Tom + Zara's Travels

Mafana, Umuna & Kenutu Islands

Totally isolated, only inhabitants, clearest waters yet…. 

Some aerial photo’s of the Tongan islands from the air!

Vava’u Islands Group
We flew to Vava’u on the same 15 seater plane with the same pilot as our flight to Ha’api (the same plane that Tom noticed one of the engines covered in soot). There was only myself, Tom and a Tongan lady on the flight. As we reached the required altitude, the co-pilot turned to us and said something to us through his microphone. When he realised we couldn’t hear him over the noisy engine, he wrote something on the back of his checklist and turned to show us “you might see whales”. We both turned to each other and mouthed “wow” - this is what it must feel like to own a private jet.
The approach towards Vava’u was even more breath taking than Ha’api, perhaps because there were more surrounding islands to see, 61 in total. Each island surrounded by luminous turquoise waters, crystal clear encircling the reefs whilst lapping up against the whitest sands of the islands. Some of the islands look as small as the circumference of my engagement ring. Beautiful. I’d love to kayak up to these islands and collapse in the centre of them and sprawl out in a star fish like fashion and claim one as mine.
Ian from K&S Guesthouse drove us from the airport to Neiafu, the ‘city’ where we would be staying overlooking the harbour, Port of Refuge. Vava’u is still buzzing with hangers on, still in town after the Kings’ Birthday celebrations and the Church conference. As we drove towards Neiafu, the streets are busy with people walking around and traffic swarming around. Huge hand crafted banners line the streets with personal messages for the King “Happy Birthday”, “Long live the King” etc. 
Vava’u feels completely different from Tongatapu and Ha’api. Churches sit on most street corners, some belonging to the wealthy and increasingly prominent Mormon community. Whilst the Christian message is strongly portrayed, locals and tourists alike are more relaxed with their everyday attire here. On the other islands, you must be respectful towards traditions and dress appropriately i.e. shoulders and knees covered. Whereas, here people walk around in vest tops and shorts while I’m sweating my bits off wearing leggings, long T-shirt with sleeves, socks and walking boots. Walking boots for the benefit of my bulging backpack only. 
Neifu is a ‘yachties’ town. Port Refuge is as it says a bay that protects the boats from winds and currents and so there are lots of palangi and thus money and in turn lots of touristy places selling beer, wine, pizza etc. and offering wi-fi - we could be anywhere. We can see all of the yachts parked up in the harbour from our guesthouse, there’s at least 60 of them here at the moment and this is just the beginning of the ‘yachtie’ season. In comparison to Tongatapu and Ha’api, Neifu oozes wealth and lacks much of the Tongan culture that we have come to love.
One similarity to Lifuka is the damaged cars. There are still quite a few of them on the roads with Tongans driving around behind the cracked windscreens but mostly, you see small 4x4 being driven around. A useful tip from the Lonely Plant guide book if renting a car in Tonga “do not park your rental under a coconut tree”!
After dropping off our bags at our guesthouse, we headed straight for the local market to stock on food. Having not been able to get our hands on any fruit or vegetables for 2 weeks on Uoleva (a result of the cyclone), priority number one was to stock up on them. We bought bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, tomatoes, rocket, garlic - fresh produce galore! We picked up a few dry goods too then excitedly hurried back ‘home’ and made the dinner we had been dreaming about for the past two weeks - a tuna salad. “A tuna salad?” I hear you ask….. I know but those first few bite of the crisp, fresh vegetables and then some tuna and the egg ahhhh, divine.   
We’re staying right by St Joseph’s Cathedral - a colonial style, beautiful cathedral which sits on a hill top overlooking the port and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. Despite the annoyance of the church bells which ring at 5:30am every morning, the singing that echoes around the harbour from there daily is mesmerisingly beautiful. Think church choir, voices trained for decades to sing in harmony, loud but gentle, quiet yet meaningful - it gives me goosebumps every time and it is the voices of the local people. They love to sing. 
Today (Sunday), we saw for the first time what religion really means to the Tongan’s. The church bells rang at 5:30am as normal and then again at 10am as the  first service of the day was about to commence. The Tongan’s often attend up to four times per day. The Tongan law states that it is illegal to work on Sundays (hallelujah) so the streets are deserted. There is no traffic on the roads, no people in sight and all businesses closed. As we approached the cathedral, the doors were open and people were spilling out into the car park, all listening intently to the service whilst dressed in their Sunday best. Think Little House on the Prairie; young girls and women in pretty dresses and hats with flowers and men wearing a wraparound ‘tupenu’ - a straw skirt over their trousers. It was great to see. 
There isn’t really much to do in Neiafu other than watch the Friday afternoon yacht race, hang out in the numerous bars/cafe aligning the Port, buy fresh food from the local market, go on a whale swimming tour or bugger off to one of the surrounding islands for a few days. So we chose to do just that.

Swimming with the whales…

Whale watching season in Tonga runs between June and October in Tonga and it seems that Vava’u is the place to do it. So I did it. 

I hadn’t initially been that interested in doing it after doing watching them in Kaikoura, NZ and found it pretty disappointing..but I’m so very glad that I did here! We set off for the northern cape of Vava’u main island and within minutes we saw one big blow of mist into the air about a kilometre away, then another and another. We aquaplaned all the way there until they were only metres away from the boat. 

We circled them a few times, waited for our signal and then dropped in the water, go pro tightly in hand. My heart was racing and mind keeping calm scanning around like a robot and at the same time trying to judge the clarity of the water…then they drifted into view. They gracefully dropped towards us and down. The water here is so clear it is hard to judge the distance (a lot frikin warmer than NZ though!). Aeroplanes sinking down, it looked like a very slow animation, like images slowly merging from one frame to another. An amazing feeling and a sight you really can’t compare to anything else. It felt unreal, and very special. The bubbles of air they spat out rose to the air slowly and I swam through them videoing it all. Then it was over in a flash. 

They guides told us that we were lucky to see 7 whales together, 6 males all chasing after the one female as they hadn’t seen this many together in 2 years. On a perfect day there’d be a female with or without a calf hanging around the surface for a hour or so and you’d get to just swim around them in turn with another group. However, I was happy and to see what happened next was really amazing!

The humpbacks are the most athletic whales, as you can see they ‘breach’ meaning they jump out of the water landing on their back. The first time one of the males did this I got a huge fright, all I saw out of the corner of my eye was a brilliant white and a huge splash. It was like a plane had crashed, a whale the size of a bus flying out of the water and then splash back in. It was as if he was doing the high jump, and as graceful. He did this another 4 times so we managed to get some great pictures. The guides don’t know why they do this, last year 6 of them were doing it all round the boat, bit scary, I think they show off for the tourists.

Tonga is one of only two places in the world where you are allowed to get in the water with the whales (other place in the Cayman Islands), the whales come up here from the Antarctic to give birth or mate. All operators have to pay a license fee and have government training, there are strict rules: only 4 in the water at a time and if there is a female with calf you’re only to go in for 1 hour in total, and I’m sure more! We were out all day, had a great lunch in a beautiful lagoon, toured around all the islands of the Vava’u group and saw around 15 whales. Unfortunately we only got to go in the water once and though we got to experience 7 whales swimming beneath us it was still amazing and worth every penny of the 85quid!!

If you’ve got the pennies I’d hugely recommend coming here for this…and the amazing islands.  Tonga is great


A Long overdue date night

It’s been 17 days since either of us had hot showers. It’s been 17 long days of living off bread and peanut butter, noodles and boiled rice. Its been 17 days of havin grumbly tummies, regular toilet dashes and watching the pennies.

Tonight was the night we were going to have some fun. Were back in Neiafu, the mainland of Vava’u and spent an extra 10 panga so we could have hot showers. Oh….hot showers! To feel the hot water pound against your back, chipping away at the layers of dirt that have been reproducing on your skin. After a good scrub down we came out a new shade of clean, dam I thought I was starting to get a tan!

Anyway, we took 10 steps from our room to Aquarium Cafe overlooking he harbour, Port of Refuge, where the yachties were finishing their Friday afternoon race. We watched the sunset in the distance, drank a few wines and local beers and ate THE best Mexican pizza and beef tacos ever. Tom
Is a huge pizza fan and to hear him say “this is the best pizza I’ve ever tasted” is a pretty big deal.

So anyway, we’re waiting for our chocolate brownie to arrive and we’re looking out at the stars over the harbour dreaming up a name for our yacht that we will own one day. Because we will.


Tom has become quite the fisherman. He borrows a spear from either Patsy or Caluffy and goes out to sea with his mask, snorkel and fins and returns an hour or so later with dinner. On his first attempt, he came back empty handed but by his second, third and fourth attempts he was a pro. We ate flounder (albeit, it was pretty tiny but not bad for his first catch), but within a few days we had a fish each - some sort of gold and red looking fish with lots of meat on them. No more plain noodles or boiled rice for dinner. My hero!


10 days of paradise, Uoleva. The most beautiful island we have experienced. Here we would spend our days in a hammock, snorkelling, reading, making notes from the stuff dribbling out of my sub conscious, drinking coffee, talking, eating coconuts, and playing scrabble. 

It’s frustrating writing this, I’m bursting with so much I NEED tell everyone about this experience but I can’t articulate it and this piece would go on forever. 

We walked through the shallow water to the little boat captained by Talanoah. We set off to Uoleva,  meandering through the reefs on the crystal clear waters to our Island escape. In 15 minutes we were there, greeted by Taianna who walked us 20 metres from the shore to our Fale (a beach hut). It consisted of a table and a big mosquito net covering a mattress which lay on beach mats on the floor. Basic but very clean, a lot better than we had seen in various other places.The windows were shutters you wedged open with wood and the fale was tapa-lined with plastic…pest proof!

We chucked off our bags and wandered to the kitchen, a sheltered area on the sand connected to Tainanna’s house. It consisted of a gas stove (which had seen much better days), a sink and a few tables. The toilet and shower (think hose pipe coming out the wall) was off to another area which were again basic but better than a lot we’d seen in SE Asia. All we needed was there. We boxed up our noodles and biscuits we’d brought with us and was time for our togs (a Kiwi phrase we’ve started using meaning swimwear).

Our faces were hurting from the the permanent grins. 

The cyclone had hit this island hard too… Everything except two fales were destroyed. Any vegetables growing more than 3 feet except coconuts was destroyed. there were two tourists from Finalnd and France here when it hit along with Kolufie and Taiana, he told me the stories about them running from house to house as the wind blew them down. It must have been horrifying seeing your livelihood blown away but he laughed as he described it.  

All of the fales have hammocks under the palm leaf veranda looking out onto the ocean, washing water from a well, filtered by the sand and pumped electrically by the solar panel. Drinking water was all rain water.

In the distance was Fao the volcano and Ha’ano. 

After 2 days we decided to change our flights and stay for 10 days and when we got wind that another guest was coming we made a shopping list and telephoned it over to Talanoah on the main island:

21 x 50c noodles 

2 x loaves of bread

7 x $1 chocolate biscuits

1 x smallest milk powder

1 x cheapest Soya Sauce

1 kilo of Rice

1 x cocoa

1 x small bag of sugar (smallest weighing 1 kilo)

1 x jam 

1 x peanut butter

…which is all the shop pretty much stocks on Lifuka. And so this was what our meals consisted of for 10 days: bread, rice and noodles except for the 4 nights Taianna cooked for us which would comprise of Hawaiian Sweet potato which is purple, Taro (another root vegetable), curried fish, fried Tuna or octopus and when the Tongas cook they cook BIG!

So what happened over the last 10 days. I started spear fishing and got pretty good at it, supplementing our rice dinners with fish. I snorkeled every reef could find, we saw turtles and and group of HUGE Eagle Rays, Barracuda, sea snake and all the usual suspects. The cyclone has killed most of the coral but here are some parts still alive. When we got to the island we set out exploring but we quickly adjusted into the Tongan way and the last 2 days were spent glued to the hammock. 

We had some company on the island, Irena and Patsy from Germany and New Zealand. We were a diverse group with very different charceters but blended well, all on the same vibe. The day we left and paid Caluffy he thanked us graciously for our custom and how it will help him rebuild his home and provide a life for his family back on Lifuka too. 

It made me reflect on travelling and the people you meet. It gives you a great opportunity through the people you meet. Take from the people you like but also from the people you don’t. 

So why did I love it. We’d spend the morning watching the sunrise. We’d make a coffee, eat our fresh bread and chat to the others, we’d lie in the hammock, go snorkelling, have lunch and more coffee. Lie in the hammock until I felt like doing something then grab my mask, fins and Patsy’s spear and catch some dinner. Steam our fish and rice then play scrabble and laugh at the Aussie / Kiwi / German words whilst drinking hot chocolate. 

These pacific islands are beautiful, we’d snorkelling in the crystal clear waters and walk back down the beach not seeing another soul. It was very much like a desert island and it was like paradise. I haven’t been to a place that made me feel like this. When you see those brochures and pictures of the idyllic beaches…this is it. I never believed those pictures could be true, thinking that just out of the frame somewhere would be a bunch of tourists, like it was in Thailand. The only sound you would hear all day and all night was the waves against the beach and this was amazing.

What makes paradise. A beautiful place with a minimal distractions, just enough to keep your brain away from boredom such as a hermit crab crawling around but nothing that would disrupt your 1000 yard stare such as a screaming child. People take your focus away from the wondrous beauty and simplicity of every thing that is around you. People around means you focus on them. I like mankind, it’s people I don’t like.

I’ve also given myself a new goal. I’m going to buy a yacht so I can sail ALL of these islands…when I sell my coffee roasters…after I start it.

oh and if you plan on coming here, buy a good knife. Scaling, gutting and filleting a fish with a swiss army knife is difficult. 

Lifuka, Ha’apai

We jumped on our tiny plane where the pilot did the seat belt checks, smiled and jumped over the ‘centre console’ of buttons and into the driving seat. I looked around me…15 seats. 9 passengers. The flight was awesome, 45 minutes over the pacific ocean with views of islands you dream about, lagoons, volcanoes, white beaches and water so clear we never lost sight of the sea bed all through the flight.

We jumped off the plane, grabbed our bags and greeted by Sita our pick up and owner of the Tuilipe, our guest house “You are Tom”…the only Palangi (white man) getting off the plane. The airport was a bit of a wreck to say the least. The welcome sign was hanging off and Sitas car was a miss mash of banged up bits with no windows. 

As we were ferried to the guest house we drove through what can only be described as apocalypse. It’s like some one had dropped a hydrogen bomb. All that was left was roofless, doorless, windowless edifices or just the concrete base. It was really sad but vis-à-vis Christchurch the people were cheery and happy as we’ve found with everyone we have met in Tonga so far. 

Cyclone hit in January with the eye of the storm passing directly over the Ha’api Group of Islands. It destroyed peoples homes and businesses and damaged numerous buildings including the local airport yet surprisingly, only 1 life was taken.

Approaching Lifuka from the air, the damage was clear to see. We saw several buildings without roofs, big piles of rubble scattered around, collapsed buildings and others that were badly damaged. On closer inspection as we walked around the island we could see some buildings no longer existed - a previous bank for example that was only identifiable from the cast iron and concrete safe that was still in place. Other buildings have been left without doors, windows, roofs and some families are still living out of tents provided by the Red Cross who are still stationed on the island helping with the recovery. 

As we chatted to locals at the Tourism Bureau and Marines Cafe, they gave us a list of places including resorts that are no long operating as a result of the cyclone including the local market. It’s really sad to see with your own eyes how a natural disaster can cause so much devastation.

We did see groups of local Aid workers who have been employed by the Red Cross and other support networks who are paid $30TOP for 4 hours work per day to help clean up the island.

We were lodging at Tiulipe’s guest house, A pretty bare and basic place which had a roof minus a bit of ceiling here and there. Unfortunately there were many guests…with eight legs and 4 eyes. These were the biggest, hardest spiders we’d come cross so far on our travels. Tom dancing around the room as a huge spider bounced and ran and shrugged off multiple bulls eye flip flop whacks then twice more in the loo. The house at the end of that film Arachnophobia…this was it.

We spent the day messing around in Pangai, the main town. It’s a very small place and so booked to go to another island a short boat ride away the next day on Uoeleva. The rest of that day we walked to the other side of the island, as we strolled out of the jungle towards the ocean, I looked up the beach to set a bunch of wild horses with a foal. The strangest most amazing feeling. 

After spending 10 wonderful days in Uoleva, we returned to Pangai and returning felt like I was looking at the devastation all over again only this time with fresh eyes, seeing more damage than I remember from our first visit. Cars, trucks and vans abandoned in small grass areas with windows completely shattered and doors falling off. The only purpose they now serve is shelter from the wind and rain for the piglets that run around the island chasing after their parents.

There are only a few well built houses (to Western standards) on the island that we have seen. Even they have had their roofs blown off, some walls ripped apart, the force of the wind evident in the remains of the structure.

One local church stands alone, on a corner, without a roof, doors nor windows. Gone are the Sunday services when the locals could congregate here to sing, be merry, and pray. Instead, the church remains abandoned, broken, like a lost soul and I wonder even if the Tongan Government do repair it, will it ever be repairable back to its former glory and will it be enough; enough for it to still be a place of escape, to forget the devastation they felt on that day xxx January 014. 

The sad thing is, we hear from the local people of Ha’api that the Tongan Government don’t seem to be in any rush to help with the rebuild of their community. Instead, they feel deserted, like they are favouring their neighbours Vava’u because instead of bringing  money to the Ha’api islands, they chose to take large events such as a church conference and the Kings birthday and Miss Tonga there, instead of to Ha’api which could have benefited hugely from the money brought by tourism surrounding these events.