A Travellerspoint blog


Visit to ‘Eua

*Hiking, snorkeling, assorted faux pas and a marriage proposal*

sunny 25 °C

Tonga is made up of several island groups. The Ha’apai and Vava’u groups are rather far north, and given that I only have about a week in Tonga, I figure I'll stick close to Tongatapu. There are various islands just a short boat ride away with beaches, resorts and snorkeling, but I feel like I’ve seen enough gorgeous beaches for now. Call me crazy, but it’s true. Plus I burn faster than you would think humanly possible, so I can only take but so much sun. The most enticing option by far is ‘Eua (pronounced like “eiwah”), the oldest island in all of Tonga. It has unique ecology, higher elevations, rainforest, and some good tramping. You can reach it by a 2-hour ferry ride or a seven minute flight (reputedly the shortest commercial flight in the world). I opt for the ferry; my time’s not so valuable that I need to fly. Plus boats are fun.

Before going to the ferry terminal, I stop through the Nuku’alofa market to buy bananas. They are about a third the size of the bananas in the US, come in big bunches you can get for a dollar or two, and are a yummy snack, especially with peanut butter. As I wander through the market, I pass a man selling classing Tongan food: Lamb cooked in coconut milk the traditional oven in the ground and wrapped in a taro leaf, along with cassava. Perfect – I’ve been wanting to try this stuff. So I am now the proud owner of a plastic bag containing several large pieces of cassava and the taro-wrapped meat wrapped in foil. The thing probably weighs two pounds, and the food is so hot I’m surprised it doesn’t melt the plastic bag. At the wharf I find a bench in the shade to have lunch while I wait. The lamb is not the usual cut I’m used to; there is a lot more of, well, the animal. I find myself eating around bones, tendons and whatnot. But the flavor is GOOD. You cannot go wrong with coconut milk, or at least I have yet to see it done. Plus the taro leaf itself, soft and soaked in coconut milk, is edible, and the cassava is supremely starchy as ever.

I’ve put away as much Tongan lunch as I can handle when everyone around me suddenly gets up and walks over to a boat, and I scramble up to follow. As we wait to board, a young Tongan man turns from his group of friends to chat with me. The first few questions in any conversation with a Tongan seem to be, in this order: Your name, age, where you are from, whether you are traveling alone, and whether you are married. So we cover the essentials, then keep chatting. He offers to carry my pack onto the ferry for me, and I accept. I am normally an I’ll-carry-it-myself kind of gal, but with my backpack on my back, my day pack on my front, a big water bottle in one hand and a liquidy bag of cassava threatening to ooze coconut milk in the other, I feel like the Cat in the Hat and am grateful for the help. Once on the ferry, we make our way through the stuffy interior out to the bow where Joseph says it is best to sit. Better yet, once the boat leaves, he gives me a hand to scramble up to the most prime real estate, on top of the bridge, out in the fresh air and mostly out of reach of the waves. This feels like it shouldn’t be allowed – there are no seats or railings, we’re really just sitting on the roof of the bridge – but clearly no one cares. I love how unregulated Tonga is. By the end of the ride, Joseph, who is from ‘Eua, has invited me to visit him in his town. Have I mentioned how amazingly nice and friendly Tongans are?!


I spend my first night on ‘Eua at a lodge called Hideaway, which offers cabins and a camping option. Since I of course love my tent, I go for the camping. They have a lovely little grove of trees to set up tents, right near a walkway down to a picture-perfect platform overlooking the ocean.


Then I make my first faux pas. My Lonely Planet book mentions that Hideaway charges T$12/night for a tent. When I go to confirm this, I am told it is actually T$20, plus an extra T$5/day if I want to use the kitchen (just for campers, kitchen use being free for room patrons). That seems like a lot just for the privilege of pitching my tent on their property, and I think my face shows my displeasure, which probably seems impolite. But whatever. There are not a lot of lodging options on ‘Eua, and this place is lovely. I pitch my tent, spend some time admiring the ocean sunset, then go for a stroll to see the neighborhood. I walk by houses, some cobbled together and some quite nice, pigs, chickens and goats wandering about. At one point there is a loud noise and suddenly all the pigs go running down the hill for their dinner. I also pass a house with several people sitting on the front porch singing and playing guitars. It is lovely.

Then I make my second faux pas. As I pass back by the house with the music, I ask if I might stay and listen. They of course say yes and are very nice, and a cute little girl takes my empty water bottle and plays with it while they play a couple songs. But I get the feeling I have imposed on them, and have unintentionally had an inhibiting effect on their evening of music. Before too long, I thank them for letting me listen and take my leave. As I stand to go I am unsure whether to take my empty water bottle – it feels like I am leaving trash on their porch – or leave it with the little girl, who seems to be playing with it and has lost the cap anyway. In the end I leave it, feeling extra awkward. As I walk down the road, one of the guys who was playing the guitar runs after me. He doesn’t know much English, but knows enough to ask the usual (my name, age, if I am married), and it is clear he likes me. He walks me all the way back to Hideaway, struggling to communicate, and I don’t help much because I don’t really know what to do with the sentiments being expressed - he wants me to be his girlfriend. I end up promising to come back and visit tomorrow evening.

Back at Hideaway, I log yet another faux pas. I go up to the reception/restaurant/bar area to buy another bottle of water. When the owner (who I probably already offended when he told me the price to stay) says it is T$4, twice what I paid for the last bottle I bought, I involuntarily sigh in displeasure. Not my best day, huh.

The sun has set and I settle into my tent for the night. The floor of the camping area, in this picturesque grove of trees, is a fine mixture of rock and coral. It’s flat enough to camp on, and holds the stakes with a little engineering. But when I lie down on the very thin travel yoga mat I used for camping all around New Zealand, it is, well, rock hard. I am amazed at the difference between sleeping on dirt versus rock. And I have many hours to feel amazed at this difference, as I am up half the night. I wake up at dawn absolutely on the wrong side of the yoga mat, and decide I'd better hike it off. One can arrange for guided or unguided hikes. Not wanting to inflict my mood on anyone else (and/or wanting to indulge my inner misanthrope some more) I opt for the latter. A tour guide sits down with me, marks the trail map, and gives me some pointers like watch for the green house by the turn-off for the big banyan tree and watch for the blue markers to get to the lookout points.

I quickly discover why guided hikes are a popular option. Especially coming from New Zealand, where trails are clearly marked and regularly signed, hiking on Tonga is, well, much like sitting on top of the bridge on the ferry: No one telling you where to go or what to do. I pass a green house and see a path that looks like it might well lead to nowhere. The New Zealand DOC would have hammered in a stake saying exactly how many kilometers to the banyan tree, if it does indeed lead to one, but here I am left to guess. I decide to just take the trail and see where it goes. After 20 minutes so of heading towards possibly nowhere, carefully keep track of my orientation to the sun and any bifurcations in the path (trying not to get lost in the rainforest here!), I suddenly walk up to enormous banyan tree, complete with a cave down below. Marvelous.


I make my way back to the main path and head on towards the lookout points. Again, there are several possible turn offs and it is not at all clear one to take. I make a guess, and after maybe five minutes am rewarded by the sight of a blue ribbon tied to a tree. Pretty subtle. But it makes you feel all the more pleased when you do end up on the right path. Meanwhile, I am still trying to shake this bad mood. I finally release it when I get to Lukopo Lookout. Here’s why:


I stop for lunch at Lauua Lookout, another high cliff overlooking the coastline (peanut butter and bananas, anyone?). I stay there journaling for a good hour or so, during which time not one other person appears. I cannot believe I get to set foot in this place, let alone have it to myself.

On the way back, even as I retrace covered territory, I am at times unsure if I’m on the right trail, but manage to make it out of the park by early afternoon. Instead of heading back to Hideaway, I walk/hitch my way back to the wharf to look into one other lodging option. A girl back on Tongatapu had mentioned she stayed at a place on ‘Eua called Ovava Tree Lodge and loved it, so I knock on the gate to inquire about a bed. The place is super cute, with cabins up some steep wooden stairs that feel like ascending to a tree house. Each hut has two beds with mosquito nets draped over them, and the mattresses on the beds look mighty appealing after my bed of rocks last night. The cost is T$40/night, and that includes three meals a day. Done. When I go back to Hideaway to get my stuff and inform them I will not be staying the expected two more nights, they are outwardly polite but seem offended. When I ask about getting a ride into town (which they are generally happy to provide), they say it is included for room guests but not campers and I can get a taxi or hitchhike. Their faces at this point are blank and closed off. I feel bad about our interactions, no doubt the sum of all my faux pas, and feel sorry to depart on this note but not sorry to leave.

I decide to walk to town as it is only a half hour or so. I am enjoying a beautiful sunset hike along the coast when I see a bull on the side of the road. How do I know how I know he is a bull, you may ask? Well, he is huge, in every way. It looks like he might be tied to a tree, but then again he might not. I don’t fancy running from an angry bull while carrying my full pack, so I leave the road and cut down to the beach, walking along rocky tide pools until it seems safe to regain the road. Definitely the scenic route.


Ovava Tree Lodge is run by a German expat. As luck would have it, the other two people there that night are German as well, so over dinner we talk mostly in German. I light up; I just enjoy conversing in any language not my own. At which point I realize something interesting. I am very used to traveling to places where I know the language. Tonga is hugely different for me in this regard, I get stuck a lot when I cannot use my words or understand the other person’s words. I think I normally seek out travel to places where I know the language because the opposite definitely nudges me out of my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, with all the excitement of moving lodges, I did not make it back to visit my new friend as I had promised, and he shows up at Ovava just as we are finishing dinner. Apparently he went to Hideaway, asked about me, and found out I was here. It is awkward on two counts. Firstly, I have to leave the table to go talk with him, leaving the Germans wondering what this is all about. Secondly, we cannot actually talk! I again end up saying I will come to visit the next day. As if that will help any. But I show up at his house late the next morning, he picks up his guitar, and we walk down to the beach and sit under a tree. The only song we both know is Hotel California, and I have fun singing to it. Then he plays Tongan music for a while, and it feels quite pleasant and peaceful just sitting there. I eventually say it is time for me to go, and he walks with me all the way back to Ovava Tree Lodge. During which time he asks if I will marry him. He is not swayed by the age difference (I am eight years older) – “age means nothing, is just a number!” I eventually persuade him that the fact that I do not live in Tonga, and do not know when, if ever, I will be back, is at least one good reason why I cannot marry him. Still, it is difficult. I make a note to myself not to be so friendly with members of the opposite sex in places where I am not fluent in the language and, more importantly, the culture.

I had planned to hike again today, but it is now 1pm and HOT, and hiking sounds just terrible. I decide to hide from the midday heat and suss out a better option. The Ovava Tree Lodge actually grew out of a dive shop (the only one on ‘Eua), the owner is taking a couple of Swiss Germans out diving later, and he offers me to tag along in the boat and snorkel along the reef. That sounds perfect.

I could describe the snorkeling, but I’m getting tired of using words like ‘lovely’ and ‘beautiful,’ and you’re probably getting tired of reading them if you are even still reading. Instead, I will note that because there is almost no one around, and because those who are there are European, I do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while (unfortunately it is not allowed back home): Enjoy my swim without the encumbrance of a bikini top.

Posted by sbw2109 04:47 Archived in Tonga Comments (2)

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.

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.

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.
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…

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.

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.

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)

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