Tonga: Exploring island life behind the scenes

By Jim Eagles

As I burst out of the jungle and into the centre of the peaceful village on my noisy go-kart I could see small children running from all directions. Were they planning to throw fruit at this loud intruder? Not at all. They wanted to exchange high-fives.

Slapping hands with a row of youngsters while at the same time steering a slightly cranky kart along a rough track is not especially easy, but it is good fun, and I managed to collect all the palms on offer without an accident ... and to exchange waves of greeting with several smiling elders sitting in front of their homes keeping an eye on the action.

A Kart Safari trip has got to be the best way to see the Tongan island of Vava'u because it allows you to see villages, plantations, jungles, beaches and viewing spots where visitors rarely go.

The karts are a bit like souped-up quad bikes, perfect for zooming around the rough dirt tracks which start where the sealed road ends, providing a sort of combination amusement park ride and cultural experience.

The idea of using them for tours came from Ben and Lisa Newton, two Californians who sailed to Vava'u and fell in love with the place, and started exploring off-road parts of the island on a quad bike.

"We found we could get to all sorts of amazing places that tourists - and most locals - never get to," said Ben. "We figured if we enjoyed riding round these dirt trails and seeing all the secret places then other people probably would too." And they do.

Riding these things is fun, though the two-person version my wife and I zoomed about in was tricky to control and we got stuck a couple of times. But the main attraction is the opportunity they provide to get to some really offbeat places.

Tipasa, our guide, led our group of half a dozen karts down muddy tracks through thick jungle with magnificent old trees, noisy birds, chattering flying foxes and beautiful flowers. We went past lush plantations where you can spot families tending their crops of taro, cassava, sweet potato, tapioca and yam; and to spectacular viewing points, including the eastern and northern points of the island, where waves crash on the reef from the other side of the Pacific, carving lofty pinnacles, giant caves and weird sculptures out of the rocks. Finally, we reached beautiful beaches, including one with the shell of a nightclub which was destroyed by a cyclone a few days after it opened - a sign, according to Tipasa, that "it wasn't meant to be there".

But best of all were the villages, with their neat iron-roofed houses and tidy gardens, where all the inhabitants paused to give a smile and a wave and all the kids ran down to the track to slap hands. Here was a chance to see village life in Tonga today, with women weaving pandanus leaves into baskets, pigs and chickens foraging for food and old men keeping a watchful eye on activities from their thrones out front.

Before going to Vava'u, I had heard it said there was nothing to do apart from whale watching but, in reality, there's plenty of action.

Having explored the land by go-kart, for instance, you could hire a Zego - a sort of motorbike on water - and take a guided tour to all sorts of out-of-the-way coastal villages, quiet inlets and spectacular sea caves.

The Zegos are a new venture for Dolphin Pacific Safaris, run by former Birmingham fireman Alistair Coldrick, who got disillusioned with firefighting after a prolonged national strike, "was looking for a change, saw this dive company on Vava'u offered for sale, and thought, 'That's me'. So here I am."

Tonga, he reckons, is a great place for a diver. "It's better than Samoa, compares with Fiji, and with all the inlets and islands round Vava'u we can almost always find somewhere to dive."

Unfortunately when I was there the weather was a bit rough - by Tongan, not New Zealand, standards - so my Zego tour was called off.

I was, however, able to take one for a blat around the sheltered waters of the evocatively named Port of Refuge, puttering quietly past the clusters of visiting yachts, then zooming across to the other side of the harbour to check out a huge papaya tree laden with fruit and another with spectacular golden flowers.

There's plenty of other water sports to be enjoyed at Vava'u, including sailing - in dinky sailing dinghies or luxury charter yachts - kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, taco-tubing, banana-boating, snorkelling, swimming and scuba-diving.

It's also quite pleasant just to wander round the island's capital of Neiafu with its numerous craft shops, thriving markets, busy port - be sure to be there when a ferry arrives and enjoy the action - and the charming St Joseph's Cathedral with its very Tongan-looking Jesus.

After so much activity during the day we needed plenty of sustenance, so one evening we took a taxi to the Tongan Beach Resort for a feasts.

This is a beautiful resort - it was selected as the venue for the leaders' retreat at this year's Pacific Forum - with 12 modern units set on one of the finest beaches on the island.

Presiding over things here is German-born Dieter Dyck, who as a young man fled the chaos left by World War II, settled in New Zealand, married into the German-Tongan Wolfgramm family and, a few years ago, developed this resort on the family land. His remarkable story, which has already been published in German, is due to be released in English later this year under the title, A South Seas Dream Come True.

It's easy to see why his life would seem like a dream come true as you sit under the resort's palm trees, sip an Ikale beer, listen to the music produced by a band of two guitars, a ukulele and an old-fashioned tea-chest bass, share a couple of cups of kava with the band members and just take it easy.

Then there's the feast - definitely fit for a king - with delicious raw fish in the juice of the unique Tongan lime, succulent whole snapper cooked in an umu, a tiny roast suckling pig with crispy skin, Tongan oysters in coconut milk, the most tender octopus I've eaten and heaps of taro, cassava, yam and tapioca.

And, finally, the staff of the resort, members of the extended Wolfgramm family, put on a display of traditional dancing, their oiled bodies moving slowly through movements that tell stories, including one written to celebrate Paea Wolfgramm's silver medal for boxing in the super heavyweight class at the 1996 Olympics.

Inevitably, the visiting journalist was asked to join the dancing and equally inevitably he showed that - as the 2006 film title put it - white men can't dance. Now I know how poor old Prince Charles feels when he gets hauled up to do a tango in Argentina. It can't be easy to be a prince.

On the other hand, royalty does have its benefits, and it was delightful to have a palace as our main base in Vava'u.

Sovereign Residence used to be the Vava'u home of Princess Pilolevu, one of the most popular members of the Tongan royal family, but because she spends most of her time in Nuku'alofa these days it is leased out to former Auckland nightclub operator Gray Tinley as a boutique guesthouse and restaurant.

The guesthouse is a work in progress which Gray pursues in between other interests, like distributing Heineken beer and the excellent Tongan-grown Royal Coffee produced by the country's Minister of Aviation. But there's no doubting the quality of the meals which he cooks himself with a passion.

Several people on Vava'u, hearing that we were staying at Sovereign Residence, told us, "He's the best chef on the island", and they were right. Sitting on the terrace, overlooking a seascape of yachts, waves and palm trees, we enjoyed one of the best meals I have ever eaten: gazpacho, a superb crayfish mornay and a desert of flambeed banana with a peanut brittle cookie. It was a meal fit for a king.

*Jim Eagles visited Tonga with help from Air New Zealand and Tonga Visitors Bureau.

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