A whale of a time in Tonga (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

Waking early - our body clocks being on New Zealand time - we tiptoed from our fale to the resort's lounge, made cups of tea, then wandered down the rickety wooden walkway to a viewing platform on the edge of the reef.

"That's a whale," said my wife, pointing excitedly to a spout of water about 100m in front of us. "And there's another. And that's another."

Sure enough, three humpback whales were frolicking just offshore, rolling, breaching, spouting and slapping the water by the light of the rising sun.

We watched, entranced, for over an hour as the whales played, flocks of seabirds headed out to get breakfast, flying foxes returned home after a night on the tiles, church bells summoned the faithful to worship, tiny geckos and skinks sat in the sun to get their blood moving and small fish skittered around in the surrounding reef pools.

This is 'Eua, one of the 170 islands which make up the Kingdom of Tonga, and arguably the most intriguing of the lot.

Just getting here is a unique experience. The six-minute flight from the capital, Nuku'alofa, is proudly hailed as "the shortest commercial flight in the world" and takes about the same length of time as the co-pilot's bilingual safety briefing.

But that doesn't mean the flight isn't interesting. It passes over some spectacular seascapes and apparently you can often spot whales cruising along.

When we landed at 'Eua, our Airlines Tonga plane pulled up just a metre short of the markers at the end of the runway, prompting all the locals to burst into spontaneous applause.

As the only tourists on the flight, we were oblivious to anything having been out of the ordinary ... and maybe it wasn't.

If you want to see the real Tonga, a Tonga quite unlike the more developed parts of Tongatapu and Vava'u where most foreigners go, 'Eua is the perfect place.

The tourist industry here is small scale - Hideaway, where we were staying, is probably the biggest, recently expanded to eight units - and entirely Tongan-owned.

It's one of the oldest islands in the Pacific - pushed out of the sea bed millions of years before the rest of Tonga - and is home to several unique species and the country's only national park, which protects 450ha of lush tropical forest.

Traditional crafts thrive here, especially the art of tapa making, as you can tell from the steady tap-tap-tap which echoes through many of the villages as the bark of the mulberry tree is pounded into cloth, ready for painting. Locals are happy for tourists to watch them work.

In a huge concrete building that looked like an abandoned factory, we found family members painting designs on a vast tapa cloth - 50m long they said - being sent to Wellington "for a new Tongan centre there".

Under a giant carport a group of women were joking and gossiping as they joined strips of tapa into a larger cloth. "You have sons?" one wanted to know. No, two daughters. "What a pity." But I do have three grandsons. "Oh, that's good, I need a boyfriend for my sister." The sister, who was sitting opposite, blushed, and looked relieved when I explained the grandsons were only a few years old.

In a small house a middle-aged woman was weaving strips of tapa into bags and baskets with the help of several children.

'Eua also has some amazing sights and marvellous stories.

For instance, on the highest point of the island is the grave of a 24-year-old New Zealand soldier, who was evidently shot in the course of some bizarre game while he was stationed there during World War II. Peter, the guide who took us to the spot, said he had heard two versions of what happened.

In one, the young Kiwi got drunk with a local man, they played a game of Russian roulette and he pulled the trigger at the wrong time. In another, the two men agreed to a race up the hill to where a gun had been stashed. The winner would shoot the loser. Lonely Planet's guide to Tonga reports a third variation, in which a third party hid the gun for a lethal treasure hunt, which the Kiwi lost.

Whatever the truth of that, there's no question about the existence of the grave, or that it is on one of the most significant sites on the island.

Peter took us on an exciting four-wheel-drive expedition along muddy tracks, followed by a steamy walk through plantations and up an overgrown pathway, where, sure enough, there was a concrete slab with a plaque proclaiming it to be the last resting place of A. E. Yealands of the 24th New Zealand Corps of Signals who died in 1943.

It's a glorious spot, surrounded by thick jungle with occasional glimpses of the sea through the trees, but I couldn't help thinking what a tragic waste it was for a young man to die in a stupid drunken sport.

Although the track to the top was overgrown and hard to spot, the grave itself was clear of weeds - the result, Peter explained, of a working bee a couple of weeks before. "Two New Zealand soldiers asked me to bring them here and we cleaned it up." Peter was very keen to see this done properly and on a more regular basis. "If New Zealand was willing to pay a little money we could get people to keep the grave tidy and open up the views from here."

To underline how good the views could be made, he set to chopping a gap through the undergrowth with his bush knife, opening up a spectacular corridor looking out over the 10.8km deep Tongan Trench, the second deepest point in the ocean. "We could have views like this all around," he said gesturing with his knife. "Everyone would want to come here, if there was some money to keep it tidy. It would be a fine memorial."

At the foot of the hill on which the grave sits is the Makalea Cave, one of many on 'Eua, where you scramble down a tunnel and look into a huge cavern, lit by another shaft, full of thousands of swallows. Makalea, said Peter, means "talking swallows", presumably referring to what sounds like a high-pitched whisper which seems to echo round the surrounding area. More exciting is the Rat Cave - "we are the rats", explained Peter with a grin - which involves clambering along a narrow tunnel which seems to come out just below the top of a mighty cliff, with glorious views over the jungle of the national park and the coast beyond.

I thought that was the end of the line but Peter managed to persuade me to climb through the end of the tunnel and lower myself down to a narrow ledge sitting above a 250m drop. Scary stuff for an old fellow.

The views over the lush forest of the national park were amazing, and we even saw two of the red parrots unique to 'Eua flying past, but I couldn't help thinking the wooden platform of the nearby Lukupo Lookout was a safer way to achieve the same result.

Then there's the Smoking Cave, where a waterfall drops 190m into a giant cavern, the spray emerging like steam; Maui's Fault, a giant hole where the mythical hero dug up some kava to feed his addiction; and Skeleton Cave, discovered late last year, containing three human skulls and piles of bones but, according to Peter, "no one knows who they were or how old they are".

Most spectacular of all is Maui's Bridge, an enormous natural bridge, under which the sea crashes relentlessly into a landlocked harbour.

Not far from the bridge is Lakufa'anga Cliff where, at a time when food was running short, a father and his seven sons jumped to their death in the sea so their mother could eat the fruit which was all they had left.

"Once we could throw fruit off the cliff and you would see a big turtle and seven little turtles come out to eat it," says Peter, "but we don't do that since the cliff face started collapsing and a small boy fell off and was killed."

Instead, we travelled down to Ha'aluma Beach where Peter produced two papaya which he deftly peeled and sliced with his bush knife.

We sat on the coral sand munching on the fruit, watching as the surf sent lines of blowholes fuming into the air, and local fishermen cast their rods into the rock pools of the reef or the raging sea beyond, hooking in tiny fish.

As the juice ran down our chins, Peter explained that Ha'aluma means shame, apparently referring to a canoe which set off on an expedition amid much fanfare, then got stuck on the reef.

Yes, I thought, that would be embarrassing.

But, more to the point, where did the people in the canoe think they were going? Why would anyone want to leave a place like this?

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

Air New Zealand flies to Tonga five times a week with fares starting from $219 one way. Business class fares are available from $709 one way.

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

Hideaway Resort is at www.kalianet.to/hideawayeua.

Whale Watch Vavau is on the web at www.whalewatchvavau.com.

See the Tonga Visitors Bureau website at www.tongaholiday.com or ring the Auckland office on (09) 629 0826.

- NZ Herald

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