Slightly over a year ago, I was sitting in a small cafeteria in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, looking at my emails, when I saw a cheap deal to go to Tonga from Auckland. At that point, I knew I was going to New Zealand to get my working holiday visa started, but I hadn’t bought my ticket from Dubai to Auckland yet. It didn’t matter though, I booked my Tonga holiday anyway! Surely I would find a way to be in Auckland for the right date!
I had never really heard of Tonga before. I knew it was a group of Polynesian islands located in the South Pacific, but that’s about it. Before booking my flight, I made sure I didn’t need to apply for a complicated visa (for Canadians staying 30 days or less, you get it at the airport). I was curious to discover yet another nation and one quite different than what I have experienced so far.
When I was waiting for my flight, I felt really skinny for the first time in my life. It’s not surprising when 70% of Tongan women are obese. Obesity is very common as in many of the South Pacific islands. It did make the flight feel a bit cramped!
How Tonga came to be called the Friendly Islands
Fun history fact: Tonga is known as the Friendly Island because when Cook landed there in 1773, he was invited to attend the First Fruit festival. What he didn’t know though is that they were not all that friendly. Indeed it was a ruse. According to William Mariner’s book (published in 1817!) what was supposed to happen was very different. One of the chiefs proposed to invite Cook and his main officers for a bo-mee (a night dance by torch-light), and when the signal would be given to massacre everybody.
Finow, another Tongan chief didn’t agree. It would be a lot easier to take the two vessels during the
”The entertainment was prepared, Cook and his men were there. However, shortly before the signal was to be done, some chefs expressed their opinion that the night-time would have been better than the day, and Finow, finding that the majority were of this opinion was much vexed, and immediately forbad it to be done at all.”
Cook being unaware of this at the time, thought the Tongans were so friendly to invite them over that the name stuck.
I find this to be a rather funny story. History might have been very different should Finow not be upset at the other chefs not agreeing with him!
Arriving in Nuku’alofa
Since my plane was landing at 8:15 pm, I decided to book the airport transfer with the hostel. Better play it safe. I didn’t have a bag to collect, only my carry-on, so I was the first person out of the airport. The driver from the hostel was there, but my name wasn’t on his board. I waited with him for the other two staying at the same place. Before leaving the airport, we all decided to get some SIM cards from the airport stalls (a smart move since Wi-Fi is not really prevalent on the islands) and got in the very beaten up pick-up truck to the hostel.
We were all starving so we ordered some food from the hostel and then Lisa and I went for a very short walk to a small but rather noisy local bar. Everybody there was already drunk. A guy was hanging out a bit too close to us and another older guy, owner of a quarry and ”local Donald Trump” (definitely not a selling point for me) talked to us for a while. After our drink and being tired to be looked at as fresh meat, we left and went to bed.
The next morning, after having coffee, Lisa and I decided to rent a car and drive around the island. The car was a bit older but at 45 TOP (22$) it was perfect. We headed West out of Nuku’alofa.
We stopped at Abel Tasman Landing Place. There was a lighthouse nearby on the map so we ventured into the forest, following a small path. We were talking and barely paying attention. At some point, Lisa interrupted me and told me I might want to look up above my head. The trees were filled with spiderwebs and huge spiders. I screamed and ran back to where we were coming from. Once I calmed down, I came back slowly to see if there was any other way to go through as there’s no way I would venture close to the spiderweb wall. We couldn’t find any other way, so we gave up and turned around. I didn’t care all that much about that lighthouse anymore anyway!
We stopped at Hingawele Beach, a nice introduction to Mapu’a Vaea. The blowholes were truly mesmerizing. To see the true force of the water was impressive especially since I also happened to be reading a book called Waves (explaining how waves form and the intense force of water) at the time
We kept on driving through plantations to Hina Cave. We tried to find somewhere to buy food but other than the small stores with everything from diapers to cleaning products to chips, we couldn’t find much ready-made food.
The Hina Cave was very hard to find. There was a resort with Hina Cave written on the sign so we went there, but it looked not in use anymore. We decided to go down the stairs to have a look at the beach and to look around for the cave. Surely we should be able to see a cave…
Two local guys were raking the sand in what looked like a restaurant, so we asked them where was the cave hidden? They pointed towards a locked gate behind us. They gestured that they would get the key and let us in. The cave was much
Next up was Anahulu Cave, the stalactite cave. It was the only place where we had to pay an entry fee (15TOP). Everything is very much laid back in Tonga, which makes it great when it comes to exploring. The caves are available to explore, and although there is a rope that runs through to hold onto when it gets slippery, there’s no lighting, no signs and no rules. I was quite glad I had brought my headtorch as it was quite dark and damp in there.
At the end of the cave, there’s a little pool (the only freshwater pool in Tonga) where locals have been swimming for years. It’s about 8m deep in certain areas, and to be honest, I didn’t feel quite brave enough to get in there in the dark… who knows what could be lurching in there waiting to snack on some tasty tourists!
We kept going to Ha’amonga a Maui, a 17- ft tall coral limestone trilithon. Not much is known about this trilithon. Some say it was built in the 13th Century as the entrance to a royal compound. And others say that it would have been some kind of astronomical observatory. No matter what the reason for its existence is, it was lovely to see.
Some paths were leading to the beach. At that point, we were getting warm and wanted to get into the water. After slightly hurting ourselves coming down on sharp coral, and making sure we would be able to make our way back up. We undressed in our underwear and swam a bit (well I didn’t swim, the water was way too cold for me to get in past my navel! I saw many different fish and sea creatures, including the cute electric-blue fish, and some black sea urchins.
We came back to Paepae ‘o Tele’a to have a look at the terraced tombs. They are quite large and an impressive engineering feat, but just like most things in Tonga, not much is known about them, and there are no interpretive signs.
We stopped to the big open-air market as they were setting up for the
Heading South-East to ‘Eua
Trying to organize places to stay or anything on Tonga is an exercise of patience and determination. I wanted to go have a look at a smaller and less developed island. I picked ‘Eua since it was a short ferry ride away.
I was trying to reach accommodations there, calling and emailing to no avail. The hostel was full, so I needed to find an alternate place. Following the passage of the cyclone Gita a few months prior, my other accommodation option was no longer available. Eventually, the hostel girls managed to get through to the Deep Resort, so I organized to stay there for the weekend.
Moral of the story, plan a bit more ahead in Tonga in order not to stress out!
It took me a while to get used to the island rhythm, and if I’m being honest, it always takes a bit of adjustment for me to be okay doing nothing, and truly relaxing.
The next day, I walked from the hostel in Nuku’alofa to the ferry terminal. It’s not that long of a walk, yet everybody seemed puzzled as to why I wouldn’t want a driver. It was only about 20 minutes away. I had left early to make sure to allow sufficient time to find the right place and buy my ticket.
There are two ferries, a more modern one, and an older one. I picked the older one as it was a bit cheaper. When I arrived at the port, I could see people waiting, and other backpackers. I was in the right place. Now I simply needed to work out how to buy tickets since there was no visible office.
Eventually, a woman was walking around going to each car and getting them to complete a form, so I went to her and she pointed to her colleague who was just sitting at a table in the waiting area. I watched people closely, and as soon as I saw locals getting their tickets, I went to see her. She asked my name, wrote it on her manifest and handed me a small paper ticket telling me to hold onto it until we reached ‘Eua.
The ferry to ‘Eua leaves only when it’s ready, which means that the departure time is rather approximate. I waited with everyone in the shaded waiting area, talking and gesturing to some very curious little girls. I met 2 other travellers and they told me there was no ATM on the island (which I had read about) but also that shops could be closed and since there are no proper restaurants, so it’s better to stock up on snacks on the mainland. As the boat was clearly not ready for departure yet, I went across the street to buy a few snacks and instant noodle soups.
Eventually, it was time to get on board. No announcements were made, but everyone started gathering their things and getting on, so we followed the crowd. There was an outside sitting area at the top which filled up quickly.
The ferry ride was simply beautiful. We sailed past a few paradisiac
When I arrived in ‘Eua, a girl from the Deep Resort was there. She put my bag in her van and as we were going to leave, she noticed the police officers were stopping everybody. She told me we would have to wait as she didn’t have her licence. The police stayed there for a while, so she picked a different option. We drove to the hostel, literally at the end of the parking lot, where she asked the owner to drive us back to her place. She would then come back and pick up her van later on when the police would no longer be there.
I checked-in and had an entire cottage to myself, with a double bed and two singles. I had a little balcony in front with an amazing view of the ocean. The beach was at the end of the lot, and I even saw some whales breaching in the distance.
To add to my adventures, there was some construction work going on too which made my first day rather challenging. I was hungry, lonely and couldn’t communicate properly. It was far from the relaxing retreat I had imagined!
Eventually, the husband came back, and I could ask him a bit more information about what to see and do. He even drew me a map to help me out. I wanted to go and explore with the girls from the hostel but we couldn’t reach them all day. It was a bit frustrating, especially since I didn’t have anyone to vent with or laugh about the situation with. Sometimes, I find it frustrating and difficult to be travelling on my own. Some days are great, but other days I wish I had a travel companion. And that day was definitely one of those.
Amazingly relaxing 2nd day on ‘Eua
I woke up to the relaxing sound of the waves on the beach. It was Sunday, so the construction workers were off. The entire family went to church all dressed up in their fancy Sunday dresses. And as I was having coffee on my balcony, someone came out of the cabin next to mine! I was quite surprised as I hadn’t heard anyone coming in, but since they did construction work until around 11 pm the night before, I had been using my headphones to cut most of the noise out.
I was so glad to have someone to talk to that morning, up unto that point I had been feeling very much alone. Turns out Dani works as a marine biologist and whale expert on boats that go to the Antarctic. She was in Tonga for a bit to work for the whale watching tours, on the main island and was visiting ‘Eua to train people on a new booking system.
It was a very quiet and peaceful day spent at the beach. We had a good time sharing stories and watching the whales. It finally felt like a real day off and a proper holiday. I was finally getting into the local rhythm!
Swimming with the whales
After enjoying an amazing sunrise from the lodge, with some more whales jumping out of the water, Dani and I checked out and went to the Ovava lodge. When we got there, I saw the girls from the ferry again. They were going on a whale swimming tour, and I decided to join them.
Growing up on the Cote-Nord in Québec, I’ve always been fascinated with whales. I find them simply majestic. The St.Lawrence river hosts many types, from the Southernmost population of beluga
Tonga is one of the areas where the humpback whales come to give birth, and to reproduce. They are easily seen from most of the islands and it’s one of the only places in the world where it is permitted to swim with them. I don’t know if all the companies have the same ethics when it comes to getting close to the whales, but the owner of Ovava lodge was very conscious of not disturbing them. He would get within a safe distance to the whales, turn the engine off, and wait for them to come closer. Getting a chance to see humpback whales from up close was an opportunity I could not pass on.
After breakfast we all got geared up, selecting our wetsuits, palms and masks and got on the small boat.
We saw whales very quickly and the first group jumped in the water. They stayed for a while and another guy and I waited for our turn, enjoying the show from the boat. Eventually, it was my turn. I was very nervous. I got in the water and as soon as I put the tuba in my mouth, I panicked. I tried a couple more times but quickly I could feel it wasn’t going to happen. My body was in full-on panic mode. I’ve always struggled with getting in the water. While I love being on the water, for me to be able to snorkel and not freak out, I need time. Which I didn’t have then, as I needed to swim, in an open sea, towards massive marine mammals.
It felt like my panic attack in the water lasted forever, when I know that it was probably a matter of seconds. I climbed back on the boat. Defeated. Once again I could not surmount that inexplicable fear.
I cried of disappointment on the boat as I was really hoping I would be able to do it. The whales were getting close to the boat, so I still had a very enjoyable whale watching experience, even getting to see a minke whale, which is not very common in those waters.
The captain decided that we would finish the day with some snorkelling for me to see that I could do it. And I did although I felt like I was combating my panic response the entire time. The reef was very pretty and I saw a lot of different fish and luckily none of them came in too close or surprised me!
At one point though my mask started to fog up and I was getting very nervous. I kept swimming, looking at the fish, then looking back out to make sure the boat was still within reach. I stayed in the water for about 20 minutes, and eventually, it became a bit too much, especially when I couldn’t see properly. I was getting really cold and shivering, so I went back to the boat. It was overall a great day, even though I was quite disappointed in myself. But at least I gave it a try and I got to see more whales in that one day than I had probably in my entire life.
The next day, I couldn’t find anyone willing to join me for an island tour, and the guide understandably didn’t want to do it only for one person. So I did the next best thing, I rented a bike from the hostel and went on my own.
There’s not much documentation available about what to see and do in ‘Eua, but I had my GPS app and the paper map the owner of the first lodge had drawn for me. Plus there are only a handful of roads so I knew I couldn’t possibly get lost!
The map the husband had drawn for me was surprisingly accurate. The road was slightly uphill on the way to the Rock Garden which made it very nice on the way back. I followed the instructions and my map carefully. Once I would reach the end of the last village, there would be a sign. From there I would keep going until I saw a gate. Sure enough, after a few hills, and many cows on the side of the road, I reached the gate. I wasn’t sure what kind of gate to expect, but it turns out it was just like the drawing.
When I arrived at the edge of the cliff, I was lucky enough to see a whale tapping its fluke on the water, right by the side of the cliff. I tried taking a photo, only for my phone to tell me I didn’t have enough storage. Cue in me trying to erase some of the photos of previous travels, as quickly as possible while keeping an eye on the whale. There were a few whales swimming past, and since the water is so clear, I could see the entire whales. It was surreal. I was transfixed and watched them for a while because I simply couldn’t walk away!
The Rock Garden was impressive although it felt a bit out of place. It felt like I had just been teleported to Scotland or Ireland. The rock garden feels a bit like a natural Stonehenge. The wild horses (or semi-wild as they do belong to a local farmer) where unfortunately hiding somewhere else and I didn’t get to see them. That would have fully completed the Scotland feel.
I kept cycling and walking through the long grass up to a sign that read ”a big surprise awaited me” once I followed the barely visible trail. It was indeed a big surprise. The path goes through a lush forest and eventually opens up to a large natural archway. It is simply beautiful with a reef at the bottom that fills up when a bigger wave comes in.
Once I had enough of exploring this part of the island, I cycled back to the last village sign. Once again seeing plenty of cows with their babies on the way, which made me pretty happy.
Once I reached the junction, I took the road that goes inland. It is a very steep road so at times I walked next to the bike. The instructions and the map were again quite clear and accurate: after the tower, I took a side road to the Big Ovava Tree.
The Big Ovava Tree is massive. It is about 800 years old, which means that when the European explorers started to come, it was already there. That’s insane and made me realize how insignificant humans are! The Ovava tree (strangling fig tree) starts with the main host tree, as the tree grows, it sprouts new roots and vine, which then connect to the ground, forming an extension of the tree. After admiring the tree and dodging the many spiderwebs, I followed my instructions to the smoking cave.
Or so I thought.
I followed what looked like a walking path, which led me to believe this was the right place. Eventually, though, the path got thinner and overgrown. I was starting to doubt I was in the right place at all when I stepped on a very sharp branch, that got straight through my shoe. That’s when I realized I wasn’t being really smart.
There I was, alone, in the middle of nowhere, trying to find yet another cave while walking through a tropical forest. I didn’t have cell phone reception and nobody knew I was even there. That was getting stupid and potentially dangerous so I turned around.
Turns out I hadn’t actually followed the directions on my map and ended up going up a road where there was nothing at all but a few plantations! Once I got service back, I used Taina’s interactive map and Google Map to figure out I had forgotten to take a turn which was obviously on my hand-drawn map!
The smoking cave is a big sinkhole with a little waterfall. When the
Back to the mainland!
The ferry has an estimated departure time but will leave whenever it’s ready. I had been told it was usually leaving at around 1 pm. Since I had time and had gone to bed quite early the night before, I put my alarm on and woke up early to go watch the sunrise on the beach and attempt to do yoga, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected!
After breakfast, it was raining so I didn’t feel like hanging out on the beach as I had originally planned. I stayed at the hostel, keeping an eye out for the ferry.
Once we saw the ferry arrive, the few of us looking to go back to the mainland went to the waiting area. We watched them unload and then load everything again, a fairly slow process. Eventually, the ticket office opened and a while later, everything and everyone was packed on the ferry and we left. By then it was around 3:30 pm. Just like on the way in, every time I looked at the water, I saw whales.
The number of humpback whales in these waters is crazy and very impressive. Tonga won my heart with all its whales and its people. They are genuinely curious about the ”others” and are very friendly. They are clearly deserving the name of Friendly Island despite the original reason for it!
Last few hours in Nuku’alofa
Since the ferries can be quite unpredictable, it is recommended not to take the ferry on the same day as your flight, as they can be late or cancelled with
I had listened to that advice and had booked a night back in the hostel on the mainland before my flight back to Auckland. I didn’t have much to do for my last day so I went for breakfast to Cafe Escape, observing and listening to the locals. Until a lovely Tongan married to an American started chatting to me. They ended up driving me around the city for a few hours, giving me details about the history and local culture so I would have seen and experienced a bit more.
I had very interesting conversations with them and other locals about Tongan life and its future. Tonga is a very religious country. The church seems to have a big influence on people’s lives, from the Sunday mass to the fact that contraception is apparently not allowed (explaining why everyone seemingly has a lot of kids).
It was also rather interesting to talk about the growing influence of China and Japan. They have invested a lot of money in recent years in updating the roads and other infrastructures, building a new ferry terminal and as some of the locals mentioned, they will eventually ask for some kind of payback. Since Tonga is directly in the way of whale migration, it is quite likely that Japan will extend it’s whaling operations to this area, especially since they have recently left the International Whaling Commission.
Tongans are very friendly, educated and interested in talking to foreigners, just for the sake of chatting and I did enjoy that. They also seem to be looking out for each other and have a strong sense of community, which might also be the religious influence or because there’s nobody else around for miles when you leave the islands.