There’s no better way to take time out than to paddle through nature's marineland in the middle kingdom, writes Paul Rush.

Sunday on Lifuka Island, capital of Tonga's Ha'apai group is a happy day as the villagers avoid all business activity, cease fishing and swimming and focus on church and family life.

My friend and I have a small dilemma. We need permission to launch our sea kayaks and paddle over to Uoleva Island for an overnight stay. Trading on Tonga's reputation as "The Friendly Isles", we go cap-in-hand to the local police station and, for a modest fee, get the green light to cast off.

Thankfully it's high tide and the coral reef close inshore is covered, so we are able to launch into oily-smooth waters within 300 metres of Captain James Cook's 1777 anchorage. The famous navigator re-provisioned his vessel here and found the islanders very obliging, as we have.

Our course is southwest from Pangai, across a shallow strait to a lush green hideaway, which lies just three degrees west of the International Date Line. It's a smooth crossing as Ha'apai's fringing reef is absorbing the full force of heavy Pacific swells.


A strange Robinson Crusoe feeling comes over me as we step ashore on Uoleva Island and break open ripe coconuts like two castaways on a desert island. In this situation it's easy to fantasise that you're a modern-day Alexander Selkirk, as free as the wind — sans cellphones, traffic jams and taxes.

The crystal-clear water soon draws us into its warm, caressing embrace, where we're surrounded by semi-tame multicoloured fish that utterly perplexed about where two ungainly finless mammals fit in the aquatic food chain.

Without warning, my intrepid companion surfaces with a high-pitched shout. "There's a leopard shark over here!" My reaction is not, "Well that's interesting, I'll check it out." I scramble on to a coral outcrop as the streamlined body glides below.

After our finny friend departs, we see a large turtle nonchalantly paddling along as if he doesn't plan to stop before Samoa. I dive down and he fixes me with a black beady eye as if to say, "Hey buddy, you can swim along with me but I reckon you'll get bored long before I do."

All around us are tiny, iridescent blue damsels darting in and out of the stag-horn coral.

Multi-hued parrot fish rule this undersea kingdom lording it over the black and white sergeants and my favourites, the gaily decorated clown fish, who snuggle cosily in their anemone hideaways when not off exploring movie sets.

Back on shore we sit under arching palm fronds as a brilliant orange and red sunset paints the western horizon out by Tofua Island. The infamous Bounty mutiny took place near there, which only serves to foster my romantic notions of being a fictional castaway.

I listen to the gentle sound of waves lapping the sand and dying trade winds whispering in the palm fronds. I fall asleep dreaming of sun-drenched tropical islands, although there's no need to dream, I'm actually there.

My reverie ends abruptly at first light. Ominous sounds of sniffling, snuffling and snorting have no place in my Walter Mitty escapist fantasies. A pig-headed platoon of porkers surround us. We politely remind our porcine pals who the apex predator is on their pristine island with timorous waving of arms and an undignified, "shoo", then prepare to cross Tatafa Strait. We have heard dire warnings about fierce currents but this morning's oily-smooth waters belie the strait's reputation.

My blissful confidence is shaken as our trusty kayaks are shunted sideways in the channel, but we press on, accompanied by flights of sooty terns, brown boobies and frigate birds, waiting to see us come to grief or looking for food scraps.

Tatafa Island is an enchanting uninhabited gem like so many of Tonga's unspoiled treasures. Beyond Tatafa is Uiha Island, where the main wharf is a scene of great activity.

Muscle-bound men are loading sacks of produce on to a coastal trader while children play happily on the beach.

A stroll around the village brings friendly waves and broad smiles. We pass by fragrant thickets of pandanas, clusters of banana and breadfruit trees, elegant casuarinas and highly esteemed mulberry trees, which provide bark for fine quality tapa cloth.

Not much has changed here over the past century. Life continues at a "go-slow" pace with no hurries, no hassles and no headaches. In a real sense our casual stroll feels like a walk back in time. Heading homeward, I realise I'm becoming an advocate of "Tonga-Time".

There's no deadline as we paddle on with a smile on our faces. I like to think Ha'apai is my blue heaven and I can't get enough of her sparkling waters.

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates direct three-hour flights from Auckland to Tonga daily, except Sundays. From Tongatapu's Fua'amotu Airport, local air services operate 40-minute flights to Salote Pilolevu Airport, which is close to Pangai Township.

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