Tonga: Jewel in the Crown

Tonga: Jewel in the Crown

By Lee Czerniak

There is a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean that are the jewels in a royal crown. The Kingdom of Tonga is where time begins, as it straddles the international dateline across a 425 km stretch of the South Pacific ocean. With only 37 of its 170 islands inhabited, a trip to Tonga is a step back in time where you can feel the warmth of the people and the magic of being in a land fit for kings. This archipelago has some of the most beautiful scenic diving locations in the South Pacific. We wished to explore some of these, maybe discovering new, undived areas as well as enjoying some of the amazing sites already known.

Tongatapu Group

Nick, Julie, Ron and I flew into the capital, Nuku’alofa, from Auckland with Royal Tongan Airlines, who were also going to transport us around the various island groups. Nuku’alofa is situated on Tongatapu, the main island of the Tongatapu Group, and is where the king resides and the main business of Tonga is conducted. Our first destination was Atata Island, where we were to stay at the Royal Sunset Resort. This is how heaven is supposed to be: the most superb hospitality, in a tranquil setting of white coral sands, swaying palm trees, and a turquoise-blue lagoon. This was to be our diving base.

This year the trade winds have been a little confused due to El Nino, with winds of about 25 knots and moderately rough seas we were pretty sure that there would be limited diving. Wrong! The Royal Sunset Resort has over 25 dive sites, so no matter what the weather does, there will always be somewhere to dive. All are great sites, but some were to be better than others. It was just a matter of what each of us wanted. There are 15 sites that are quite close and can be reached most of the time, as well as the offshore dives which are really quite spectacular. In the middle of nowhere, where reefs just pop up, these are still not more than 25 minutes from the resort in the bigger boat. So if you are lucky enough to enjoy a week or more here, you can have two dives every day and still not double up on the sites.

Our first dive was at a location known as The Boiler, because there is a boiler from an old shipwreck sitting on top of the reef. The site features a nice big old anchor from one of Captain Cook’s ships. This is a great reef dive that is close to the resort. Petoni, our dive guide, was very good and showed us all the interesting features. That evening back at the Resort, we enjoyed a relaxing drink, looking out over the lagoon to watch the sunset and the colours of light playing on the water. This was heaven, further enhanced by the amazing meal that was served to us in an open island-style dining area. The chef at Royal Sunset would be world class by any standards. Certainly her menu was a culinary delight, making it a highlight of each day to decide what to choose for dinner. One could increase one’s girth without too much trouble – just as well we were getting plenty of exercise from all the diving.

The next day the wind was still blowing, but again Petoni was able to find us a great spot. We headed over to the lee of the main island, and just out from the surf line of Ha’atafu Beach we dived on a reef that went from about 9 metres below the surface down to around 30 metres. There are a number of sites along this face that are good dives, with big caves and caverns, some with complete chambers like rooms in a house. This is very obviously an old volcanic area, with caves, tunnels, and walls with soft corals and hydroid corals, as well as a wide variety of hard corals. The reef drops away to a sandy bottom which reflects the sunlight back, giving you that amazing lightness that only seems to exist in the tropical seas. With the high wind and churned-up sea, the visibility was not as good as it usually is, but still 24 metres plus is not something to complain about.

After a quick trip back to the resort, a very civilised lunch of mahimahi, and some surface time, we went on to the next dive. This was to The Corners, so named because it’s the corner of the main reef. There’s a break in the reef that is also the channel through to the lagoon and resort. It’s shallow, and is often used as a second dive in the afternoon. There are lovely coral canyons to just glide through and experience the coral vista. A lot of the dives out of the resort are quite close, which means not a lot of travelling time, giving you the chance to enjoy some of the other activities that are available free of charge at the resort. We had a game of petanque, went kayaking, snorkelled just off the beach, and of course had the chance to bag a few rays.

There are dives further in towards town, and even some wrecks right up in the harbour. These are neat dives, and have a bit of history about them. One of these was a 19th century ship, accidentally found by an Australian serving with the Tongan Defence Service. He was actually looking for another wreck when by chance he came across the old relic. Following the find, some Australian navy divers raised a 770-mm swivel gun and several pieces of pottery, which were presented to the King of Tonga. The identity of the ship is still a mystery, but research into its history is continuing. There are believed to be more than 30 undiscovered wrecks in the Tongatapu area alone.

The resort also runs a live-aboard yacht called Impetuous. It is on this vessel, a 51 foot Beneteau, that you get the chance to travel into the untouched coral seas, travelling the three main groups of islands with one of the most experienced and knowledgeable divers of the region. This is a charter that I would love to experience sometime, not only to see the group from the water, but also to experience some of the unexplored dive sites. Our time with our great hosts at Royal Sunset Resort, Dave and Terri Hunt, was too short. After making new friends among the other guests and the local villagers who work for the resort, it was with sadness but anticipation that we moved on to the next leg of our journey.

Ha’apai group

The easiest way to get to the Ha’apai Group is by Royal Tongan Airlines who fly there daily. The airport is currently being upgraded, with the runway being resealed and a new terminal built. It is here that you really step back in time. We were met by Taviti of the Tongan Visitors Bureau. A gentle giant, Taviti was to be our guide while we were here. Ha’apai is the ideal place for the traveller who wants to really get away from the rat race, to relax and look at what life is all about. In these tranquil islands, where life has slowed down to a snail’s pace, you can actually do this. We stayed at Sandy Beach Resort and enjoyed the hospitality of Jurgen and Sigrid Stavenow, known as Jurgee and Sigi. Here we were treated to Sigi’s famous cooking on the edge of a beautiful coral sandy beach.

Sandy Beach Resort is the first of its kind in Ha’apai. It is situated on the edge of Houmale’ia Beach and surrounded by tropical vegetation, including pawpaw, which you will find served fresh to you every morning. Jurgen said, ‘Something in heaven that is still with us in this world is Ha’apai.’ The islands are strikingly clean, and life ambles on like the old days, with electricity just starting to become a regular commodity in some areas. There are few outboard motors, and the Tongans who live here still use outrigger canoes. You are well away from the madding crowd here, and have the opportunity to dive virgin reefs that haven’t even been charted yet. With this in mind, we set out to meet the area’s dive operator.

The Ha’apai region is ideally suited for scuba diving as there is a multitude of coral reefs in the area and outstanding visibility. The marine life is in top condition, with a great variety of tropical fish, corals, shells, and of course the humpback whales which are seen in these waters from June to October. We met Roland from Ha’apai Water Sports, a very enthusiastic diver, and one who likes the more adventurous dive. He told us about a new dive site that he had discovered just six weeks before. This was a cave and tunnel complex that headed into an island. He hadn’t yet completed the exploration, but was looking to do some more survey diving there and would then include it as one of his advanced dive sites. It sounded very exciting, but with only a couple of days, we didn’t have time.

We still wanted some extreme diving, and Roland was the person to show us this. Sitting under the palms with the water lapping just a few feet away, we discussed the diving for the next day. We decided that a really nice sea mount about 20 km out from the island would be our first dive, and we would look at a tunnel and archway site a bit closer in for the second dive. The next morning, after sorting out weight belts and tanks, we headed out on a rather sloppy sea with the trade winds still doing their best to upset our plans. After about an hour of travelling out into the wild blue yonder, Roland checked his GPS, and after a couple of corrections there was a change in the water colour and we were at the sea mount. Roland anchored, and we all got ready for the dive. The top of the mount was about 6 metres below the surface and was split with big crevasses dropping down to about 26 metres.

The coral was amazing in colour, with great diversity, and there was an abundance of sea life. Here we saw leopard sharks and white tip sharks, as well as schooling barracuda, and I had the pleasure of meeting face to face with a little green turtle. After a curious look at me, he didn’t like what he saw, and took off at high speed in the other direction. The walls of the ravines had some beautiful corals, mostly hard, but one or two soft. The lighting was fantastic: with the really clear, clean water the vis would have been more than 36 metres – the best I have ever experienced. Tuna could be seen on the fringe, then you would glide through an archway and be in this amazing coral garden with colours like I have never seen before. Very large speckled morays were also in abundance.

Monika Rahimi joined us for the diving. Monika is starting a new diving complex in the Ha’apais, linked with the Sandy Beach Resort, and will have her own shop and school right on the resort premises. Roland really prefers the super-experienced diver, and enjoys off-the-wall type diving, whereas Monika will be able to teach as well as do dive charters to suit each individual’s needs. This will give the area a balance and give everyone a chance for some great diving.

The next day we were flying out, so there was to be no diving. For a little adventure in the morning, the boys went on a kayaking trip with Jurgee to the King’s Island about an hour’s paddle away, to see Pigeon Mountain. Jurgee explained that these hill-like structures were formerly built by the Tongans for pigeon shooting. In an attempt to get up to the treetop level where the pigeons were, the hunters built towers which started off as basic platforms, but as time went on developed into much bigger, more sophisticated structures and took on the role of status symbols for the Tongan hierarchy. This particular structure is one of the few that remain intact. It is approximately 200m in diameter and takes three to four hours to walk around. They estimate that it would have taken 35 Tongan warriors 20 years to build.

The Ha’apai Islands will certainly hold a treasured place in our hearts; the saying that you arrive as a guest and leave as a friend was only too true. We spoke with a German couple at the airport who came to visit for a few days, and ended up staying for seven months. I can certainly see why.

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