The Kingdom of Tonga1 is a place like no other.
It is probably as self-sustaining as any nation can be in the 21st Century. The climate is close to ideal for growing food all year round. It is surrounded by seas rich in fish and coral lagoons of the kind that Europeans dream about. It is ruled by a monarch with absolute power, beneath whom noblemen oversee the common people. It has never been colonised by a European power. Tongans are proud and independent people.
To reach Tonga you really have to want to go there. And once you're there you are not treated as a priceless commodity: tourists are tolerated, not encouraged.
Tourist Basics: Where and How?
Tonga lies around 20° south of the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, immediately to the west of the International Date Line. It is therefore the first country to see each new day. The Kingdom is made up of four island groups: from south to north these are Tongatapu, Ha'apai, Vava'u and the Niuas. Directly to their east is the deep-ocean Tonga Trench, where the Pacific plate is being swallowed up by the Indo-Australian plate. As a result, earth tremors in Tonga are constant and most of the high islands have been created by volcanic activity. Some are still being created, such as Tofua in the Ha'apai Group. Tonga is moving towards Samoa, in the north-east, by 10cm a year, which is the fastest drift on Earth.
Money in Tonga is the Pa'anga, written as T$, made up of 100 seniti. It is wise to take US$ with you, which most shops and guesthouses will accept and which can be changed at the Bank of Tonga2 and at the two large hotels in Nuku'alofa and Vava'u. Credit cards can also be used at the banks and large hotels.
Tongans all speak English, although the official language is Tongan. English is taught in school and spoken in church.
Air New Zealand flies into Tua'amoto Airport on Tongatapu from Auckland and from Honolulu several times a week. It is also possible to fly Royal Tongan Airlines / Fijian Airlines3 to Fiji and to Samoa.
Tonga is on the yachtie route across the Pacific. More specifically, the Vava'u Group is a haven for long-distance sailors seeking landfall for a while.
The Stuff of Dreams
Tonga really is one of those South Pacific holiday destinations that we dream about. Unlike most other Pacific islands, it is remarkably untouched by tourism. Because the islanders are more or less self-sufficient in food and because they do not have any sense of the value of money, tourism is not seen as a must have industry. Mind you, the Tongan Government website doesn't give that impression! So if you are interested in living alongside genuine south sea islanders for a while, Tonga is a great place to visit. If, however, you want a choice of hotels, restaurants, sightseeing trips and evening entertainments laid on for tourists, go somewhere else.
The Fattest Monarch In The World
This is probably the best-known fact about Tonga. That and the fact that Queen Salote attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1953, where she charmed the British people with her big grin and jolly appearance. The current incumbent is her son, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, who does indeed sport an ample girth. He rules a highly structured society from his palace in the capital, Nuku'alofa, and has genuine power of life and death over his subjects.
There are strict rules of engagement with royalty for commoners. Most tourists are unlikely to need to be familiar with the niceties of how to keep on the right side of the royal family of Tonga. However, it is worth knowing that when a cavalcade of cars passes along the road, flashing its lights and with horns hooting, it is not acceptable to peer into the vehicles to see who is inside. Nor is it sensible to try to take a photograph. Tongans are required to look away, or look at the ground. As a visitor in their country, it is politic for the tourist to follow suit.
The presence of the King and his noblemen on Tongatapu results in the people there being the least relaxed of all the islanders. It is a fascinating contrast to travel from Tongatapu to other parts of Tonga, where the King rarely visits and his influence is less obvious to the visitor.
Know Your Place
You are a visitor to Tonga: a guest of the islanders. Perhaps more than in most countries, this is a maxim worth bearing in mind. The locals will treat you with respect4 and expect you to reciprocate. You are a Palangi, a foreigner. Visitors are a bit of a novelty; stared and laughed at by the children - in the most inoffensive way - and gazed at in wonder by adults, particularly on the quieter and less accessible islands.
Tongans are helpful to a fault and will go out of their way to assist visitors. On the other hand, there is an assumption that tourists will stand back from the islanders' cultural activities, unless invited to join in. As a guest you would never be turned away from an event, but you would be seen to have lost face by turning up uninvited and won't be given quite as much respect subsequently.
A Few Aspects of Tongan Life
Outside of Nuku'alofa, Tongans live in villages made up of extended families. The fales5 are similar to those elsewhere in the South Pacific: constructed from coconut posts, roll-up walls of pandanus matting and banana leaf roofs. The most startling aspect of most villages is the churches, which are enormous in comparison to any other building and starkly white. Tonga is officially a Christian nation, made up of several sects, including the Free Wesleyans, the Church of Tonga, Mormons6, Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of England, Methodists and Roman Catholics. It is the Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormons who appear to build the biggest churches and both are present in most villages. Locals say that their allegiance lies with the biggest village church or the biggest and best-equipped church school. Therefore, dependent upon recent building projects, congregations fluctuate from time to time.
As you would expect in the south Pacific, the church choirs are large7, loud and lyrical. Thursday evening is choir practice in Tonga. From 8pm to 11pm the islands are filled with voices in harmony. Then on Sunday, God takes over completely. Bells start calling people to church at 5.30am and successive services continue all day. There is a break for gargantuan quantities of food at lunchtime, cooked in the traditional 'umu'8. Then they all go back to church to thank God for the abundance of their land. Let's face it: they have a lot to be thankful for. They know it and they do it full volume all Sunday.
Kava is an integral part of Tongan society, much as beer is in Britain. It is a drink derived from the root of the Pepper plant9 which tastes like earthy dishwater. Kava is an analgesic and anaesthetic, which acts as a not unpleasant mild tranquilliser. It has the added benefits of being an antifungal agent, a diuretic, an appetite suppressant and soporific. It makes the drinker vague and hazy. The mouth also goes numb. Good sound sleep is inevitable after a few cups of Kava.
Friday night is Kava night. For the men. They convene Kava Circles, where the root is washed in water, then wrung out into a four-legged Kava bowl at the head of the circle. Each man claps in turn and receives a coconut shell cup full of Kava, which he drains in one, upon which the next man claps and receives his bowl. Kava Circles can - and do - go on for hours. There is an entire ritual surrounding behaviour in the Circle. Only one person may speak at a time. Whoever is speaking must be heard in respectful silence and only responded to once he has finished talking10. Anybody who interrupts is expected to leave the Circle. Once a participant leaves the Circle11, he must request to be reseated and it is not uncommon for those requests to be turned down.
A tradition peculiar to Tonga is that of the Fakaleiti. A Fakaleiti is a male child who decides, or is prevailed upon by his family, to dress and behave as a girl. The word means like a lady. There does not appear to be a reason for this choice, although perhaps homosexuality is one motivation. There is no stigma attached to Fakaleiti and they mix seamlessly with their peers. The main difference in adolescence appears to be that they get away with much greater promiscuity than their male and female contemporaries. Many Fakaleiti revert to traditional male lives once they reach maturity.
A Couple of Highlights
By all means hang out in Nuku'alofa to get acclimatised to Tonga's climate (hot and wet) and culture. But do not think that the capital is typical of the nation: it is not. Royal Tongan Airlines flies to the other island groups and it really is worth the trip. Away from Tongatapu it is more relaxed, the beaches are better, the lagoons are really turquoise and the food is genuinely Tongan.
Lifuka Island in the Ha'apai Group is a small patch of heaven which is easy to access by air and where there are a few guest houses for tourists. These are fales on the beach, with meals provided and some snorkelling trips if you're lucky. The beaches are long and white, girt by coconut palms12, sloping down to turquoise lagoons and fringing reefs. Birds sit atop the reefs at low tide, peering into the lagoons for a likely meal. Local men cast their nets over the water for dinner. Constant small earth tremors shiver and settle the sand and the sun sets its final green ray across the western ocean every evening. Don't miss this.
As with all tropical areas of the world, there are creepy-crawlies and beasties, about which westerners are relatively ignorant. One such is the Gekko. On first sight, it could be a worrying bedroom companion. It is, after all, a type of lizard. But this is a friend. Gekkos have suckers on their toes, which enable them to scale the smoothest walls and allow them to reach the most inaccessible nooks and crannies, where cockroaches, mosquitoes or moths might be hiding. The Gekko is a formidable predator. Even at 10cm long it is voracious. You will know they're around in the night when you hear their comforting tut-tut-tut-tut call as another Gekko gets too close for comfort. No mosquito net? Just hope you're sharing your bedroom with a Gekko.
If you're tempted by the sound of Tonga, give it a go. Just don't expect red carpet treatment. You'll never forget the place and you'll be one of only a few westerners to have made it to these extraordinary islands.
You will find all the time in the world in Tonga.