The Great Little Tongatapu South Pacific Ocean Drive

You will have heard of South Australia’s Great Ocean Road and the long road trips of the California coast. Well, here’s another classic to add to your bucket list: the Great Little Tongatapu South Pacific Ocean Drive.

Liina and I were both in the mood to expand our horizons and pioneer new routes, pushing forward the frontiers for others to follow, so we agreed to embark on an expedition that was an epic in miniature: the circumnavigation of the island of Tongatapu. This is the biggest of 190 islands that make up the Kingdom of Tonga, located in the remotest parts of the South Pacific ocean. These islands are near to the international date line, where even without a Tardis, you can time-travel back into yesterday by going just a bit further to the east. Tonga is well off the beaten track, even for most twenty-first century backpacking explorers. Despite both of us having travelled extensively, for each of us it was the first time to venture to these exotic islands.

We needed to hire a suitable vehicle for our road trip. Nothing happens too quickly in the tropical heat. Compared to the ghost-town doldrums of the sabbath though, this Monday morning was a storm of busy-ness. Sunday is taken seriously here by a church-going people, who seem to have more places of worship per head of population than most other countries. Today there were cars on the road again but even the traffic moved slowly. And in the vehicle hire office, nobody was at risk of being prosecuted for speeding. We made enquiries and various discussions took place in Tongan between the staff behind the counter, perhaps regarding our requests, or maybe about the price of fish: we’ll never know. One of the things about travelling is that you don’t know what the feck is going on half the time, but you have to get used to the uncertainty or go crazy. Eventually we signed the necessary paperwork, paid the rental and security bond, in cash with Tongan Pa’anga banknotes, then proudly took charge of our Nissan bearing the Tonga registration plate R1622. As is traditional at the start of such an adventure, we took a team photo.

Liina was one of those backpackers I’ve had the good fortune to meet, purely by chance, on my travels; when the paths of solo travellers cross each other, in a random manner that’s beyond calculation, yet join up for a short time, creating brief partnerships more special than could ever be engineered. Such coincidences make you think how just a little change in either or our schedules might have meant that our trajectories would have missed each other, and we’d never have met. Equally, it’s imponderable to fathom what other encounters might have happened, to us or anyone, but didn’t, because of a late-running bus, a missed train, or a delay due to some other setback. Travelling separately on different routes and schedules, we had nevertheless arrived in Tonga at the same time and the two of us shared a ride on the back of a pickup truck to our hostel, the Village Backpackers. Our first views of Tonga were backwards, looking over the tailgate as the truck headed towards town, creating a cooling breeze at our backs to temper the afternoon heat. Receding behind us, we had an open-air moving panorama of churches, graveyards, little shops and coconut palms. On the journey we talked, finding we had things in common besides an addiction to travel, both of us having written two books. I also knew some places and people in Liina’s country, Estonia. (Later we were to find a mutual friend on Facebook. Maybe it’s not such a big world, after all.)

For our road trip, we agreed that I would drive and Liina would navigate. I familiarised myself with the vehicle and Liina had her marked-up map at the ready. We also had global positioning system satellite navigation apps on our smartphones, unlike Captain Cook, who had got here centuries before us, yet somehow managed it without an iPhone. In fact the first destination on our little voyage was Captain Cook’s Landing. This is where he and his crew on the Endeavour came ashore on his third visit here, in 1777. I joked that he probably chose to land here because there’s a gift shop and toilets. I suppose the monument to his arrival must have been built later. My navigator wasn’t impressed by the cleanliness of the ladies’ conveniences so we continued without lingering there long. Captain Cook had named these islands the ‘Friendly Isles’ because of the hospitality shown to foreigners by the indigenous people at the time, which continues to this day, and tallied with our own experience here. Everyone we met was welcoming whenever we  stopped and children waved as we went by. Fruit and vegetables were on sale from numerous small stalls along the roadside and we stopped to look at the produce on offer, some of it familiar to us, other things less so. Everything was organic though there was no need to label it as such. We bought a pineapple and the stall-holder kindly cut it for us to eat right away. Walking off the road and into the tiny villages we found pigs roaming around, the first of many we would see in the villages and on the shores.

We continued along the ocean road. Neither the driving nor navigation were arduous tasks. Once we had left ’town’ (the word used on the official road signs for the biggest ‘city’) traffic was light to non-existent; we saw just a few cars, some small trucks and the occasional minibus. Moreover, on this early part of the journey, the roads were in decent condition. Also, from my point of view, they drive on the correct side of the road here, though Estonians and others might disagree with that opinion. Similarly undemanding, the main skill required for navigating comprised of making sure that the ocean, never far from this coastal road, always remained on our left. The main challenge was finding some of the smaller points of interest marked on the map of our treasured island. Many of the villages were of the “blink and you’ll miss it” variety. Liina spoke perfect English but hadn’t heard this colloquialism, which amused her, so we adopted it for the journey and often found good reason to repeat it. More than once we had to go back to find a missed turning or a hidden place of interest.

At the ancient terraced tombs it rained a little. This was the tropical rainy season, often overcast though still hot and humid, with occasional breaks in the cloud to uncurtain a scorching sun. There were storms at night but during the day the rain was less than a drizzle, what I’d call ‘spitting’ back home, but with warm water. Unlike in Europe, light rain isn’t a concern here, in fact it’s refreshing and we never thought about putting any extra clothing over our t-shirts and shorts. Unbothered by this light tropical sprinkling we pulled off the road at a cemetery to explore gaudy graves, adorned elaborately with all kinds of colourful fabrics. One grave was decorated with upturned bottles planted around its edge, an example of the creative use of unconventional and inexpensive materials to honour the dead. Also there were more conventional gravestones engraved with names, dates and epitaphs. We had stopped here because of the historic significance of the terraced tombs nearby, but this was just one of the many ordinary small graveyards we had seen everywhere. Ordinary, yet extraordinary enough for us to spend some time there, curiously looking around and taking photos.

At the beach we found ‘fishing pigs’ ploughing furrows along the sand with their snouts, eating crabs and whatever other shellfish they could discover. We watched piglets follow their mothers, trying to imitate this hunting technique with their tender pink noses. At low tide the pigs wade into the sea to catch floundering fish and other tasty prey. They say it gives the pork a special flavour. At this and many other places along the shore we found local people sitting chatting under the palm trees, the background music a medley of the waves lapping gently on the shore and the nearby laughter of children.

Sea cucumbers are so called because they look very much like the vegetable, not the long smooth English variety from which the classic sandwiches are made, but more like the smaller knobbly gherkin type of cucumber you’d more likely find pickled in a jar in a delicatessen. In fact these sea cucumbers are animal, not vegetable. Local people collect them from the sea by the bucketful and empty them into wheelbarrows on the beach to be taken to sell at local markets. At the beach, families were working, wading into the sea to scoop out these and other edible creatures, or sitting in the sand, gutting and cleaning them. As visitors we were as welcome as ever. We looked around and asked various people about their community industry. One lady offered us a sea cucumber to taste, demonstrating the method of eating them, by breaking them in half, then squeezing out the snotty, stringy insides to pour directly into your mouth. I wished she hadn’t offered, but it would have been rude to decline such kind hospitality, so I braced myself, took a deep breath, and ate one. It’s jelly-like texture tasted of nothing but a slight salty, delicately fishy flavour. I noticed that Liina, usually so keen to engage with local people and experience exotic cultures, somehow managed to dodge this delight. Instead, she acted as the official photographer for the event.

We took many photos of the people we met and they were always willing to smile for the camera or join us in the picture. Whole families were in the water here, working, fully clothed. I wanted to take a photo of a big woman with her two sons, collecting food in the shallow water with their buckets. Out of courtesy rather than necessity I asked her permission to take her photo. She not only agreed but seemed exceptionally delighted to be asked, then started frolicking in the water, posing provocatively as if I were a photographer on a glamour shoot. Now realising the misunderstanding I’d created by the flattery of singling her out, I nevertheless took several photos of the clothed fat lady splashing in the brown sandy water, while Liina was bent double with laughter. Perhaps the subject of my portraits is now thinking she’ll feature on an international calendar of seaside beauties. Such misunderstandings often occur between cultures when travelling, sometimes causing confusion or embarrassment or even worse, but this was one of the more light-hearted examples of how things are often lost in translation.

Moving at the slow pace of ‘Tonga time’, we were in no rush. Sometimes we’d have to slow down further because of village dogs lying in the road. Eventually they would get up and walk off with a ‘whatever’ attitude. In other places, small packs of dogs would bark and run us out of town. We had time enough to stop whenever we fancied, to take photos, or simply take an inquisitive turn off the road. Liina had done her research however, and had learnt that the best time to visit the Mapu’a ‘a Vaea blow-holes would be at high tide, around 6.00 pm, so at this point she injected a little bit of northern European urgency to spice up our slow South Sea schedule with a pinch of punctuality.

Before then, though, were other places we wanted to visit along our ocean drive and Anahulu Cave was the next place marked on our map. We had learnt that this natural cave had been left neglected in the past but that in recent years, local villagers had come together to look after it, making sure it remained free of litter and that the steps were safe for visitors. We pulled off the road, paid the small entry fee, then were shown down into the cave. The steep slippery steps descended with just a rope for a handrail at certain points. We hadn’t brought torches so we used the flashlights on our phones which were just about good enough, supplemented by some small fluorescent tubes, strung up at intervals. I hadn’t really known what to expect but was surprised by how far inwards and downwards the path led us. Everywhere there were stalactites hanging from the wet roof as the chamber narrowed and widened. Finally at the bottom of the path was a deep pool into which local teenagers were plunging in the near-darkness, jumping in from the slippery rocks, metres above. After a while we made our way back up and out into the sunlight, then down to the beach. We found a fallen coconut and decided to take it as a souvenir. I wasn’t yet skilled in the art, but at least had learnt in the Solomon Islands how to husk a coconut. I needed a sharp stick onto which to push down and split the thick hair on its head before ripping it off. Some local lads at the car park found something useful and helped in the process. Then, again unequipped for the job, I used a nail to break a hole through its top. Without any plastic straws to hand, we sucked out its water. It was Liina’s first attempt to break a coconut and after tapping too gently at first, she put enough effort and skill into the process to split the coconut neatly into two. There’s a splendid photo of her somewhere, proudly displaying the two white halves, backed by her local assistants. We ate a small sample of the fresh white flesh but without utensils couldn’t easily cut it out, so we decided to save it for later.

We had eaten nothing since the pineapple hours before. This newest of the classic ocean drives is not yet on the tourist map, so there aren’t any restaurants or even cafes along the route. There were small kiosk-like shops in the tiny roadside villages along the way so we stopped at one and stocked up with the most nutritious provisions we could find: crackers, cookies and water. These would keep us going until the evening. Not long after, the road changed from tarmac to gravel and then to dirt, full of potholes. Also, it narrowed to a single track, without passing places, which meant that if anything came the opposite way we couldn’t pass each other without one of us reversing back to a minor turning point or driving into the roadside bushes. Luckily we only encountered two other vehicles and managed to manoeuvre past them without much problem. The absence of traffic also meant that we could stop anywhere, and although we were technically blocking the road by doing so, it was of no consequence. We were alone amongst the coconut groves, the sea still somewhere to our left a few hundred metres away but not quite visible. Then we came to a plantation of banana trees, the bunches of fruit growing ‘upside down’, so to speak (the fingers pointing upwards rather than as hung in greengrocers’ shops, pointing downwards) and with a huge purple flower hanging from the end of each yellow cluster. They were actually more green than yellow, quite small, and not yet ripe, but we still couldn’t resist taking a few to eat, mainly out of curiosity and mischief, but also because by now we were somewhat hungry. Again, unequipped for the task (I’d be hopeless as a serious explorer; I’d forgotten to bring my machete) and with the bananas growing too high to reach, we needed some stick or similar tool for the job. There was nothing very useful to be found so in the end Liina jumped up and down hitting the bunch with a large empty plastic bottle while I filmed the procedure, shaking the camera with laughter, whilst wondering if this silly ‘How to…’ video might go viral on YouTube. The two bananas eventually harvested using this new technique were small, green and totally inedible, bitter to the taste and somehow drying out your mouth. We spat them out, the stolen fruit wasted. Our bad.

The blow holes at Mapu’a ‘a Vaea were magnificent. At high tide, each strong wave forces water into the hollowed rocks and water shoots up from various spouts in the floor of the rocky shelves, producing fountains of various heights, depending on the size of each hole and the force of the sea. These blow holes were spouting all along the coast as far as the eye could see. Nature had engineered the display and there seemed to be a hidden harmony to the sequence of fountains along the long shore, despite the randomness of the stronger waves that powered the salty mechanism. We stood transfixed on the small cliffs above as minutes passed unnoticed.

The sun would set soon so we charted a course for a suitable beach. Due to expert navigation, or perhaps simply the abundance of fine beaches, we arrived and decided this was the place to take a swim today. Some local people had already decided to do the same, so we joined them in the water, which was warm but nevertheless cooling and refreshing. The light was declining rapidly towards sunset but still creating vivid colours: somehow the sky was bluer than ever and the sand had turned unnaturally orange. An accurate photo of the colours would look as if it had been digitally enhanced. We walked along the beach and took in the sunset scenes. Daylight now gone, it was time to dry off and change behind the bushes.

A journey such as this is much more than the sum of its parts, greater than a list of specific places or occurrences. Robert Louis Stevenson, himself a traveller who settled and died in the South Pacific, wrote that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”. It’s not just a matter of where you go but the manner of getting there and the spirit in which the journey is undertaken.

It was fully dark by the time we reached the most north westerly point of Tongatapu where a monument is erected to mark Abel Tasman’s landing place. Driving slowly in the dark, the road again became wider and villages more frequent as we continued along this great little ocean drive. The separate villages were joining into each other. The coast was still somewhere to our left but now invisible. I drove carefully because there were more dogs, children and pedestrians near the road, and without street lighting they were hard to see. More skilful navigation was required in the dark too. We stopped to look at the sat-nav and discovered we’d gone too far. We had driven right through Nuku’alofa and out the other side. It’s the capital city, but blink and you’ll miss it.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

Bill Bryson

“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.”

Izaak Walton

Liina Metsküla has written two books about travelling, publishes her travel photos on Instagram and has written numerous travel blogs including: 10 Big Travel Mistakes & How to Avoid Them. She also writes a travel blog in Estonian.

Read more travel blogs and David’s travelling lifestyle business.