A Travellerspoint blog

Around Tongatapu

*Beach hopping and passive hitchhiking*

sunny 25 °C

On Sunday in Tonga, everything shuts down and everyone goes to church. This leaves tourists and heathens somewhat high and dry with no shopping, tours, taxis, etc. But natural beauty is available seven days a week. I’ve been hearing about one Keleti Beach a few kilometers from the hostel that is supposed to be gorgeous, and figure I’ll check it out. Toni, not being Tongan, is running an island tour today that will include Keleti Beach. I, being me, decide to pass on the tour and get there on my own.

I slather on sunblock and set off along the road, taking in the scenery and the sounds. In a way this could be any island. A hot, dusty road. Modest homes with chickens strutting amidst palm trees and brightly colored flowers. Dogs barking, roosters crowing, tropical birds singing, the occasional groan of a car lumbering by. But this is Tonga on a Sunday, so there are also church bells ringing out, and voices raised in song. And there is a palace/estate belonging to the king off the right, followed shortly by a house belonging to the queen off to the left with twin lions guarding the gate. It is lovely.

Presently, a car with a Tongan family dressed in their Sunday best slows down to ask if I am alright walking. I say yes, thank you very much. It happens again, this time a small truck with the family filling the truck bed; again I say I am fine, thank you very much. I don’t really want to interrupt anyone’s commute to church, and I just don’t know what’s appropriate. The third car that slows down is a van from a downtown hotel, empty but for the driver. He asks where I am going, and I say Keleti Beach. He is going that way and can take me, he says. I finally relent, realizing that this will just keep happening because Tongans are simply too nice to let me walk. I think my trudging along the side of the road is somehow an affront to their collective hospitality, and as long as I’m walking cars will keep stopping. My new friend’s name is Mo, we have a lovely conversation during the ride, and he invites me to visit him where he works downtown.

Keleti Beach is gorgeous. There is a ridge of very cool rock formations perhaps twenty meters out, going up and down the shore which acts as a breakwater for the strong ocean waves, making for gentle, crystal blue waters along the beach. I spend the first hour just wading up and down through the tide pools, then go back in with goggles to get a look at the rocks and fish from underwater. Then I spend some time lying on the beach and soaking in the sun. There are a few other people – some tourists, some Tongans – but it does not feel crowded. It feels… rather like paradise. I spend some time wandering around the grounds of the nearby resort to see if there are any freshly fallen coconuts, because I could sure go for one right about now, but no luck. Not that I would really have any way to open a coconut if I found one.
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As the sun grows lower, I figure I should head back because I have a few kilometers’ walk ahead. I set off along the unpaved road leading back to the main road. A ways up ahead, I see a car moving very slowly, then stopping all together. A Tongan woman gets out and appears to be moving some things around in the car. She is still there when I walk up, and asks me where I am going. To Tofoa, I respond, the village where Toni’s Guest House is. “I go that way too. I take you. you come with me,” she declares. Her grandson is in the back seat (perhaps that is what she was moving around). Her name is Anna, and she has a son going to college in the US, so I get his name and promise to look him up. Meanwhile, I am just floored to realize that she must have seen me in her rear view mirror, stopped and waited for me. Having twice set out to walk and twice wound up ‘passive hitchhiking,’ I can only conclude that Tonga is a special, special place. I make oatmeal in milk for dinner, sweetened with a little ginger lemon honey, and eat it while swaying gently in the hammock under a palm-fringed lavender sky.

On Monday, everything is up and running as usual. I decide to take advantage of the Tongan bus system to get to another sight on the island, the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui Trilithon, touted as ‘the Stonehenge of Tonga.’ There is not actually a public bus system, rather a handful of private operators who run buses to the various villages around Tongatapu. Per Lonely Planet, to get to the Ha’amonga you just “catch the infrequent Niutoua bus and get off about a kilometer before the village.” Sounds reasonable enough. And in a stroke of perfect timing, as I approach the Nuku’alofa bus depot a bus with a Niutoua sign in the window is just pulling out. I run to catch it.

I am the only non-Tongan on the bus. The rest of the people are a mixture of young children, school children, adults, and elderly. One man has a plastic bag full of frozen – but slowly defrosting and beginning to drip – chicken. Other people have bags of fruits and vegetables from the market. There is one woman with long hair sitting further up by a window, and I am enthralled by her hair waving like a medusa in the wind. When people want to get off, they just let the driver know and he stops wherever. When someone wants to get on, they just wave at the bus and the driver brakes wherever. You can smell the brakes burning up each time. The ride takes close to an hour and costs T$1. Much better than a taxi in every way, I decide.
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When I get off at the Ha’amonga Trilithon, it feels like the middle of nowhere, but for a couple women selling necklaces and a large stone arch. One thing that's special about the trilithon is that it weighs about twelve tons. Just how the 13th century islanders transported these huge slabs of stone and set them in an arch is a mystery that has inspired various theories and myths. There has also been speculation that it has some astronomical significance.
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There is another large stone further back, but there is a rather large pig in a pool of mud blocking the way. I could skirt the mud pool, but deem it better not to risk the pig’s ire. He looks happy where he is, happy as a pig in…
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Having taken an hourlong bus ride and had a ten minute look at the trilithon, and finding little else to do there, I decide to see if there is a perhaps beach nearby. After a few minutes of following the road, I see what looks like a promising path in the direction of the water. There is indeed a beach. And how.
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I spend a while wading around in the shallow tide pools and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. I also manage to cut the arch of one foot on a rock leaving a shallow inch-long gash, and stab the other heel on another rock leaving some sort of dark matter under my skin. It does little to spoil the beach, which I have completely to myself. After I finish swimming, I apply antibiotic and band aids (yes I have that stuff in my backpack – I know myself) and walk back out to the road and wait for the bus. There is a little store there, just your typical island shop with a few kinds of cookies, pasta and shampoo which you can buy through a window in the metal bars. I soon find myself talking with a young man behind the window. He is a teacher, and his mother owns the store and lives next door. During the hour it takes for a bus to show up, we have a lovely conversation and he brings me a bowl of watermelon from the house. After the beach, the fruit is deliciously refreshing. I still cannot wrap my head around how nice Tongans are.

The bus rumbles up in a cloud of dust, and I am again the only non-Tongan on the return trip. I hop off in Tofoa, and on the brief walk back to Toni’s, encounter another guy staying at the lodge who has made friends with four Tongan boys around 12 years old. We all loaf around the neighborhood together for a while, taking pictures and talking in whatever bits of English seem to serve. Another lovely Tonga day. I think I'm getting used to island time, that feeling of having nowhere pressing to be.
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Posted by sbw2109 04:01 Archived in Tonga Comments (1)

Arriving in Tonga

*Welcome to island time*

sunny 24 °C

The air in Tonga is different. I feel it as I descend the stairs onto the tarmac. It is like a caress.

Immigration in Tonga is different. I sense it as I amble into the line, bleary-eyed at 4am. It is like a road barricade.

There are three lines: One for Tongan passport holders, one for non-Tongan passport holders, and one for crew and the elderly or disabled. Each line has one agent. The line of non-Tongan passport holders is naturally the longest and slowest. It is some consolation that the other lines don’t seem to be moving much faster. But not much; I don’t generally do Schadenfreude. So I just stand there feeling exhausted from the all night flight and abandoned by New Zealand Airlines. New Zealand is all customer service, prompt and polished. I don’t think I ever waited five minutes in line during a month there. How could they just drop us here where it’s so… so… informal and inefficient?

Welcome to island time.

Not that I have pressing business. Once through immigration, I simply sit down on the other side to figure out what’s next. At the currency exchange, I turn US$30 into T$46; the teller uses a hand calculator and recording the transaction on pen and paper. Then I bargain with a shuttle driver to take me to Toni’s Guest House, the cheapest place listed in Lonely Planet.

I immediate like my hostel. Three kilometers outside the main city of Nuku’alofa and two minutes’ drive down a bumpy dirt road, it is a modest complex of buildings and gardens with a picnic bench and a hammock. I have a three-bed room to myself, with pink mosquito nets over the beds. I rummage in my backpack to fish out summer sleep clothes and flip flops (heretofore dead weight), flip-flop over to the bathroom to brush my teeth, drape and tuck the mosquito net around the bed, and sink into a lovely sleep.

Saturday, once I wake up, is spent exploring Nuku’alofa. It is pretty hot and dusty, but the marketplace is shady, cool and visually rich. Numerous stands offer everything from fruits, vegetables and Tongan meals to clothing, jewelry and beautiful crafts. I buy nothing too glamorous, just some oranges because it feels like I may be getting sick. On the shuttle back to the hostel, the driver reminds us that tomorrow is Sunday and nothing will be open, so does anyone need anything else food-wise? Realizing that aside from the oranges I have little more than a little peanut butter and some ginger lemon honey to my name, I say, “Me!” He pulls over at a typical little island store. The options are basically bread, eggs, cereal, milk in a box, pop (yes I am from the Midwest), and various sorts of cookies, candy and instant noodles. I go for oatmeal, milk and four eggs. The eggs do not come in a carton, by the way; you tell the shop owner how many you want, and you get them in a little baggie. I shepherd them gingerly back to the hostel so they arrive intact.

Toni, of Toni’s Guest House, is a Brit. His wife, Leni, is Tongan. She and her sister make fish and cassava for dinner that night, which they share with me because I am reading out at the picnic table when they go to eat. The fish was just boiled whole and tastes salty and fresh. I like eating whole fish; more work but more fun. Especially with Tongan eating rules (see below). The cassava, which was also boiled, is bright white and supremely starchy. Starch is yummy. I think cassava its purest, most elemental form.

As we dine, they explain Tongan eating customs to me, framed partly as a compare-and-contrast study from Leni’s visit to England. Let’s just say the two cultures have decidedly different concepts of manners. Firstly, in Tonga it is allowed and encouraged to eat with your fingers. Secondly, chewing with your mouth open is fine. Thirdly, once you suck the meat or fish off the bones, you can simply spit them out in your hand or onto the ground if you’re outside; no need to be very discrete or dainty about it. Fourthly, burping and farting at the table are not an issue; if you burp people will ignore it, and if you fart they may laugh (the louder the funnier).

I finally ask what would offend a Tongan. They think for a while, then allow as how the shorts that female tourists tend wear around town are considered tantamount to a prostitute’s garb. I make a mental note to stick to skirts this week.

Posted by sbw2109 04:09 Archived in Tonga Comments (2)

1 month in New Zealand, in statistics

*The material side of traveling*

Things I have lost
• 1 sock
• 1 microfiber towel (was an extra, now down to one)
• 1 scarf (easily replaced by my sarong)
• 0 kg. I hiked a lot but ate a lot.

Things I almost lost
• 1 pocketknife & 1 Leatherman, left in my day pack after I checked in at O’Hare. A surly but ultimately obliging agent got me an extra box to check them through.
• My balance, many times over, hiking around Franz Joseph Glacier
• My lunch, once, passing downwind of a beached whale

Things I have jettisoned

• 1 novel
• 1 Lonely Planet New Zealand guide
• 1 cheap knockoff Camelbak water bladder. In a case of getting what you pay for, the mouthpiece perpetually leaked, either getting my stuff wet and making it look I was lactating.
• The other sock

Things I have acquired
• 1 book by a German comedian. In German, so I get to feel extra good about myself when I laugh.
• 1 jar of ginger lemon Manuka honey, gifted me by Jon. Supposedly prized for its medicinal properties. Quickly disappearing due to its addictive properties.
• 1 hat, gifted me by my friend on the Abel Tasman track, I think he felt sorry for me in the rain.
• 0 kg. Just enough tramping to offset the eating. And this despite…
• 1 potentially serious addiction to Whittaker’s chocolate
• Some pretty appalling international calling charges, thanks to some major misinformation from the AT&T store rep. This could also go under losses, depending how you care to word it.

Some items I’ve been grateful to have along the way
• My hiking boots and Five Fingers shoes, which keep my feet happy
• My pack, which enables me, as appropriate for a sea turtle, to carry my home on my back
• My tent - I love my tent
• A super duper socket converter - thanks, Ari
• Binoculars - especially good for inspecting individual feathers on Fiordland Crested Penguins - thanks, Abba
• Lululemon camping pants - fabulously comfy, and the zip pockets are probably why I haven’t lost my wallet yet kennehorah - thanks, Ema
• 1 sarong, which functions as a:
- Scarf for when it’s cold
- Shawl for when it’s sunny and/or when bare shoulders are not appropriate
- Skirt for when hiking pants get too hot
- Wraparound towel for to and from hostel showers
- Beach towel

Some items I’ve wanted with me but they would make my pack too heavy
• Wittgenstein’s Philosophische Untersuchugen
• Lacan’s Écrits
• Liz’ grilled cheese and tomato soup; Kristina’s entire baking repertoire
• A piano
• 1 Skywest pilot/cookie making entrepreneur
• 1 ASL teacher/pottery artisan currently based in Philadelphia

Other assorted facts and figures
• Kindnesses received from strangers: Too many to count
• Rude or unfriendly Kiwis encountered: 0
• Bars of Whittaker's chocolate consumed: [I plead the fifth]
• Times I’ve enjoyed my own company: Many
• Times I’ve grown weary of my own company: A few, but you learn the most from those
• Times I’ve been handcuffed: 1 (no follow up questions please)
• Kilometers tramped: 150-ish, I think…?!
• Rides hitched: 7
• Vehicles driven: 2
• Vehicles damaged: 1 (a couple times over)
• Live kiwi birds sighted: 0
• Live penguins sighted: 1
• Live whales sighted: 0
• Otherwise whales sighted: 1
• Sand flies sighted: 123,987,234,501,324

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Posted by sbw2109 17:47 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

The Way Back

*Lamb tails and earthquakes*

semi-overcast 14 °C

After Milford Sound, time to get back up to Wellington. The next few days are spent largely in transit, watching the classic New Zealand image of a sheep-dotted countryside through the bus window. Like so:
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Actually, one of the first things I learned upon arriving in this country had to do with sheep. Their tails tend to collect poop, which houses a lot of bacteria, which gets messy and can lead to infection. Therefore, before the lambs get too big, they have their tails, um, abbreviated. Okay, chopped off. And the little boy lambs usually lose something else too. This is called docking, and I was kind of troubled by it. I do understand the rationale, but still, to chop off the poor little lambs’ tails… Now, driving through this classic New Zealand landscape, and it being springtime, there are lambs everywhere. Sheep are very boring. They are either sitting or standing, maybe walking or chewing some cud. But lambs are cute and cuddly! They skitter, prance, play, run after their mothers. So it’s fun to watch. Only thing is, I am slightly obsessed with their tails. Each time we speed by a pasture, my eyes go right to the little lambs’ rear ends as I find myself compulsively checking to see whether they still have their tails. Some do… some don’t. And that’s that.
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We arrive in Christchurch early evening. Everyone along the way, residents and tourists alike, has reported that it is still devastated from the earthquake(s). Indeed, the first thing that happens – which has not happened this entire trip – is I have a little trouble finding a hostel because the city lost so many beds from the quakes. I finally find a place, drop my pack off, and head out for a walk. It is a cool, gray evening, perfect for a night in, but I feel I should see what the city is like, maybe grab some dinner.

My thoughts quickly go from wondering if there are any dinner joints open in this ghost town to, “Oh… my God.” Prettymuch the entire center of the city is fenced off because the buildings were either destroyed or so structurally compromised that they are slated for demolition. Through the fencing you see vacant storefronts and office buildings, fancy hotels with curtains hanging eerily in blown-out windows, streets clear of traffic but for bulldozers and official vehicles. The surrounding streets are also a grim sight – stores and businesses closed, buildings locked up or actively being torn down. I think what gets me most is some of the graffiti, and a little shrine of stuffed animals clearly mourning a child.
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I don’t have too much time to process. The next morning is a 7am bus up to Picton, a 1pm ferry back up to Wellington, and a lovely reunion with my Wellington adoptive family. I use the next couple days to catch up on laundry, email and blog (can you tell I’m a little behind?) before heading off to Tonga.

Posted by sbw2109 17:29 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Kepler Track to Milford Sound / I still love my tent

*Indulging my inner misanthrope*

semi-overcast 14 °C

The Kepler Track makes a loop, the middle of which covers an alpine pass, the majority of which is at present still snowed over. If you don’t mind the avalanche risk, says the DOC information officer, and if you’ve got mountaineering skills and the right equipment, you could have a go at it.

Um, that would be a no.

There is still an option to enter at either end of the loop and hike back out the same way. That actually appeals more because I can camp in the same spot for two nights, leaving my stuff at the campsite and doing a day tramp in between.

The town of Te Anau is the starting/ending point for Kepler, and I arrive there with plenty of time to hike in and camp before sundown. The walk curves around the glassy Lake Te Anau, crosses a dam, then enters an area of beech forest while continuing to skirt the lake. Once in the forest I fall into a quiet state of awe. It is incredibly green and lush, I have it prettymuch to myself, and it takes on a mystical quality in the softening daylight. The trail is wide, clear and easily navigable. Which of course makes me want to deviate. Stepping off the tamped down dirt path onto the mossy forest floor is like stepping onto a different planet. It unbelievably springy and soft, some unearthly matter (though earth is exactly what it is). It feels like I am walking on clouds, and if this were a fairy tale I could just sink down into the moss as into a feather bed, the friendly forest creatures keeping watch over me while I sleep.

This being real life, when I stop to camp at Brod Bay, the sand flies show up. They are reportedly especially bad in Fiordland National Park, and are accordingly plentiful tonight. I just cover up from head to toe and take my time pitching my tent to afford the best view of the beach. Not bad for real life.
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I decide to leave some of my food outside the tent, off in the cooking area. My nourishment for this trip includes the leftover coconut curry I made at the hostel last night, and being housed in a zip lock baggie, it is a little on the fragrant/messy side. This preference probably comes from camping in Yosemite where there are bears, nevermind that NZ has no large predators, I just don’t like having food that might draw an animal up to/into the tent. After a sunset stroll along the water and one last pit stop, I perform my usual stomping/waving/slapping dance and zip into my tent.

Silence, but for the lapping waves, birds, and sand flies landing on the tent. I was craving my own company, and now that I have it, I feel good. Really good. I never knew I was such an egotist and a misanthrope. What’re you gonna do.

Approaching the cook shelter the next morning, I see that the bag holding my curry is on the ground. Upon closer inspection, it has been ripped open and mostly eaten. For good measure, whatever beaked animal perpetrated the theft left a bunch of poop pellets on the counter. I feel… mad. I was looking forward to that curry for tonight’s dinner after a long hike. Now I’m stuck eating trail mix, peanut butter and crackers for the next 36 hours. I am so crabby that I do a slightly bad thing. This is the wilderness and you are supposed to carry all your trash out, period. But the violated bag of curry is… nevermind, I won’t describe it, just believe me it’s gross. I scrape most of the surrounding pellets into the bag and toss it down the hole in the outhouse. Which you are not supposed to do with trash. My only weak defense: It did have poop in it.

This will sound silly, but as I start to hike, I am still crabby, and grousing to myself in rhythm with my steps: “Jeez, man, some seagull, duck or weka or whatever, had to come and rip into my food… I bet it was a duck, that’s probably it – a duck ate my curry… duck… ate my curry…” When I was living on the Upper West Side of New York, I had many favorites, including a favorite place to get duck curry. It was an amazing dish – tangy, creamy, crisp, chewy goodness… I finally have to laugh. For all the times I’ve enjoyed duck curry, I decide that it is fair and fitting that for once a duck ate my curry.

Shortly after resolving my duck curry angst, I meet two German guys on working holiday in NZ. We walk together for a while, chatting in a mixture of both languages. Eventually I ask their names. “I’m Max,” says the one, “And I’m Moritz,” goes the other. “Get out of here,” I say. Max und Moritz are a mischievous pair of characters in a German children’s story. Here’s a portrait:
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But it’s true, those really are their names. So I hike up the mountain with Max und Moritz, great views on the walk of course, and have lunch at the Mount Luxmore Hut, which is about as far as you can go unless you are into that alpine mountaineering stuff, then clamber over some snowdrifts to explore a cave near the mountaintop.
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Afterwards, Max and Moritz head back down the mountain while I stay to enjoy the view from the top for another hour or so. It is hat-and-gloves cold, but the sun has come out and it’s a beautiful day to sit on a mountain so long as you’ve got that hat and gloves. I also kind of feel like hiking down alone, pleasant company though they were. Again, indulging my inner misanthrope. Is this bad?

Back down at Brod Bay, I have my gourmet dinner of peanut butter on crackers, another sunset stroll on the beach, and settle into my tent as dusk falls. Ah, another peaceful night, I think. Then I hear a motor and voices out on the water, moving closer. A boat comes into view, pulls right up to the beach, and several guys hop out. They see my tent and wave. I wave back, pull on camping pants over my pajama pants, and get out to say hello. I am promptly handed a beer as I meet seven friendly but inebriated Kiwis in their 20s, here to make a fire and hang out on the beach.

Alas, the fire is not working very well because all the available wood is all damp. To help things along, they throw some extra petrol from the boat onto the pile of sticks. Flames shoot up several meters high, the conflagration ringed by drops of burning petrol on the sand. Then it dies back down. This is repeated, but the fire still won’t take. They decide to take their party elsewhere, and offer me to hop on the boat and join them. I consider this offer – travel is all about going with opportunities that present themselves along the way – and briefly entertain thoughts of a reprise Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs episode. However, I am ultimately swayed by the cons: (1) I cannot identify a single one of them sober enough to drive a boat, (2) I have a very early bus tomorrow, and (3) given their sobriety level, I’m not liking my chances of getting back to my campsite at all. So I sadly decline, wish them well on their evening's festivities, and get back into my tent to enjoy that peaceful night after all. I love my tent.

The reason for my early morning is a 9am bus to Milford Sound, and I am camped a good couple hours’ hike from the town of Te Anau where I need to catch it. So I am up before dawn, packing up my tent, and setting off back around the lake. If I had to be up this early, it is a lovely place to be hiking.
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Fellow travelers have told me the bus ride to Milford Sound is a treat in and of itself. I see what they mean as we make our way west through Fiordland National Park’s glacier-carved scenery, through looming mountains and hanging valleys. Even the color of the water in the glacier-fed pools here is different; a dreamy, luminescent blue-green that gazes back out at you.
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People generally see the sound via kayak, cruise, or scenic flight. Back in Wellington, Louise found a “Grab One” deal on a 90-minute cruise, so thanks to her keen eye I am all set. The bus pulls right up to the wharf, and I get on the boat. Visitors are always warned to expect rain, as the area averages 7m / 23ft of rain annually. But we do not get rain. Nor sun, nor partly cloudy, nor anything the weatherman may have on his dropdown menu. For much of the cruise, about half the sky looks sinister and foreboding, while other half looks like an artist’s rendering of heaven. Mist shrouds the peaks and broods in the hanging valleys. The mountains rise sharply out of the dark water and – the captain explains – plunge to equal depths down below, ending in a U-shaped bottom formed by the glacier. We are fortunate to see a Fiordland Crested Penguin preening himself on a rock. Through my eyes and zoomed-in camera lens he looks like this:
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Through binoculars, he looks like this:
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And then there were sea lions…
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And waterfalls…
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There’s not much more to say, other than that the pictures don’t begin to do the place justice. I tried to take a few, then put the camera away and tried to take it all in.
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Posted by sbw2109 01:04 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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