What a strange name right? Before picking up the Tonga and Samoa travel guide from a university bookstore in Suva, Fiji, I had never heard of Nuku’alofa let alone know that it was the capital of a country, and I am a huge geography fan!
Where is Tonga and Nuku’alofa
Tonga is a tiny country (in fact it is one of the least visited countries in the world) made of hundreds of islands and is a couple hours’ flight from Fiji. You can get there from Fiji or from Australia and New Zealand and, as I would later discover, it is a popular kiwi destination for those looking to escape the cold winters.
It has only 100k inhabitants and has many citizens living abroad and financing the country through remittances.
An experience in the “Friendly Island”
I decided very last minute, and simply based on the travel guide available at the only bookstore, that I was going to Tonga because swimming with the humpback whales sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Nuku’alofa was simply a base to plan the trip and the gateway to the beautiful archipelago of Vava’u. Around 70% of the population lives in the major island of Tongatapu, where the capital is. There were not a lot of alternative accommodation options around, so when the taxi driver dropped me at the hotel, he recommended I felt I was being cheated. I had selected a B&B from the Lonely Planet which seemed homey and friendly and when the taxi took me to a sea front hotel where they were asking for much more than my initial choice, I was sure I had to go back to my original plan.
My first couple of hours in Tonga did not start well. I left my bag on the B&B sofa and when I went to the other suggested hotel and realised that I didn’t have it with me, I was overwhelmed with panic. Those who have experienced solo travelling and being robbed will understand.
I was overcome with stress and anxiety as I frantically looked for my bag – initially thinking it had been stolen from the back of the taxi. Every thought related to how I was going to find a place to sleep that night or how I would find money to even return home passed through my mind.
I started sweating, panting and crying at the back of the taxi. The taxi driver, initially aggressive, now felt terribly sorry and was filled with empathy for my tragedy.
Returning to the B&B and finding the bag just where I left it was incredibly relieving. I remembered that Tonga was called the “Friendly Island”, which now made perfect sense. The name came from explorer Thomas Cook when he landed for the 3rd time on the islands and was invited to dinner and celebrations. He then dubbed Tonga the Friendly Island.
Little did he know that the party was actually an excuse for the local kings to decide on the best plan to kill him. He did manage to escape, as they could not come up with the right method. You can still visit the site of his landing today.
Travel in Tonga
There is a very popular hostel quite far from town (3km) where backpackers and volunteers stay. It is owned and managed by a British national who has lived in Tonga for over 25 years.
Toni takes tourists on 1-day tours around the island and shares his knowledge and many anecdotes with those who listen. He is charming with his own rustic old manners and likes to complement the facts with plenty of his own personal opinions and humour.
He has completely adapted to Tonga’s time and culture. He is late, last minute, disorganised and chilled. A great insight into the way things are done in Tonga. He also has an intriguing obsession for pointing out Mormon churches and agricultural produce.
Visit a Mormon church
Mormons account for around 20% of the population today, and being the richest church in a strongly religious country, they attract followers with the promise of new, advanced and modern schools. Many families convert shortly before their children are of school age in the hope of sending them to the Mormon schools.
Tonga barely exports anything, except for some handicrafts. It is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world and survives on subsistent agriculture for local consumption and remittances and aid. Tourism has a lot of potential but is still incipient.
Go island hopping
Apart from Toni’s tour there are very few ways to see the island, other than independently taking a public minivan for transportation. That would require quite a lot of time if you wanted to see everything Toni is able to show you in a few hours.
Most of Tongatapu’s island is made of beaches and very little urbanisation beyond the town. Infrastructure projects are unavoidably financed by the Japanese as you can see the signs everywhere about their contributions. I am told that this is because Tonga supports Japan in their whaling industry.
As the country gets less than 100,000 visitors a year, you are most likely going to be completely alone on any of the beautiful beaches or interesting sights. I did not see more than 10 foreigners in my time there and the ones I saw were long-term medical students and a few kiwi divers.
Ha’atafu Beach is one of the beautiful beaches scattered across the island. You get there by following a path from the main circular road in the island and, as expected, there is nobody. The white sand beach is fringed by a reef where swimming and snorkelling are possible at high tide.
Swim with humpback whales or go surfing
You can also surf on the reef surrounded by whales during their breeding season. Although I went to Tonga primarily to visit the Vava’u archipelago and swim with the humpback whales during the peak summer season, I saw them jumping and playing in the horizon from almost any viewpoint in town.
Whether you are in the city, staring at the sea, or have stopped at any of the beaches, whales spraying water will dot the sea.
Visit the blowholes
When I visited the blowholes they were not very active, but you could just imagine how much water would be sprayed around on a more agitated day. It is said that the water can reach 30m on a windy day.
Between the sounds of the water splashing against the blowholes and the sights of whales in the distance, you may forget to keep an eye on the water and end up completely soaked.
The blowholes extend for 5km along the coast. Tongatapu’s island is only 17m above sea level and the highest point is only 65m. Global warming studies expect that Tongatapu, along with Kiribati, French Polynesia and other pacific islands may disappear under water by 2017.
Explore the burial sites
A tour of the island also reveals several burial sites and cemeteries which are spread around. They all look similar with colourful decorations on top of the mounts of sand. Some have glass bottles all around them, some have plastic flowers, others have flags and pieces of fabric.
Visit the Anahulu Cave
Another interesting site is Anahulu Cave which is full of stalagmites and stalactites. The cave can be visited at anytime. When you arrive, the guard will collect your ticket and turn on the lights for you to an otherwise dark spot.
Aside from visiting the caves and marvelling at nature’s formations, you can also swim inside the cool pools at the bottom. As with most of the island’s points of interests, you will be the only one there.
Witness the Ha’amonga A Maui
The Ha’amonga ‘A Maui (Trilithon) could be the Pacific’s equivalent to Stonehenge and it is believed to have been used to track the seasons. It is made of three coralline stones that seem to be in perfect equilibrium and was built in 1200 AD.
Other theories are more mythical and surrounded by legend. The government itself has a board on site explaining a few of the alternative explanations for the structure.
The site lays in a grassy area, no entrance fee, no fences, just another mysterious site one can stumble upon as if discovering an archaeological site for the first time. Ha’amonga ‘A Maui (Trilithon) Tongatapu and Nuku’alofa are incredibly interesting and rich places with so much culture and beautiful natural sights that you’d be foolish not to spend at least 2-3 days there to absorb the culture and the Tongan way of doing things.
Vava’u, although being part of Tonga, is highly influenced and changed by the amount of foreigners and high-end yachts moored in Port of Refuge. Although Tongan culture still trickles through, it is weaker and slightly diluted, whereas the capital retains the old world charm, the slow laissez-faire way and an air of remoteness.
Make sure to spend at least one Sunday in Tonga. From midnight Saturday the entire country comes to a halt for 24h. It is not only customary, but also illegal to work or to do anything other than resting, eating and going to church on Sundays. Do not miss the opportunity to attend a service that will be filled with chants and white hats.
Then join any of the lunch feats involving an underground oven, made with hot stones, the way feasts are cooked in the Pacific. If you travel alone you are almost surely going to be invited by someone to their family’s feast. It will be a once in a lifetime experience!