Turbulent Tonga Part III: “Humps and Bumps, Tonga Giveth, Tonga Taketh”


Turbulent Tonga Part III: “Humps and Bumps, Tonga Giveth, Tonga Taketh”

The Lonely Planet describes Neiafu, the main town on the Vava’u Island group as “ramshackle.”  Although I somewhat agree, Neiafu has its charms.  In fact, I would describe it as quaint. Families of pigs cross the road, a large white church perches above the town, and children stop to say, “Hello.”  In addition, due to the expatriate yacht scene brought about by the Port of Refuge, a pretty and protected harbor, many good restaurants have sprung up including Cafe Tropicana, The Sunset Grill, and the Aquarium Cafe, all good places to sample tasty Western food.  There is even a decent Chinese option.

The “Orange Vomit,” or the nickname that locals gave the old ferry, no longer runs but the current craft, both new and old boats, are quite basic, especially if you are planning on tackling the roughly 18-hour journey from Nuku’alofa to Vava’u.  For this reason, we opted to fly and arrived in only 45 minutes.  We checked into the Puataukanave Hotel where the room choices are deluxe, luxury, economy, and backpacker; due to the costs of traveling in Tonga, we chose the backpacker room that costs about $30US per night for spartan rooms with shared bathroom and a slew of mosquitos awaiting guest arrival.

Everything in Tonga is quite pricey.  We ran into quite a few long-term travelers who mentioned, “I’m traveling for a year and I thought that Tonga would be one of the cheaper countries that we would visit,” and “The flight here from New Zealand was quite reasonable so we figured that Tonga was a budget travel destination.”  Wrong!  Everything in Tonga is expensive, from internal flights to restaurants, to food purchased in shops. Accommodation is a terrible value.  At times it does not even seem like the Tongans really want tourism in their country.  Yes, Tonga taketh, but Tonga also giveth.  When Tonga gives, tourists are quite content.  Still, expect to pay roughly three times what you would in South-East Asia and even more than Samoa for lesser quality.

Lisa and I spent our first couple of days wandering and taking in the village atmosphere. The locals appeared reserved yet friendly when approached.  The expats were all very friendly and quite a party atmosphere developed at Tongan Bob’s, a local bar also run by an expat.  On Wednesdays you can attend the “famous” fakaleiti night; what transpires here makes absolutely no sense to me.  Basically, a man who is dressed as a woman dances on the stage to a song like, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.  While this man dances, men and women in the crowd, both expats and locals, approach the dancer and place local paper currency in the fakaleiti’s bra strap, g-string, or anywhere money can be deposited. This is not my thing but the people there that night seemed to be having a good time.
The following day we left with Dolphin Pacific Diving to enjoy what I imagined to be the highlight of our trip to Vava’u and possibly even Tonga.  We headed off to swim with humpback whales!  Our leader for the day, Al, sat perched on the upper deck of our boat looking for whales.  He said, “The first person who spots the whale gets to swim first.  You spot them by looking for spouting water that will be exiting from the whale’s blowhole.”  I kept close watch as we motored among a variety of islets that in total form almost a jellyfish-like shape.

The hues of the water, greens and blues, are as hard to describe as they are varied.  About fifteen minutes after we left the harbor, Al dropped to the main deck area to inform us, “There are pilot whales here.  We are going to take advantage of this even though we are looking for humpbacks.”  We all nodded in agreement and prepared our gear that included wetsuits (the Tongan waters are cold, really!), snorkels and masks. We had to supply our own courage to swim with massive sea creatures.  I asked Al, “How many pilot whales are here?”  He responded, “They normally travel in groups of fifteen to twenty.”  I excitedly placed on my gear and prepared to enter the water.  To my dismay, the whales immediately dove toward the depths and disappeared. We removed our gear and mentally prepared ourselves for the next swim.

After the failed pilot whale swim, our luck did not improve.  We glided over the choppy ocean for at least an hour, seeing nothing.  I began hallucinating, thinking that every spray of water was a whale spout.  Al heard over the CB radio that another boat had pinpointed the location of two whales.  We quickly advanced toward the divine location but after we arrived we were informed that “yes there are two whales,” and that the rules state that “The other boat can swim with the whales for an hour before we have a shot since they spotted it first.”  We were advised to eat the light lunch included in the tour, a sandwich with strange potato chips that tasted like barbequed squid.  The whale watching day trip was a pricey $275US for the two of us, expensive like everything else in the island nation.

After 45 minutes, the other boat notified us that they had finished with their turn and that we could give it a go.  Since our boat held only four people we were permitted to enter the water at the same time.  We saw two whales over the bow and some spouting.  We were told to prepare our gear and head to the stern. Our legs dangled into the ocean as the boat slowed and suddenly the boat driver yelled, “Go, go, go!!!”  We swam frantically toward the whales.  I heard Lisa coughing and I looked at her and asked if she was okay.  She nodded. I continued to swim toward the whale but saw nothing.  We returned to the boat and I readied myself for our next attempt.  But there would be no more attempts.  Al informed us that the choppy waters were not to our advantage and that we were heading back to the harbor.  I was livid.  I said, “One time?  We entered the water one time and that’s it?  We paid all this money just for one chance?”  Al said, “Most people need to come on at least three boat trips to ensure that they swim with whales but even then, I mean, this is nature and you cannot guarantee anything.” My mood did not improve even though what he said made sense.

Later, as we approached the harbor, Al asked me, “Do you want to go out again tomorrow?”  I said, “We are heading to Ofu Island tomorrow and have already scheduled everything.”  Al handed me his card,“Here is my number.  Call me when you are returning from Ofu and I will get you on a boat to have another opportunity.”  I shook Al’s hand and thanked him for the kind offer. Then we went to town to get food to take with us to Ofu.  Our first attempt with the whales was a failure.  But remember: Tonga taketh, and …Tonga giveth.

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Lisa Ellen Niver

Lisa Niver is an award-winning travel expert who has explored 102 countries on six continents. This University of Pennsylvania graduate sailed across the seas for seven years with Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, and Renaissance Cruises and spent three years backpacking across Asia. Discover her articles in publications from AARP: The Magazine and AAA Explorer to WIRED and Wharton Magazine, as well as her site WeSaidGoTravel. On her award nominated global podcast, Make Your Own Map, Niver has interviewed Deepak Chopra, Olympic medalists, and numerous bestselling authors, and as a journalist has been invited to both the Oscars and the United Nations. For her print and digital stories as well as her television segments, she has been awarded three Southern California Journalism Awards and two National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards and been a finalist twenty-two times. Named a #3 travel influencer for 2023, Niver talks travel on broadcast television at KTLA TV Los Angeles, her YouTube channel with over 2 million views, and in her memoir, Brave-ish, One Breakup, Six Continents and Feeling Fearless After Fifty.

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