Tonga: Lifelong passion of a constant gardener

By Jim Eagles

Nearly 60 years ago as an 8-year-old boy Haniteli Fa'anunu watched as a minister wrote his name down against a block of land on the Tongan island of Vava'u and dreamed of doing something special with it.

"Knowing it was my land, that made a real difference, it gave me a foundation for my life," he recalls. "I thought of it a lot, even when I was very young, and I always wanted to do something out of the ordinary here."

Today that dream has become a reality in the form of the definitely extraordinary `Ene'io Botanical Garden, the only botanical gardens in Tonga. He has spent a lifetime developing it, planting hundreds of trees, cutting paths and, most recently, building a cafe/gift shop/information centre.

Last year, Haniteli retired from his other job, as Tonga's director for agriculture and forestry for 18 years, and now he works fulltime on the project.

"I couldn't wait to get out of the office and come here," he says with a grin. "All my work has really paid off. Now I'm the toilet cleaner, gardener, guide, part-time cook and barman. It's a dream come true."

Then, just to demonstrate his bartending skills, he whacks the top off a couple of cold beers, opens a packet of wife Lucy's special taro chips - "we've had manufacturers try to find her secret but we won't tell them" - and settles down to talk about his great passion.

The gardens, he says, contain just about every species of plant native to Tonga - "527 that I know of" - plus many other varieties from around the Pacific.

Several are endangered and many are important sources of food, clothing, building materials and medicines. "Part of my aim is to preserve the diversity of species we have in Tonga. I also want to provide an opportunity for people to learn about those plants and the many valuable uses they have."

Visitors can, for instance, watch demonstrations of preparing panadanus leaves for weaving, extracting vanilla essence, tapa making, nonu juice processsing and the many uses of coconuts.

Haniteli says he has been planting on this site - some of it his own land and some leased from the Government - since 1971. "I went to Hawaii to study agronomy at university and when I came back I put in the first trees. I've been doing that ever since."

Development of the gardens has been almost entirely funded with his own money - "All my life half my salary has gone into this land." - with no government assistance or overseas aid.

They certainly wouldn't mind getting some assistance. "I feel it would be a good project for someone like the New Zealand Government to support," he says. "It is preserving Tonga's culture and environment, attracting tourists and creating jobs."

Others agree. Ben Newton, who operates Vava'u's Kart Safaris, and Grey Tinley, who runs the Sovereign Residence guesthouse and restaurant, say the botanical gardens are becoming hugely important to the island.

"It's going to be the must-see place on Vava'u," says Tinley. "They've done an amazing job out there."

But, in the meantime, Haniteli and Lucy take huge pride in doing things on the cheap and in their ability to acquire all sorts of materials by buying through garage sales advertised in the Herald.

"Just recently," Haniteli says with delight, "Lucy went to Auckland and came back with two containers full of tables, chairs, tiles, everything we needed for this centre, all from garage sales."

The project is still hard work but, now that he and Lucy are able to work on it fulltime, it is starting to take off.

"My family laughed at me when I started. But when the plants start to fruit and flower, they come and ask me if they can have some.

"And I say, `No. You must pay for them. That is how we get our income.' We have to charge to fund our work."

The gardens also get income from selling organic vegetables and Lucy's taro chips, the cafe, running tours for tourists, holding a Tongan feast every Friday, renting campsites and providing homestays in their own home and the nearby village.

Haniteli says his model is Eden Garden, the garden developed in a disused quarry on the slopes of Mt Eden, in Auckland.

"They started with nothing and they have created something beautiful," he says.

"Now they can support themselves by charging for people to come. That's what I want to do."

More information:
You can contact `Ene'io Botanical Garden at or by ringing (00676) 71 048.


Air New Zealand flies to Tonga five times a week with a range of everyday low fares starting from an online fare of $209 one-way, plus $13.56 tax. Business Class fares are available from $689 one-way plus $13.56 tax.

Airlines Tonga, operated by Air Fiji and Teta Tours, has regular flights to Vava'u. For more details ring (676) 26125 or email

For more information about the Sovereign Residence, email

Paradise International Hotel in Vava'u is on the web at ,a href="">

The Tongan Beach Resort is at

You can find out about Kart Safaris, and many of Vava'u's water activities, at

Details of Zego tours and diving trips in Vava'u are at

See the Tonga Visitors Bureau website at or ring the Auckland office at (09) 629 0826. For more details on Vava'u, go to

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