A Travellerspoint blog

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Day 1

Malo e leilei!!!

rain 21 °C

After a great flight from Auckland that took only 2 1\2 hours, we touched down in the rain at Tonga’s tiny airport. Rick from Heilala Holiday Lodge was there to greet me & placed 2 beautiful, fragrant frangipani lei around my neck. I can still smell the lovely perfume here in my fale (a basic little cabin made from wood & woven leaves).

I got lei'd!

We drove first into Nuku’alofa where I had lunch at Friends café – famous in Tonga for great food. I ordered what I thought was a pretty boring (& expensive at approx. NZ$7.50) chicken lettuce & mayo sandwich. Turned out it was the best dang sandwich I have ever had! The freshest softest white bread, sliced an inch thick & the tasty, marinated chicken with plenty of mayo made it amazing. I know, I’m easily impressed, but it was fab…

The drive to Heilala took about an hour I think, though I wasn’t timing it. Island time combined with island driving means no one goes anywhere fast. The landscape is mostly flat with lots of coconut & banana palms and pawpaw & mango trees. I’m looking forward to fresh pawpaw, watermelon & banana but disappointed it’s not mango or pineapple season yet.

The weather isn’t exactly tropical island holiday-ish yet, and it’s raining again even now, but I’m hopeful for tomorrow. Heilala Holiday Lodge is essentially a bunch of little fales arranged in landscaped grounds next to Ha’atafu Beach.

This is my tiny home for the next 9 days...

The view from my hammock.

There are lots of coconut palms & tropical plants - & mosquitos! Apparently the fales are supposed to be mozzie-free with netting on all the windows, but the little suckers zoom in as soon as you open the door. There are also lots of Kiwis here. It seems this place is THE spot for NZers to holiday in Tonga. They are a pretty friendly bunch, & most seem to enjoy a drink or three dozen! Also met a German couple who are really nice but they are flying out late tonight to spend a few weeks in NZ.

It’s pretty humid, but not very hot because it’s been a bit breezy & overcast. I took a walk along the beach mid-afternoon & it started raining just as I turned back – typical! Lots of broken coral on the beach so I had to watch where I put my tender townie feet. You can see it's not exactly azure waters & hot sun yet!


This afternoon, lying in the hammock on my wee veranda, I could hear the waves crashing on the reef off the beach & even though it wasn’t yet the sunny, hot vacation I’m hoping for, it was still relaxing & idyllic.

We were taken along the road to a ‘resort’ restaurant for dinner tonight because our restaurant was closed for some reason. Disappointing to say the least! I ordered pan fried fish - they should have named it completely dried out overcooked tasteless leather that bore a passing resemblance to tuna about 2 years and one freezer ago – possibly the worst meal I have ever paid for. Yuck!

The forecast for tomorrow is better so I’m looking forward to seeing some sun & getting in the water.

Posted by judesbucketlist 02:33 Archived in Tonga Tagged lodge tonga tropical_island tongatapu heilala_ holiday_ Comments (0)

Day 2

A day of two halves

overcast 24 °C

(Major internet issues)

The day dawned bright and – damn, I can’t lie – grey & dull, as it happens. It was coolish but still humid last night & the temperature during the day today was definitely bearable. The day did end with a stunning sunset, so definitely a positive turn in the weather coming up. Feeling pretty warm now, so expect a night beating off the mozzies that are trapped inside. Yes, I do have repellent but that doesn’t stop them whining around my head!


Just lazed around all morning, out of my skull with boredom after a walk along the beach. They do a tropical breakfast here, with fresh fruit (pawpaw, sweet Island bananas, watermelon, coconut) & white bread to toast. It’s quite a refreshing way to start the day & you can get extras like eggs & bacon. Lunch was a plain salad with garlic toast so will be going elsewhere for lunch in future. Dinner (mahimahi – fish) was better, & way better than last night’s dry tuna.

By 2:30 I’d had enough of doing nothing & went snorkelling at our beach despite the grey day, which was a great idea as it happens. That said, why is it so hard to be graceful & attractive when you’re trying to put on flippers in the sea? Left my dignity at home, apparently!!
The sun was trying to peek through so there were some brighter spells which made the colours of the fish really stand out. There were rainbow-coloured parrotfish, tiny iridescent indigo ones, black, white & yellow angelfish, and I saw a black & white banded sea snake that was about 12 inches long & about as thick as a chopstick. According to Britney, a Canadian holidaying here who works for NIWA in Wellington & is a marine biologist, they are passive sea snakes, thankfully – though she did admit that she avoids them just in case! I went in a couple of times & could have stayed in for hours – there were quite a few fish out later in the day. Feeding time, I guess.

Will be going on a “city” orientation tour tomorrow to find out a bit about Nuku’alofa & which bus to take to get back to Heilala. Looking forward to seeing a bit more of Tongan life & meeting some non-Kiwis! I’ll take an island tour one day this week too. There are a few interesting spots to see so I’m looking forward to that one, then can decide if there’s anything I want to see again. It doesn’t look like I’ll get to swim with humpback whales, which is really disappointing, but the better operators are really expensive (equivalent NZ$350ish), with the lower prices still upwards of around $250. Hard to justify, even for a major bucketlist item.

We have big bats – flying foxes – that fly/glide over in the late afternoon. There’s a colony not too far away & I’ll get to see it on the island tour. It’s quite surreal (for a Kiwi at least, since we don’t have any in NZ) when you see what you think is a seagull-sized bird silhouetted against the sky, then you realise the wings are kinda different!

As already mentioned, there was an amazing sunset tonight, with fluffier clouds & clearer skies which bodes well for the weather tomorrow. We are on Ha’atafu Beach, which faces west so no doubt I’ll take a few billion sunset pics while I’m here!



Posted by judesbucketlist 12:21 Archived in Tonga Tagged sunset pacific tonga tropical_island tongatapu Comments (1)

Day 3

Thar she blows!

semi-overcast 24 °C

A few new people arrived here at Heilala early this morning (a bunch more Kiwis & a Portuguese couple), and we were all taken into Nuku'alofa for the "city" orientation. Let's just say, it's not the most salubrious or fascinating town I've been to. There are some parallels with Balinese towns which are dusty & a bit grubby, but without the interesting buildings. I won't be rushing to visit town again, except to get a ferry out to one of the offshore islands one day before I go. The best looking buildings in town are the NZ High Commission & the Immigration NZ building! There's a large indoor market selling crafts as well as fruit & vegetables though, which is pretty interesting. One stallholder was actually having a sleep! They aren't aggressive in trying to sell things to you, but they do give a price as soon as you look at an item and you can haggle apparently. I didn't buy anything at this stage, and will probably support the smaller villages when I check out the rest of the island, as soon as I can get on a tour.

Nuku'alofa market

The sun did show up while I was in town. Remind me not to complain about a lack of sun - when it came out it had some serious bite to it! I walked around town a little while then caught the bus from the waterfront station.

Nuku'alofa bus station

You can see from the photos below that Nuku'alofa's waterfront is also nothing to write home about. It's disappointing and a little sad that a place like this, with so much potential to be a true paradise is not able to step up to that level except where the resorts are. I know it's the lack of resources, but it's clear to me that many of the people here just don't have pride in the place.

IMG_0983.jpg IMG_0982.jpg
Nuku'alofa waterfront

Driving along the roads you see a lot of abandoned, burned out, broken down and shabby houses with abandoned, burned out, broken down and shabby cars in the backyard. Many of the inhabited ones can only be described as hovels. It can't all be about lack of money to fix them - or to put in windows or doors even! That said, many of the gardens are really pretty & despite the lack of pride in a lot of the houses, they clearly love to have nice front yards.

This afternoon, just off our beach we saw humpbacks (the blog subtitle may have been a clue)! We agreed that it was a female & calf, because one was definitely bigger than the other & the males stay away from the mums & babies (a bit like humans LOL). It was SOOO exciting seeing the spray as they breached, then their backs & dorsal fins as they came out of the water. One even showed its tail - too quick for me to get a photo of it but I did get a few shots of their backs coming out and had to be quick to get anything really. The plume of spray was the first sign each time they were about to breach, so I knew kind of where to aim the camera. They were just outside the reef, so fairly close - though in the pics they look pretty far away. I'm sure you won't be overly impressed with the little black shape in the distance but I'm thrilled anyway.

Yes, that black shape in the distance IS a whale!

Went snorkelling again about 3pm. The sun had disappeared by then & the water wasn't as clear, but I still saw plenty of fish. Apparently there's a small reef shark that shows up here sometimes. A part of me thinks it would be very cool to see it, and another part is a little less keen! I'm told that it doesn't let you get close so maybe I should just keep an eye out in case I can get a selfie with my disposable waterproof camera ?.

We have 3 dogs & numerous chickens living here & wandering freely around the grounds. One chook that has a death wish woke me with its loud clucking just outside my window at 5:54am today. Time for a roast... Anyway, check out this cool dog kennel - it matches our fales!


Posted by judesbucketlist 01:37 Archived in Tonga Tagged whales pacific humpback tonga tropical_island Comments (0)

Day 4

Kava is ready!

overcast 24 °C

Today was another grey day for the most part, but as they’ve recently been in a drought I can hardly begrudge the Tongans a little relief from the scorching sun.


Heilala Holiday Lodge grounds

I spent most of the day doing pretty much nothing then this afternoon went snorkelling at the end of the beach where it’s rocky, hoping to see a bigger variety of fish, and to find Nemo. It was disappointing on both counts, so I walked back to our part of the beach and enjoyed tootling around here and seeing a much better array of aquatic critters.

This evening a group of us went along the road to the Liku’alofa Resort, where they were having a barbecue buffet and kava ceremony. The food was simple but really good, with swordfish, chicken, lamb and sausages, coleslaw, potato salad and watermelon. There isn’t a lot in the way of vegetables here it seems – I could kill for some broccoli!

The kava ceremony was interesting. The owner of the resort, a Tongan man, told the story of how one of the Kings of Tonga went to an island (things got a bit mixed up in his story and it was hard to follow for a bit – maybe that’s what too much kava does!) and he saw a rat eat part of a tree then it couldn’t walk properly. Then it ate part of another plant and had lots of energy. He concluded (smart man that he was!) that the first plant had narcotic effects & the other must have been sweet. So he and his men brought both plants back to Tonga. The first plant was, of course, kava & the other was sugar cane. And the rest is history…

The storyteller & the kava bowl

They brought out a big wooden bowl with legs that was filled with the muddy looking kava. The man said, “It looks like crap and tastes like crap”.

"Looks like..."

They arranged the tables in a long line so that everyone in the restaurant could sit around them, then had us each write our names on a piece of paper. The ceremony went like this: the girl stirred then ladled the kava into a cup made from a half coconut shell, the man on her right would call out in Tongan, “The kava is ready”; the guy on her left would say (also in Tongan) “The kava is for…” and pick one of the names on the paper, and the cup would be passed to that person who would be obliged to drink it.

The ceremonial pouring

After each round of the table, the quartet of musicians that was there would sing a song with the most gorgeous harmonies. Then it would start all over again. Thankfully they were happy as long as you had one cup. That was all I could stomach. They say it tastes like dirt, but I’m pretty sure dirt tastes better! “It looks like crap and tastes like crap” for sure. And it makes your mouth slightly numb, but with just one I didn’t feel any other effects, and I wasn’t about to put my taste buds through that again to find out.

A few of the men, especially the younger guys in our group, had quite a lot – maybe 15-20 cups. One of them said his face was starting to go numb! The Tongan men – including our driver – just kept going. One of them told me they drink it every night, and for a group of 20, they would go through 20 of those bowls. But he said if they drink “too much” they sleep too much. No kidding!! They can keep it. It was a fun night just the same, we had a few laughs and the singing was lovely.

The band

We eventually prised our driver away from the kava bowl and we got back safe and sound. If he had drunk that much alcohol he wouldn’t have been able to stand, let alone put the key in the ignition, so I guess it was the lesser of the two evils, considering he had to get behind a wheel.
Tomorrow I’m taking an island tour, then going to a cultural show (with suckling pig buffet!) at night. It’s held in a cave & is a Lonely Planet must do, so I have high hopes. Will be a long day and a late one so I may not get tomorrow’s blog done until Saturday morning – see how I feel

Posted by judesbucketlist 03:54 Archived in Tonga Comments (0)

Day 5, part 1

Vei's Island Tour

rain 24 °C

I’ll do this day in two parts/days, otherwise it will be a very, very long post!

It started out overcast today then turned into full-on tropical rain alternating with rain and showers.

The island tour was pretty good despite the weather, and Vei our tour guide made it an entertaining way to spend the day. He started by apologising for talking too much because he had forgotten to take his pills!

First, we went to the Abel Tasman landing site not far away along the end of the road. As it happens, it’s just for show, and he actually landed at our beach, which I thought was pretty cool. Next stop was the flying fox colony. These fruit bats roost in some trees along the side of the road, only a short distance away. When we visited, most were snuggled up with their wings tightly wrapped around their furry bodies, hanging like ripe fruit from the branches. Some flew in but by the time my camera lined up, they’ve landed. Vei called to them which seemed to liven some up a bit & they fluttered in the tree.

Flying foxes

Back in the van, we went to see Maui’s Rock, aka the Tsunami Rock. Maui appears in legends across the Pacific and in this one he saw a giant man-eating chicken, picked up a rock & threw it – and missed. So what’s the big deal about a rock? It’s a massive hunk of coral about 15 metres high, wide and deep, just sitting in the middle of an open space covered in scrubby coastal grass & the odd coconut palm. There are no other big boulders in the area but it’s not far from a beach, so a less romantic theory is that a tsunami brought it ashore. But the question is, why just one? According to National Geographic there are actually a line of 7 of them on the island, but Vei left that bit out! I do prefer his version though, science can be so boring. There’s a near-vertical sort of track up the side to the top of it, but I wasn’t wearing my climbing jandals & crampons, so declined the opportunity. One of the macho guys in our group WAS wearing his climbing Crocs (that he had tried & failed to climb a coconut tree with earlier), so up he went – the view was fantastic, he said.

Maui's / Tsunami Rock

Our next port of call was the Mapu’a ‘a Vaca blowholes, on the rugged south-eastern coast. Wow, what a spectacle! And there wasn’t even much of a swell. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of blowholes, large and small, shoot up with the waves along 4 kilometres of coastline. Some go up to 20 metres into the sky when it’s rough, but even though we didn’t see that, I still could have watched for hours as they did their staccato display. You have to time your photos just right, so unless you are particularly lucky, it’s best to stay awhile and learn how it all works.

Mapu'a 'a Vaca Blowholes

You can see here where the blowholes stretch around the coast

The terrace-like rocks provide big pools where a guy was wading, searching for baby octopus or other seafood that lives there. An incredibly dangerous way to catch your dinner, if you ask me!

A dangerous hunt for dinner!

After the blowholes, Vei took us to… drum roll please… wait for it… the three-headed coconut palm! This is apparently quite a big deal, and really unusual – the only one in the Islands by all accounts – a mutant, if you will. There are no big signs saying, “This way to the magnificent three-headed coconut palm”, and no plaque or carpark or anything else showing this is special. We parked on the side of the road right in front of it, marvelling at the wonder of it – I know, I’m being terribly sarcastic, perhaps the weather’s getting to me. My apologies to anyone offended. But, to be fair, it’s a spindly, unprepossessing thing that just happens to have three heads, and is standing in a scrubby field, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d drive right past it. Wonders of the world, Tongan style. Kinda sweet really.

Ta daaa!! The great and wondrous, one of a kind, triple-headed coconut palm. I know you're as impressed as I was!

Vei gave us a snack of delicious, crisp, fried thin breadfruit chips and Island bananas, then dropped us back into town for lunch. There was no rush, we were on “Tongan time”. On our way again, we headed to a land bridge, the Hufangalupe Archway where a cave collapsed and has created this beautiful spot.

The Hufangalupe Archway

It’s in an area of government land that Vei told us is the “government hideaway”. The remote area, with its long grass is apparently ideal for government officials to take their ‘special friends’ for liaisons – the Inspiration Point of Tonga. He knows this, because when he was a taxi driver, a government man’s wife had him drive her to “the hideaway”, where she caught out her hubby with his girlfriend. Vei’s version of the story is hilarious, and I’m sorry I haven’t done it justice!

The fishing pigs were next on the agenda. “Seriously, fishing pigs?” I hear you ask. Yes, seriously – and not, as the man in Crocs asked, policemen going fishing. These pigs, which are owned by a family that live next to the lagoon, snuffle through the wet sand, mudflats and in the shallows looking for shellfish. Apparently their meat tastes saltier. They were very cute, though a somewhat surreal sight.

See? Fishing pigs!! They were so cute, I couldn't stop at just one or two pics

Our next stop was the Trilithon, or Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, Tonga’s answer to Stonehenge. It was erected by a king back in the 13th Century. Made from coral, it’s also some kind of calendar, able to show when the equinoxes occur. Up to the top went our friend in the climbing Crocs. It must be a guy thing…

The Tongan Stonehenge & our man in Crocs

It was getting late, but we agreed that we wanted to see the ‘Anahulu cave, where there is a pool that you can swim in. A very long, boring drive later we arrived in the pouring rain and went in, torches required because their generator died some time ago. It was very dark but at least it was dry inside. Concrete & hewn stone steps lead through limestone and sparkling silica formations and stalactites / stalagmites.

Inside 'Anahulu Cave

We could hear the clicking of the tiny bats that hung from the rough walls and the chirping of swallows that nest in the crevices there. Down into the depths we went (not too far actually) and there was the pool. The two guys and one of the women went in, after all, we were already drenched from the rain. They said the water was quite warm and it was crystal clear. It would be amazing if they had it lit up from underneath, because the rock formations would have been fantastic to swim over – we could see them when they used a waterproof torch under the water.

It was an interesting, and entertaining day (with particular thanks to Vei’s gift of the gab and contagious enthusiasm), despite the abysmal weather.
Vei dropped us back at 5:30, with just enough time to freshen up & dry off before our pick up to go to the cultural show and dinner. I’ll write about that in my next post, because there won’t be much of interest happening on day 6!

Posted by judesbucketlist 18:38 Archived in Tonga Tagged island archway tonga blowhole blowholes trilithon tongan_stonehenge 'anahulu tsunami_rock pacific_ fishing_pigs land_bridge Comments (0)

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