Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tonga Part 1: Exploring, Whale Watching

At first inspection the islands of Tonga are the same as many of the islands in the Caribbean, but after spending five days there, I've come to appreciate the more subtle differences.  Tonga is a group of 176 islands (only 36 are inhabited) in the South Pacific.  If you look at the International Dateline it veers around the islands just to the East, making them one of the first countries to start each day.  So for four days I saw the sun rise and the night fall before 99% of the rest of the world....pretty awesome.

Arriving at the airport
Tonga is the only Pacific nation to never have been ruled by a foreign power.  It isn't as touristy at the other islands in the South Pacific which can be great, as long as you know what to expect.  The trip to Tonga was planned about a month ago when I just needed to get away.  I would have been happy to go alone to spend some time by myself on the beach, instead I had what turned out to be a great group of friends join me.  Janine (my English flatmate), Lindsay (Janine's Scottish friend), Amanda (one of my Kiwi friends), and Robert (a South African guy I had met a few times through mutual friends) all piled into my Honda to head to the airport at 4:30am on Thursday morning.  Each of us from different countries, with different backgrounds, all seasoned travellers..this was just one more experience.

We arrived in Tonga with our luggage in tow and our duty-free liquor purchased, the weather was overcast and a bit rainy so after checking into the hotel we headed into the main town on the island and the capital - Nuku 'Alofa.  There were a few main streets and as our hostess from the Heilala Lodge (also our driver in this case) gave us a short tour she pointed out the main sights including the markets, a few cafes, a tourist friendly bar (unbeknownst to us at the time we would be regular visitors during our five day stay), and the two storey building that was until recently the tallest building in the Kingdom.  It was a nice tour around the town and we took advantage of it to get our bearings before setting out on foot.

Even with valiant efforts potatoes don't stir fry

After lunch, we found our way to the fruit and veg market where we purchased some things for a stir-fry dinner (which really just turned into a starchy mess, but tasted good despite appearances).  We stopped at the only ice-cream place in town and headed to the grocery store before heading back to our hotel on the far west side of the island.  Overall, it was a good introduction to Tongatapu (the main island) and a nice way to spend a day that wasn't ideal for the beach.

The next day we organized a whale watching tour with one of the few outfits on the main island.  It turned out to be the five of us and our Swedish skipper, Yves.  So for $750 NZD we chartered a private 54' sailboat for what became an awesome day of whale watching.

The Sea Star with our Skipper, Yves
The Southern Humpback whales migrate to Tonga every winter for mating season making July-October ideal months for whale watching.  The day was really windy so we had trouble seeing much of anything in the morning.  Around lunchtime we were distracted by a few porpoises playing in our wake when Yves slowed down the boat and pointed just off the side where he was predicting a whale was going to surface.  Sure enough a ginormous whale emerged about 20 feet off the side of the starboard side.

During the rest of the day we estimated that we saw approximately 10-12 whales, some on multiple occasions.  We saw whales surfacing, fluking (raising their tales as they dove deep), breeching (jumping into the air), and mating.  When two of them swam under our boat (we saw their huge white bellies go by in the crystal clear water) I nervously realised that we were truly at their mercy.

We finished off the day with a tour of a small island (Fafa Island) off the coast with very nice (aka expensive) accommodations.  The fales (pronounced "fa-lay" which is Tongan for house) had open bathrooms and cleverly designed power and other conveniences which meant it was a cross between a beach hut and a modern apartment for the low price of $500 NZD per night.  After our island tour, we headed back to our own more moderate hotel for a quick change and shower before walking down the beach for a cultural show and night on the town.

More to come:  Cultural Dances, Local Bar, Church, Bike ride, Tongan Men (and women), Photos

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