Tonga, based near the Tongan Trench, has stunning dream-like paradise islands that entice visitors for there beauty, warmth and gorgeous blue pacific waters. We have often heard the reference "Island Time". And especially when our lives are so active, busy and engaging built on the demands of time this term sounds an attractive escape.
I wanted to go back to the Pacific after my experience in Fiji - Yasawa Islands many years ago. There I completed my Paddi Dive course and was sold on the Island people.
This year Jo and I went tramping at Rakiura/Stewart Island back at easter. We loved the trip. It was a little frantic as we were going to do a trip into Fiordland but the weather was very uncertain. Not wanting to spend 5 days crawling each day into a wet tent we changed our tack and bought tickets to Rakiura/Stewart Island. - without pre-planning! (Link to our images are at the end of this blog) This action of buying tickets and planning later seems to be our theme this year.
Jo did argue that Rakiura/Stewart Island was a tropical Island. However, I was not convinced so when we saw flights on sale with Air New Zealand I pushed my case again for a tropical experience. Within 30 minutes we had purchased tickets to Tonga! Initially, I thought we would go cycling and had visions of sleeping under a boat on the beaches. The truth was far far away from my fantasies that were more like the Robinson Crusoe or Pirates of the Caribbean experience.
As we spent time investigating our very unplanned adventure, we slowly came to the realisation I should have booked Samoa! As it turned out, cycle touring in Tonga was not a great option.
Setting our minds towards our unsuspecting adventure we decided to book limited accommodation and just see what comes our way. Keep it loose with plans and wanting to learn about the people and their culture. We wanted to listen and learn Tonga`s stories.
Tonga is an archipelago comprised of 171 islands, only 45 of which are inhabited. Tonga is among the eight nations in the Pacific region. The history of Tonga is recorded since 800 BC when seafarers associated with the Lapita diaspora first settled the islands which now make up the Kingdom of Tonga. Along with Fiji and Samoa, the area served as a gateway into the rest of the Pacific region known as Polynesia. A coral file found on a beach by archaeologists and researchers now puts the first Polynesian settlers having sailed to Tonga between 2,830 and 2,846 years ago, according to new research.
Our 'Island Life' experience was everything and more. Admittedly we are not the sort of people to sit on the beach in a deck chair and read the bestseller book. It's not our style.
Our aim was to learn, get to know the locals and photograph to tell their stories. We wanted to find the positive and celebrate this. However, the idea of gently burying toes into that warm sand, and dipping into the lukewarm pacific dreams become a reality. And so we lapped up our opportunities to gather our 'Island Time' and discover what that meant to us.
We took a short trip across to one of the neighbouring islands - Paingimoto Island. The short boat trip crosses from the mainland's capital, Nuku`alofa. Its iconic shipwreck allows for fun snorkelling and watching fish go by. Its a short walk around the island. At low tide, the Mangroves provide a wonderful display of blanched root systems. Lunch can be purchased, however, not much else is provided.
I admit this was my least favourite day of the Tongan trip only in the sense of engagement and visiting a resort. However, we did connect with the most lovely Sophie Meriotte, who is a teacher on New Caledonia and photographer herself, was on our whale swim experience the previous day. She created some wonderful videos on her whale swims (check out her page if you're interested) What struck me about meeting Sophie was her quietness on our whale swim, yet we did not connect at all until this second trip. It amazes me how, given the right timing and putting in the effort to talk you can learn so much about others. Sophie loves her bird photography and has a special affinity with nature. Its was great to meet someone that appreciated wildlife like Jo and I do.
The speed of life in Tonga can be pretty relaxed! 'Island Time' and being in a 'rush' are not cocktails often mixed in the Pacific. Demanding things to happen when you want them too won't speed them up; my advice is to take a deep breath, eat a chill pill and shift your expectations to a slower gear. To experience the art of patience, and if you're sitting there wondering what to do? I find taking the time to strike up a conversation with a local is so rewarding. If you approach it with a high level of authenticity it is always fascinating the stories you can learn, because everyone has a unique story to tell. Often the most wonderful thing to do is listen.
Heading over to the island I sat next to John Emberson. He had just come from hospital after a kidney issue. We chatted as he managed his portable catheter hanging out from him. It always amazes me what you learn! John was the brother of the person that owned the Island we were going too. He used to be a flight instructor in Sandiego, USA. He exuded a mischievious level of zest for life and was willing to chat away on our journey. Retired now, given his triple heart bypass surgery, it forced me to contemplate our own life's journey, and wondered how long he would last? It appeared Island life and Island time was perfect for John. When we reached the Island he pottered towards a deck chair even though he indicated he only lived 400 m away and promptly fell asleep not appearing to be in a rush to go anywhere. Close to our departure, he had gone, I presume to finally make his destination. We wish him all the very best!
On our return from our day trip from Paingimoto Island, this little critter appeared scuttling around the small boat. A tradesman caught it. Quite concerned he was going to toss the Geko in the drink, there were enough comments to abate a potentially long and deathly swim from customers. However, I could see patience wearing thin so I stole the chance to photograph. The delay tactic worked and as we made the shore he let it go on the wharf. Phew! Living to see another day. I wonder how he/she is doing now on the mainland? Hopefully a long and merry life as a gecko with many families :)
Lax, chilled, calm are just some words that may describe the 'Island Life' time in the Pacific. And a trip of this sort might be just up your alley, for complete relaxation and revitalisation.
Other Islands we would love to visit in the future next time are Ataata and Fēfē which provide more options in recreational activities and much larger resorts. Access to these can be gained by a short boat trip from Nuku'alofa. We seriously wanted to go north to the outer islands but lacked the time and so instead we invested in whale swimming and meeting many, many people. The other Islands will have to wait till next time.
There is no doubt an experience swimming with Humpback whales will leave you 'Jaw Dropped'. I looked at purchasing a waterproof housing for my camera and fell off my chair when I found out prices. At least the same price or more of my camera! $3k+. So I dug out my old Go Pro and revved the batteries up again. In hindsight I wish I had videoed as the sounds of these beautiful animals are magical.
We booked with the company running from Nuku'alofa called Deep Blue - https://deepbluediving.to. Their staff were warm, friendly and very helpful for our trip. The same company runs from the Island of 'Eua. This was the big tourist spend for us and I have to say I am super duper glad we did it - so worth it! We learnt the best times were between June - October so heading over in August gave us an excellent opportunity.
The company staff are strict with their interaction with whales, never approaching another boat that has a whale near it, only letting four swimmers in at a time and recognising the whales come first in their endeavour to run a sustainable tourism business. Our first swim was average, however, after changing locations to near a reef we were presented with this privileged opportunity. We swam over to be near this Mother and calf. And then we just bobbed in the ocean hanging out in front of these two! Wow-what a time and they were amazingly calm and chilled not perturbed by our presence. It was a jaw-dropping experience and very humbling. It topped the day beyond words.
Swimming with whales is an amazing experience and we learnt often people go out many times. That's out of our mega-budget (However if you read our last blog https://www.andythompsonphotographynz.co.nz/blog/friendly-people you would have read about our amazing experience from the Waka ama and whales!)
Back at Nuku'alofa, I had visions that the way we were going to get around Tongatapu was by bicycle. However, getting hold of bikes proved challenging and a hire car only cost us 50 Pi`anga. So with that option within our grasp, we set out to explore the main island of Tongatapu. One spectacular area we stopped at was the tourist favourite - The Blow Holes.
While there, waiting for the next big wave to smash against the reef, we spotted these fisherman standing on the edge of the reef. Decked out in overalls, gumboots and super long bamboo fishing rods. We watched in awe as they often were engulfed by the rolling pacific ocean hoping to snare a great dinner.
These gutsy guys had some good-sized catches, but not as good as usual, he told us later. Pretty full-on fishing! Fishing makes up a large part of the wildlife surrounding Tonga and many survive on its harvest.
As usual for me, I initially did not see much birdlife. That's because I am not much of a 'twitcher'. However, I was gently reminded if you take the time to look there is plenty. Tonga does have some wonderful birds. And if you keep an eye out you will see many varied species.
To see birds you just have to be prepared to spend time searching. And like all parts of the world to see great wildlife patience is often the virtue that will reap the benefits. I am no bird photographer by any means, however, I still get a little obsessed in taking images to capture their beauty. Back at Port Chalmers, it is a running joke between Jo and I about photographing the Grey Heron. I love their sleek appearance and the way they fly graciously. However, my nemesis always seems to know when I am getting my telephoto lens on and I am sure deliberately leaves when I am ready to press the shutter button! I am not one to dress up in camo gear, nor do I have the patience to sit all day in a hide. Another bird that fascinated me is the Kingfisher. Photographing a Kingfisher has been a far off distant possibility because at home - Port Chalmers, New Zealand, they take off so fast. And no... I am not getting into camo!
So when I found this one that just sat in the tree while I photographed, happy delights and backflips were happening in my mind. I admire the colours and shape of these birds. Kind of a cross between Woody Wood Pecker from Disneyland, and Spitfire and Kuckaborough with one of my favourite colours blue.
This Pacific reef heron (Egretta sacra), also known as the eastern reef heron or eastern reef egret, is a kind of heron. One of my nemesis for bird photography! I love their crazy eyes and this one is eyeing up a juicy morsel insect about to snatch it up. Yum, yum.
The great aspect to photographing and or looking for local fauna is it slows you down. It forces you to listen and observe and I find the rewards are worth it, as it helps me start to see far more. If you combine this with 'Island Life" it starts to seep gently into your veins in a wonderful way.
Reflections - Island Life
Island life in Tonga is a must for anyone wanting to experience the pacific. What makes the Pacific are the people, culture and all the wonderful aspects it has to offer. Given the Kingdom is adjacent to the Tongan trench, engaging with the Humpback whales is a must too! I recommend going there to get to know people. Go there to listen and take time to understand their culture and what it means to them. Respect who they are and respect the land. You will be surprised at what you will learn.
I acknowledge I am no expert on Tonga or its people, wildlife or culture. and remain open to learning more about this beautiful nation. A great example of ensuring you do not fall into the trap of only knowing the one stories you hear check this link below - it's very cool!
Andy & Jo
We would love you to leave a comment below.
For more images please go to https://www.andythompsonphotographynz.co.nz/portfolio/travel-photography
Images of our Rakiura/Stewart Island trip can be seen at https://www.andythompsonphotographynz.co.nz/portfolio/landscapes/rakiura-stewart-island
The Danger of a Single Story https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg