Port of Refuge

by Jason Burgess

While salty dogs will boast that they arrived in Vava’u under sail, through passages peppered with tiny islands, limestone and coral cliffs and secluded coves, I took my life into my own hands on an “Airlines Tonga” Harbin Y12.

As the twin prop rust bucket shuddered into take off on the runaway at Nuku’alofa, the local family opposite me, praying, confirmed that this impatient tourist was not the only body feeling nervous.

The aircraft’s groaning tapered off at an altitude of 1,200 feet where a fierce sun streamed through the oversized portholes and plentiful spires of tropical cloud lightly touched the fuselage. The smattering of islands and coral atolls of the Ha’apai group – where Fletcher Christian cut Captain Bligh adrift from the HMS Bounty offered the only infringement on an otherwise immense high sheen, wind molten, Pacific horizon.

Within an hour, Vava’u’s jungle like interior, inland lagoons and Lilliputian villages -each with at least two-oversized churches- came into view. The big smoke of Neiafu looked like a clapboard outpost from the turn of the 20th century, with an outer suburb of sailboats bobbing in its “Port of Refuge.”

As manana is to Mexico, so apongipongi is to Tonga: there’s always later or tomorrow. The country runs like a sluggish hand on a faulty timepiece. In Neiafu, the main town 200km north of Nuku’alofa, it often feels like the watch may have stopped. As it happens, the spire clock of the Fetu’u Moana Catholic cathedral, dominating the municipal skyline, perpetually reads five past five. Significant perhaps if you consider the legend of Mount Talau, that bookends town from the other direction and whose elevated tabletop presides over all Vava’u.

According to legend, a Samoan tevolo, a nocturnal devil, tried making off with Talau’s summit one night. But quick thinking Tafakula, a Tongan female tevolo, ran to the east, bent over, lifted her skirt and bared her derriere. The Samoan mistook the bright reflection off her buttocks for the sunrise! He quickly dropped the mountaintop into the sea before fleeing, thus creating the islet of Lotuma.??No wonder then that Paul Theroux, in a rare conciliatory moment of his post-marital grumpy tome, The Happy Isles of Oceania, was moved to call “the glorious archipelago of Vava’u one of the least spoiled places in the Pacific.”

If you’ve ever imagined a Pacific destination without hotel chains and security fences, Vava’u is it. It does have its fair share of quality digs and some eclectic watering holes; however, the feint-hearted five- tar traveller expecting manicures, hair do’s and cocktails by the pool, might find the frontier feel and the unsophisticated hospitality a little unsettling.

Vava’u, to use a Fijian analogy, is more Levuka than Denerau. Diesel-generated power sometimes fails, the water can stop, telephone and internet drops in and out without warning, and cyclones may well interrupt summer; but talk to any of the long term Kiwi ex-pats, and they’ll tell you they love it.

“It’s a back-to-basics life,” says Sandra who, with husband Henk, have in the last 18 years built up both the Mystic Sands Motel on the beach at Utungake, the Adventure Backpackers in town, plus Target One fishing charters. Not bad for a couple of retirement age tearaways from Taranaki. In fact, it would be easier to catch a greased village piglet than trying to track these two down. According to Sandra, “I’m so busy…but we couldn’t be happier, life is easy if you learn to go with the flow.”

While palangi congregate in a haven of funky harbour-side bars, it’s the jubilation of Tongan song and dance erupting from the churches and kava clubs that pervades deep into the balmy nights. Few come here for the culture; most are lured by the glistening rump of migrating Humpback whales. But whether you prefer trawling for deep-sea game or swimming with the mega-mammals, Vava’u has more aquatic activities than names in the local phone book.

Dreadlocked Captain Veni steered Maris King with his toes as he and first mate Albert scoured the horizon for a wily couple of slow moving whales for his anticipatory cargo of mask-faced paparazzi to float next to. Huge tails crashed, undulating oily backs breached the swell and, for an exhilarating two hours, we nervously pursued a romancing couple that remained elusive, while out of reach on the horizon line their colossal kin teased us with aerial antics. When the big ’uns finally got the hump and give us the slip, Veni veered off for option two, diving into the ethereal fog of Mariners Cave, where once a young warrior kept his sweetheart safe from a marauding Chief – a story that so touched Lord Byron, it inspired The Island.

If dipping into submarine darkness doesn’t put a bend in your snorkel, the next stop is the dazzling Swallows Cave, where the Prussian blue deep water gives way to pastel cyan, and sunsets bounce mysterious shades of green onto the graffiti of reckless local taggers who scale impossible rock faces to achieve the highest by-line.

Back in the channel, school kids from the outer isles on overloaded boats sing their way to and from boarding school in Neiafu. The billowing mainsails of globe trotting nautical nuts, hulking seasonal cruise ships, and the weekly cargo ship from Nuku’alofa affectionately coined “orange vomit,” make up the bulk of the traffic passing among the 34 islands.

There’s a tantalising sense of adventure around every palm tree spiked headland, the unknown lying just beyond each bleached white bay or up in the smoking hinterlands, where farmers burn off the tailings of last season’s crop to make way for the new. “Vava’u is like an onion”, says Sharon Spence who, with husband Doug, arrived here from Canada via Dunedin. “You keep peeling, but you never quite get to the centre.”

The couple spearheaded multi-day kayak eco-tours in the 1990s, spending six months operating from offices in New Zealand and six months from their home overlooking Neiafu’s harbour. They feel Vava’u is evolving, fast. Once they “knew every oddball and character in town but an unprecedented real estate boom five years back changed that.” ??Lawrence, for instance, a recent British blow-in, has converted the Bounty Bar from the kind of place where Sharon reckons “women were guaranteed to get their bums pinched” to a Tropicana-inspired pub complete with Mutiny memorabilia and carved poles. He tells me: “Neiafu is like Antigua in the 80s. I ran a bar there just after their independence and Vava’u feels like the Caribbean but with the potential of the Maldives.”

Apparently this, the last South Pacific island group to be contacted by Europeans, may well be on its way to being rediscovered.

FACTS:
Tonga Visitors’ Bureau, www.tongaholiday.com

Pacific Blue (www.flypacificblue.com) and Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.co.nz) offer regular flights

Chathams, www.chathamspacific.com, for inter-island flights

Currency = Pa’anga (toP$). At time of going to press NZ$1 = toP$131.

Climate: Tonga has a cool tropical climate at an average of 27ºc. Rainy season is December to April. ??Dress code: conservative – sleeves and longer skirts/ shorts. tongan law prohibits any person from appearing in a public place without a shirt, so most Tongans swim fully dressed. Bathing suits and bikinis are fine for the beach and poolside but are frowned upon if worn in public. So it is best to wear shorts and a t-shirt when swimming at a public beach.

STAY & DO:
Mystic sands (Hosts sandra & Hank gros), www.mysticsands.net
Right on the beach next door to the Tongan Beach Resort, great location in Utungake village, 10 minutes drive from Neiafu town. Moderately priced, spick and span, self catering motel rooms. All manner of adventures can be organised here with whale tours and game fishing charters leaving from the jetty right outside the rooms.

Henk and Sandra also run Adventure Backpackers in the centre of town, http://www.visitvavau.com/backpackers/ where I spent one night at. It’s a lively location with a range of rooms and economical rates for those who like to be in the thick of it.

Swimming with the whales tour, www.whales-in-the-wild.com
Eco Kayak tours with Friendly Islands Kayak company www.fikco.com