Tonga is still recovering from nature's battering, but that's all the more reason to go there, says Tracey Cooper.

Taniela told us to meet him there at 12.

"Last street on the left before the cemetery before the hospital. Second house on the right."

Given the lack of road signs on Tongatapu and the broad definition of the word "street" in Tonga, it's amazing we found the place.

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Turns out Taniela couldn't make it, so we woke up his mate Tēvita Lātū, who'd only been asleep for a couple of hours.

"I work at night, there's less noise, less people. I work with the kids in the early evening then paint through the night."

Tēvita and Taniela Petelō are part of Seleka International Arts Society Initiative, a renegade group of Tongan artists introducing young people in the capital Nuku'alofa to the world of contemporary art. For 10 years they've provided a space for more than 100 local kids and people of all persuasions to express themselves.

"I was having kava with a mutual friend and doing some painting. After a few weeks, some kids came in and drew with crayons. Over time we had up to 30 kids come in. Some started painting," Tēvita says.

Until February, Seleka had a gallery and workshop on the shore of the nearby Fanga'uta Lagoon. But like many of the 70,000 people who live on the low-lying, 260sq km island, they lost the lot when Cyclone Gita hit on February 13, bringing the strongest winds and biggest storms to hit Tongatapu in 60 years.

The place was hammered. Five months on, the evidence remains everywhere you look.

Homes, buildings, churches, schools, crops, trashed.

Tonga is slowly recovering after Cyclone Gita. Photo / Tracey Cooper
Tonga is slowly recovering after Cyclone Gita. Photo / Tracey Cooper

Like everyone else, the Seleka artists are doing what it takes to recover. They've got an online fundraising thing going on, are exhibiting their work, and trying to raise enough money to build a new studio. Until then, they gather each night in a poorly lit carport, drink kava, and paint — thanks largely to a rescue package of art supplies from friends of friends in London.

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Tēvita lugs an armload of paintings out to the carport and lays them on a paint-covered trestle table. More paintings are rolled up in a corner.

"Have a look," he says.

We do. They're cool.

Tēvita is an Auckland Grammar boy with a Fine Arts degree from Sydney's National Art School. He's a pretty well-known, somewhat controversial artist in Tonga and his paintings are a brilliantly surreal contrast to the usual stuff tourists get to see.

The price hardly matters when you know the proceeds are going to a good place. And Tongatapu is a good place.

Photo / Tracey Cooper
Photo / Tracey Cooper

Most tourists head to the northern Vava'u or Ha'apai groups but Nuku'alofa is a fairly interesting regional hub and port town to explore and you'll find something to do on Tongatapu every day, with a couple of days left over for doing nothing. Pretty much perfect for a week away from winter.

There's the usual South Pacific island offerings of diving, snorkelling, surfing, paddleboarding, swimming, fishing and feasting — along with a few things unique to the island kingdom.

And Tonga comes with the added bonus of whales. We saw one, a mile offshore from 'Oholei Beach in the east of the island, but peak whale season isn't for another couple of months.

When the whales are in town, the locals reckon you can watch them from the beach in places like Ha'atafu, where our holiday home is only 100m from some of the best snorkelling and most stunning sunsets on the island.

Ha'atafu is also where the best surf spots are found and, coincidentally, where Abel Tasman became the first Pālangi to step ashore in 1643.

It's an hour on the bus from Ha'atafu to downtown Nuku'alofa and though the bus is fun, cheap and relatively reliable, Tongatapu is best navigated with a $40-a-day rental car.
Apparently, before you rent or drive a car in Tonga, you're required to get a Tongan driver's licence.

Tongatapu is not a huge place but it's still a good hour's drive from one end to the other and some of it seems quite remote. The island has three key roads, one down either side and one up the middle.

Tracey Cooper on the road in Tongatapu. Photo / Tracey Cooper
Tracey Cooper on the road in Tongatapu. Photo / Tracey Cooper

Liku Rd on the south coast gets you to Mapu a Vaea, the famous blowholes at Houma where deep blue waves smash into the black volcanic rocky shore. Tunnels and holes in the rock shoot huge jets of water high into the air with a soft whistling noise, giving the place its name — Whistle of the Noble.

The nearby Maui or Tsunami Rock is something of an oddity though. It's just a really big rock, sitting in the middle of a paddock, hundreds of metres from the ocean.

Archaeologists reckon a tsunami washed the 15-metre wide, 1500-tonne rock to where it sits today. Tongans reckon the demigod Maui Kisikisi chucked it from a neighbouring island to shut up a noisy rooster early one morning.

Of course it's not the oddest oddity on Tongatapu. That title goes to another roadside attraction, the three-headed coconut tree at Liahona. Seeing is truly believing.

At the other end of Tongatapu, where only single-headed coconut trees grow, you'll find the limestone Anahulu Caves with their underground natural swimming pool.

A generator under a tree powers fluorescent lights marking the slippery path down to the cool, deep pool where you can dive off limestone formations and swim around the ancient cavern in the near-dark. It's good value and a refreshing break from the mid-20s June temperature outside, especially since the aircon in that cheap rental car is broken.

That's a minor complaint, though, about a place where so many things remain broken.

Among them is the Bush BBQ Cafe, a ramshackle joint in the middle of nowhere, highlighted by its expansive use of blue plastic tarps for roofing.

Niuvakai Lātū came home three years ago and opened the cafe on his family farmland in central Tongatapu, based on the sound logic that he knew nothing about growing taro, cassava or bananas.

Niuvakai Lātū, owner of the Bush BBQ Cafe. Photo / Tracey Cooper
Niuvakai Lātū, owner of the Bush BBQ Cafe. Photo / Tracey Cooper

Despite its out of the way location surrounded by lush crops, word spread and things had been going well. Business was good. But Cyclone Gita treated the cafe and the surrounding crops with equal savagery.

"The next day I came here and I could see the neighbouring village. I'd never been able to see that before. It was hidden behind the trees, but the trees were all gone, everything was gone," he says.

Nature recovers faster than people and four months on, the village is once again out of sight and the cafe is surrounded by flourishing crops and open for business.

Niuvakai is waiting for a container of building materials to arrive from New Zealand before he rebuilds properly, but he's cobbled together a lean-to out of the wreckage.

Niuvakai and his niece serve up barbecue chicken and lamb, lu sipi (mutton in taro leaf), lu palumasima (corned beef in taro leaf) and the best breakfast deal in Tonga from a couple of gas burners and a toastie machine. Bacon, sausage, omelette, toast, tea and coffee and a peaceful and picturesque location all for less than NZ$10.

Rebuilding is under way everywhere you look in Tonga, but there's so much to do.

The infrastructure seems okay but hundreds of homes and buildings are still boarded up, missing walls, roofs or windows or just a pile of rubble on a concrete pad. People are still living in tents.

The Talamahu Markets in Nuku'alofa are showing the effect of the lost harvest, with empty market benches and little in the way of fruit on offer. They're importing bananas.

Despite all that, now is probably the ideal time to consider Tonga for a winter break.

Aside from everything you expect from a tropical island holiday, you get to help our Tongan whānau and contribute directly to their rebuilding economy. And that feels pretty good in itself.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand

flies to Tonga, with one-way Seat fares from $236.

ACCOMMODATION
For details on the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel.