Magic happens in Tonga. What proof do I have? The complete transformation I experienced, from harried and frazzled to relaxed and calm, within minutes of stepping onto Fafa Island. Surely some magic was involved.
I’d boarded a solid little yacht in the main town centre on Tongatapu for the half hour trip to Fafa, melting into the warmth of the day, the surrounding sea calm and clear and inviting. Behind me, the scene of Nuku’alofa, with its rock-walled port and picturesque ship wrecks, slipped into a heat haze. Ahead lay Fafa, one of several clichéd enticing coral islands on the horizon, each with rings of white sand and swaying coconut palms.
There are 14 fales on Fafa, built along the lines of traditional architecture; the combination of woven wall panels, roofs like upturned boats, wood and cane furniture and deep verandas was perfect, somehow. It was what I wanted of a Pacific Island fale. No air con, no TV, low light; posies of hibiscus, an outside shower. At the end of that first day, having slow-walked around the island in half an hour, swum in the warm lagoon and lain in the sun on a private slice of beach – the bush loud with raucous birdsong, the sun splashing pink into the still tide – I couldn’t have been more relaxed.
The sea made a soft phizzz with each lapping wave’s arrival, like cool water might sound on sunburnt skin.
Tempting as it was to spend the entire morning of day two in a hammock slung between palm trees, I roused myself for some gentle kayaking and swimming, before lunch in the resort’s small restaurant at an open-air table on a deck over the sand. Then I signed up for an excursion to Malinoa Island, a 20-minute boat ride from Fafa. Moses knew his way around the coral, zig-zagging the small boat across the turquoise bay. He dropped me at the island’s edge and putted out to sort the anchor, leaving me momentarily alone on this idyllic beauty spot.
The area is a marine reserve and so provided brilliant and easy reward diving with just a snorkel and mask, with multicoloured coral of many different shapes and sizes and a multitude of bright darting fish. It was an incredible visual feast in water so clear, calm and silky that I could have stayed in it for hours.
I walked around the small island on super-soft sand, then sat drinking a fresh coconut delivered by Moses and, noting how utterly content I felt, wished for some more magic involving time standing still.
Later in the day, the solid little yacht carried me back to Tongatapu to a night in a hotel over the road from the port. The balmy evening, loaded with perfume, carried musical noises from the neighbourhood. Market stalls selling coconuts, cassava, bananas and stacks of firewood lined the footpath until the sun went down.
There’s a rustic quality to Tonga. Children run around in bare feet, people hang washing from fences outside very basic houses. Chickens and pigs and their incredibly cute spotty piglets run free-range, and skinny dogs chase cars that have seen better days – quite a long time ago.
Driving out to see blowholes along the southern coast, where the sea explodes upward with terrifying, furious rigour, I passed through tiny messy villages with impressive churches. Cemeteries boasted beautifully tended plots, bright with flags and white painted crosses loud against the blue sky. Families tended gardens, old folk sat in the shade, kids rode too-big bikes, some tyre-less.
Tonga is about the sea, really – especially for visitors – so I didn’t linger inland, but headed back to the coast, this time with Vila and Tim who run a kayaking tour business. They drove me to the eastern edge of Tongatapu, past where Captain Cook first landed, past the old royal tombs and past Ha’amonga'a Maui – a monument dating from 1200AD made of slabs of stone weighing at least 30 tonnes each, delivered somehow from Wallis Island, hundreds of kilometres away. Further along the coastal road my cries of astonishment were followed by a quick stop: I had to photograph the fishing pigs, standing staunch in the receding tide with their snouts underwater.
We launched our kayaks between mangroves and paddled across to a lonely islet where two dogs met us and accompanied our loop of it. Someone was busy with construction somewhere inland.
We pushed off for a shorter paddle, past calligraphic fish traps fencing in bits of reef, to Pangaimotu Island, another white-sand beach with palm trees and clear water. This island has a bar – Big Mama's – a favourite with visiting yacht crews and expats, especially on Sundays when Tonga closes for church.
...from island to island, one eye on the land ahead, one eye on the reef below.
Big Mama's hangs over the water. Once patrons finish swimming, lying on the beach and diving off the nearby rusting wreck, they buy beer and burgers and sit in the shade. It’s a dishevelled scene, with messages scrawled on walls and rafters, sand underfoot and photographs revealing good times, soaked in laid-back, amicable fun. Music from another era trickles from low-fi speakers.
Taking up the refrain of some sweet, old-fashioned song, I pulled my kayak back to the water’s edge summoning the last burst of energy required to get back to Tongatapu. Dipping my paddle, left right left right, a warm wind ruffling the surface of the twinkling sea, I had a sense of belonging in this watery world. It felt right to be pulling my weight across the sea. I imagined, over thousands of years, others transporting themselves from island to island, one eye on the land ahead, one eye on the reef below.
I realized, as the beach drew near, that even after paddling 10 kms, I was still relaxed. So what if the next part of the day involved packing and getting to the airport. Right now, right here? Magic.
Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue