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Travel Story

Kayaking in the Kingdom of Tonga

A paddle through paradise

There was a time when that primordial urge for sun, sand, and surf could be satisfied with a week in Hawaii or even Florida. But with the beaches of those traditional sun spots increasingly segmented into private patches of sand, isolated from the real world by high-rise hotels, the search for a summer paradise, like the search for untracked powder, leads us farther and farther afield.

But for those willing to go the distance, paradise can still be found in the Kingdom of Tonga.

The 170 islands of Tonga are scattered over nearly 400,000 square kilometres of the south Pacific but the total area of dry land is only 688 square km, less than half the size of Garibaldi Park. Only 40 of the islands are inhabited.

Strung out in two north-south chains along the edge of the Tonga Trench, the islands are in one of the earth’s most active tectonic zones. The western chain includes several active and dormant volcanoes, while the eastern islands are tilted blocks of oceanic crust bounded on one side by precipitous cliffs and the other by submerged, mangrove-choked lagoons.

Betty and I arrived at Tongatapu airport in southern Tonga thoroughly jet-lagged after long delays in Hawaii and West Samoa. While waiting for our flight to Vava’u I spotted a couple of folk last seen in the lineup for Harmony Chair. Though we had never met it turned out that Davie and Brigitte, also from Whistler, had booked the same trip. Amazing the places you run in to your neighbours!

Our flight from Tongatapu north to Vava’u in one of Royal Tongan Airlines’ twin Otters gave us a breathtaking preview of the incredibly clear turquoise ocean and the countless coral islets, shoals and barrier reefs where we would spend the next 12 days kayaking, camping, and meeting the people of the Vava’u Group.

It’s a short taxi ride from Vava’u airport to the Tongan Beach Resort where we met the other five members of our group and guides George Gabara, a veteran kayaker from Bowser, B.C., and Ma’a Tonga, a knowledgeable, articulate, fun-loving local. We took a small boat to the nearby town of Naifu and spent the rest of the day doing what the Tongans do best – just taking it easy, lounging under the banyan trees chatting with the locals who were curious and seemed genuinely interested in where we had come from and why we were here.

Before setting out on our journey through the Vava’u Islands we spent a day paddling locally. About an hour from the resort we entered Swallows Cave by paddling through a narrow cleft into a dome-shaped cavern large enough to accommodate all of our boats, plus hundreds of nesting swifts darting about in the dim light.

Word of our trip had reached Lopes Mahe, the school teacher in the nearby village of Talihau, and he invited us to visit his class. The children were obviously expecting us. As soon as our boats hit the sand of their remote island we were met by a young boy who took Ma’a’s hand and lead us up the trail to his school. When we entered the small building, which resembled a bandstand with screen walls, the children could hardly contain their excitement. Crowding around asking our names, telling us theirs, presenting us with polished coconuts full of sweet milk. For the next hour Lopes strummed his guitar and the children entertained. Their uninhibited singing, beaming smiles and genuine delight in our presence was a touching experience that set the tone for the rest of our trip.

The next day as our flotilla of six boats pulled away from the Tongan Beach Resort, the entire staff, dressed in brightly coloured "lava lavas," stood on the shore and sang us a farewell song.

For the next 10 days we paddled through clear opalescent water, gliding over shallow coral reefs, and following Ma’a and George through hidden openings in the surf to campsites on endless, uninhabited white sand beaches. Each day we stopped at least once to raft up the boats, put on our snorkel gear, and explore the underwater coral gardens with their schools of brightly coloured tropical fish. We dined on fresh coconuts and reef fish wrapped in thick green leaves and roasted on an open fire.

Of the many idyllic camp sites the one on Kenutu is particularly memorable. Securing the boats on the leeward side we carried our tent up to the crest of the island and set up in the forest at the top of a cliff facing the crashing surf of the open Pacific. This was Polynesia at its best.

Part way through our journey we were invited to attend a church service in a tiny village on Ovaka Island. The Tongans take their religion seriously and the entire community turned out in their Sunday finery. The long fire-and-brimstone sermon was preceded and followed by singing. Not your usual shyly mumbled hymns but full-throated three-part harmony, with the women’s voices rising above the deep baritone and base voices of the men.

On the island of Taunga we were treated to an evening feast and Kava ceremony. Sitting on the floor in front of a low table covered with artistically arranged food, we helped ourselves to fresh fruit salads, roast chicken, and umu-cooked fish, pork, octopus, and caramelized maneoke that had been buried and simmering all day in the cooking pit.

After the feast the entire community of 30 or 40 people joined us for dancing and singing, this time led by the clear high voice of a 74-year-old man. After about an hour the women, except for those in our group, left the room and the men gathered around for the Kava ceremony. This involves the ritualized consumption of vast quantities of a drink made from the ground root of a pepper plant. One by one the foreign ladies were given the honour of ladling the bitter grey liquid into coconut-shell cups held out by the men. It looks and tastes like dishwater but has a mild anesthetic, soporific effect that leaves the drinker feeling hazy, lethargic, and ready to call it a day.

These truly are "The Friendly Islands." Of all the many places I have travelled I have never felt so little like a tourist and so much like a truly welcome guest. Perhaps it’s the far-flung nature of their ocean world that makes visitors so special. Or perhaps, being the only South Pacific country that was never colonized by a foreign power, there is no burden of political or social baggage.

Or maybe its just the Kava.

Whatever the reason, it’s impossible to come away from Tonga without a genuine affection for the hospitable people who inhabit that remote Island Paradise.




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