Overseas Walk: Taking a Tongan ‘bush walk’
Going on a bush walk is not the usual activity for holidaymakers in Tonga, with its golden beaches, sunbathing, snorkelling, scuba-diving and boating.
We were staying at the Sandy Beach Resort on Foa Island in the Ha’apai group of islands which occupy the central waters of the kingdom.
A ‘bush walk’ was listed in the information folder in my waterside falé at the resort. So, when we wanted a break from the snorkelling, my son, two grandsons and myself meet Sele who will take us on the walk. He works at the resort and lives in a village nearby.
He leads us to the foreshore on the opposite side of the island via a rough track. Here the colour of the water is just as turquoise as on ‘our’ side of the island but without the curve of golden sands.
We walk along a foreshore that’s mainly broken coral and rocks.
Sele pauses at a promontory and points out the spot which is particularly good for catching lobster. It’s been on the dinner menu at our resort several times during our 9-day stay.
Further along the foreshore he shows us a large scrubby pandanus bush — similar but much bulkier than our New Zealand flax.
He explains how the leaves are cut into narrow strands and then put in a shallow area of the sea for about 10 days to be bleached by the salt water. The leaves are then hung out to dry in bunches before being woven into the mats and waistbands worn by Tongans on formal occasions.
Soon we turn inland and enter the plantations. We pass bushy areas of different crops, dotted with the inevitable coconut trees and the occasional enormous fotulona tree.
As we walk, Sele identifies areas of tapioca, kumala (kumara), pele which is a type of red-edged spinach, pumpkin and the root vegetable taro.
As well as the vegetables, we pass papaya trees, mango, mandarin and breadfruit — a ripe breadfruit can grow as big as a football. Sele points out the nonu bush that produces fruit juice which lays claim to all sorts of health benefits. He intrigues the grandchildren by showing them the strange red flower of the banana.
Many extended families and sometimes a church or organisation own plots in these plantations. Each is divided by hedging, flimsy wire fencing, or sometimes barbed wire to discourage the odd cow or horse.
We see the occasional horse tied up during our walk and at one stage meet a local heading for his plot on horseback with a foal in tow.
We come across a family working on their piece of land. The older of the four children is putting in some serious work with his father. The younger ones are full of smiles, show us how they can climb coconut trees and later jump into the back of their ute ready to go off home.
Ha’apai produces the best tapa floor coverings in Tonga, Sele tells us, as we pass areas of the paper mulberry tree which tapa comes from. It’s not a cheap crop, he says, taking 18 months or so to mature. The skin of the bark is peeled off and strips of the inner bark soaked in water before being hammered out with mallets to enlarge it.
Sele points out a tree which has leaves that are poisonous and later, a small bush where the fruit is dried and made into necklaces.
He explains how coconuts can provide coconut milk for drinking; ‘meat’ for cooking and also feed for livestock; while their leaves can be used for thatching and their trunks for building. The all-purpose tree.
The Ha’apai group of islands is uncommercialised and unspoiled compared to many parts of the South Pacific. A walk through the plantations gives a good insight into the lifestyle of these islands which you can’t get in the resorts themselves.
We stayed on the island of Foa which is in the Ha’apai group of islands in Tonga.
Above: A coconut palm bends over the sea on the Island of Foa. Below left: Sele eplains about a coconut to 9 year old Jarvis. Below right: A bit of help getting to his plantation.
Above left: Work in their plantation is finished for the day. Off they go. Above right: Sele explains to my son and his two boys how the pandanus leaves are used. Above right: Below right: 9-years-old Jarvis learns about the banana’s life cycle.