Pitch perfect

In har­mony with the lo­cals in Tonga

Paradise - - Contents -

“We Ton­gans party to­day, and there’s noth­ing on the ta­ble to­mor­row,” a Ton­gan woman tells me as we queue at Ton­gat­apu’s air­port. It’s 2am, I haven’t even set foot in the coun­try and al­ready I’ve been warned that Ton­gans are hard­ened so­cialites.

Look­ing around, I re­alise it’s true. You’re no­body if you’re not kiss­ing a staff mem­ber.

Customs of­fi­cers, pass­port con­trollers, bag­gage han­dlers – they’re all wrapped in warm, lov­ing em­braces from the pas­sen­gers from our plane, ac­com­pa­nied by a live ukulele band. I guess there’s a rea­son why Cap­tain Cook called them the Friendly Is­lands.

Later that day, a far smaller plane, a lit­tle 18-seater, flies me 55 min­utes north to the Vava’u ar­chi­pel­ago, and the party con­tin­ues.

Vava’u is one of the four ar­chi­pel­a­gos that make up the King­dom of Tonga: it’s a renowned stop­ping point for trans-Pa­cific sailors on the so-called ‘Co­conut Milk Run’ from the US west coast to Aus­tralia. Skip­ping be­tween the beau­ti­ful isles of Poly­ne­sia, Me­lane­sia and Mi­crone­sia, these oceanic is­land hop­pers pause for a week, a month or even a full sea­son in Vavau’s aptly named Port of Refuge har­bour. Its calm wa­ters are a favourite win­ter­ing roost for sailors, who lend an in­ter­na­tional flavour to Vava’u’s main town, Neiafu. Tapas and tacos, pizza and panini are served up be­side Ton­gan sta­ples of lo­cal fish cooked in ba­nana leaves and ota ika, fish mar­i­nated in lemon juice with co­conut milk, with the om­nipresent taro and co­conut ap­pear­ing in en­trees, mains and desserts. On the deck at Mango Cafe, home to the Port of Refuge yacht club, sailors swap stormy sto­ries and ad­mire a vaka moana, a tra­di­tional Pa­cific voy­ag­ing ca­noe moored by the cafe, as the sun sets to the tin­kle of a hun­dred yachts' rig­ging in the breeze.

Much, much later in the night, the mu­sic is all about bump­ing and grind­ing on the dance floor at the leg­endary bar Ton­gan Bob’s, the dancers flushed by Bob’s famed, fierce punch drink.

“Malo,” I say to the smil­ing break­fast staff at the Ton­gan Beach Re­sort the next morn­ing. “Malo,” again when they bring me tea. “Malo,” I say, as I wave good­bye and leap aboard the boat wait­ing at the jetty for me. My Ton­gan, I learn, is quite ex­cep­tional. Hello, thank you, good­bye with the one word: surely this is the mono-lin­guis­tic tourist’s nir­vana?

If you are look­ing for five-star resorts in Tonga, your quest will be fruit­less. The coun­try rolls on small fam­ily-run B&Bs and a hand­ful of rustic resorts with beach­front fale, thatch-huts look­ing out to clear blue wa­ters.

On Satur­day morn­ings, peo­ple from the 61 is­lands of the ar­chi­pel­ago head to the town’s vegetable mar­kets where moun­tains of taro are loaded into plaited grass bas­kets, await­ing buy­ers. Even here, there is mu­sic, as two church choirs from op­pos­ing per­sua­sions have a high­in­ten­sity sing-off that drowns out the buzzing mo­tor­bikes and vans.

That love of a party ex­tends into church. Come Sun­day morn­ing, the choirs are en­sconced in their re­spec­tive churches – of which there are

many – and util­ity ve­hi­cles de­liver whole fam­i­lies to the church steps. In Neiafu’s Catholic church, ev­ery­one’s in their Sun­day best with hats, gloves and ties, and the front pews are the pre­serve of the choir. The singers pour their souls into melodic wor­ship, which floats along the warm breezes of the Ton­gan week­end.

Tonga is closed on Sun­days: that means no flights, no cruise ships may land, no restau­rants or bars open ex­cept in resorts cater­ing for tourists. There are no dol­phin cruises, no fireeat­ing shows, and no work for money. One of the most strik­ing fea­tures of Ton­gan busi­ness is the lack of it.

I find a gen­tle ex­cep­tion: the Ene’io Botan­i­cal Gar­den is open to dis­play its rich bounty of or­chids, san­dal­wood, ferns and palms, and each Sun­day, its res­tau­rant spreads a Ton­gan ban­quet for for­eign guests. The oblig­a­tory suck­ling pig – bright orange and glazed of eye – is sur­rounded by bowls of taro, shell­fish, tart pa­paya chut­neys and sweet, but­tery co­conut cake, while co­conut juice and the lo­cal brew, King­dom lager, go down a treat in the sul­try af­ter­noon.

The fol­low­ing day, I’m sub­merged in the wa­ters of Vava’u's tiny is­lands, dip­ping into the ghostly depths of its famed sea cav­erns. The head­lin­ers are the dra­matic, bat-lined Swal­lows Cave and Mariner’s Cave, which is en­tered by div­ing through a sub­merged tun­nel. This time, the song is equally serene, equally beau­ti­ful. It’s whale song, and it’s em­a­nat­ing from some­where be­low my flip­pers.

The ocean vi­brates with har­mony from the hump­back whales, which also like win­ter­ing in Tonga, away from their chilled home­lands in Antarc­tica.

The Pa­cific king­dom is their ro­man­tic get­away and sub­se­quent nurs­ery for four months each year, as lovers be­come moth­ers, bring­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of two-tonne calves into the world.

The song is an­cient, deep and al­most mourn­ful, and re­ver­ber­ates through the wa­ter and into my bones. It speaks of jour­neys, friend­ship, the ocean, and life. And, like all other songs in Tonga, it’s in perfect pitch.

Tonga time ... (clock­wise from opposite page) lonely beaches and beau­ti­ful wa­ter; up close with a whale; shoot­ing the breeze; Han­iteli Fa'anunu, founder of Ene'io Botan­i­cal Gar­den in Vava'u, which has over 500 plant species.

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