After leaving Bora Bora, we continued to head west for 3 days before arriving in Nuku’alofa; the capital of Tonga, on the island of Tongatapu. The kingdom of Tonga is a group of 170 islands, but only 36 are inhabited. The total population is 101,000 with 70,000 live on Tongatapu. The islands are spread over 270,000 square miles. After all the dramatic mountainous landscapes of the past two weeks, we were shocked to see these monotonously flat islands. They have a limestone base formed from uplifted coral formations, instead of volcanic activity.
Along the way, we also crossed the International Date Line. Which means, that we lost an entire day, and our clocks were moved ahead by 23 hours. We skipped over March 1st, entirely! Tonga is the first country in the world to see the sunrise of a “new day” and also the first to celebrate the new year.
Tonga is the only country in the South Pacific that was never colonized by Europeans. This is impressive, considering the insatiable “land grabbing” behavior going on back then, primarily by the British. It was named the “Friendly Islands” by Captain James Cook who visited for the first time in 1773, and was not attacked on arrival. Although, it is rumored that the tribal chiefs were planning to kill him at a festival, but they could not agree on a plan. Besides, Tongans were not cannibalism enthusiasts, so Cook’s death would have been a waste of good meat. Later explorers wrote that they were assaulted when trying to land by fearsome, exceedingly “unfriendly” warriors. Sounds like a pretty fickle community.
We booked a tour that took us through the rural parts of Tongatapu, on the way to Hina Cave where we watched traditional native dancing. Later we would go to the “blow holes” on the ocean. We were warned in advance that the transportation was “rudimentary” and the bathroom facilities “primitive”. Translation… no air-conditioning and bring your own toilet paper. Our guide did not offer any commentary, but tried to answer our battery of questions the best she could in halting english.
Tonga is the only Monarchy in the South Pacific. The dynasty goes back 1,100 years and there is a huge class division here. King Toupu, VI (a descendant of the first monarch), his family and the powerful nobles are all exceedingly wealthy, while the rest of the country (everyone else is labeled as a Commoner) lives in relative poverty. Our guide was very cautious not to say anything negative about the monarchy, and her words were carefully chosen. The Chamber of Commerce would have been proud.
Primary schools (age 6-14) is free and mandatory for all Tongans. We were told that literacy is 99%, which is remarkable. Secondary school carries a nominal fee. Higher education includes teacher training, nursing and medical training, a small private university, a woman’s business college, and a number of private agricultural schools. Although, most higher education is pursued overseas.
There is universal access to a national health care system and the county is starting to tackle the widespread overweight/obesity epidemic which includes 90% of the adult population. Historically, the belief has always been that extra large people are more prosperous, because they have enough money to eat more. This started with the overfed Royals throughout the centuries and has trickled down to the commoners. The King has trimmed down from 440 to 325 pounds, so he is becoming a svelte role model. Now a lesson on portion control is vital. Check out the size of the ice cream cones…
Land cannot be sold to foreigners, which has helped Tonga control it’s own destiny. We were told that when a Tongan turns 18, they are given a few acres of land, for free. Not on the main island, where open space is pretty scarce now, but on an outlying one. The majority of people grow their own food, fish, and raise farm animals as a means of survival. They also sell and trade food with neighbors and in markets.
After traveling through town and the rural areas, we arrived at Hina Cave. Made of limestone and carved out by the sea millions of years ago, we watched an incredible fire dance along with other traditional dancing. It was very dark, so getting clear photos was a challenge. And yes, that IS fire coming out of the young man’s mouth below. I wonder if universal health care covers a burnt esophagus?
Next, we stopped by the “blow holes”. When the waves break under the eroded limestone cliffs, the water bursts through with a thunderous boom. It was quite a show.
Back in town, we walked through the market and ogled the massive root vegetables for sale. Kids had just been released from school, all wearing brightly colored uniforms. A heated chess game was underway in a local park. The engrossed spectators took no notice of us.
Next Stop – Bay of Island, New Zealand. Back Soon!