Travelling After The Storm…A Journey to the Island of Ha’apai, Tonga
The first thing that you notice when landing on Lifuka – the main island of Tonga’s Ha’apai island group – is the incredible turquoise colour of the reef surrounding this palm tree lined island. The second thing that you notice, is the incredibly narrow and short landing strip, and the fact that it runs right through the middle of one of Lifuka’s main roads, the thoroughfare from Pangai to Foa. “Everyone used to drive their cars right across, even when a plane was landing,” laughs one of the passengers, obviously a local. These days, as I notice with relief once we get off the plane, there are actual gates, as well as gate attendants to make sure that cars wait to cross until the plane has disappeared from the runway.
It is not just the landing on Ha’apai which is exhilarating: the fifty minute flight from the mainland of Tongatapu to Ha’apai is in itself no mean feat – just when you think the aircraft couldn’t possibly get off the ground with all the noise, shaking and shuddering that is being produced by the small thirteen seat, ex-Indonesian plane, you are up in the air and able to experience some of the most stunning ocean views imaginable. At times, the plane flies low enough to see right to the bottom of the various shallow reefs that lie between Tongatapu and Ha’apai, and out in the deeper ocean- if you are lucky – there is even the opportunity to spot one of the many humpback whales on their annual 5000 mile journey from the Antarctic to Tonga.
The island group of Ha’apai consists of fifty-one coral and volcanic islands, only seventeen of which are inhabited. Like the rest of the Tongan islands, the warm waters and temperate climate are ideal for the whales who migrate here every winter to nurse their young in the tropical waters. But it’s not only the whales who love Ha’apai – in 1777 Captain James Cook dubbed Ha’apai “the friendly islands”, and Fletcher Christian and William Bligh from the infamous Bounty were among some of the first Europeans to enjoy the local hospitality. Some years later the Ha’apaians seemed to have changed their friendly attitude towards exploring Europeans, as in 1806 much of William Mariner’s crew on the Port au Prince was killed and the ship taken by Ha’apai chief Finau Ulukalala. Mariner was spared and lived to tell the tale in one of the first written descriptions of life in Tonga, the “Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific Ocean”.
Since then, the locals in Ha’apai seem to have regained their legendary friendliness, although at the moment they could be forgiven for having other, more important things on their mind than humoring visitors. While much of Tonga’s mainstream tourist industry has been centered on Vava’u – an island group eighty miles further north – Ha’apai with its beautiful beaches, reefs and shoals had begun to establish itself as an un-spoilt and authentic place for travelers to experience the beauty of Tonga. Then, on January 10th 2014 cyclone Ian closed in on Ha’apai, and with its raging 287 km/h winds destroyed much of Ha’apai’s housing and infrastructure, causing one fatality and leaving at least 2300 people homeless. The eye of the storm sat over the main center of Pangai, as it flattened buildings, ripped off roofs and pulled out trees.
The widespread damage that was caused by the cyclone is still obvious on the drive from the airport through Pangai. Piles of debris – everything from damaged water tanks to mounds of timber and bits of corrugated iron – line streets and yards. Many houses are still exposed, with parts or all of their roofs missing, while some houses, obviously beyond repair, have simply been left abandoned by their owners. Pigs without pens roam the streets unchecked, helping themselves to whatever they can find, and there is even a small herd of horses, casually walking up the side of one of the back streets.
The roaming pigs are on the mind of many people, including Eloni Uata, who works for the government and whose job it is to somehow organise fencing to contain them. He talks about the domesticated pigs, hungry and without food after the cyclone, marching around the island, eating up the few crops that had survived the storm. The storm itself, he says, was the most eerie thing he has ever seen. “First the storm hit and then suddenly it went dead quiet and the sun came out. We thought it was over, but then it started up worse than before. I could taste the rain, and it tasted like sea water. People ran from one shelter to the next as houses collapsed or were blown away, some people eventually letting all their water out of their water tanks to hide in there.”
“The cyclone was very, very scary,” says Patti Ernst, owner of Serenity Beaches, a resort on Lifuka’s neighbouring island of Uoleva. “Living here, I have been through quite a few cyclones already, but this was something else.” Patti recalls getting off the phone with her friend in Vava’u, where the cyclone had been predicted to hit first. “My friend said it hadn’t got there yet, so I thought we would have plenty of time to prepare, but as soon as I got off the phone a large basket of eggs that I had sitting on my bench just flew off in a huge gust of wind, and the next minute the cyclone fully hit us.” Cowering all night in a small hut with only a transistor radio for updates, she emerged the next morning to find large trees smashed onto a couple of guest houses, the roof partly ripped off their large main dining room, their furniture and belongings strewn across the beach, and water damage in every one of their resort buildings.
Compared to some of the other tourist accommodation in Ha’apai, Serenity Beaches emerged relatively unscathed. Tiana’s Place, further down on Uoleva Island, had all of their beach fale destroyed, while the owners of Matafonua Lodge and Sandy Beach Resort on Foa Island watched as their buildings were torn apart by the storm.
The rebuilding on Ha’apai has been a slow and ongoing process. While some of the locals walked away from the seemingly irreparable destruction, most stayed and are positive in their outlook for Ha’apai’s future. “When I first saw the damage caused by the storm I was ready to pack it all in and leave,” confides Patti. “But then we slowly started fixing things, and people were so nice, ex-guests contacted me and offered their help, and together we all got it working again, somehow.”
These days most of the resorts and tourist accommodations are back up and running, and are once again opening their doors to travelers. There is much to tempt holiday makers back to Ha’apai – the beaches on Foa and Uoleva still look like an advertisement in a tropical island travel brochure, and the many forests and bush areas have been regenerating and are once again looking ample and lush. The abundant reef that surrounds the islands offers some of the best snorkeling spots in Tonga, and further out in the ocean there is plenty of great opportunities for scuba diving, with a great diversity of coral reef and fish life.
The whales who reside in Ha’apai between June and September every year have always been a big draw-card for visitors, as Tonga is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to get into the water and swim with these majestic creatures. Various licensed operators offer tours from Ha’apai shores to get you up close and personal, and the stories of those that do swim with these whales tell of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Now, more than ever, Ha’apai feels like a place where time has stood still. It is certainly not the kind of place to expect a full-range of your usual tourist amenities – but that is part of its charm. It is where you go to when you don’t want to be in the midst of a throng of sightseers, when you want to be somewhere that still has an authentic feeling of having travelled somewhere that is delightfully off the beaten track. It is a place to go and swim with the whales, snorkel, kayak or lie on the beach and marvel at the ability of this island to heal and rejuvenate itself.
For this experience I would most definitely risk the shuddering airplane flight again to return to Ha’apai. Heck, I would even consider catching the infamous ferry that offers a 12 hour trip from Tongatapu – and that is saying a lot.