Tales of Tonga

A Watery Kingdom
By Peter Kinsey
  |  Gorp.com
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Picture of the harbor

The Kingdom of Tonga lies scattered like grains of salt over the vast waters of the Pacific Basin. The Basin encompasses such a large area on the surface of the earth, that all the planet's combined continental land masses could be accommodated within its reach.

Tongan myths relate how a great God"Maui" pulled all the kingdom's islands out of the sea with a fishhook acquired in Samoa. He must have been at it for a few days — Tonga takes in 169 coral and volcanic islands, only 45 of which are inhabited. They're remote; all lie within the heart of the Polynesian triangle formed by Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. And gorgeous; imagine turquoise lagoon waters lapping on white sand beaches under coconut palms — the whisper of the trade winds through green plantations of yams, vanilla, papaya, mango — the distant boom of the surf on a reef abounding in shells and sea life. . .

Tonga's three separate island groups each have 60 miles of windswept ocean between them. In the southern group, there is Tongatapu ('sacred Tonga'), where the capital Nuku'alofa lies with its adjacent southern islands. Tongatapu is 160 square miles in size which constitutes one third of the kingdoms' entire land mass. It has about three fifths of Tonga's population. In 1643, Abel Tasmen was the first European to see this flat coral island. Nuku'alofa is situated facing a large blue lagoon. Highlights here include spectacular blowholes and water spouts on the windward shore; megalithic monuments built about 1200 AD — evidence of a culture of great antiquity; casuarina trees full of flying foxes; and a monument where Captain Cook landed in 1773.

The central group is the Ha'apai group, an archipelago of very flat coral islands. Some are very small, many uninhabited and most have encompassing white sandy beaches. Few tourists visit Ha'apai. It is a beachcomber and fisherman's paradise. In Ha'apai waters, in 1789, after the infamous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty, Captain Bligh and the members of his crew who chose to stand by him were cast adrift in an open boat. On the nearby island of Kao, all but one narrowly escaped a violent death at the hands of the Tongans. We have an eyewitness account of that narrow escape. This is where Bligh began his incredible open boat voyage to Timor — one of the most remarkable small boat open ocean voyages in maritime history.

On their way to Timor, Bligh and his crew rowed between the two big islands of Fiji. Indeed, Bligh's detailed observations provided Europeans their first accurate picture of Fiji. In the north there is the Vava'u Group with its landlocked harbor, the Port of Refuge — one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the world. These 34 high and thickly forested islands are the most spectacular in Tonga.

To reach the Port of Refuge, you must travel through a beautiful seven mile channel, where the rhythmic sound of tapa being beaten on hollow hard wood logs, the smell of wood fires and the scent of frangipani and other tropical flowers will assault your senses. There are 40 islands in the group and 21 of them are uninhabited. The overall population of Vava'u is about 20,000. The majority of the people live in small villages located on islands throughout the group.

Perched above the Port of Refuge Harbor is the village of Neiafu, port of entry for ships and yachts seeking clearances to or from Vava'u. The Vava'u group is frequently compared in beauty to the Virgin, Seychelles, and American San Juan Islands. Topographically, the group most closely resembles the San Juans with its many high cliffs and deep fjord-like bays. There is no similarity, of course in vegetation or climate. Vava'u's climate is similar to that of Hawaii — very pleasant year round.

Six hundred kilometers north of Tongatapu are the isolated islands of Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu. Niuafo'ou is the crater of an active volcano. In the center of its crater is a lake with a hot springs. In 1946 it erupted, necessitating the evacuation of all inhabitants. To the east of the three islands groups exists a long ocean valley, the Kermadec - Tonga Deep, in places six and a half miles deep — one of the lowest parts of the ocean floor. The Kingdom's islands are actually the exposed peaks of a sub-oceanic volcanic mountain range, which extends from New Zealand to Samoa and Hawaii.

The Friendly Islands

Captain Cook named these the"Friendly Islands." It's no wonder: the Tongans are incredibly hospitable. For example, it's against "Tongan Custom" to ever ask a house guest or visitor to leave, no matter how rude that guest might turn out to be. (Of course, that's not an invitation to be impolite.) Because of Tongan Custom there is little or no crime. Everywhere you go in Tonga people passing you in the street will greet you with: "malo e lelei" (hello), look and smile directly at you, with genuine warmth. The national toast is "Ofatu", which translated means "I love you." Begging is non existent. The land is incredibly fertile and Tongan custom dictates the sharing of food and material wealth.

Toothless grins of the elders can be seen in almost every household door -the old are given respect and cared for by their own families and their knowledge and wisdom is sought after. Many villages still have the traditional Tongan "fale" (houses) constructed of woven mats and coconut fronds. Those families with relatives overseas invariably build colonial style wooden houses with corrugated tin roofs, painted in pastel shades.

Many Tongans speak rudimentary English and love to practice their linguistic skills, using you as a sounding board. The people of the islands are proud of their traditions. You will hear frequent references to "Tongan Custom" yet they maintain a worldly consciousness. Most Tongan families have an immediate family member who lives and works overseas. Speaking to any of its friendly and intelligent people, old and young, you may discern this awareness of and connection to every continent in the world.


Friendly, but independant — the Kingdom of Tonga is Polynesia's oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy. It is the one Polynesian culture never colonized by foreign powers.

Many people worldwide recognize the name of Queen Salote, who was loved around the world. She ruled Tonga for 47 years until her death in 1965. Today, Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. In 1970, the islands regained full independence from the British, whose protection they'd been under since the beginning of the century. Tongans have their own passports, coinage, currency and postage stamps. The government consists of the King and the Parliament, which contains seven appointed ministers, seven nobles, and seven elected commoners. The ancestry of HM King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV can be traced back to the ancient Tu'i Tonga, Tu'i Ha'atakalaua and Tu'i Kanokupolu line of kings.

Traveling Tips

The Weather: There are two seasons in Tonga — the trade wind and the hurricane seasons. From April to December the trade wind blows faithfully. January to March the wind becomes variable and there is some increase in humidity and rainfall, when passing rain clouds open the skies with breathtaking tropical downpours-providing an enjoyable cooling rain bath. Hurricanes are not a concern, because they are rare. In the last 20 years Tonga has experienced only one hurricane. The temperatures vary as follows: from April to December, 65-75 degrees F; from January to March 75-85 degrees F. It is slightly cooler and less humid than most neighboring countries in similar subtropical latitudes.

Getting there: Fua'amotu International Airport is on the Island of Tongatapu near the capital, Nuku'alofa. Flights from the United States mainland, Hawaii and New Zealand come and g o regularly. The airport in Vava'u has recently been enlarged so now jets from Fiji and Samoa fly directly to Vava'u.

Special thanks to Tropic Bird Sailing Adventures for providing this information!


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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