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Tongan times #3 – Boat ride to Ha’apai

January 19, 2014

After the relative excitement of Kava Night, Owain and I revived our travel ambitions and made efforts to see more of the Kingdom.

The majority of Tonga’s archipelago lays north of Nuku’alofa, spread between two island groups called Ha’apai and Vava’u, that together consist of more than 120 separate islands, three-quarters of which are entirely uninhabited.

We were told that some of the most spectacularly unspoilt scenery was to be found in the farthest reaches of the Vava’u group; but that it would take days of uncertain and, more often than not, unsafe travel to get to. Typically this would be all the more reason to go but given our time restrictions (our flight back to New Zealand was only a little over a week away) we opted for the closer Ha’apai chain and its administrative capital, Pangai on the island of Lifuka.Boat ride to Ha'apai 3

Tonga’s sole inter-island passenger ferry, and our mode of transport for the next 14 hours, looked as if it was built as far back as before the second world war, possibly even the first, and used in both as cannon fodder. It was a disowned Japanese vessel and, as far as I could tell, made from dented sheets of rust held together by some old rope and about seven or eight rivets. (Since my visit, the Tongan transport companies have added to their fleet.)

I later found out that it was the replacement for a ship named MV Princess Ashika which, in 2009, sailed into troubled waters 80km off the coast of Tongatapu and promptly sank. Reports following this tragedy stated that 74 people were subsequently lost at sea and that prior to the ship’s final launch a team of government surveyors chose to ignore the concerns of one of their members who deemed the ship unseaworthy. Finding all this out after the fact didn’t mean I was any less reluctant to board the boat the morning we set off from Nuku’alofa dock – I was forced to reconsider my ‘more danger, more fun’ theory of travel.

Boat ride to Ha'apai 6

Sardined among hundreds of full-figured Tongans and their sacks and suitcases filled with food and personal possessions (the ship made this journey just once a week which meant anyone on it was usually gone for quite some time), Owain and I were conveyed towards the gangplank whether we liked it or not. I was ushered onto the propped-up walkway by the pointed end of one man’s umbrella gently pressed into the fleshy part of my bottom, only to look down and see that it wasn’t an umbrella but a machete, and that it wasn’t a man but an enormous pirate made out of trapezius muscles and menace. His tattooed neck was wider than my thigh.

I knew that Tonga was known informally as the Friendly Islands, but by this point it had seemed to me the man who came up with that amiable moniker had a good dealing in the ironic. Nevertheless, thanks to the massive pirate’s encouragement I made it up on deck quick-sharp and was one of the first to roll out my mat on a little spot beneath the tarpaulin. Regardless of how uneasy I felt about being detained on an extremely sinkable ship with a pirate for 14 hours, I couldn’t help but be utterly absorbed by the scenery.

Boat ride to Ha'apai 4

It was a completely still morning and the sun was just about to cast the day in its full light. The placid purple ocean looked as flat and unmoving as a midnight delta, and a candy-floss-pink hue hovered just above a stark horizon and turned white, then grey, then cyan, as it rose into the sapphire sky. We leant against the handrail and watched the sunburst wash away these soft water colours, and replace them with fuller, more defined pastel tones. The boat withdrew from the mainland and sailed into an open sea, reducing our surrounds to just two striking shades of brilliant blue; and the silvery sundrops danced on the water’s surface, giving movement to a lifeless landscape. Now and again we’d drift passed scatterings of bosky islands barely bigger than a pitcher’s mound, crowded with dense and strangely neat verdure, and acting as our only measure of perspective for hours at a time.

Boat ride to Ha'apai 2Eventually the sun’s heat shewed us back under the plastic covering, where we lay with our backs against the steel hull, feeling the thrum of the engine ring through our limbs and watching the torn parts of the tarpaulin snap back and forth in the wind. By now the deck was full with bodies dozing on their pandanus mats; mothers cradling their newborns; fathers entertaining toddlers; teenagers listening to music; and Owain and I lodged in the middle of it with an elderly man reclined beside us sharing his burlap sack of breadfruit to use as a pillow.

I was as cramped as I might have been on the 8am out of East Putney, but not nearly as uneasy. In 14 hours the atmosphere never felt particularly affectionate but the indifference shown us by this community of passengers was in a way inclusive, which made it seem familiar and neighbourly. And not one other person stabbed me in the arse with a machete.

Boat ride to Ha'apai

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