Tonga: Getting There And Some Tapa Cloth

Okay, this is turning out to be a monster of a post so I am going to split it up a bit. I don’t know if anyone cares about the kind of airplane we went on from Nuku’alofa to Ha’apai, but if you do? This post is for you!

Well. You know how excited we were to go to Tonga, in that funny way where you’ve been planning something for a long time and anticipating it more and more and checking to see what the weather’s going to be like there and emailing everyone with last minute questions (“You guys maybe we should bring jumpers it’s going to be only 23”) and then OMG, it’s time to go to the airport.

Getting Started

Photo by Angela Schlabitz

Our flights from Wellington to Auckland and then to Nuku’alofa were low-key and uneventful, thereby foreshadowing in no way whatsoever our ridiculous attempts to get home eight days later. We had no idea about any of that. We just watched movies and rocked up to the airport and got a ride to our guesthouse at two in the morning and that was that.

Best Coffee In Nuku'alofa

After awaking at six in the morning to the joyous shouts of some newly-arrived and very enthusiastic American Peace Corps volunteers, we had a little time to kill in town before our flight to the Ha’apai group of islands, which is where we spent the bulk of our time. We went to the market for some fruit and got some very nice coffee at a very nice café named, obviously, for a very nice girl.

Yay! We're Going To The Beach!

Then it was time to get on a very small airplane.. So small that the pilot (visually) weighs all seven of the passengers and assigns them seats based on the balance of the plane. Rachel, lucky, not only got to have coffee at a place with her name but also got to ride up front with the pilot.

Rach In The Driver's Seat

Sailing Over The Pacific

Approaching Ha'apai

Salote Pilolevu

Things got slightly tricky when we rocked up to good old Salote Pilolevu. I’d been emailing feverishly with all sorts of people in the weeks leading up to the trip—, our dive operators, the Tongan Bureau of Tourism, random guesthouses—and even though I love having everything planned and organized, there was one little detail that was worryingly vague: how were we going to get from Pangai (the only town on Ha’apai’s main island Lifuka) to Uoleva, where we were staying at a place that is a half-hour’s boat ride from the larger island, had no electricity and therefore no internet, and possibly also no cell reception?

After much ado, which included getting a ride to town from the dive operators we’d booked with (who happened to be at the airport picking up a friend of theirs) , discovering that the Tongan Tourism Bureau closed for the weekend at noon on Saturdays, and begging the nice people at the pub for help, we located our ride, who’d been waiting around for us and was just about to give up and go back to Uoleva. They had to recharge the battery for the boat’s motor (which was just their van’s battery) by driving around the island in the rain, so we did that and ate leftover donuts from Rachel’s Café which I had had the foresight to keep in my bag, and just generally tried not to freak out.

I tried, at least. I think Rachel and Angela were pretty calm about the whole thing, even as it was getting dark and it was raining and the weather forecast was pretty bad for the weekend and we couldn’t see any safety equipment in the boat (for the simple reason that there wasn’t any). We were all just sort of chatting and eating leftover donuts and every now and again I’d look at the darkening skies or at the various people doing various things to the car’s engine, and I’d just try….not to freak out. My new thing is trying to be less of a control freak, which, frankly, isn’t going very well, but sometimes it’s just easier when there’s nothing you can do, you know? The rain was going to rain and there was nothing I could do, and the dark was going to get darker and there was nothing I could do, and in the end we all got on the boat and made it to Uoleva in one (very wet) piece. (Later, of course, we all realized that we’d all had the same thought when we finally saw land: “WELL AT LEAST WE CAN SWIM THERE NOW IF THIS BOAT COLLAPSES.”)

This is what was waiting for us:

At The Fales

Fale Sweet Fale

We were staying in the family fale, with plastic woven mats on the sand floor, a big mosquito net, a kerosense lantern, mattresses on the floor, and beautiful tapa cloth on the walls. It’s impossible to see in this picture but the inside of the fale was almost like a little kids’ couch cushion fort, all cosy and warm. It rained almost every night we were there and it was so peaceful to curl up under the mosquito net and listen.

Tapa Closeup: Trees

I loved all the patterns and got really interested in how it’s made. There was a tapa exhibit over at Te Papa a while ago but I didn’t get it together to go, which is dumb. I bought a couple of pieces at the market when we went back to Nuku’alofa and got to talk to the lady who made them, so that was pretty exciting, but not as awesome as sleeping under these at night. I don’t know why I like these so much, I just do.

Tapa Closeup: Wreath And Crosses

Tapa Closeup: Swords

Tapa Closeup: Birds and Canoes

Tomorrow: thoughts on diving, some whale swimming pictures, and various pictures of us in wetsuits.



  1. How about that cafe named after me, eh! You forgot to mention that their menu included Rachel Juice! There was also a Rachel Salad as I recall. In fact the donuts were probably called Rachel Donuts as well.
    PS. I’m going to write an entry right now in my book of life lessons and it will say “Always buy the whole dozen donuts”.
    PPS. Notice how that lesson came to fruition later in the trip?
    PPPS. Isn’t it interesting how donuts were a recurring theme of our trip?

  2. Aw, looking at those photos makes me feel like I was on holiday with you girls, too! Loved the photo of the tiny island runway — whew.

    Can’t WAIT for the other installments. I think you should take a half day so you can write them. ;)