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.