Taking Time out in Tropical Tonga (Part 2 of 3)

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.

  Pic: Traditional Tongan Dance Show

Pic: Traditional Tongan Dance Show

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 Drinking

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.

  Pic: The female custodian of the Kava pot, surrounded by the male drinkers

Pic: The female custodian of the Kava pot, surrounded by the male drinkers

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.

  Pic: Kava induced sing-along time

Pic: Kava induced sing-along time

Tongatapu Sightseeing

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!

  Pic: The allegedly only twin-forked coconut tree in the world!

Pic: The allegedly only twin-forked coconut tree 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.

  Pic: Making sure I don't lose my footing as I pose above Hufangalupe Archway

Pic: Making sure I don't lose my footing as I pose above Hufangalupe Archway

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.

  Pic: Haʻamonga 'a Maui, the "Stonehenge of Tonga"

Pic: Haʻamonga 'a Maui, the "Stonehenge of Tonga"

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.

  Pic: A cloud of bats on a cloudy day

Pic: A cloud of bats on a cloudy day


Continue Reading: Part 3 of 3 link below