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!
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.