Turbulent Tonga — Part Three

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.