It is relatively easy to fly into the International Airport at Nuku’alofa on the southern Tongan island of Tongatapu. However, since the country of Tonga comprises some 171 islands spread out over 700,000 square kilometres of the Pacific, the chances are that when you arrive, your onward journey will probably be a bit more than a short taxi ride. In our case, we wanted to get to one of the northern islands, Vava’u, and I had been delighted to discover that Royal Tongan Airlines flies an old DC3 Dakota on that route. For reasons that remain obscure, but which are possibly the result of too many childhood Biggles books, I have always wanted to fly in one of these, so we’d arranged tickets.
The DC3 was in fact standing at the airport, but we were led over to another bakelite-era twin-prop of uncertain vintage. The pilot told me that, of the three duplicate flight systems aboard the DC3, usually only the backup and emergency were working, and since the backup had now given up the ghost, he was refusing to fly her.
We were picked up by Dave the taxi driver, a smiling Tongan with interesting teeth, who decanted us into a small boat which putt-putted us across to Mala Island, our home for the next few days.
The boat was piloted by the smiling and eminently capable figure of Henry, who turned out to be General Manager, bartender extraordinaire, and Mr Fixit for the somewhat curious world that we were about to enter. The owner, also called Dave, a rather manic expat Californian, had recently refurbished the small island with the avowed intention of making it a haven and recording studio for visiting rock stars. Be that as it may, he had an enormous stock of name-dropping stories and, apparently, a record label. He was also proud of the consternation that he had caused in the local area by employing a Tongan as manager, and paying both him and the rest of the staff “a fair wage”.
Dave gave the impression of being something of a one-man tornado in local Vava’u politics, making himself popular by inviting Tongans to enjoy the facilities, but on the other hand, the Tongans he mentioned tended to be well placed in the royal family and in the police force.
As we were to discover, scratching backs is a way of life here. The deal on Mala Island is that you pay 45 Tongan dollars a day, and then eat whatever you want. On the one hand, this limits you to whatever happens to be in the kitchen; on the other, the food is prepared by Todd, an excellent chef who Dave apparently pinched from some US restaurant.
On arrival, though, we were too exhausted to think, let alone deal with crazy Americans, so we stumbled up the jungle path to our little cabin and into bed, scarcely even noticing then that it was beautifully decorated with traditional Tongan woven leaves and hand-painted papyrus.
When we emerged, we had lunch, and then dozed off again. Eventually I got up and strolled around the perimeter of the island, an exercise that took less than an hour and involved stepping over a lot of coconuts.
That evening in the central bar area, the beers began to flow, poured by the incomparable Henry. He told us the story about how at age 12 he had left school because he wanted to be a taxi driver. He cleaned and washed and gardened at his uncle’s house until his uncle taught him to drive. That same uncle then spoke to the chief of police and got special permission for Henry to have a taxi licence, even though he was far too young. Many years later, having learnt English and how to deal with tourists, he picked up Dave from the airport, ran a few errands for him, and then got offered the job of General Manager. That, we gathered, was Tonga in a nutshell.
Island time began to kick in.
We dived on some wrecks.
We snorkelled on the reef, and in some underwater caves.
After a while we just had a load of spare scuba tanks delivered to the island, and went diving from our room. All around the island were coral-heads several metres across, each a blaze of colourful life, and each apparently the nursery for one or another species of coral fish.
Divers tend make a lot of fuss about the visibility, or “vis”, the distance that you can see underwater on a particular day or at a particular location. This has never made much sense to me, because you spend most of the time looking at things that are right in front of your nose, so I ignored it when they started to go on about sixty metres of vis. Who wants to see things that are sixty metres away?
I changed my mind on a Tongan night dive. Usually at night you only go down a few metres, and stay within hand contact with your buddy, because it is very, very easy to get disoriented and lost. Not so in Vava’u. The moon shone down to twenty metres almost like daylight, and Bronwyn and I could not only see each other five metres apart, but could even recognise one another amongst the other divers.
And, of course, we met lots of colourful characters while drinking cocktails in the bar.
Eventually, however, we had to rejoin the real world. Early one morning we boarded the little boat and chugged across to meet Dave the driver in his taxi, who took us back through the dawn light to the airport. We presented our pre-booked, pre-confirmed tickets to check-in, where they told us that we could not fly because we were not on the manifest. This was our first introduction to Tongan politics. The King, a generally benevolent and much-loved character, actually spends a lot of his time in hospital in the US, leaving the control of his realm to the Crown Prince, a playboy who is in it for the money.
Whenever a Tongan business is successful, the Crown Prince appropriates it, and it seemed that this is what had happened to our airline. Apparently he needed our seats for some friends of his, and that was just the way it was. We weren’t flying anywhere.
Niufea is hardly a metropolis, but we found a nice cafe, and while Bronwyn tried to get onto the internet (four PCs sharing a single dial-up modem), I went in search of the post office. The building, when I found it, was reminiscent of a prison in a spaghetti western. The public was separated from the staff by floor-to-ceiling iron bars, threaded amongst which were dozens of letters which had been addressed “post restante”.
I bought some postcards and stamps to while away the time. Since the post office didn’t have any coins, they gave me my change in still more stamps, and I took the resultant pile of paperwork back to the cafe, where I managed to get hold of a bottle of the elusive Royal Tongan Ikale beer. It’s elusive because most quality establishments refuse to stock it, gleefully quoting stories of all sorts of foreign objects found in bottles. These stories, of course, post-date the takeover of the brewery by the Crown Prince. Certainly, I must have got an old, pre-Prince bottle, because it was tasty and refreshing.
The next day we were first in line at the check-in, and actually got a seat on the plane for an uneventful ride to the capital, Tongatapu. On arrival, we stopped at a cafe for another (perfectly fine) bottle of Ikale, and then headed in the increasingly oppressive heat for the Dateline Hotel, supposedly the quality hotel of the islands, and advertising itself as “The First Bar That Opens in the World, Every Day”. We figured that they might have air conditioning, and since we’d only recently drunk in “The Last Bar to be Open in the World, Every Day” across the dateline in Samoa, it seemed like the reasonable thing to do.
We were greeted by a uniformed bellhop and escorted to a table, which was promising, but we noticed that the place looked a little run down. It was with little surprise, then, that we discovered that this establishment, too, was now owned by the Crown Prince. We ordered Ikale, and it must have come straight from the new-style brewery, because it was completely undrinkable. I took a couple of sips, and then felt a compelling urge to go to the toilet. I scuttled in the indicated direction, and entered a marble-tiled, gold-tapped facility that hadn’t been cleaned for months. The first cubicle that I opened (and by this time I would have accepted pretty much anything) was… well… you’ve seen ‘Trainspotting’, right? But I used it anyway.
Back in the bar, Bronwyn, who had opted for the more sensible water option, realised that the proffered glass bore enough grease to fry an English breakfast, so we headed back out into the heat. This was not the last surprise that the Crown Prince had in store for us. Bronwyn had used my mobile to leave a five-second message on her sister’s Canadian answering machine. A month later, when I received my mobile bill, I found that those few words had cost us just under sixty Australian dollars. The mind boggles at what the charge might have been if Michelle hadn’t been away from home that day.
Our final Tongan legacy cannot, however, be laid at the feet of the Royal Family. Somehow or other I had scratched my elbow, perhaps on coral while diving, and the resultant sore was very slow to heal. As we subsequently travelled from country to country it didn’t seem to be getting any better; in fact, if anything, the wound seemed to be getting deeper and wider. After a week or so of this, a doctor in Brussels had a poke around and pronounced that I had a staph infection. “Is that bad?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “if these antibiotics don’t work, then you will lose your arm…”