Paddling In Paradise

On day one I explore the main town of Vava’u, Neiafu, home to most of the island group’s 20,000 locals. There are a dozen or so yachts in the Port of Refuge, one of the best harbours in the Pacific, and a typical, tropical watering hole, the Bounty Bar, with sun-creased yachties trading stories over beers. Under a sprawling tree in the ground of the Paradise Hotel, Doug and Sharon Spence outline plans for the next eight days. I find my fellow kayakers are almost all from the Wellington Tramping Club: strapping sorts, who soon make me regret my decision to paddle a single kayak. "Catch up Tim" they must be calling me. Half the problem though, was the excellent snorkelling: I am first in and last out.

After a morning on the water all 17 of us paddle inside Swallows Cave (actually full of swiftlets), then an hour later raft up outside a rather non-descript piece of coastline. Tongan guide 'Epeli Lavaki dives and fails to resurface. The secret we discover is an underwater entrance to Mariners Cave. Enough light penetrates the subterranean channel to give the illusion of swimming in a blue-tinted bottle of mineral water. As air is sucked out with ocean swells an eerie fog forms on the surface of the water (the result of water vapour cooling as it expands), then vanishes as the cave breathes in like a lung. We establish camp on Foe’ata island, the first of a string of pristine, coconut palm-draped, coral islands. And feel so immediately at home we make an unanimous decision to base camp for two nights. This enables us to explore the atoll of Hunga, a haven and hangout for yachties and the site of a village where we restock with fresh water and watch women beating tapa cloths from mulberry tree bark.

We are treated that evening to an umu, the local equivalent of a hangi, courtesy of 'Epeli and fellow guide Ma’a Tonga. Preparations started the previous night, as while we rested aching arm muscles, the Tongans went spear fishing by torchlight, returning with an impressive array of reef fish, a few painted crayfish and a moray eel. In the morning they clean the fish, boil them over the fire and separate flesh from bones. An afternoon exploration of the island includes gathering yellow coconuts. 'Epeli strains their meat through the fibrous outer husks to generate cream, while Ma’a weaves coconut baskets from palm fronds. The fish is mixed with the coconut cream, placed inside the baskets in tin foil (a substitute for banana leaves), then buried on top of heated rocks for a couple of hours. Awesome.

On day three we re-allocate kayaks and I trade my trusty plastic Puffin for the front cockpit of a fibreglass Tofino double. This allows plenty of time to talk as we bite into half metre high swells and a 20 knot trade wind in the channel between Hunga and Ovaka Islands. It is here that humpback whales are often sighted as they bring their young into the islands’ sheltered waters between June and November, part of their annual migration between Antarctic and tropical seas. We are a week or so early for the whales but instead a large tuns strikes at the lure Ma’a has been dragging behind his boat. After several frantic minutes the 25 kg line tangles around a bungy cord, severs it and snaps. Fortunately 'Epeli employs a bit of Tongan ingenuity and flags down a mate in a passing fishing boat. We have snapper steaks marinated in soy sauce and garlic for tea.

'Epeli and his wife own one quarter shares in the Friendly Islands Kayak Company, a requirement of any business enterprise in Tonga. A former fisherman, school teacher and co-op manager, he is an essential part of the team. When first approached by Doug and Sharon he was a little concerned about the distances they expected to travel, but he was used to the boat speed of a dug-out, not a high-tech sea kayak. He and Ma’a judge the weather and tides and point direction for the group on the water. Some islands have breaking surf and deceptive channels through the encircling reefs. 'Epeli’s contacts and community standing have also been important in gaining permission from villages to camp on the outer islands. It is a concession that is not granted easily and the company shows considerable respect for the privilege; removing all rubbish they bring and often more, keeping fires to a minimum and discouraging the taking of live shells.

On ‘Euakafa Island we get our only news from the outside world via short wave radio: an All Black thrashing of the Wallabies, much to the dismay of the two Australians in the group.

'Epeli leads us on a trek to the plateau summit of the island. He scales palms with a machete and presents us all with a coconut, the top knocked off with the precision we would use on a boiled egg. Refreshed, we sit under the forest canopy around an ancient tomb made from slabs of coral and listen to him tell the legend of a murdered queen.

Tonga is still ruled by a much-esteemed monarchy, the only kingdom in the South Pacific. King Taufa’ahau Tupuo IV celebrated his 78th birthday the day after I arrived on the main island of Tongatapu, and over 20 decorated arches made from bamboo and coconut trunks had been erected between the airport and capital Nuku’alofa. Tongans are also devout church goers. The next day is Sunday and Ma’a and 'Epeli, both members of the Baha’i faith, do not go spear fishing. Instead we strike South to one of the outer islands. Lua Ui, through warm rain and flocks of feeding seabirds called noddies. The forest of this tiny island is alive with the sound of roosting birds and while snorkelling we are trailed by an inquisitive reef shark.

The next day we snorkel around another island and 'Epeli and Ma’a, re-united with their Hawaiian spears, discover a reef shark dozing under a large coral. There is much excited talking in Tongan and a succession of exploratory duck dives. After more debate 'Epeli counsels Ma’a not to attempt to add shark to the menu. Instead, after setting up camp on the populated island of Ta’unga, we do a vegetarian curry and walk to the nearby village to take part in a kava ceremony.

Kava is made from the ground root of the pepper plant and is mixed into a dirty dish washing water type of consistency in a plastic pail before being transferred to a ceremonial wooden bowl. There is much singing and signalling by claps as the communal coconut drinking vessel is passed around. Kava is a mild anaesthetic and analgesic, but apart from momentarily numbing the tongue has little noticeable effect. I do note, however, that 'Epeli and Ma’a arrived back at camp several hours later than anyone else and appeared a little "faka piko piko" (lazy) the next day. Conveniently, we have a leisurely start, waiting for the tide and an easy day’s paddling to ‘Ano Beach were we are treated to an umu feast and dancing by the local villagers. After six days on a seafood and vegetarian diet I find the pork crackling particularly agreeable. I have also developed a taste for the front cockpits of double kayaks while the rest of the group take turns in the Southern Aurora, Arluk and Puffin singles.

As they indulge in now common-place water fights I hang back with Doug and Sharon and unravel how a Canadian couple, living in Waitati, near Dunedin over summer, came to be operating a sea kayaking business in Tonga. They had been involved in kayaking, mainly white water and wave surfing, while living in British Columbia. So after a spell touring and working in New Zealand, it seemed a natural idea to bring a folding kayak and holiday in Vava’u. On their second trip in 1990 they got serious about the idea of running a business, obtained permits, found their Tongan partners and imported the boats. Now in their fifth year of operation, they cater mainly for New Zealand groups, but also provide the kayaks and guides to North American tour operators and run day trips for tourists.

Doug says the rewards of the job are three-fold: making dream holidays happen, watching people develop confidence and competence in kayaks, and bringing two cultures closer together.

Our last camp is on the island of Umuna on the eastern edge of the group. From its summit we watch surf batter against limestone cliffs. Brown booby chicks nest just above the spray zone, while parents soar overhead. Hundreds of flying fox bats hang from kapok and pandanus trees and the forest floor is spongy underfoot from the needles of sheoak pines. In the centre of the island we descend a tomo, helped by the Tarzan-like vines, and swim in the brackish water at its base. The soft light of evening and a spectacular sunset are replaced by a brilliant starry night. Just as I turn in I spot 'Epeli and Ma’a’s underwater torches returning from the reef.

For breakfast we pull sweet tasting flesh from fish known as O (I checked with Ma’a that it has just one letter) laid over the dying embers of the fire. We raft up for a team photo before the last day, then after an hour’s paddling tow the kayaks while snorkelling along the edge of a reef which drops off into deep, blue water. Fish of all sizes, colours and shapes shelter among the corals. One of our group, Linda, is on her second trip with the Friendly Islands Kayak Company. The first was for just three days, and she says eight days on the water has brought added rewards.

This year the company has started offering trips to the Ha’apai Islands, a sparsely populated group and proposed world heritage site, about half way between Tongatapu and Vava’u. It is a move designed to cater for the keen interest in return visits.

A day after, after a brief stop on Ha’apai’s simple runway, I spot a pair of humpback whales breaching in one of the myriad of emerald channels through the coral. My face pushed up against the plane’s perspex window, I find it hard to imagine not coming back to paddle these paradise islands.


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