The Kingdom of Tonga is like no other place in the South Pacific. The “Friendly Islands” as Captain Cook called them, became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and Tonga is the only remaining monarchy in the Pacific. There is a strong sense of pride in heritage, family and culture. There are no McDonalds nor Burger Kings and they seem not to have suffered from this lack of world-renowned commercial fast foods. When we arrived from Niue and tied up to the Q-dock in Neiafu waiting for the officials to check us in, we could sense a palpable difference. This was authentic South Pacific.
Neiafu was a most enjoyable port of call. It is quaint, friendly and just what you’d expect from a port in the South Pacific … 25 years ago. The anchorage is calm and protected. Oh, there are vehicles and some modern conveniences, but folks on the outlying islands still live in huts and come to the “city” for market day to sell their wares and buy their supplies. There’s lots of trading and bartering going on. Life is slow and pleasant and people generally seem content.
Wandering through the marketplace was wonderful. We did our share to help the local economy by stocking up on freshies and local crafts. The local craftsman are excellent, especially the carvers.
After a few days, we left the busy anchorage for a little exploring. The tiny island of Matamaka seemed like a likely place to meet some locals and learn more about Tongan rural life and we weren’t disappointed. As soon as we beached our dinghy, we met Fa’aki, a former airline attendant and now mother of six. She came out of her hut, a baby on her hip, to welcome us and offered us a tour of the town, introducing us to her neighbors as we walked.
The island was lush and beautiful with brightly colored flowers in bloom everywhere. Piglets, a food staple in Tonga, ran about unfettered. I asked Fa’aki how she kept track of them. She whistled and all her piglets came running, scampering up close for a snack!
We visited the school and the churches. Once it was determined that David could fix solar panels, locals came by horse and mule from all over the island with every broken device and machine imaginable … gas generators, solar panels, weed whackers and even TVs. We called upon our friends aboard Yohelah and Gannet to help with the repairs.
In return, we were rewarded with an invitation to a feast. The men drank kava while the women prepared the food. Hmmm … why does that scenario sound familiar?
The clock was ticking and as usual, we didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked. We headed south to the Hapa’ai group, much more isolated and less populated, where we enjoyed several days of peaceful quiet, long walks on white sand beaches and exploring islands inhabited only by the native flora and fauna.
We had been invited to a farewell cruiser party on Panagaimotu Island in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital city and “big smoke”. We arrived a few days early to get acquainted with the city and prepare for our upcoming passage to New Zealand.
Through a friend, we were fortunate enough to meet Mary, a former Peace Corps volunteer, who gave us lots of lessons in Tongan etiquette and behavior along with city tours and blueberry pancakes!
Big Mama’s party was over the top. With live music, a feast fit for a king, fresh fruit baskets for all cruisers and unbelievable hospitality, nearly 100 cruisers danced, drank and ate into the wee hours of the morning.
And then, it was time to leave Tonga. It was bittersweet leaving, not only because Tonga was such a beautiful, welcoming country, but because the passage to New Zealand would represent the final leg of our South Pacific crossing. There’s always a slight bit of regret as we complete a passage, but then the anticipation of exploring New Zealand far outweighed any misgivings about leaving. With several boats in company, we were sailing off to the “Land of the Long White Cloud”.