The 171 islands of the Kingdom of Tonga lie between Fiji and the International Date Line, spread across some 700,000 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. Within the kingdom, there are four main island groups: Tongatapu (which includes the capital Nuku’alofa); Ha’apai; Vava’u; and the Niuas. Within the Ha’apai group, the Lifuka Archipelago is a string of low-lying sand cays along the group’s eastern barrier reef, stretching approximately 45 kilometres from north to south.
We were at the northern end of the island of Foa, looking across the channel to the island of Nukunamo and chatting about our 10 day paddle through the Lifuka Archipelago that was to begin later that morning. We were speculating about what might happen to the current in the channel at turn of tide when, without warning, a two metre wave swept through the channel leaving the fringing reef behind it sucked dry.
The Tongans with us were at a loss to explain what had happened and it took a while for sombre news of a major earthquake in Western Samoa to filter through. What we had just witnessed was the first of a series of tsunamis that were to roll through over the next few hours. A tsunami alert had been activated and all schools and businesses closed until further notice.
What this meant for our paddle was unclear but any thoughts of disrupted plans were far from our minds as we dealt with anxieties about our personal safety and digested the first reports of chaos, destruction and loss of life that were coming in from the Niuas and Samoa.
As it turned out, we were extremely fortunate. The first and largest of the tsunamis hit Ha’apai dead on low tide and its fringing reef absorbed most of the impact. There was some minor local flooding and the causeway linking Foa and the island of Lifuka was briefly closed. All we lost was a bit of time and, later that morning, we were able to travel to our Lifukan launch spot in the town of Pangai. Our kayaks, which had been shipped down from Vava’u, had not been damaged and were ready for loading. This task drew an interested audience, its numbers swollen by children freed from school by the tsunami alert.
Everyone kept one eye on the ocean, which continued to surge and suck dramatically for a further two hours. When this movement appeared to have ceased, we decided to head off, although we figured it would be safer to paddle straight out to sea, rather than along the western shoreline of Lifuka as planned. Our first stop was the western end of the island of Uoleva. Like most of the archipelago’s islands, it was everything you expect of a tropical paradise: white sand beaches backed by coconut palms and surrounded by rich offshore reefs.
The weather the next morning was perfect. The prevailing trade winds were whipping up a fair surf on the outer reef to the east of Uoleva but paddling conditions on the leeward side of the island were ideal. Our plan was to head across to the uninhabited island of Luangahu, and use this as a base camp for two nights while we explored nearby atolls. There were, however, reports from local fishermen that it was infested with breeding sea snakes. They had counted 40 around their landing site on their last visit, not aggressive but very curious. By the time we’d completed the 10 km crossing, we’d talked ourselves out of camping on Luangahu and, after a brief leg stretch, we paddled on, heading for the village of Felemea on the island of Uiha. We picked up water from the village’s tanks (proudly labelled ‘Donated by AUSAid’), camped nearby and, the next day, paddled further south to a set of isolated islets known collectively as Uanukuhahaki.
The ideal conditions and our decision not to camp on Luangahu meant that we were now well ahead of our paddle plan. Not a problem — Uanukuhahaki is such a beautiful place so it was easy to stay on for a few extra days. There was plenty to do. Its four islets were each worthy of close examination on foot and in kayak; we needed a couple of hours each day to catch enough fish to feed ourselves; when we ran out of lures we had the hours needed to make our own; and the snorkelling was first rate — until we came across a school of 20 sharks off one of the islets. There was even time for the sculptor in our group to work on a ‘found materials’ installation. Our only problem was not quite enough water for a longer than planned camp but we were able to stretch our supplies by cooking in a mix of salt and fresh water and by drinking freshly harvested coconut juice.
Eventually, the water ran out. We packed up, returned to Felemea’s tanks, refilled our containers and kept paddling northwards to Uoleva. We found an even prettier campsite than the one we’d used on our outward journey and stayed here for another three days, with more moseying about in unladen boats, fishing, snorkelling, swimming and sculpting.
Once again, the emptying of our water containers was the signal to move on. By this time, however, we’d also run out of food and we had no option but to head back to Pangai. We landed by the town wharf to news of an earthquake in Vanuatu and a tsunami alert for the Ha’apai group. The monthly supply ship which had been due to unload later that day had heeded the alert and turned out to sea. There were to be no treats for us that night but it didn’t matter: the experience of paddling in the archipelago was more than ample reward for us all.
Getting to the Lifuka Archipelago is relatively straightforward. Pacific Blue has twice weekly flights between Sydney and Nuku’alofa and Chathams Pacific runs flights between Nuku’alofa and Ha’apai on most days of the week.
Ha’apai is a designated conservation area. Permits are needed to paddle in the Lifuka Archipelago and it is illegal to camp in the area unless accompanied by licensed Tongan guides. Our guides were from the Vava’u based Friendly Islands Kayak Company. The company also provided our kayaks — ageing but well maintained Necky Arluks, Necky Tofinos and Southern Auroras.
Food provisioning for a trip such as this is problematic. The local lifestyle is based on subsistence farming and there is little surplus produce available for sale in local markets. Imported food is expensive, limited in availability and supplies are unreliable. Fish are plentiful but fishing in the waters adjacent to inhabited areas is restricted to locals. Fishing on Sundays is illegal.
There is no permanent water on any of the islands we visited and all that we used on the trip came from village rainwater tanks. The villagers were generous but their generosity should not be taken for granted. Donations of cash and materials to village schools are always welcomed.
The service provided by Friendly Islands Kayak Company was exceptional. Our trip was a private charter but the company also runs 5- and 7-day guided trips in the Vava’u group that would be worth considering for anyone interested in paddling in Tonga but unable to put a group together. A good description of paddling around Vava’u can be found in Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania.