George and Lisa Raj­na of We Said Go Trav­el con­clude their trav­el series with the final install­ment of their trip to Ton­ga. Here are parts one and two.

Turbulent Tonga Part III: “Humps and Bumps, Tonga Giveth, Tonga Taketh”

The Lone­ly Plan­et describes Neia­fu, the main town on the Vava’u Island group as “ram­shackle.”  Although I some­what agree, Neia­fu has its charms.  In fact, I would describe it as quaint. Fam­i­lies of pigs cross the road, a large white church perch­es above the town, and chil­dren stop to say, “Hel­lo.”  In addi­tion, due to the expa­tri­ate yacht scene brought about by the Port of Refuge, a pret­ty and pro­tect­ed har­bor, many good restau­rants have sprung up includ­ing Cafe Trop­i­cana, The Sun­set Grill, and the Aquar­i­um Cafe, all good places to sam­ple tasty West­ern food.  There is even a decent Chi­nese option.

Vavau (All Pho­tos Cour­tesy of George Rajna)

The “Orange Vom­it,” or the nick­name that locals gave the old fer­ry, no longer runs but the cur­rent craft, both new and old boats, are quite basic, espe­cial­ly if you are plan­ning on tack­ling the rough­ly 18-hour jour­ney from Nuku’alofa to Vava’u.  For this rea­son, we opt­ed to fly and arrived in only 45 min­utes.  We checked into the Puataukanave Hotel where the room choic­es are deluxe, lux­u­ry, econ­o­my, and back­pack­er; due to the costs of trav­el­ing in Ton­ga, we chose the back­pack­er room that costs about $30US per night for spar­tan rooms with shared bath­room and a slew of mos­qui­tos await­ing guest arrival.

Every­thing in Ton­ga is quite pricey.  We ran into quite a few long-term trav­el­ers who men­tioned, “I’m trav­el­ing for a year and I thought that Ton­ga would be one of the cheap­er coun­tries that we would vis­it,” and “The flight here from New Zealand was quite rea­son­able so we fig­ured that Ton­ga was a bud­get trav­el des­ti­na­tion.”  Wrong!  Every­thing in Ton­ga is expen­sive, from inter­nal flights to restau­rants, to food pur­chased in shops. Accom­mo­da­tion is a ter­ri­ble val­ue.  At times it does not even seem like the Ton­gans real­ly want tourism in their coun­try.  Yes, Ton­ga taketh, but Ton­ga also giveth.  When Ton­ga gives, tourists are quite con­tent.  Still, expect to pay rough­ly three times what you would in South-East Asia and even more than Samoa for less­er quality.

Lisa and I spent our first cou­ple of days wan­der­ing and tak­ing in the vil­lage atmos­phere. The locals appeared reserved yet friend­ly when approached.  The expats were all very friend­ly and quite a par­ty atmos­phere devel­oped at Ton­gan Bob’s, a local bar also run by an expat.  On Wednes­days you can attend the “famous” fakaleiti night; what tran­spires here makes absolute­ly no sense to me.  Basi­cal­ly, a man who is dressed as a woman dances on the stage to a song like, “I Will Sur­vive” by Glo­ria Gaynor.  While this man dances, men and women in the crowd, both expats and locals, approach the dancer and place local paper cur­ren­cy in the fakaleiti’s bra strap, g‑string, or any­where mon­ey can be deposit­ed. This is not my thing but the peo­ple there that night seemed to be hav­ing a good time.

The fol­low­ing day we left with Dol­phin Pacif­ic Div­ing to enjoy what I imag­ined to be the high­light of our trip to Vava’u and pos­si­bly even Ton­ga.  We head­ed off to swim with hump­back whales!  Our leader for the day, Al, sat perched on the upper deck of our boat look­ing for whales.  He said, “The first per­son who spots the whale gets to swim first.  You spot them by look­ing for spout­ing water that will be exit­ing from the whale’s blow­hole.”  I kept close watch as we motored among a vari­ety of islets that in total form almost a jel­ly­fish-like shape.

The hues of the water, greens and blues, are as hard to describe as they are var­ied.  About fif­teen min­utes after we left the har­bor, Al dropped to the main deck area to inform us, “There are pilot whales here.  We are going to take advan­tage of this even though we are look­ing for hump­backs.”  We all nod­ded in agree­ment and pre­pared our gear that includ­ed wet­suits (the Ton­gan waters are cold, real­ly!), snorkels and masks. We had to sup­ply our own courage to swim with mas­sive sea crea­tures.  I asked Al, “How many pilot whales are here?”  He respond­ed, “They nor­mal­ly trav­el in groups of fif­teen to twen­ty.”  I excit­ed­ly placed on my gear and pre­pared to enter the water.  To my dis­may, the whales imme­di­ate­ly dove toward the depths and dis­ap­peared. We removed our gear and men­tal­ly pre­pared our­selves for the next swim.

After the failed pilot whale swim, our luck did not improve.  We glid­ed over the chop­py ocean for at least an hour, see­ing noth­ing.  I began hal­lu­ci­nat­ing, think­ing that every spray of water was a whale spout.  Al heard over the CB radio that anoth­er boat had pin­point­ed the loca­tion of two whales.  We quick­ly advanced toward the divine loca­tion but after we arrived we were informed that “yes there are two whales,” and that the rules state that “The oth­er boat can swim with the whales for an hour before we have a shot since they spot­ted it first.”  We were advised to eat the light lunch includ­ed in the tour, a sand­wich with strange pota­to chips that tast­ed like bar­be­qued squid.  The whale watch­ing day trip was a pricey $275US for the two of us, expen­sive like every­thing else in the island nation.

Island Pho­to (Cred­it: George Rajna)

After 45 min­utes, the oth­er boat noti­fied us that they had fin­ished with their turn and that we could give it a go.  Since our boat held only four peo­ple we were per­mit­ted to enter the water at the same time.  We saw two whales over the bow and some spout­ing.  We were told to pre­pare our gear and head to the stern. Our legs dan­gled into the ocean as the boat slowed and sud­den­ly the boat dri­ver yelled, “Go, go, go!!!”  We swam fran­ti­cal­ly toward the whales.  I heard Lisa cough­ing and I looked at her and asked if she was okay.  She nod­ded. I con­tin­ued to swim toward the whale but saw noth­ing.  We returned to the boat and I read­ied myself for our next attempt.  But there would be no more attempts.  Al informed us that the chop­py waters were not to our advan­tage and that we were head­ing back to the har­bor.  I was livid.  I said, “One time?  We entered the water one time and that’s it?  We paid all this mon­ey just for one chance?”  Al said, “Most peo­ple need to come on at least three boat trips to ensure that they swim with whales but even then, I mean, this is nature and you can­not guar­an­tee any­thing.” My mood did not improve even though what he said made sense.

Lat­er, as we approached the har­bor, Al asked me, “Do you want to go out again tomor­row?”  I said, “We are head­ing to Ofu Island tomor­row and have already sched­uled every­thing.”  Al hand­ed me his card,“Here is my num­ber.  Call me when you are return­ing from Ofu and I will get you on a boat to have anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty.”  I shook Al’s hand and thanked him for the kind offer. Then we went to town to get food to take with us to Ofu.  Our first attempt with the whales was a fail­ure.  But remem­ber: Ton­ga taketh, and …Ton­ga giveth.


George and Lisa Raj­na of We Said Go Trav­el con­tin­ue their trav­el series with the sec­ond install­ment of their trip to Ton­ga. You can read part one here. 

Tur­bu­lent Ton­ga Part II: “Toni’s Guest­house Tour”


The Ukran­ian Drac­u­la lady, had just fin­ished assault­ing Jack­ie when we arrived at 10:00am.  Drac­u­la had mis­took the poor Brit for my wife Lisa, who sim­ply “wouldn’t open the damn win­dow” of the van when we arrived last night.  The Ukrain­ian scowled at Lisa but did­n’t dare approach her while I was in the room.  Let’s just say it would not have been pretty.

We did­n’t know that when we awoke in Toni’s Guest­house, refreshed after the pre­vi­ous night’s deba­cle in the van.  After a Cup O’ Noo­dles for break­fast we wan­dered over to the Green House.  There we met the oth­er trav­el­ers who planned to join us for the day tour of Ton­gat­a­pu, the main island of the Ton­gan Archipelago.

Our tour was led by Toni, an expa­tri­ate from Liv­er­pool who had lived over twen­ty years in Ton­ga.  Oth­er com­pan­ions includ­ed Jack­ie, who’d quick­ly got over the unex­pect­ed attack, and Dal­las, not an Amer­i­can, but a lady from New Zealand enjoy­ing a one-week hol­i­day in the South Pacif­ic.  Lee, anoth­er solo female trav­el­er from the UK, who had lived on a sail­boat for the last sev­en years, also came along with her partner.

Tak­ing off, again swerv­ing to avoid a clus­ter of pot­holes, Toni switched on a micro­phone that was linked to a rear speak­er to make his dis­course more audi­ble.  We passed the opu­lent man­sion of the Ton­gan king and his sis­ters, head­ing north­west toward the local plan­ta­tions.  Tony stopped to point out the only three-head­ed coconut tree in the entire world, a must-stop pho­to op; a pic of it proves that you’ve been to Ton­ga.  He then stopped to point out a vari­ety of crops includ­ing coconuts: “No, nobody wants to touch that stuff. They are every­where!  Look around you for Christ’s sake!!” We saw papaya (“Em, the Ton­gans would eat this but they are all export­ed.”), taro, kumala, man­go, bananas, and pineap­ple.  We then halt­ed at the most north­ern spot of the island’s coast­line. Toni claimed it was a very good beach.  We exit­ed the van but were dis­ap­point­ed.  The weath­er was drea­ry and rain began to fall as we checked a surf­ing beach near the Ha’atafu Beach Reserve.  Its break looked weak, com­pared to the big-league waves of Samoa.

At this point Toni’s voice became slight­ly hoarse over the micro­phone and he began to cough up phlegm.  In response to Dal­las, who asked, “Why don’t you sell beer at the guest­house?” Toni said, “I gave up smok­ing about five years ago but I still have this cough. I don’t drink any more either.  So why would I want that stuff around?  Besides, the Ton­gan gov­ern­ment has harsh rules.  For exam­ple, if a tourist who stayed at my guest­house got out of hand while ine­bri­at­ed, it is me who would get fined by the police, even if I was home asleep.  It’s just not worth it.”  Lisa looked at me and said, “I think that he is the only per­son I have ever met who should have kept smok­ing,” ref­er­enc­ing his voice’s gut­tur­al quality.

We head­ed south and stopped at the famous Mapu’a a Vaca Blow­holes. Sheets of water poured down and I exit­ed the van only long enough to take a pho­to.  Toni claimed, “Today is not a good day to see the blow­holes because the tide is mov­ing at an angle and it is not hit­ting the rocks direct­ly.  You see how it hits?”  We left dis­ap­point­ed.  How­ev­er, we returned to these same blow­holes at the end of our trip and they proved amaz­ing­ly powerful.

We con­tin­ued in the rain and stopped for a decent “Chi­nese-type” lunch above Keleti Beach.  Even on this depress­ing day, while stand­ing in the rain under a veran­da in the cold, I could appre­ci­ate the view.  Blow­holes exhaled the ocean’s foam here as well but they were not as impres­sive as those at Mapu’a a Vaca.

After a brief lunch we con­tin­ued the tour north­east to see the “famous” Ha’amonga Trilithon Reserve, South Paci­fic’s Stone­henge.  I agree that the the ruins are sim­i­lar to those of famous Eng­lish site but only one struc­ture is con­struct­ed from coral stones, in the shape of a square gate.  This gate was sup­pos­ed­ly used to track the change in sea­sons.  We decid­ed to not to vis­it the Hina Cave, pos­si­bly a mis­take, since it is sit­u­at­ed right next to the Oholei Beach area, per­haps the nicest place to stay in Ton­gat­a­pu,  We did­n’t dis­cov­er this until we returned three weeks lat­er.  Oholei Beach is well known for its feast on Fri­day nights with a live band perched over a scenic beach.


At the end of the day we returned to Tofa after stop­ping at a love­ly over­look with an erod­ed hole fram­ing a love­ly ocean view. The tour end­ed and Toni drove us into Nuku’alofa.  We want­ed to see the infa­mous (men­tioned in 1,000 Places to See Before You Won’t See Any­thing Ever Again) Heilala Fes­ti­val.  This is a mul­ti-week bash that involves a mix of cul­tur­al events includ­ing parades, live music, dance, art, as well as beau­ty and sports com­pe­ti­tions.  Yet we could not under­stand the Ton­gans enthu­si­asm, or I should say, lack of enthu­si­asm, regard­ing the fes­ti­val.  We stopped by the cul­tur­al cen­ter and asked where the Heilala Fes­ti­val events took place.  The lack­adaisi­cal response was, “Oh yeah, it will be on the field…I think.”  “Are you going?” I asked.  “No, I’ll just stay home and watch TV.”  I was stunned.  After see­ing Nuku’alofa, a depress­ing and gloomy town with very lit­tle action, you’d think that the locals would be thrilled to have a few weeks of spe­cial fun.  Worse for tourists, the fes­ti­val begins around 7:00–8:00pm and aside from the island tour, there is not much to do here.  Because of this small detail (and the poor weath­er) we decid­ed to pur­chase tick­ets to Vava’u (islands in the north­ern Ton­ga) the next day.

Still, a group of us from the guest­house that includ­ed our fel­low vet­er­ans from the van tour man­aged to see an evening event called, “Tonga’s Got Tal­ent”.  Here peo­ple of all ages, most­ly from six to their mid-twen­ties, per­formed a vari­ety of acts — either singing or engag­ing in “hip-hop,” where Ton­gans dance indi­vid­u­al­ly or in groups to hip-hop tunes.  The event was enter­tain­ing if at times painful.  What sur­prised me the most was that the emcee almost spoke entire­ly in Eng­lish.  The fol­low­ing night we returned to see the teen beau­ty con­test and we were giv­en prime seats right behind the beau­ty queens themselves.

We warmed up to Ton­gat­a­pu as we pre­pared to depart; per­haps our new feel­ings cor­re­spond­ed with the improved weath­er.  At any rate, our next stop in Ton­ga was Vava’u, where we planned to swim with the hump­back whales, one of Ton­ga’s prin­ci­pal attrac­tions an an excel­lent rea­son to vis­it the island country.

Stay tuned for the third and final install­ment of their Ton­gan adven­ture. All pho­tos cour­tesy of George and Lisa Rajna. 

When George and Lisa Raj­na of We Said Go Trav­el offered to share some of their world adven­tures with us, we under­stand­ably said yes. They share a spir­it of adven­ture and appre­ci­a­tion for oth­er cul­tures that we at The Clymb def­i­nite­ly relate to. In the first of a blog series, George recounts their tur­bu­lent arrival in Tonga.


After three glo­ri­ous weeks on the beau­ti­ful islands of Samoa, we board­ed the two hour Air Pacif­ic flight from Apia to Nadi in Fiji, the most con­ve­nient access point for Ton­ga. We noticed there that the onward flight from Nadi to Nukalo­fa, Ton­gat­a­pu was like­ly delayed and could not seem to get any accu­rate infor­ma­tion from any­one.  No big sur­prise, just anoth­er typ­i­cal trav­el­ing experience.

Sud­den­ly, we heard an announce­ment stat­ing, “Air Pacif­ic Flight FJ211 to Ton­ga will be board­ing short­ly.”  I turned to Lisa and said, “I guess we can wan­der around the shops for a while.”  Lit­er­al­ly, as these words left my mouth, a sec­ond announce­ment trum­pet­ed, “Pas­sen­gers on flight FJ211 to Ton­ga, please pro­ceed to the depar­ture gate.”  I gazed some­what dumb­found­ed toward my wife who stat­ed, “They have to announce that they will be board­ing the plane before they can board it.”  Ah, that explained the heads-up advi­so­ry sec­onds before the actu­al board­ing announcement.

The flight to the island of Ton­gat­a­pu was sched­uled to last an hour and thir­ty min­utes.   A few mas­sive Samoan pas­sen­gers among us were also board­ing and I qui­et­ly prayed that none of these giant peo­ple, who should real­ly have two seats each, would be placed next to us.  Thank­ful­ly, a quite del­i­cate great grand­moth­er from Ore­gon, but who had been liv­ing in Tave­u­ni, Fiji sat next to me.  She was loqua­cious and ami­able and informed us, “I have to make this same trip every four months because I can­not get res­i­den­cy in Fiji.  I think it is because I am too old.  I pur­chased a plot on Tave­u­ni but now I’ll have to sell it and move back to Ore­gon.”  I lis­tened to her sto­ry and thought that she was quite gut­sy for a lady of her age. Lat­er I tack­led a Suduko puz­zle and read some of The Girl With the Drag­on Tattoo.

It was then that the pilot announced that we would be arriv­ing short­ly in Nukualo­fa and that the flight atten­dants should pre­pare the pas­sen­gers for land­ing.  While Lisa dozed, catch­ing flies with her mouth agape, I watched the plane descend in dark­ness toward the well-lit airstrip. The next thing I knew, we were ascend­ing back into the clouds and night. The pilot spoke over the inter­com, “The con­di­tions are such that we were unable to land the plane.  So, we are going to swing around and try again from anoth­er angle.”

I sat in my seat and tight­ened the belt buck­le.  I wait­ed and hoped that our sec­ond attempt would be suc­cess­ful.  We again approached the run­way and it seemed that we almost touched down on the tar­mac and sud­den­ly, vroom!, we zoomed up at a steep angle.  I tight­ened my belt even more and looked at Lisa, who was still asleep.  I thought, “No point in wak­ing her up for this.”  After the pilot aban­doned the third attempt I began to ques­tion if he had the con­fi­dence and abil­i­ty to land the air­plane.  He had not spo­ken to the pas­sen­gers since the first failed attempt.  I was con­cerned and slight­ly fright­ened.  Final­ly, on the fourth attempt we land­ed, skid­ding, and slowed.  The pas­sen­gers right­ful­ly applaud­ed the pilot and the Ton­gans end­ed their prayers.

Our next chal­lenge was get­ting through Immi­gra­tion.  We stood near the end of the line because we board­ed an air­port shut­tle think­ing that the bag­gage claim area was far. But the vehi­cle came to pick us up only due to the heavy rain, the same rea­son that the air­craft had such dif­fi­cult­ly land­ing.  I lat­er acquired this infor­ma­tion from a Ton­gan lady at the air­port can­dy shop. This line was not ter­ri­bly long, but with Chi­nese and Ton­gans cut­ting into it, we were at a stand­still for a good 45 min­utes.  The Chi­nese seemed to pro­ceed via both the for­eign and Ton­gan lines, and even uti­lized the “dis­abled and elder­ly” queue, although the major­i­ty of them appeared to be in their thir­ties and were trav­el­ing with children.

Final­ly, after an hour, we cleared Immi­gra­tion.  Our bags were sit­ting there already and our hos­tel pick­up ser­vice was ready to head into town.  It was already well after 8:00pm due to the delays and night had fall­en.  We were greet­ed by Peter, who held a Toni’s Guest­house sign and sport­ed a mas­sive goi­ter on his neck.  We entered the van with about a half dozen trav­el­ers, all who were to stay at Toni’s Guest­house.  After rough­ly ten min­utes, Peter stat­ed, “Every­one will get out here and Toni will take you the rest of the way.  I am going back to the air­port to get more peo­ple”.  We looked at each oth­er some­what shocked;  it was still rain­ing.  But all the tourists fol­lowed his instruc­tions. Toni arrived in anoth­er van with­in a minute so we did not get ter­ri­bly wet.

Toni was quite a char­ac­ter with his strong Liv­er­pool accent.  He advised, “Tomor­row is Sun­day and every­thing will be closed.  So if you want, we can stop at a shop and pick up food for tomor­row.”  We all agreed that it was a good idea even though I knew the Chi­nese restau­rants would still be open.  At the shop we pur­chased eggs, peanut but­ter, crack­ers, canned pineap­ple, bot­tled water, coke, cup-o-noo­dles, and milk for our cere­al.  We re-board­ed the van and a lady with a dra­con­ian accent ordered Lisa, “You will close the win­dow.”  Lisa either did not hear her or chose to ignore the instruc­tion. Drac­u­la repeat­ed loud­ly, “You will close the win­dow!”  Lisa said, “No.  I need the fresh air.”  The lady growled to her­self and mut­tered, “She won’t close the win­dow” under her breath.  Then she began snif­fling, an indi­ca­tion that she was falling ill.

We sub­se­quent­ly dis­cov­ered that this lady, a Ukrain­ian, ver­bal­ly and almost phys­i­cal­ly attacked anoth­er girl the fol­low­ing morn­ing whom she mis­took for Lisa.  The vic­tim, Jack­ie, was at first stunned by these unwar­rant­ed attacks and then was able to ame­lio­rate the sit­u­a­tion when she real­ized that the whole affair was a misunderstanding.

Mul­ti-head­ed Palm, Ton­ga — cred­it: Lisa Niv­er Rajna

At any rate, after Toni turned off the main road, swerv­ing to avoid a clus­ter of pot­holes, he asked who was stay­ing in the green house.  We were not sure what he meant but Lisa said, “We booked online but I’m not sure what col­or house we are stay­ing in.”  Toni said, “Well, what’s your name?”  “Raj­na?”  “No.”  “Niv­er?”  “No.”  “Lisa?” “Yes, Lisa, you will be in the green house.  A cou­ple, right?” Right.

We dropped off a Fin­ish cou­ple and the oth­er solo trav­el­ers at the blue house.  We thought that we were head­ing to the upscale green house.  Then Toni stat­ed as if fac­tu­al­ly, “So there are only two of you left, right?”  I did not say any­thing even though the Drac­u­la lady was still with us.  He asked again, “So there are only two, right?  I can’t see back there since I’m dri­ving.”  A Ton­gan girl who accom­pa­nied Toni final­ly said, “There are three.”  “Three!,” he shout­ed.  “How can there be three?  Who else is there?  Hel­lo?  Where are you stay­ing?”  Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Toni, Drac­u­la did not under­stand him. Toni briefly stopped the car, exas­per­at­ed.  He turned to see who was left.  When he noticed the Drac­u­la lady he yelled, “For Christ’s sake!  She’s already stay­ing with us.  We’ll drop her off with her bags, that’s where she needs to be!”

We debarked at the green house.  The Ton­gan girl in the van showed us to our room.  We had request­ed a room with a pri­vate bath­room; the ugly brick room that we were shown had the toi­let and show­er out­side the room and open toward the court­yard, not at all an en suite arrange­ment.  I must have looked dis­ap­point­ed because the Ton­gan girl said, “This room is not very nice.”  I said, “No, it’s not very nice.”  She fol­lowed with, “The yel­low house is much nicer.  I think that it would be bet­ter for you two.”  I asked, “Is it avail­able?”  She said, “It is avail­able but it costs 40TOP and the green house is 30TOP (about $5 US more).  I request­ed to see the room in the yel­low house.  It was much nicer, an actu­al home.  We took the larg­er room that shared the bath­room since no one else was there and being that the coun­try shuts down on Sun­days, we knew that no one would be there until Mon­day at the earliest.

We request­ed a tow­el, key, and match­es that were not wet so we could heat water in the morn­ing. The help­ful Ton­gan girl brought us every­thing we asked for and men­tioned that Toni was going to have an island tour that would depart at 10:00am.  Since every­thing was closed on Sun­day, we deemed it a good idea and agreed to head out on the tour even though I gen­er­al­ly detest tours.  After she left us, I poured us two rum and cokes with the duty free alco­hol that I had pur­chased in Fiji and we toast­ed to our “safe” arrival and laughed that after three weeks of sleep­ing in beach fales (Samoan beach huts) that we had a three-bed­room, two-bath­room house to our­selves, with pho­tos of two chil­dren placed above the tele­vi­sion enter­tain­ment center.

I thought, if this arrival was any indi­ca­tion of our upcom­ing Ton­ga expe­ri­ence, we were in store for quite a ride.

Lisa and George in Ton­ga — Cred­it: Jack­ie Duggan