Tonga: Jewel in the Crown. By Lee Czerniak

By Lee Czerniak

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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