In harmony with the locals in Tonga
“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.