Welcome to `Eua - Tonga. Well, first you have to get there.
On purchasing our tickets at the terminal the day before we were informed to arrive 2.5 hours early. Apparently the ferry sometimes leaves early without notice! That's Tongan time for ya... or actually the weather!
The terminal is a flash modern building that Tongan people would be proud of. With plenty of time before depature we managed to strike up conversations with people, and of course, play around with photography. My model below was more than willing to play hide n seek with me and my camera lens, and it was fun to whittle the time away waiting for our water ride.
The ferry boarded perfectly on time. We found a seat on the upper deck and settled in for the journey. The ferrycrossing, although relatively short, stretches deep ocean and later we learnt we were extremely lucky for such a smooth crossing.
Our destination, `Eua Island, is not volcanic but was shaped by the rubbing of the Tonga plate against the Pacific plate, pushing ʻEua up and leaving the 7 km deep Tonga trench on the bottom of the ocean, a short distance towards the east. So you could imagine the crossing can be very rough with large rolling ocean swells.
Tonga Trench, submarine trench creates the floor of the South Pacific Ocean, about 1,375 km in length, forming the eastern boundary of the Tonga Ridge; the two together constitute the northern half of the Tonga-Kermadec Arc, a structural feature of the Pacific floor completed to the south by the Kermadec Trench and Ridge. The Tonga Trench has an average depth of 6,000m and a width of about 80 km; it reaches a maximum depth of 10,882 m.
Sitting there watching Nuku`alofa get smaller from the rear of the ferry I reminded myself partly why we had made the journey. It was to photograph the people and show their culture through photography. I wanted to listen to their stories and learn. And when your tired or feel insular it is easy not to have the courage to photograph people. That's exactly how I felt. However, next to me was a big man whose face showed so much character and experience I desperately wanted to capture him in an image. After a little time, I mustered some energy and courage to start chatting.
I constantly check myself as what my motives are. It is important as a photographer to question your intention because I believe if you are to photograph someone it must be done with a high level of integrity and authenticity. How can you tell their story that lifts their mana? Otherwise, I consider motives may only become self-serving and littered with deviance.
On the ferry, I got chatting to the Pastor Beni Latu. He and his wife (who unfortunately suffered seasickness on the way over) were going to attend a funeral on the island. On the mainland. Beni is a pastor of a church in Auckland, New Zealand and had been for many many years. It struck me that religion is a staple for many Tongans and it helps to give structure and guidance to many. After some time chatting, I had to then conjure the courage to ask him if we would let me take his photograph. He accepted my offer and I knew I had only a few short moments to capture Beni and manage to portray him.
My final image shows a man sketched in so much life experience, history and kindness. I love his smile and flaring nostril hairs with the glint in his eyes. A man of honour and someone that would be willing to listen to someone in trouble. That to me is who Pastor Beni Latu is.
On our travels, we met many people that were connected to churches and their giving and kind natures were astounding. Compassion and love were the underlying foundations of their beings and chatting to people like Beni was a privilege. I am pretty reserved on how religion has damaged the human race at a world scale, however, I certainly see the good it does for communities. These are the great sides of the story and what a wonderful experience to meet these two.
Arriving at `Eua we had no clue as to who we were to meet, and if anyone was even going to be there, as they had not replied to the emails we sent. Off the ferry, many people hugged, welcomed and collected their friends, family and guests. Finally, we met two girls (Deon and Louisa or Isa) in their mid-20s in a beat-up ute. We were ushered into the vehicle, and sat squashed in the back waiting to go ...somewhere?
The cackle conversation rolled on in the front seat, while they smoked a ciggy. All was in Tongan except I did understand the words Mother F_ _ _ker! Finally, they instructed us they were waiting for a client to come back and pay. He finally arrived, his conversation was, "next time I will bring the Vodka and shots"! Both Jo and I wondered what we were in for? However, we rolled with the punches. The experience was raw and gritty and that's why we came.
After driving the local circuit to see and drop off mates we had the tour around their local old school and then finally we bounced off south to Tania's Place for our accommodation.
Our three nights at Tania's place was nothing short of character, raw, authentic and beautiful. Spending a short time with this family proved to be amazing. They were such loving and wonderful people that looked after us. The girls ran the place after Tania (the mother) had passed away. The Father had remarried and his new wife worked at the hospital in a full-time job as a nurse. What I wondered was how was I going to tell their stories in images?
Top left is the two that picked us up, bottom left is little mischief, and the two sisters above right are so sweet and giving peppered with innocence, yet slowly learning what life is really like. While the bottom three images portray a young lad (Safo) with energy, cheekiness and curiosity for life. Capturing these to best represent part of the family took me two and a half days observing and totally enjoying all of their vitality and love for their family. They are beautiful people.
Tanias Place is located at the southern end of `Eua Island. Reaching our destination our first impressions are made by a sense of quietness and fairly well-groomed landscaped grounds that's tidy and welcoming.
We were shown to our cabin accommodation and stored our gear inside. Immediately we wonder if we should have brought more. The thin soft mattress was covered with a bedspread and a couple of pillows. However, nothing the girls couldn't sort so finally we had some sheets to accompany our bed.
Night falls fast being closer to the equator, and often new creatures come to visit. Most evenings we had the delight of our gecko visitor, clicking away. So I grabbed the macro lens and decided on its behalf we should have a photo session.
The herpetofauna of Tonga, consisting of 20 known species, is considered depauperate or lacking in numbers. There is one iguanid, nine geckos, nine skinks, and the Pacific boa (Candoia bibroni). The iguanid, the South Pacific banded iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus), is also found in Fiji and is believed to have rafted from the Americas (Allison 1996). The species is Endangered (Hilton-Taylor 2000). The skink Tachygia microlepsis is considered Extinct (Hilton-Taylor 2000). (Kingdom of Tonga and Niue, North of New Zealand (n.d). Retrieved October 4, 2019 from https://www.worldwildlife.org/ecoregions/oc0114).
I love their feet and how they stick to the surface no matter what the angle! Eventually, they had to be ushered out of our room after my photo portrait session, otherwise, they would keep us awake all night with their chattering.
However, as time wore on and we got to know a little more about him, in our short stay, he grated on us and became irritating, perhaps we were to him too? What struck me about this experience is although this person had been now travelling for a few years (approx 6), he really did seem to be just wandering and passing through; he seemed to have no connection with the people around him or to places he had been, just a list of ticked off destinations. His persona was all about 'self'. I did not have enough time to chat with this person and nor did I have the inclination due to the portrayal of self-importance, however I did observe how I considered it a sad position to be in life and felt he was missing out on many riches life and travel can offer; like getting to know the locals, appreciating the culture and engaging in this as much as possible. We are no better. But there is so much to be gained in listening to the locals and engaging in their stories.
We wanted to head out for an explore, so our next walk was not going to have a third person. In fact, our third companion was an unsuspecting, beautiful dog we started to name 'Guide Dog'.
Keen to head to the ocean for a swim, we grabbed our gear and walked down the road. After a 5km stroll down the road we reached the end of the Island. This was our first swim and I was super keen to get in. However, the currents depending on the tides can be dangerous so I was very tentative. Once in, oh how that water was divine to soak in. Nothing like Otago Harbour! The gradient in temperature compared to home was a steep yummy change. The tropical dream was alive and well!
On our walk to the beach, we were joined by another traveller. I can not remember his name, but we were happy for the company, at least to begin.
We really weren't too worried where we ended up, the key was to get out and explore. And with 'Guide Dog - Sarapi' we walked most of the day, enjoying the birdlife and fresh smells of the forest. The borrowed map gave us clues, however, you know what forestry roads can be like. They take a life path of their own, so after many interesting turns, we backtracked to the accommodation.
A dog's life in Tonga can be great or pretty rough. No registration or rules and there are hundreds of dogs in most places. Generally, they are ok, but we did come across a few aggressive ones.
In fact, every time we wandered on foot from Tania's place out of all four dogs Sarapi ('Guide Dog') decided to come with us every time. It didn't take long for Jo and I to create a soft spot for 'Guide Dog - Sarapi'. We fell into the habit of asking 'Guide Dog - Sarapi' for directions when a crossroad appeared. Sounds ridiculous but it was fun to think he was guiding us.
Walking into `Eua's forest gave a new perspective on Tonga. the hills are sketched with rough roads and logging is evident at the outskirts. It is made up of plantations of Pine trees, Red Cedar, Mahogany, Teek, Cowry Trees, Gum Trees, Sandalwood and many more, and then as you explore deeper there are pockets of native forests. You will see fauna consisting of Red Shinning Parrots, whitetail tropic birds and white terns.
That afternoon we connected with several people. One, in particular, was Kalisi Pakalani that works for the Tongan Community Development Trust. She and her husband drove us around the Island to visit families and households to see the wonderful work they were doing. Key work was establishing freshwater infrastructures and repairs after Hurricane Greta in February 2018.
While visiting families and places seeing all the good work that was done we stopped by and met several people painting an amazing large Tapa cloth made from the bark of a tree. The paint is either clay or from the boiled root of a plant.
The material takes hours to be softened by beating it. However, the bulk of the time is taken in creating the designs and completing the painting. These artists are incredibly talented and the techniques used are taught from person to person.
The finished product is called a Ngatu.
Have you been to church in Tonga? You should!
It is a 'must' for every visitor and it is a privilege to attend. Customary for many on a Sunday, like it used to be in Aotearoa/New Zealand, while shops shut their doors. A great time for families to join together in sharing Kai and worship. What stood the hairs on the back of my kneck up was the singing.
When people start singing you start questioning where the sound system and recording is? It is amazing and I reckon almost all Tongan people must be born singers. It simply is beautiful and nothing like you have ever experienced before. It is something you need to do yourself to really understand and get the full experience. No matter what your beliefs are it makes spirituality come to life that you will never forget. At this Tongan Free Church, we were warmly welcomed by all.
Religion in Tonga is very strong and rooted deep in the veins of many Tongan residents. In fact, Brigham Smoot and Alva J. Butler were the first Latter-day Saints to attempt to bring the gospel to the Tongan islands. They landed on July 15, 1891, at Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu. Their arrival seemed well-timed, as the Tongan legislature was holding its annual meeting. Church Growth in Tonga has grown over the centuries. Historical and Cultural Connections, October 5, 2019, Retrieved from https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/regional-studies-latter-day-saint-church-history/3-church-growth-tonga-historical-and
Now there is a wide range of religions that cover all the pacific Islands and the strength and significance seem still very relevant and important to many people.
Our time remaining on the Island was fast ending. And heading back to the mainland meant we had to catch a ride with the Father of the house. He was a captain on the cargo ship and so was leaving at 04:00. Heading home almost seemed sad. Our very short time on the island offered so much more and I know with more time we could have gotten to know more about peoples stories and lives. Maybe we could have done some of the work required to help, or at least to have empowered others to help themselves more importantly.
The sail return was once again smooth. We cracked the lucky crossing and as the warm breeze passed through the open deck the sun finally rose, colouring a brilliant morning sky.
Looking back 'Eua held many mysteries we still would love to uncover. Like all communities, there are dark and light sides. However, I know there is so much goodness in the people there. The land is fun to explore and we would have loved to have had bikes. Getting around is tricky unless you pay for a guided trip. The Whale swimming is very good off 'Eua given the water clarity and that would be a must next time. It is the same company that runs from Nuku`alfoa.
On our way to the wharf it was the first decent conversation I managed to have with the Father (Tei). While chatting I asked about the sea, this was, of course, his domain. It was the first time we really had talked. His wife (Tovi) had told me earlier he had suffered pneumonia from working long hours in the cold and wet. It was good she worked at the hospital! You could sense he was a hard worker and providing for his family was his job. I enjoyed the chat and wished I could have got to know him more.
Reaching the wharf crowds of people were loading and waiting to get aboard. Monday morning was a busy place at 0430am.
What was the best part? The uncertainty of the start with our hosts! However as we slowly learnt their family were real, and we loved their authentic non-touristic way of dealing with us. Gritty and honest which allowed us to see an inkling of the trials and tribulations people face. What was the most significant? Family and how sisters and brothers looked after each other, and although we both know this, it kindly reminded us how important it is to not judge others on what they have, rather on how they treat others.
We will miss 'Guide Dog - Serepi'
Andy & Jo :)
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For more images go to my travel gallery and click on Tongan People & Culture.