Dreaming on Tonga's Ha'apai islands

00:05, Aug 27 2012
Nukapule
NUKAPULE: A tiny island about 20km off Lifuka has its own reef system with abundant fish.

Pale sand and emerald water, the stuff of day dreams and screensavers. But Tonga's Ha'apai islands were even more alluring after too many days spent in Nuku'alofa, capital of the Kingdom of Tonga.

A rundown town of rubbishy lots, Nuku'alofa was dusty and potholed, its streets littered with instant-noodle wrappers and chip packets. What had once been park benches, a fountain and even whole buildings were rubble, a result of lack of maintenance and the riots of 2006.

We had been there for three nights on Tongatapu, Tonga's largest island, waiting for the ferry to Ha'apai. Each time we arrived at the wharf we were told the ferry was postponed. First it was the king's birthday, then weather and technical faults. Finally, we were allowed to board the MV Pulupaki and found ourselves crouching on the lower deck of a rusty boat as it chugged north.

Mariner's Cafe on Lifuka
GOOD STARTING PLACE: Mariner’s Cafe, on the island of Lifuka, is a nice spot for a beer. It also hires bicycles.

Ten hours later, we near Ha'apai, and the islands begin to work their charm. The water becomes crystalline . . . transparent. I'm looking out to the horizon trying to spot our destination when a man taps me on the shoulder and points to where a whale's fluke rises above the water. Its whole body emerges, rolls across the surface then sinks back into the ocean - glimpses of a real sea monster.

The ferry arrives at the town of Pangai on the island of Lifuka. Pangai is the big smoke of the Ha'apai Islands group, its roads busy with wandering pigs, dogs, strutting roosters and the odd van. The town boasts a bank, three shops and the royal family's Ha'apai residence, a time-worn white villa with exercise equipment in the front room. We hire bicycles and set off across the island. Bike hire is about $20 a day, and basic guesthouse accommodation around $50.

There are few untouched places on the globe, and despite appearances, Lifuka is certainly not one of them. All over the island are clues to a history that had its fair share of drama and violence.

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Just out of Pangai, the European cemetery is the final resting place of some of the missionaries, traders and beachcombers who made Tonga their home in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Presiding over the crumbling headstones is Shirley Baker, Wesleyan missionary and Tonga's first premier. Majestically sideburned, clad in frockcoat, waistcoat and tie despite the heat, Baker's statue was put up by his descendants, keen to affirm his past glory after the ignominy of his latter years.

English-born Baker was a controversial figure in 19th-century Tonga. Soon after his arrival in 1860, he became a friend and adviser to King Tupou I.

But concerns were raised about his influence and eventually the British stepped in, deporting Baker to Auckland for being "prejudicial to the peace and good order of the Western Pacific".

Shirley Baker returned to Tonga seven years later, broke and with no power after Tupou's death. The former premier of the kingdom, designer of the nation's flag and writer of its constitution, lived out the rest of his days selling medicine in sleepy Ha'apai.

Leaving Baker's grave we cycle through villages of brightly painted houses, waving children and churches - plenty of churches: Methodist churches, Catholic churches, white-concrete Mormon temples each with a basketball court, and Church of Tonga chapels with canoe-like wooden drums propped on truck tyres.

Along the way is a section of beach where, in 1806, Tongan warriors attacked an English ship, the Port-au-Prince, killing all but five of the crew. A small plaque acknowledged this "disgraceful and unfortunate event" carried out by "natives" - an odd choice of words; it was the forefathers of the people around us who had sacked the privateer, a government-sanctioned pirate ship.

Among the survivors was William Mariner, the ship's 15-year-old clerk. His life spared, Mariner lived as a son of Ha'apai chief Finau for four years before being allowed to return to England. There he shared his experiences in the book, An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands, which remains one of the best sources of information on traditional Tongan life.

It is from Mariner that we know Captain Cook's renaming of Tonga as The Friendly Islands was a little premature. Cook applied the name after generous hospitality on his visit in 1777.

Mariner revealed that the locals had planned to kill Cook and his men, but were scared off by a fireworks display put on by the British.

The Port-au-Prince beach is clean, its water a vivid blue like all others in Ha'apai. Where warriors with ironwood clubs had swarmed a ship, a man with a plastic bucket gathers shellfish from the rocks.

A sandy single-lane causeway joins Lifuka to the island of Foa. Crossing Foa means more villages, more waving children (all shouting "Bye" or "What's your name?" and a large gate across the main road "to keep the pigs out", I'm told by a man who helps us open it.

Finally, about an hour after leaving Pangai, we are sitting at the island's edge on one of the best beaches in Tonga. A sunny, cloudless day and yet we have it entirely to ourselves.

Hundreds of years may have passed, but these islands are still the places of coral and big sky, small villages and coconut palms that Mariner and Baker found on their arrival.

Tonga comprises 176 islands scattered over 700,000 square kilometres in the South Pacific. Fifty-two islands are inhabited.

The Press