Mālō ē lelei (Hello), is the warm welcome you feel when you step off the plane in The Kingdom of Tonga. Which is only a short three-hour flight from Aotearoa/ New Zealand with Air New Zealand.
The reputation as being 'friendly' or 'warm' was first bestowed upon Tonga and it's people by Captin James Cook when he visited the Islands back in 1777 calling them 'The Friendly Islands'. And what a place to visit! Outside of the resorts, it is unpolished, gitty and unfailingly authentic. You almost immediately experience the essence of Tongan hospitality which is 'Ofa Atu/ love.
The facebook site can be found at Nuku'alofa Outrigger Club. If you do get in touch and go for a paddle, it would be worthy to consider a small koha.
Before we even got to Tonga both Jo and I were chatting to as many people to gain insights into contacts and where to go. Admittedly it was not forthcoming and by the time we arrived, I felt no further in my connections. However, what was a glimmer of hope was our connection with the Nuku`alofa Outrigger Club. Beth was our main contact, ironically a New Zealander (Tongan brought up in Aotearoa) that was very organised and a great communicator, who was teaching in Nuku 'alofa.
They meet every Wednesday evening at 17:30, and usually there is someone out in the Waka Ama for the first time. We found that the Nuku`alofa Outrigger Club is made up a great bunch of people, which showcases how amazing the culture of Waka ama and Tonga truly is. Friendly, helpful and supportive we joined them for their club meets. Heading out for a paddle was an exciting prospect. Suddenly we felt we weren't tourists, we were enjoying being just part of the crew, focused on paddle timing and changes (hups).
What was super cool, was the sunrise paddle we arranged to do with Beth on our second to last day. Beth was awesome and organised a crew. We paddled off at 06:00 across to Pangimoto Island. After a most stunning sunrise with laughter, we were paddling back across the harbour, when Jo, who was in the seat no: 2, yelled out, "Whales!". All the locals disregarded it as a stingray, however, we came to a silent pause, while the quietness of the morning slowly draped over, three humpback whales surfaced right in front of us.
Our jaws all dropped into the hull of the Waka and we took in the sounds and sights of the raw energy of these beautiful animals as they blew mists of air and water directly up. They disappeared and the 'Oh my Gosh' reactions started between the crew.
You could not have written the script any better for the morning. and as we watched the whales surface again they circumnavigated the harbour and swam right past our morning sunrise island spot to head again out to sea. Apparently a very rare sight so close to Nuku 'alofa.
Making contacts and time to listen to people started to give us a gateway to learning peoples stories. In return, it helped us connect thus leading to other invites and opportunities that could never have happened otherwise. After an evening club paddle, Beth mentioned there was an art opening for a friend. It was based at the Tanoa Dateline Hotel. So after cleanup, we went along to see a local artists work.
It was a display of amazing portraits. the exhibition was called Tongi'i e tupe."This body of work is about our youth. We rely on our youth to make our future better. We're nurturing our youth right now so that they can take our little island to the next level. 'Tongi'i e tupe' is a saying from a long lost throwing game that our ancestors used to play - called 'Lafo.'. 'Tongi'i e tupe' is when you want to change, you do it - but you have to push/replace/force the leading person who may be winning or the losing is up to you." - Taniela Petelo 2019 https://www.facebook.com/events/710434586059250/ .
The late evening led us to enjoy dinner together at Chef Zero, which served amazing seafood, while the conversation ran us away late into the night. Art and culture are strong in Tonga and while walking around the town we managed to find more art.
Taken together, the art practices of weaving and barkcloth making in Tonga are called koloa, a term denoting value, understood in this context in relation to the wealth and self-empowerment of women who make these art objects. These artistic languages are extraordinary both for their stunning visual richness and for their significance as contemporary art practice. As such, they are work of highly sophisticated artistic, ecological, navigational, and sociopolitical complexity. Their inscription through material and graphic vocabularies trace patterns of exchange across the more than 200 islands of the Kingdom of Tonga, and beyond.
Para Site, (n.d). Retrieved September 10, 2019, from (Koloa: Women, Art and Textiles, in Nuku’alofa — Para Site)
Privileged to find this display of traditional art presented in the Langafonua Centre, Nukuālofa, we met Tanya Edwards, who is a contemporary artist and curator of the community gallery - Me'A'Ofa Gallery. Tanya was a delight to meet and helped us appreciate the stories and rich history within this amazing collection.
An international presentation of the life-long research of Lady Dowager Tunakaimanu Fielakepa, one of the Kingdom of Tonga`s foremost knowledge-holders of customary arts.
Before coming to Tonga we were told there were limited fresh food supplies. So we packed plenty of supplies from Aotearoa/New Zealand. When we arrived in-country we were asked if we had any raw food. I had apples and pears so declared these. The customs chap inspected the fruit that was stickers and after some deliberation announced I could not take them into the country. Then after some more conversations with his colleagues declared I could take them if I paid13 Pa`anga, otherwise, I could eat them all there and then! Eating 8 apples was the impossible task nor was I going to pay the money. So I decided to eat at least one.
So while being observed by 5 custom officers I selected the largest apple and munched my way through. It took some time, however, I was determined not to let at least one go to waste. On my exit, I did point out they should eat the rest - who knows what they did?
Markets around Nuku`alofa are amazing! Especially in the season of August.
We had no problems sourcing fresh food. Fresh tomatoes, watermelon, banana, fish, were abundant on our visit, to name just a few. There is so much amazing fresh food in August. And remember it is seasonal.
It is a way of life and the many Tonga people make a living, vital to their survival and the economy. However, don't just go there to buy food or other stuff. Go there to talk to people. Make authentic conversation and get to know peoples stories. That's what will make your experience stand apart from any other. It is your positive genuine interaction with people that will help you start the journey to understand their Tongan culture. All this wonderful goodness and interesting people selling at the markets make for a rich experienced day out just in itself.
This particular ice cream cart (below) was the best! Set up near the mariner they served waffle coned ice creams and I always managed to get two scoops! What a yummy treat (note treat) to have on our travels. Problem was it did get a bit addictive so if I was there long term that 'addiction' would have to be curbed. :) .. somehow?
The Kingdom of Tonga has a long rich history deeply rooted in culture. It is the last kingdom in the Pacific. We happened to be there after the celebration of the present kings 60th birthday. It appeared a long birthday as advertising was everywhere. Tonga like all other countries has skeletons within its own closets. A dark and rough past of unsettled times, civil war and warlords. However, today Tonga and its 172 islands are presently a peaceful nation, enjoying a Monarchy that is seemingly intent on retaining that. Only today (12 September 2019) did we learn of the passing of the Prime Minister - Samiuela Akilisi Pohiva who fought for democracy and equality of the Tongan people.
Tonga is more than a Pacific getaway for visitors seeking warmth from the wintery grips of their country! Yes, the Pacific offers that. However, it has so much more than just sitting on a beach and reading the best seller you just brought at the airport.
There is no doubt the disparity between the rich and poor exists. And waste management is a struggle. However, most of the world's countries struggle with all the same issues! I would suggest most European and Western countries have more infrastructure and economy so are better at cleaning up humans lazy mess. We could have focused our trip on that, ie photographing and digging out the negative in any country. And we do not have rose-tinted glasses to the problems we see.
Our trip was not aimed at finding out what was wrong. Our trip was aimed at finding what amazing good work people were doing. The incredibly positive outcomes from programmes like that of the Tongan Community Development Trust, Bridge of Hope, talented artists, sportspeople and people that you will never know about in everyday life that are doing amazing things for the environment and others. These are the true unsung legends of Tonga.
Rich in history, culture, arts, food, sports and wildlife. What makes this country are the people you meet. What was exceptionally unique was the more we asked to learn with the people we meet the more we were invited in. Tongans are humble and most gracious people strong in their beliefs. Persist and you will find once you have gained true trust their ability to open up and welcome you into their hearts is like being embraced by a warm cosy fire.
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The next blog is about Island life. For more images from this trip go to https://www.andythompsonphotographynz.co.nz/portfolio/travel-photography
Andy & Jo