Boarding a tiny eight-seater plane from the airport in the capital, Nuku’alofa, I fly across the archipelago to the Ha’apai chain, a group of pancake-flat tropical islands made famous by the visits of Captain James Cook during his explorations of the Pacific Ocean.
Ha’apai’s main settlement of Pangai is not just the place that gave birth to Christianity in Tonga. It is also renowned for having some of the best snorkelling sites in the country. Arriving on the island with not another tourist in sight, it seems that directions to the coral gardens off the coast of the northern beaches may be hard to come by. If this were Southeast Asia, boats would be vying for every tourist’s business. Internet cafes and tour companies would dominate the town in a jumble of techno music and banana pancakes. Here in Pangai, however, the streets are empty, save for the pigs and the large Tongan lady who is heading towards church in her giant straw tupeno (like a belt but often three feet wide) to escape the midday tropical heat.
I stop in at the local general store to ask for a map. The only items for sale seem to be Coca Cola, sweet potatoes and packets of dried kava. Surprised that I’m not a visiting Mormon, the shy Tongan girl behind the counter points me towards the road that bisects town. Follow that and I’ll find it. One advantage of Ha’apai’s size is that it’s virtually impossible to get lost along the island’s only main road.
I borrow a bicycle and head through the fields of cassava and sweating papaya across the causeway and towards Foa Island. The earth is hot and wet as I skid along the single lane to the headland. Ha’apai locals have recounted some of the islands’ naval history: the mutiny on the Bounty occurred just offshore and the sacking of the Port Au Prince occurred near Foa Island in 1806, leading to William Mariner spending four years with Ha’apai’s chief and writing his renowned account of the people of the Tongan islands.
With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn across from the jungle-shrouded Sandy Beach Resort, I grab my snorkel and spy two big inky rifts in the otherwise turquoise ocean. With no one in sight along the coast I snorkel along the coral gardens off Foa Island. I duck-dive down to the tiny communities hiding in the clumps of soft coral, swimming through sponges that shelter clown fish the size of my thumb and past brown-spotted moray eels that screech at my approaches as I swim below their caves.
The unbroken line of the coral reef is fluorescent and I continue exploring the rose-shaped coral beds until a banded sea snake hiding underneath a mushroom-shaped outcrop on the edge of the reef is spooked by my exploration. I kick away from the coral in a panic as the blue and white snake coils towards me with its mouth open and I surface for the first time in hours.
With no crowd noise or traffic to guide me, I’ve drifted hundreds of metres towards the open ocean. Tonga isn’t the sort of place that has lifeguards and flags, so I resign myself to the long swim back to shore, skimming across the reefs that captivated me for hours.
With hands like prunes and a head full of salt water, I trudge up to the Sandy Beach Resort. The cook is waiting with a chilled coconut and a plate of fresh swordfish. There are only two other guests at the resort so I am welcomed for dinner. With the Pacific Ocean swallowing the sun, I decide it is time to look for my next adventure. The north and the underwater wonders of Vava’u beckon.
The next morning I catch a ride on a tiny twin-propeller plane from the isolation of Pangai to Neiafu, the major town in Vava’u. With its sheltered jungle islands and migrating whales, this northern archipelago draws the majority of visitors to Tonga. I arrive on a Saturday evening and, after the lonely evenings of chirping geckos and fat mosquitos on Pangai, I am hopeful of encountering some kind of nightlife.
It is monsoon season and I stroll through Neiafu at dusk, greeting the few locals with a malo e lei lei. I find the library, a cafe and a few boarded-up restaurants. Stopping for a beer at the Aquarium Cafe I notice that the bay and the pastel colours that shift across its water are what captivate. Visitors are indifferent to the town itself. The ocean is what draws people to Vava’u. Whether they are snorkellers, yachties or divers, the real action is out towards the horizon.
I join them the following day, signing up for a Discover Scuba tour with the Dive Vava’u outfit in Neiafu. We are soon aboard the Tonga Tango boat and venturing beyond Lotuma and the Swallows Cave. I pull on my wetsuit and attach the tank, ready to explore this Pacific playground. With me is Paul Stone, a veteran of more than 16 years as a dive instructor and 12,000 dives. I’m a novice, so Paul is gentle with me – nothing like the brittle men in town who mull around the port with week-old beards and whisky breath prodding me for loose change.
The surface appears thick and choppy as we plunge in at aptly named dive site Benny’s Bounty. Even though I’ve dived once before, my first breath is one of panic. I draw in a mouthful of salt water and push the purge button frantically to get the artificial oxygen pumping. Paul gives me the symbol for OK and, after a moment, I respond. We kick our fins and descend. Once the membrane of the surface is peeled away, I see the life that is buzzing only metres below.
Our dive is not just about identifying the big names of the ocean, the shark, whale and stingray; the miniscule and vulnerable are just as captivating. Paul points out a black and orange fleck the size of a fingernail. It looks like a piece of seaweed but on closer inspection I see that it is a flatworm. Similar to a piece of lettuce, this tiny worm shimmies through the sea like a ribbon in the breeze looking for food and shelter.
We sway past pincushion starfish and angelfish gliding along the sand below us. I can tell Paul loves his office as he clasps his hands and drifts from treasure to treasure in the 50-metre visibility. As he explains later, “When you’re down deep with the reef below you and a wall of fish beside you, you just hang there, floating. I think it’s the closest thing in the world to actually flying.”
On the next dive at Sea Fans, Paul tells me to copy his posture. I hold my body as still as possible while we explore, gently kicking to conserve oxygen and prolong the experience.
Looking across the vast cavern at the bottom of the ocean, I see the other divers in our group exploring a great rift in the wall that shelters white-tipped reef sharks. As I swim through a band of gorgonian sea fans, thick with tiny fish circling in and out, I feel strangely at home.
We pass through an aperture in the coral and everything is silent except the gasp of my regulator. Seahorses dart through anemones, an elongated trumpet fish swims below and a school of fluoro parrotfish nibble on the fronds and branches of purple and yellow coral. With my oxygen running low I know time is nearly up. I look to the undulating surface above and see the sun streaming down into the depths. Although I can’t take a photo, it is one of those moments I will not forget.
There is barely a murmur of activity in town the following day as I rent a sturdy sea kayak in Neiafu to clear the fog from my kava hangover. I head out with three other kayakers across the Port of Refuge on another day in which to immerse myself in island living without the comforts of running water, refrigeration or internet connections. We carry tents and fresh water in our hulls as we paddle towards the island of Kapa.
Tongans don’t see the point in swimming or snorkelling for pleasure, so Epeli, a local guide who has lived on these islands for more than 50 years, gives me an introduction to Tongan hunting and gathering in his spare time. He teaches me to fish with the line dangling from my teeth as we paddle. I also learn to spear fish with a Hawaiian sling that has a serious kink to the left. Our catch will supplement the jungle fruits we snatch along the way.
The islands of Vava’u were not discovered by Europeans until relatively late, with Spanish explorer Francisco Antonio Mourelle stumbling across the archipelago in 1781. As a result of its isolation, this part of Tonga has retained its cultural way and the languid pace of island time is even more pronounced than in the south. Whenever we inquire about meal times or our sleeping arrangements on the banks of Kapa, Epeli reflects the relaxed nature of his home: “Eat whenever you are hungry, sleep wherever you like. We are on a deserted island!”
Over the next few days we explore tiny islands ringed by tropical fish. Occasionally we happen across a fisherman or a tiny village, but for the most part we live a Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Snapper and yellowfin tuna caught during the day are eaten each evening, and we bathe in the ocean as storm clouds are stirred by lightning on the horizon.
Pushing our kayaks past the reef on the island of Ovaka, we stop for the night on Euakafa and hike up into the bowl of the island. Epeli shows us Queen Talafaiva’s crumbled tomb, a fifteenth-century coral enclosure that conceals the legend of a cheating wife and a king so vengeful he couldn’t allow himself to live with her betrayal. Peering into its depths, I don’t want to see if the bones are still lying there, but I have a feeling that they may be – covered in moss and waiting for the king’s forgiveness.
We paddle through the afternoon, travelling from Euakafa through breaking waves and onshore winds to the curved island of Taunga. Once our camp is set I wander across the sandbar to explore the island of Pau, made famous by travel writer Paul Theroux. As I walk along the shore with no footprints but my own for company, my shoulders ache from the paddling, mosquito bites from Eua itch my legs and I realise I haven’t washed properly in days. The faka Tonga has kept the islands pristine and unspoiled and, as I pitch my kayak back into the water, I’m glad that I have discovered some of the wild insides of Tonga.
Air Pacific flies to Tonga via Fiji from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Contact the Sandy Beach Resort on Foa Island for information about the underwater possibilities in Ha’apai.
Dive Vava’u is located near the market in Neiafu.
Friendly Islands Kayaking runs a variety of trips throughout Tonga.
Words Ben Stubbs
Photos Ben Stubbs and Karen Varndell