Tonga: The land that time forgot

By Colin Moore

Even if it had nothing else going for it, Eua, a tiny island off Tonga's main island of Tongatapu, would claim a couple of mentions in any South Pacific anthology.

First, to get there you must fasten your seatbelt on a Royal Tongan Airlines' Twin Otter for the shortest commercial air flight in the world - just seven minutes from the airport at Nuku'alofa.

Eua's second likely mention is a tad more bizarre. Back in 1943 a 24-year-old New Zealand soldier, stationed on the island on lookout for passing Japanese warships, went troppo and to relieve his boredom persuaded a local to play the ultimate game of hide and seek - each armed with a rifle. The Kiwi lost and his grave lies on the highest point of the island.

But there's a lot more to Eua, the oldest of the 170 islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, than that. It's a lofty chunk of ancient coral formed around a primeval volcano and pushed out of the ocean by the clash of the earth's tectonic plates.

On the raised reef are numerous limestone cave networks and some of the kingdom's most lush rain forest. And just a few kilometres to the east is the Tonga Trench, at 10.8 km the second deepest part of any ocean on the planet.

In 1992 450ha of Eua rainforest, limestone cliffs and caves were protected in a national park, the first and, so far, only national park in Tonga. Established with the help of New Zealand expertise and aid, it contains trees found nowhere else in the world and birds and plants threatened by agricultural development elsewhere in Tonga.

Landing on Eua's bumpy coral airstrip you turn the time clock back a lot further than seven minutes. If Tongatapu is Third World, downtown Eua is about Sixth - and all the more enchanting for that. Pigs and chickens roam free along the roadside and around every fenceless home. They look like communal property but come mealtimes - usually coconuts - they know which trough to run home to.

Taki Hausia spent most of his life in Australia, coming home to Eua every couple of years for holidays. When his father, Jeff, returned for good in 1999 to build a tourist resort on the family plot on Eua's west coast, Taki joined him as manager and tour guide. New Zealand and Australian tourism assistance programmes helped the Hausias set up their Hideaway resort and Taki's wildlife treks.

It's a family affair, still in its infancy but already comfortable and relaxing. However, it's not a place to lounge in your deck chair sipping gin and tonics. Out the front of the Hideaway is the narrow strip of ocean that separates Eua from Tongatapu and you soon figure out why most people opt for a short plane ride rather than take a ferry.

The Hausias built a bistro and bar on the edge of the rocky coral foreshore where it was envisaged guests could have lunch or an evening meal while watching humpback whales spouting a few hundred metres off shore.

The last cyclone reduced the concrete building to rubble, since replaced with a wooden whale watching platform that can be easily rebuilt. The whales cruise not far off-shore during the July to November breeding season.

There's excellent fishing, whale watching, and diving along the Eua "cliff", a huge drop off littered with caves and tunnels and full of coral fish and schoolfish. And the national park offers several walking trails through rainforest to high limestone cliffs and caves where tropical sea birds ride the thermals.

Taki has a wealth of knowledge on flora and fauna and the traditional uses of various plants.

He's none too pleased at the way the Eua highlands are being cleared and ploughed to satisfy the Japanese demand for squash, and fears that the herbicides and insecticides used by contract growers will affect other parts of the islands - not to mention the people working in the squash plantations.

But squash is a cash crop, for the moment anyway, on an island that otherwise mostly survives on a subsistence economy.

On Sundays sleepy Eua comes to life - or grinds to a halt, depending on your point of view. It's church day and, the tourist industry excluded, all work is banned. Even working in your own garden is forbidden. A constant procession of villagers parade in their Sunday finery while singing fills the air as each church seeks to outdo the next.

However, there's certainly one exception to the no-work ban - the bread must be baked for the next day, so on Sunday evening after the last church service, a steady string of vehicles attends the island bakery collecting bread fresh from the ovens.

By the time we get back to the Hideaway, where an umu of roast vegetables and a suckling pig has been slow cooking for our dinner, the hot, fresh bread is half consumed. Nibbling at the fresh bread is the sort of basic pleasure we enjoyed as kids.

That's what Eua, the "Forgotten Island" does to you.

- Detours, HoS

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