Exploring the wonders of Tongatapu on our own

What an epic day! What a fascinating country! We arrived at Fua’amoto international airport at noon, without knowing what awaited us in this mysterious country called Tonga. It was definitely one of the most off-the-beaten path places we had ever visited, and we barely knew a few things about it. We quickly went over it in our heads: Tonga, an archipelago of over 170 islands. Population around 100,000, 70% of which live in the main island, Tongatapu, with about 20,000 in the capital, Nuku’alofa. Ancient masters of the seas, the only Polynesian nation that has never been colonized, and now a Christian kingdom. Rather poor, with high dependence on remittances from its numerous immigrants. Safe, though the last time it was on the news was for the 2005 riots against the government. Great at rugby. And that was pretty much all.

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We walked out of the barebone terminal, annoyed by the fact that my backpack had been left behind at our Auckland connection, and looked for car rental offices. The previous day (as always, great planning :S) we had reached out to the few agencies that seemed to operate in the island (check out the list at realtonga.to/car-rental/) but everything was booked. The alternative was to hire a driver, but we always liked the freedom and adventure of driving our own car. Luckily, Avis had a ‘no show’ and we were able to get a jeep for $60. We hit the road and quickly learnt something else about Tonga: they drive on the left. Our first stop was Nuku’alofa, where we had to check in at the house we had booked on Airbnb. We got lucky with this last minute reservation, because the tourism industry is not developed at all in Tongatapu, and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of options to spend the night. Something similar can be said about restaurants; we hadn’t seen any on our way from the airport, so we decided to grab lunch in the city before exploring the island. It was a great decision! We landed in the Friends Café, with yummy food and an awesome impromptu show by some local middle-age musicians.

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We withdrew cash on the main street (the currency is called Pa’anga, abbreviated TOP and worth about half a USD) and jumped back in the car. The roads were in fairly good condition and we enjoyed observing the landscapes and people through the windows. One of the most bizarre things were the colorful cemeteries all around. In about 45 minutes, we got to the Mapu’a ‘a Vaca blowholes… OMG, what a natural wonder. The deep blue waves crash violently against the volcanic rocks, and the splashes shoot into the air through numerous holes, looking like a battalion of geysers. We spent over an hour there, looking, listening, taking pictures, and getting soaking wet. Instead of staying in the first viewpoint, where the road ends, we drove and walked a bit further west, where the splashes were even more spectacular and we could enjoy them all alone.

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Then we drove east, with no particular destination, simply observing the local life. People were extremely friendly; kids waved, teenagers said hello, women smiled. This part of the island was particularly underdeveloped, covered by plantations and simple villages, and we were glad we had a jeep to drive over all the puddles. We stopped at a random town, when we saw people walking into church. The service was starting and we were in for a treat: the signing of the congregation was so powerful, it still gives me chills when I think about it.

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The sun went down, turning the skies orange, and creating breathtaking scenes. We reached Huganfalupe, where we couldn’t find the arch that all guides talk about (I think the tide was too high), but we relished the wonderful views of the cliffs and the half-moon beach. We couldn’t stop smiling, we were like children in Disneyland.

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By the time we made it back to the capital, it was already past 7pm. We saw some activity at what appeared to be the cultural center, and pulled over. Apparently, it was Heilala, the national festival equivalent to the Heiva we had witnessed in Bora Bora. That night, the beauty pageant was taking place, and even the prince was expected to attend. The place was packed and we couldn’t see any other foreigners. We found some seats and soon our neighbors started chatting with us. Apparently, Tonga has 99% literacy rate and everyone speaks English, since it’s mandatory at school. Another piece of their culture that I found fascinating, and that we were able to observe first hand that night, was the Fakaleiti: men who dress and ‘behave’ like women, not necessarily being transgender or gay. Some come from families with many sons, and parents decided to assign them that role to take care of the house chores, and some simply identified as such. Fakaleiti are broadly accepted, which is unexpected for such a traditional and Christian nation as Tonga. Eventually, the prince showed up and the contest started. It was fun, but we didn’t stay long because we were too hungry. We found a local restaurant that felt more like someone’s house, and devoured coconut fish and curry, then got back to our Airbnb to ‘take a nap’ – at 1am we had to drive to the airport to get my backpack from the next flight.

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We had covered a big chunk of the island on our first day, but there were still a few places we wanted to check out before returning our rental car and flying to Vava’u, so we set out very early. After a delicious breakfast at Café Escape, we walked around Nuku’alofa, which doesn’t have that much to offer and can be seen in about 1 hour. The Royal Palace was basically a nice house, and couldn’t be entered, the tombs were very simple, and the main streets were quiet. The Talamahu market was more lively and interesting, a bit like traveling back in time.

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Then we headed clockwise on the main coastal road. We passed Captain Cook’s landing site and stopped at the Mu’a and Lapaha archeological site, where we saw the langi, ancient royal tombs of pyramidal shape. We continued on to Talafo’ou, where we had read one could spot fishing pigs (well, they don’t actually fish, they get in the water to eat shellfish). We didn’t see any, but we did see a lot of cute piglets on the side of the road 😉

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Our final stop was Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, a trilithon considered the Stonehenge of the Pacific. Dating from the 11th century, it’s an intriguing structure, because nobody really knows what it represents, some archeologists believe it could be intended to track the seasons. It made me think of the enigmatic Plain of Jars in Laos that we had explored a few months earlier. Now we were running late, so we couldn’t even stop at the prison market, where apparently the few convicts of the island sell the fruits of their labor to maintain themselves. What a memorable 24 we had in Tongatapu!

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PS: On our way back from Vava’u, before flying out of Tonga, we happened to have a few hours in Tongatapu… and we definitely weren’t going to spend them at the airport! We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us back to the blowholes. It was sunnier and thus more colorful than the first time, but less splashy; it made us as happy. Then we asked to be dropped off at ‘Oholei beach, where there is a highly recommended Tongan feast / show on Wednesdays and Fridays (unfortunately not the days we were there). The beach wasn’t good for swimming due to the shallow reef, but the crystalline water made it beautiful. We loved wandering around, collecting shells. We approached a fisherman, a massive dark man with a spear; he welcomed us and joked, sticking one of the octopuses he had just caught to Elena’s leg. It was time to get back, and our earlier driver had sent his wife to pick us up… Tonga is definitely a country to come back to!

5 thoughts on “Exploring the wonders of Tongatapu on our own

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