Breezy tropical islands are the stuff of glossy travel agent brochures, portrayed as "paradise", but how carefree and harmonious are the societies that populate them? I visit Tonga to uncover the situation there.
Having finished looking around town on the Thursday prior, I venture out to a quiet and picturesque spot on the Tongatapu coast for a traditional Tongan dance show and dinner. I'm served Ota Ika (raw fish marinated with lemon juice and coconut milk). It's very tasty and deserving as the national dish of Tonga.
The dancers are strong and muscular, with no sign of the corned beef effect.
While dinner and a dance show might normally be enough entertainment to round out an evening, there's another party taking place back in Nuku'alofa. I had passed a public hall in the early afternoon, to see a few men sitting around out the front, for what was to be a kava-drinking gathering. As I understand is customary, this event was starting mid-afternoon, and continuing on into the small hours of the morning.
Kava gatherings are usually male affairs, so some of the male participants on JICA and I are welcomed to join the locals on the floor matting inside. Kava is an intoxicating drink made from the root of a pepper plant. It's usually served by ladle out of a huge communal bowl into a coconut shell for drinking. When there are not enough coconut shells to go around, the humble modern cup suffices.
While this is a male gathering, the important task of serving the kava falls to a woman. The single women of the town are periodically invited for this honour.
The locals are hours ahead of the guests in their consumption, and the effects of the kava are obvious. There's a distinctly mellow feeling to the whole congregation. A few guys strumming guitars and singing peaceful tunes enhances the feel good vibe. There's little likelihood of a breakout in violence like the alcohol-fuelled aggression in Australia's cities each weekend, a problem that has become a growing social issue there.
As time passes with each coconut cup full, I too feel the effects. It starts with a numbing of the gums. I must be truthful about the taste of kava though, and say that a beer or wine is much more pleasing to the palate. Even some locals intersperse the earthy taste with some swigs of soft drink in between.
As the water line on the big serving bowl dips, I head outside and see the preparation for refills taking place. The pepper root is placed in pantyhose, or some similar sort of netting, with water flushed through to extract its flavour and toxicity.
Some attendees show me their yellowish fingers, a result of ongoing kava consumption. There are some more serious long-term health effects, but tonight I am at peace and enjoying the mood. It's a great way to socialise, and I ask some of the participants about their lives. One man is a ship captain and goes away periodically to earn his living. Another guy is reliant on remittances from his brother in New Zealand. When he or his extended family is low on money, they ask the working brother to send funds. He says all is not lost if the brother cannot send money at that time. He explains that the family can go into the scrub surrounding the island and collect tropical fruit for survival.
I discover that remittances to family members from overseas are critical to the Tongan economy. It's not uncommon for one family member working overseas to be supporting a family of ten or fifteen at home, and the worker seems to accept this arrangement. There are many talented rugby league and rugby union players of Tongan origin, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, such as Israel Folau and the recently deceased Jonah Lomu. Some high profile players may have the salaries to support many Tongan relatives, but it's even more honourable that the average working Tongan expatriate can handle what many other cultures would consider quite onerous filial obligations.
The following day is set aside for looking around Tongatapu. One of the JICA guys from Samoa has come over to check out neighbouring Tonga, and joins a few locally posted JICA members.
Tongatapu's attractions aren't mind-blowing, but the sea breezes and laid-back feel of island life adds to the pleasure of our discoveries (I'm sure it's not the kava in my system from the night before!)
We visit Mapu'a 'a Vaea Blowholes at Houma on the south-western coast. The water spurts out of gaps amongst the rock pools, but not to a great height. The water seems too calm today for that.
The next attraction is a coconut tree that splits into two forks before reaching the foliage above - supposedly an oddity, and claimed locally as the only tree like this in the world. I provide evidence below, so please let me know if you see one elsewhere in the world!
Hufangalupe Archway is the next stop, where the ocean has washed away the rock underneath. I am reminded that I am not in Australia anymore, by the total lack of handrails or any safety apparatus. This does however make the pictures more beautiful. We have a relaxed picnic there and enjoy the views out to sea.
Haʻamonga 'a Maui, a trilithon in the north-eastern corner of Tongatapu is the subject of much speculation and legend, suggesting that no-one really knows its origins or intended use. It's a little underwhelming compared to the world's grandest structures, but worth a visit. Some have called it "Tonga's Stonehenge", which in the time-honoured tradition of finding something more popular and interesting to compare your attraction to, is a clever strategy.
After visiting lots of landscape and manmade attractions around the island, it is pleasant to unexpectedly come across some local fauna - the biggest cloud of bats I'd seen since the huge screeching collective inside Malaysia's Batu Caves. These bats were all wrapped up in their wings and hanging placidly. While this is standard bat practice when sleeping, their current temperament seemed appropriate for Tonga's calm, timeless atmosphere. Thanks to Tonga's low population, it is also refreshing to see that a large group of animals can maintain their habitat right next to a main (albeit far from busy) road.
Continue Reading: Part 3 of 3 link below
Trouble in Paradise
We spend some time the following day at Ha'atafu Beach in the north western corner of Tongatapu. There are a few Chinese guys on the beach, and I strike up a conversation. One young man tells me in his broken English that some of the locals are "very very bad". There are many Chinese shopkeepers on the island. After the aforementioned burning and looting of royally owned shops (under the pretext of democratic change) many locals continued in the same vein with Chinese owned shops.
Some Tongan resentment may stem from unemployment, and the Tongan government's sale of passports to Chinese and Hong Kong citizens two decades earlier, which visibly changed the demographic makeup of the nation, with 3-4% of the population now Chinese. As I sit on this beautiful beach, I am troubled by the racist undertones in a nation that superficially looks like paradise. Along with political representation, social harmony is clearly a prominent issue that the government and monarchy need to seriously address.
Issues of Inclement Weather
If I could negotiate with the rain gods (I can't!), I would request that they always let it bucket down and get it out of their system, then leave everyone to get on and enjoy the ensuing sunshine. This is much more preferable to the nagging, constant drizzle that I found so irritating while living in London. The beauty of the tropics is that the climate is still warm, and the sheer force and volume of the downpour is sufficient for a thorough wash. To prove my point, at least to myself, I strip down to my swimmers, lather up and step into the garden. It is at this point where I provide a decency and viewer discretion warning: for those that don't like hairy chests, please look away now.
The rain gods couldn't have timed it any better either - I've just returned home, and am all salty from the beach. It's a very refreshing way to get clean. Having explored the main sights on Tongatapu proper, I'm enticed to visit some nearby islands in the coming days.
My first island trip is to Pangaimotu, a 15 minute boat ride from Nuku'alofa pier. Pangaimotu is distinctive for the big ship hull that juts out of the water, just before one docks outside Big Mama Yacht club. I head out to the shipwreck to snorkel before taking a walk around the island. Away from the main beach, there's no-one around. The isolation conjures up thoughts of all those movies about being deserted on uninhabited islands, but one can almost get the feeling on some inhabited ones.
The rest of the afternoon is spent lazing away on the main beach. A rope dangles down from an angled coconut palm, and Tongan kids use it to project themselves above the water before letting go.
Saving the best till last, I visit the privately owned Fafa Island the following day. It's even more idyllic than Pangaimotu. I'm just there for the day, but the resort, set amongst lush greenery looks like the perfect place to while away the days in a hammock with a good book. I wade into the water and find coral and sea life just metres from the shore.
Without overlooking the positive impacts that foreign tourism investment brings to developing nations, I usually wince in regret at circumstances where locals are priced out of visiting natural and cultural attractions in their own backyard. Certainly, staying at the Fafa Island Resort would be outside the budget of most Tongans, but it is pleasing that the island is open for day-trippers to enjoy.
Tonga still seems to be a stratified society, with the royal family at the top and holding extensive business and land interests. As my boat pulls back in to Nuku'alofa at the end of the return journey, the kids seem happy enough, as they joyously jump off the pier into the water, time and again, grins unrestrained as they pose for my photographs.
A pretty sunset descends as I pass Tonga High School on the way home. The school reminds me of Chris Lilley's hilarious troubled Tongan schoolboy character Jonah Takalua. Of course, he attends "Summer Heights High" (which had just started airing on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) at the time of my visit) so naturally there's no sign of Jonah here.
From the irreverent to the very reverent, I'm invited to dinner with a Korean missionary and his family. It's a pleasant way to round out a relaxing and enjoyable week in Tonga. I vow to return again, next time to the northern island grouping of Vava'u, to swim with the whales.
As I reminisce of tropical islands as we fly above the ocean on the way back to Australia, there is one last sight to enjoy, and as it turns out, we haven't quite yet left Tongan territory behind us. The captain advises us to look out our windows to see Minerva Reefs - two submerged atolls that are distinguishable from the rest of the ocean by their lighter turquoise hue. The captain tells us that sailors stop here, in between New Zealand and the Polynesian isles. It's a valuable safe haven for boats that can't continue due to rough seas ahead.
Minerva Reefs has a colourful history including a brief, but contested period of independence in 1972, when a syndicate backed by Las Vegas millionaire, political activist and libertarian Michael Oliver declared independence for the new micronation of the Republic of Minerva. A newly created flag was hoisted on the territory, a president elected, and even coins of 35 Minerva Dollars' denomination minted. The January 1972 declaration of independence was short lived, with a Tongan expedition taking control of the area by June of that year, following prior proclamations of sovereignty over the territory. The last decade has seen claims against Tonga from Fiji regarding the territory, with both countries' navies having been active in the area. Thankfully the intensity of activity and hostility seems to be far from that surrounding the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
As with the social issues discovered on Tonga proper, it's another reminder that outwardly tranquil locations hide the ugliness of humanity sometimes. While world peace is an elusive ideal, one can only hope that these serene locations can have a more soothing influence on those that would agitate, just as Tonga's serenity soothed my senses on my week there.