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A mountain in Tonga

February 10, 2011

Saving a tiny forest in the last kingdom in the South Pacific

Tongan woman picks custard apple called an apeli.

Passengers gawked from the Twin Otter as the only female pilot flying Royal Tongan Airlines circled Neiafu, the capital of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga’s far north.  We were looking at flat-topped Mt. Talau which oversees one of the safest and prettiest harbours in the South Pacific, aptly named the Port of Refuge.

When “Sky Woman,” as the in-flight magazine called her, landed at Lupeau’u Airport, we could already feel a special buzz of excitement.  Neiafu is home to the Tongan queen.  Her daughter, Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita, lives here with her husband, the Vava’u governor.  Crown Prince Tupouto’a would visit in a few weeks and the town was frantically preparing a feast for 1,000 guests to celebrate his 50th birthday. 

As we drove into town, wood scaffolding hung over main roads to hold banners and tropical floral arrangements.  Sailoame Market was bustling with shoppers looking for taro, breadfruit, vanilla and pudding or custard apples (an odd-shaped fruit that yields a sweet custard-like meat).  Ifi, or roasted Tahitian chestnuts, are also on sale as is limu fuofua, a fresh seaweed eaten raw.

A group of men nearby seemed almost catatonic as they played Tongan checkers close to a kava club.  Kava, common all over the South Pacific, is made by diluting a powdered root in water.  In Tonga it is said that the root was once chewed then spit into a kava bowl and mixed with water.  

The main street, Fatafehi Road, leads to an impressive white Catholic Church, then takes a turn at the Italian-run Sunset café to the Paradise International, Vava’u’s and possibly Tonga’s best hotel.  It overlooks the port which was dotted with white-sailed yachts, one of them flying the Maple Leaf.  A Moorings office at roadside rents many of the boats to yachties who can afford it.

The view from the Paradise is a painter’s dream.  The port is boatie heaven.  And off in the distance sits Mt. Talau, surveying the magical scene below in all its natural majesty.  Ancient legend has it that it was once a lofty peak in a land so low that global warning threatens to drown it. 

It was higher than any found in Samoa, the Tongans’ age-old enemy, so a Samoan tevolo or devil spirit was despatched to steal its top.  But he was seen by a Tongan she-demon named Tafakula who dropped her ngatu and hung a moon.  Fooled into thinking the sun had risen and fearing daylight, the Samoan tevolo let the peak slip into the harbour where it now forms Lotuma Island.

The mountain and its legend add spice to any visit to the last Polynesian monarchy or the Friendly Islands as Captain James Cook dubbed them in 1777.  Cook stopped in Tonga three times and stayed two months in the nearby Ha’apai islands.  Rumours persist that he might have taken up with a Tongan girlfriend accounting for his repeated visits.  But that could be a tevolo talking.

Not only does the 131-metre miniature mountain provide spectacular views of Neiafu and some of Vava’u’s 40 islets.  But recently it has been the focus of renewed interest for its environmental and cultural value.

Mt. Talau was designated a national park in February 1996 in keeping with the 1988 law allowing parks in spite of an ancient land tenure system that still makes it difficult to make a public park work. It has long been used by teachers and students for field trips as well as tourists and local people who collect fire wood and vegetation for making medicine and for cultural purposes.  The leaves of the toi tree, for example, make a soap substitute.

But there is concern that the forest environment is in danger. Jane Bacchieri, a Peace Corps volunteer, is one of those concerned.  She is the driving force behind a modest attempt to turn Mt. Talau into a small protected forest reserve.

“The rough trails and roving feral pigs are eroding the land,” she told me over a breakfast of whole grain French toast covered in bananas and a spicy artificial maple syrup.  The collection of medicinal plants may soon destroy them forever and threaten the wildlife – indigenous birds like the pekapeka (Pacific swallow), for example, and geckos – who live on the vegetation.     

After breakfast, we drove back through town and up to the Mt. Talau trailhead.  We passed the Bank of Tonga which is housed in two large fale (oval structures) at town centre.  A Malaysian bank is across the road and kitty corner to it an ANZ bank is under construction.  Three banks in a half a block in a town of 4,000!  The Friendly Islands Bookstore is next to Teka Travel in the same row of one-storey wooden buildings that houses the Royal Tongan office. 

The whole street had a sleepy, siesta-time look that was perhaps fitting given that the first European to land here back in 1781 was a Spaniard named Fransisco Antonio Mourelle on his way to Mexico from the Philippines.

We took a short walk past the trailhead along a steep, green-canopied path.  It would be a treacherous climb over jagged coral rock in rainy weather. Even with a rainfall of 2,000 mm a year Vava’u is still sunny much of the time, but it gets more rain than the rest of Tonga’s 170 islands and 700,000 square kilometres of mostly Pacific ocean.

“People in Tonga have no concept of national parks.  They don’t understand that by preserving the park they are preserving their culture,” Bacchieri said.  “I want them to understand that the park is primarily for Tongans, not tourists. We want to teach children why it’s important to preserve the park – so that they have a place to learn about and understand medicinal herbs.  It’s one of the few natural forests left in Vava’u.”

To that end safer trails, proper signage and a helpful brochure have been prepared with help from a Canadian aid grant.  Meantime, the king of Tonga, then just turned 80, and his royal subjects were already getting set for the millennium. After all, barring interference by a marauding tevolo, Mt. Talau may be the place where the sun will dawn first on the new century.    


Tongan Princess Pilolevu Tuita was in the news again last week (Dominion, Sept. 28). It seems that a 10-page letter has surfaced, a love letter no less. The princess is a huge woman, taking after her very huge father the king. And by that I also mean that she is a powerful presence intellectually as well as physically. The letter must have come as a slap in the face to her husband, the governor of Vava’u, since it talks of their marriage having been arranged for the sole purpose of begetting a son.

“I have as yet to fulfil this obligation,” she writes to her lover, a former New Zealand police officer who is now a night club manager in Sydney, Australia. “So when you hear that I have become pregnant or given birth again, it’s not that I have forgotten you (for I never will) it’s just the normal performance of such duties.”

The whole thing must have caused a scandal in Tonga, but the richest woman in the Kingdom of Tonga surely will wave it off.  She used to waving things off. When my Royal Tongan flight out of the capital Nukualofa (Place of Love) was delayed a few weeks before, she was to blame. Rumour had it that the airline has only one plane and that she was using it for a return flight from somewhere (perhaps Sydney?).


2 Responses to A mountain in Tonga

  1. Leola on February 10, 2011 at 6:57 am

    I just finished your terrific Tonga photo tour and travel piece. Thanks for posting them. I especially loved the gutsy Tongan women you described! Truly women of substance!

  2. samsSilmWar on March 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.

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