Turbulent Tonga Part II: “Toni’s Guesthouse Tour”
The Ukranian Dracula lady, had just finished assaulting Jackie when we arrived at 10:00am. Dracula had mistook the poor Brit for my wife Lisa, who simply “wouldn’t open the damn window” of the van when we arrived last night. The Ukrainian scowled at Lisa but didn’t dare approach her while I was in the room. Let’s just say it would not have been pretty.
We didn’t know that when we awoke in Toni’s Guesthouse, refreshed after the previous night’s debacle in the van. After a Cup O’ Noodles for breakfast we wandered over to the Green House. There we met the other travelers who planned to join us for the day tour of Tongatapu, the main island of the Tongan Archipelago.
Our tour was led by Toni, an expatriate from Liverpool who had lived over twenty years in Tonga. Other companions included Jackie, who’d quickly got over the unexpected attack, and Dallas, not an American, but a lady from New Zealand enjoying a one-week holiday in the South Pacific. Lee, another solo female traveler from the UK, who had lived on a sailboat for the last seven years, also came along with her partner.
Taking off, again swerving to avoid a cluster of potholes, Toni switched on a microphone that was linked to a rear speaker to make his discourse more audible. We passed the opulent mansion of the Tongan king and his sisters, heading northwest toward the local plantations. Tony stopped to point out the only three-headed coconut tree in the entire world, a must-stop photo op; a pic of it proves that you’ve been to Tonga. He then stopped to point out a variety of crops including coconuts: “No, nobody wants to touch that stuff. They are everywhere! Look around you for Christ’s sake!!” We saw papaya (“Em, the Tongans would eat this but they are all exported.”), taro, kumala, mango, bananas, and pineapple. We then halted at the most northern spot of the island’s coastline. Toni claimed it was a very good beach. We exited the van but were disappointed. The weather was dreary and rain began to fall as we checked a surfing beach near the Ha’atafu Beach Reserve. Its break looked weak, compared to the big-league waves of Samoa.
At this point Toni’s voice became slightly hoarse over the microphone and he began to cough up phlegm. In response to Dallas, who asked, “Why don’t you sell beer at the guesthouse?” Toni said, “I gave up smoking about five years ago but I still have this cough. I don’t drink any more either. So why would I want that stuff around? Besides, the Tongan government has harsh rules. For example, if a tourist who stayed at my guesthouse got out of hand while inebriated, it is me who would get fined by the police, even if I was home asleep. It’s just not worth it.” Lisa looked at me and said, “I think that he is the only person I have ever met who should have kept smoking,” referencing his voice’s guttural quality.
We headed south and stopped at the famous Mapu’a a Vaca Blowholes. Sheets of water poured down and I exited the van only long enough to take a photo. Toni claimed, “Today is not a good day to see the blowholes because the tide is moving at an angle and it is not hitting the rocks directly. You see how it hits?” We left disappointed. However, we returned to these same blowholes at the end of our trip and they proved amazingly powerful.
We continued in the rain and stopped for a decent “Chinese-type” lunch above Keleti Beach. Even on this depressing day, while standing in the rain under a veranda in the cold, I could appreciate the view. Blowholes exhaled the ocean’s foam here as well but they were not as impressive as those at Mapu’a a Vaca.
After a brief lunch we continued the tour northeast to see the “famous” Ha’amonga Trilithon Reserve, South Pacific’s Stonehenge. I agree that the the ruins are similar to those of famous English site but only one structure is constructed from coral stones, in the shape of a square gate. This gate was supposedly used to track the change in seasons. We decided to not to visit the Hina Cave, possibly a mistake, since it is situated right next to the Oholei Beach area, perhaps the nicest place to stay in Tongatapu, We didn’t discover this until we returned three weeks later. Oholei Beach is well known for its feast on Friday nights with a live band perched over a scenic beach.
At the end of the day we returned to Tofa after stopping at a lovely overlook with an eroded hole framing a lovely ocean view. The tour ended and Toni drove us into Nuku’alofa. We wanted to see the infamous (mentioned in 1,000 Places to See Before You Won’t See Anything Ever Again) Heilala Festival. This is a multi-week bash that involves a mix of cultural events including parades, live music, dance, art, as well as beauty and sports competitions. Yet we could not understand the Tongans enthusiasm, or I should say, lack of enthusiasm, regarding the festival. We stopped by the cultural center and asked where the Heilala Festival events took place. The lackadaisical response was, “Oh yeah, it will be on the field…I think.” “Are you going?” I asked. “No, I’ll just stay home and watch TV.” I was stunned. After seeing Nuku’alofa, a depressing and gloomy town with very little action, you’d think that the locals would be thrilled to have a few weeks of special fun. Worse for tourists, the festival begins around 7:00-8:00pm and aside from the island tour, there is not much to do here. Because of this small detail (and the poor weather) we decided to purchase tickets to Vava’u (islands in the northern Tonga) the next day.
Still, a group of us from the guesthouse that included our fellow veterans from the van tour managed to see an evening event called, “Tonga’s Got Talent”. Here people of all ages, mostly from six to their mid-twenties, performed a variety of acts — either singing or engaging in “hip-hop,” where Tongans dance individually or in groups to hip-hop tunes. The event was entertaining if at times painful. What surprised me the most was that the emcee almost spoke entirely in English. The following night we returned to see the teen beauty contest and we were given prime seats right behind the beauty queens themselves.
We warmed up to Tongatapu as we prepared to depart; perhaps our new feelings corresponded with the improved weather. At any rate, our next stop in Tonga was Vava’u, where we planned to swim with the humpback whales, one of Tonga’s principal attractions an an excellent reason to visit the island country.
This article first published at theclymb.com