The quiet patience of Tongans in the beating sun was never in any doubt as they waited to welcome home King George Tupou V yesterday.

As the Hong Kong flight carrying the late king's body back to the island nation missed its midday arrival time at Nuku'alofa airport, girls from Queen Salote College waited silently on the tarmac.

Outside the VIP area where New Zealand's High Commissioner, Dr Jonathan Austin, sat shaded in a white tent with Prime Minister Lord Tu'ivakano, royals and other ministers, and young people sat in little groups around insubstantial trees.

There was the feeling that people would wait an eternity to fulfil their cultural obligations, to wait, heads bowed, as the hearse, a royal van, finally moved down the road towards the capital.


They waited in deckchairs on the back of open cab trucks, sofas were out on grassy verges and purple ribbons adorned churches and homes. Thousands of children in bright green and blue uniforms broke the monotony of the black worn by the adults.

Seini Failo, 24, laughed and joked with fellow teachers' college students. Time passing wasn't important even in the uncomfortable heat, she said.

Dressed in an aveave, a ta'ovala which has tasselled material to signify she wasn't of noble blood, Ms Failo said any discomfort was worth it.

"We have to do this for our king, we're Tongan, it's about showing our respect."

Others said rain, hail or heavy heat, the people were meant to weather it all without protection from the elements.

When the plane touched down at 1.30pm there was little outpouring of emotion. Instead the roar of the Chinese commercial flight was the background beat to soldiers in white pith helmets moving the coffin, which was covered by a royal flag, towards the hearse.

The new king, formally his country's high commissioner in Canberra, greeted family members with kisses as he stepped off the flight. A royal princess' status was on display as she walked from the plane in a ta'ovala which reached the ground and completely covered her face. Insiders explained that the more ornate the costume, the closer the connection to royalty.

An overnight vigil from 6pm to 6am at the palace was opened up for church groups to pay their respects, which was likely to be the only chance ordinary Tongans had to pray and sing in memory of their monarch.

More than 10,000 people are expected to line the 300m processional route from the palace to the Royal Tombs today. Government spokesman Paula Mau said 200 police would maintain order in the city.


For the privilege of handling dead Tongan royalty a select group of men will be unable to do even the simplest of tasks for the next 100 nights.

Their task is considered so tapu, or important, that they cannot touch anything during the period - including everyday jobs such as washing, shaving or even eating with their own hands.

They are known as "nimatapu", which translates as sacred hands but also refers to the way hands were clasped together in reverence.

Cultural commentator Paula Taumoepeau said their role began once King George Tupou V's body was handed over at Nukualofa's airport yesterday to the group from military staff. Because they are the only people allowed to touch the body, they will bury it in the royal tombs today.

There were other examples where the group would come into play. If the casket was opened to be viewed by Queen Mataaho, the monarch's mother, the nimatapu would do it for her.

There was good reason for the practice, Mr Taumoepeau said: "The King's body is sacred now, the only one with the same status as him is the current King. To touch the body is a huge privilege."

By extension, the hands of the nimatapu became sacred and so a period of abstinence was needed to reflect that.

The chosen men have come from five families for generations. In bygone eras, more than 500 years ago, the nimatapu were buried with the deceased monarch. There are also stories of hands being chopped off once the role was fulfilled.

One Tongan journalist said the practice was an example of the tension between the late King's push for modernisation during his life and his people's strict adherence to custom.

His handing over of royal prerogative in 2010 to the nation gave birth to a new era of democracy and was proof of the push for change, she said.

"It's good to hold to our culture but the late King was trying to move the people forward, not to be stuck in all the traditions and culture.

"He was a modern man, our King, he was trying to make things easier for the people."

Mr Taumoepeau took issue with that view, though. The privilege was not something to be taken for granted or written off, he said.

Today, another crucial player in royal funerals will take the stage.

The "Lauaki" - or chief undertaker who makes sure protocols around death rites are adhered to - is likely to be close to the King as he makes his final journey.