The Kingdom of Tonga

Nov 17th - 20th, 2018

The Kingdom of Tonga is a Polynesian country in the South Pacific, located about 2,000 km North-East of New Zealand and 800 km to the South-East of Fiji. The country is comprised of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited. It has a total population of just over 100,000, of which 70% live on the main island Tongatapu.

I took an afternoon flight on Air New Zealand from Auckland to Tonga, which takes just under 3 hours. EU passport holders do not require a visa to visit Tonga, but you do have to hold an onward or return flight ticket. Immigration formalities were quick and easy. I was picked up by the hotel in a little bus together with 7 other guests who all seemed to be staff of various NGOs and who were meeting here for a conference. The drive to Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga, took about 30 minutes. I stayed at the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel, which is a large and very nice hotel. Rooms are big and probably around 4 star level. The hotel is located right by the shore near the center of Nuku'alofa and close to the Royal Palace.

On my first day I had booked a day trip to Fafa Island, which is about 2 kilometers offshore from the main island. Fafa is a beautiful little paradise island, about 500 meters in diameter, surrounded by white sand beaches, a coral reef and perfectly clear turquoise waters. It is possible to stay on the island, there is a small luxury resort with 12 private huts, or you can visit on a day trip. The boat left Nuku’alofa at 11:00 am for the 30 minute crossing and returned at 4:30 pm.

I had a lovely and very relaxing day on this little island. I did some snorkeling through the corals, which have an abundance of fish and some huge clams. I also went on a long swim to earn my lunch of fresh swordfish with a couple beers in the little bar by the beach.

It is believed that the Tongan Islands were first reached and settled by humans around 800 to 1,000 BC. Since the first settlers had no written language, little is known about their history prior to the arrival of the first Europeans. The Dutch trader Willem Schoutens was the first European to see these islands in 1616. Another Dutchman, Abel Tasman, reached Tonga in 1643 on the same voyage where he discovered Tasmania and New Zealand. Captain James Cook first visited in 1771. It was due to the warm reception he received here, that Tonga became known as the Friendly Islands in the West. (Little did he know that the only reason he wasn't killed during the welcoming banquet, was that the tribal chiefs couldn't quite agree on how to do it.) From 1900 to 1970 the country was under British protectorate, but never completely lost its sovereignty. Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. The Tongan kings have come from the same family line since the unification of the islands in 1845.

Tonga is one of the most religious places I have ever been to. 99% of the population are Christian, with the largest denomination being Methodists with about 35%, followed by Mormons (18%) and Catholics (15%). The entire country pretty much shuts down completely on Sundays. No shop or restaurant is open, there is hardly anyone on the streets, and even swimming in the ocean (at least on the main island) is not allowed. If you ride a bike around town on Sundays, you are likely to be stopped by police and reminded politely that this is not the kind of activity that is done on Sundays around here. The only music played on the radio all day are religious hymns. The only thing people do on Sundays is to go to church dressed up really nicely, and have big family lunches.

There are numerous churches of all shapes and sizes across the island, and on Sundays they are all packed.

The richest and most opulent churches seem to be the Mormon Temples. In fact Tonga has a higher percentage of Mormons than any other country in the world.

Tonga's economy depends to a large extend on foreign remittances as more than half of the Tongan population lives abroad (mainly in Australia, New Zealand and the US). Unfortunately it is also ranked among the most corrupt economies in the world. Most rural Tongans rely on subsistence farming and despite the country's stunning natural beauty and pristine beaches, the tourist industry is relatively undeveloped.

On my second day in Tonga I had a full island tour booked through a company called Tonga Travel Troupe, which I had found via Viator. They were very good, very responsive and had helped me book my trip to Fafa island on the first day as well. I was picked up by my guide Eunice and her husband Marcus from the hotel at 10:00 am. The tour started at the Royal Palace, built in 1867, and the nearby Royal Tombs:

From here we drove to the West coast of the island to see what is probably the most photographed site in Tonga, the famous Tsunami Rock. It is a giant boulder of coral limestone located about 150 meters from the shore, believed to have been put here by a huge tsunami wave several thousand years ago.

In a village nearby we stopped under some high trees to see the Flying Foxes, one of the largest species of bats in the world and which are native to the island.

Tongatapu is not a volcanic island, but a coral atoll. The whole island is very flat with its highest point at 60 meters. We drove further down along the South-West coast. which is very rugged and has steep cliffs of black coral limestone. The thing to see here are the Mapu'A Vaea blow holes. These are small caves in the limestone, which create impressive geysers when the ocean waves get squeezed through. I didn't see them in full action because it was low tide. At high tide the spouts can apparently reach heights of up to 30 meters.

Further down South we visited the Hufangalupe Beach and Natural Bridge:

On our drive across the island we saw a lot of schools. There seems to be at least a primary school in every village. Primary education from 6 to 14 years is mandatory for every child, and provided largely by free state schools, whereas secondary schools are mainly run by the churches. Tonga has a literacy rate of over 99%, and the rate is even slightly higher among women than men.

We drove all the way to the East Coast where we saw the other highlight of the day - the intriguing and somewhat mysterious Ha'amonga Trilithon, which is also known as the Stonehenge of the Pacific. It is a 5 meter high gate made of three enormous coral lime stones, and it is believed to have been erected sometime around 1,200 AD.

Apart from the fact that I saw all of the major sites across the island, I really enjoyed having a local guide. Eunice was great, and I learned a lot about life in Tonga. She even showed me her village and house where she and Marcus live with her extended family. Something interesting she told me is that in Tonga only your father's sisters are your aunts (and they are highly revered, and you have to give them presents at all major holidays), while your mother's sisters are also called mothers, because they are supposed to take care of you if your mother dies.

On our way back we stopped along the bay near the James Cook landing site and watched some local women make a large sheet of Tapa, which is a traditional cloth made from tree bark. This was really interesting. The cloth is not woven, but made by soaking, beating and then sticking thin strips of bark from the mulberry tree together. This forms a very large sheet (up to 30 meters long), which is laid out and dried in the sun. Once dry the sheet is painted with rich patterns and made into clothing, which these days is mainly worn at weddings and other traditional festivals.

Eunice and Marcus dropped me off back at my hotel in the early afternoon. After resting a bit, I went on an evening walk through town, which has a few interesting old buildings from the 19th century. And I finished my day with a dinner of raw tuna in coconut milk at a local restaurant.

The following morning I left the hotel at 10:30 am for the drive to the airport. My general tendency to be at airports early turned out to be rather unnecessary here. The check-in for my flight to Samoa on Talofa Airways opened less than an hour before take-off. And since the other three flights that take off here daily were all in the afternoon, I was literally the only passenger at the airport for about an hour. My flight was on an 8 seater prop plane. The flight to Pago Pago took about 2 hours and we had some great views of the islands and the coral reefs on take off.

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