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The Two Captains



2C Update #138 - In Transit Home – Tongatapu (November 28-29, 2005)

Air travel in Tonga is fraught with enough suspense that it is next to impossible to book a connecting flight to anywhere outside the country with less than a 24-hour layover on Tongatapu. The travel agents just won’t do it! At least ours wouldn’t. As if that weren’t bad enough, the connection we were waiting for in Tongatapu was not a direct flight back to the US but onward to Fiji. We found ourselves in this fix because six months earlier we had booked our return tickets to the US, based on our intention to stow the boat at Fiji’s Vuda Point. To top this off, our Tongan visas expired a week before our flight back, so we either had to renew those visas for another month, or leave a week before our flight out of Fiji, which is how these two captains found ourselves with a day kill to in Nuku’alofa and a week of same in Fiji. It is an acknowledged curse in cruising to commit to any kind of schedule, and it didn’t help our attitude that it was a trap of our own making.

Why this should be so frustrating is a peculiar quirk of ours. Notwithstanding some of our memorable planned land excursions, the voyage itself is the “travel” for us, so when we get off the boat, especially to fly back to the US, everything in between seems like “transit”, even though it might qualify as a whole vacation to other people! Plus, we are quite simply not accustomed to paying for a bed to sleep in. On the other hand, we had no other plan for visiting Tongatapu, and we figured an advance look at Fiji, in particular Vuda Point Marina where we expected to stow the boat next year couldn’t hurt.

Tongatapu is the southernmost (and largest) island of the Tongan chain and the site of the Kingdom’s capital city, Nuku’alofa. As we flew in, we saw a big flat island with an extensive spread of cultivated fields. A huge horseshoe-shaped lagoon takes a big bite out of the island’s basic triangular shape, all of it apparently too shallow to be navigable.

The airport, at the southern tip of Tongatapu is about as far away as it could be from Nuku’alofa. We landed at what surely must be one of the most Spartan air terminals in the world, and were relieved to find our hotel had sent a car for us. Our driver was not the usual driver, but his recently-graduated daughter and her younger sister who entertained us with observations about the island and their future careers as we made the trip into town. The chief landmark we passed on the way was the Prince’s Residence, a modern mansion by any country’s standards, perched behind gates at the crest of a rise. The Prince is the one who owns and operates the country’s somewhat unreliable airline among other ventures.

Letting friends make reservations for you turns out to be an interesting reflection of their perception of you. Our friend Lisa back in Vava’u had recommended we stay at the Villa, a rather upscale B&B right on the waterfront. Down the street were a handful of places far cheaper that we could handled easily for the single night stay. However, in the end, staying at the Villa made for one of the highlights of our visit, for some interesting people that we met.


The Villa and 'new' proprietors Kim & Judy.   The Villa's Garden (below)

Recently purchased by a Kiwi couple , Kim and Judy, the Villa is a comfortable home away from home with four guest rooms, a big living room, an eat-in kitchen for breakfast and a pleasant garden patio in back with tables and chairs and an outside bar. We were shown into the front guest room with shuttered windows and a double bed all done in airy white! If you ever think you don’t have enough room to put in a bathroom, just write Kim and Judy for details of the facilities in our room that fit everything required into the space of a closet!

After dropping off our luggage, Don and I got a ride into “downtown”, which was surprisingly developed. Our first top was Immigration where we hoped to obtain a document that would ensure our ability to fly back into the country without an outbound ticket. After waiting with the crowd, we found they just weren’t going to issue any such paper six months in advance, but we got a fax number for the future.

Having failed in our primary objective our next thought, as usual for us, was to hunt up some food, having been up since five with no breakfast. On Taufa’ahau Rd we found a street full of the offices and eateries that cater to travelers. The Escape Café, a new place recommended to us from the folks at the Villa was just down the block from the Lonely Planet’s favorite, The Friends’ Café. We had a great meal (and enjoyed looking at everybody else’s).

In the cafes and all along this street we bumped into people who’d be on the flight from Vava’u. Even though so much of our life is spent traveling, it is not so often than we encounter other travelers who are not cruisers. Often young, but not always, and rarely American, these are people who take a big chunk of time -- usually several months to a year – for unscheduled exploration of a particular part of the world. They usually travel on a tight budget, never on tours, often on round-the-world air deals, with a tattered Lonely Planet guide helping to map out their wandering. We saw them in the Internet Cafés of Quito, met them on the busses in Mexico, made room for their backpacks on the “le trucks” of Papeete, and shared rustic fales with them in Samoa. Every time Don and I merge with these world wanderers, we both feel a regret that we grew up not realizing that the world could be seen this way, up close and personal and on a shoestring, and wish there was some way to pass along this insight to all the kids of our families.

Tonga’s Royal Palace

The rest of the day we did the tourist thing. We drove by the Royal Palace, a white Victorian building with red trim, and then onward to the Tongan National Center, a museum of artifacts right out of William Mariner’s saga of battles between rival Tongan Kings (The Tonga Islands – William Mariner’s Account, by Dr. John Martin). The Tongan’s weapon of choice was the club, and given their tradition of carving, quite a variety of unfriendly shapes were invented. Should your timing be right (ours wasn’t) the Centre puts on a once-a-week feast with traditional dance, and they also have various classes they offer, good for folks spending some time here.

Model of traditional boat at Museum

                                                                       Hard to believe but those activities pretty well exhausted our day. If they hadn’t been clear across the island we might have gone to see some “langi”, stone tombs and other archaeological remnants of ancient Tonga or Mapu’a ‘a Vaca Blowholes. Instead we returned to the Villa where the owners’ son John and his mate, on vacation from school, were cheerily working their way alphabetically through a sequence of exotic cocktails as per the Red Bar Book, constrained only by the outdoor bar’s liquor options! Sitting around we met and chatted with a Belgian couple, Jean and Francoise. A retired nuclear physicist, Jean travels as much as he can, pressed by failing kidneys to get as much in as possible. Another guest was Robyn, a young Aussie gal in Tonga to teach about HIV prevention. And finally, after dinner at a nearby Chinese Restaurant, (where as the only customers we watched a Chinese historical drama on TV with the staff!), we spent a most edifying evening in the lounge in conversation with the villa’s fourth guest, Don, from Perth, Australia, who as a consultant from the World Bank was in the capital advising Tonga’s wobbly government on their economic crisis. These two bumpkin sailors learned a lot about Tonga and the world that night.

Ceremonial Quilts

After a great nights sleep in our puffy white room, we woke early and went for a walk along the waterfront., killing time before breakfast. In the port facilities we could see a couple of boats we knew on the sea wall, but couldn’t figure out to reach them. Probably too early anyway. We did have chance to get some good photographs of traditional Tongan cemeteries, with the characteristic quilts displayed to honor the deceased, and we were most amused by a little boy, walking in front of us down the sidewalk who, seemingly oblivious to us behind him, worked very hard to stomp on our long shadows!

We had a nice breakfast with all the other guests (minus the young mixologists!), and on the way to the airport realized our irritating layover add turned into a most pleasant experience.




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All text and photos on this site Copyright Gwen Hamlin 2006


Published at Burlington, VT