not as we were able to drive away with a car in under 10 minutes!
Our ride for the next three days is pictured above and really set the mood. In Tonga the speed limit on most of the island is around 40-50 kmph so we settled into the slow drive to all of the tourist hot spots. This was also the day that my friend got pretty bad food poisoning so we were glad that we could take our time. I'm pretty sure we explored every inch of the main island and saw the Royal Tombs, Captain Cooks lookout, Tongans version of the Stonehenge, the bat trees and Abel Tasman 's lookout.
The highlights for us were Anahulu Caves, The natural Blowholes and Maui's Rock. The Anahulu caves were an incredible surprise for us and very hidden away. After paying for entry we were guided into huge caves covered with stalagmites and stalactites. What makes this experience all the more special was how quiet it was; for the majority of our visit we were only ones there. In the cave there is a fresh water pool with some of the clearest water I have ever seen. With an empty cave we whipped out our swimmers and went for a dip. Although you could see the bottom clearly it was very deep as there was no way we were ever going to be able to touch it. Swimming in this cave was an incredible experience and so unique. With tourist attractions crowded these days it was so special to have a moment of peace with one of natures wonders.
We also enjoyed spending time at the Natural Blowholes locally known as Mapu a Vaea in the South of the Island. These are created by water corroding the coral to create pressure. This results in an amazing noise and large swells and spray which made for a fab photo shoot with our car we nicknamed Blue Steel. Maui's rock was also interesting as legend says that Maui threw it out of the ocean as the roosters on the island were keeping him from his sleep. The huge hunk of coral sits a mile or so from the sea and has intrigued scientists for many years. Recent research now leads scientists to understand that the coral rock is the result of a huge tsunami that swept over the island thousands of years ago. It is also currently believed to be the largest Tsunami rock in the world.
Driving around Tonga was also an experience as we had to look out for things such as pigs, children and coconuts. The radio is lacking and we heard many a Christmas tune on the radio in OCTOBER.
Our time on Tongatapu and in Nuku'alofa was a whirlwind and we wouldn't have it any other way. Hiring our car was our best decision as it gave us freedom to explore and make our own schedule.
Our next few days in Tonga were spent on the remote island of Eua, a two hour ferry trip from Tongatapu. And what a boat ride it was... I'll divulge further in my next post!