Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

My First Tropical Cyclone

For some reason, I thought cyclone season in Tonga finished at the end of March, so in the first week of April, I wasn’t expecting to receive warning of possible cyclones. This being my first cyclone experience, I thought I would share with you the blow by blow…

On Monday, our in-country manager Dave (who is a weather buff and loves keeping on top of Tonga’s meteorological forecasts) sent word out to all the volunteers that there was a low pressure system in the area with potential to develop into a cyclone. We were warned at the least, it would bring some wind and rain. Not too scary yet, but one to keep an eye on.

That night, it rained consistently, then poured with rain again all day Tuesday. It was the heaviest rain I’ve had to ride in since arriving in Tonga. When myself and fellow Japanese volunteer Miho (who is also working with the Women’s Development Unit) turned up at work that morning drenched from cycling to work, we were told to go home and change out of our wet clothes, and “if you want, you stay there!”. Miho had no change of clothes with her so retired home for the day, but I had a dry skirt to change into from my wet leggings. I was still pressured to go home and change my top as my shoulders had gotten slightly wet through my rain jacket, but I explained I was meant to have a lunchtime meeting in town with the swimming club (who I have been helping teach swimming lessons after hours), and there was no point in riding home to change if I had to ride back in the rain later. They ended up getting the driver Enaki to take me home to change my top anyway and then brought me back to work to stay til lunch!

I worked the morning, and at lunch changed back into my wet clothes to ride through the ongoing downpour to the café where the swimming team normally meet. When I got there and couldn’t see anyone else, I checked my phone and saw the meeting was cancelled last minute due to bad weather! I had been told to work from home in the afternoon so that’s where I headed. Tonga really shuts down when it rains (despite the fact it is a place where rain is not at all rare for half of the year!). My colleague’s high school aged children once spent a rainy day in the office as school had apparently been cancelled for the day because of the weather!

On Wednesday, we woke to a cloudy morning but no rain finally. An early email from Dave confirmed the good news that the storm that was brewing had turned south and was weakening so no longer a threat. The bad news was that there was an actual cyclone, Zena, currently a category 1 storm hanging out near Vanuatu that was predicted to pass through Tonga on Friday or Saturday. We were advised to keep an eye on the weather updates and not to travel by sea or to any surrounding islands until it had passed. Wednesday was clear all day until the late afternoon when it started to pour again and continued all night. We came home to our rainwater tank overflowing and the neighbours enjoying a “faka’uha” (a Tongan word meaning “to bathe in the rain”!)

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Overflowing gutters and water tank

On Thursday we woke to a dark and grey morning. It was very still with no rain, but the humidity lay thick around us. The update from Dave that morning was that Zena was now a category 2 cyclone and was moving much faster than expected. The predicted path had her set to hit Tongatapu directly that afternoon/evening. We were advised to get out and do any pre-cyclone preparations such as shopping and clearing loose item around the house early and to stay indoors during the storm.

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Zena’s predicted path – right into Nuku’alofa

We were briefed on natural disasters in our pre-departure training as well as in our orientation in Tonga, but this was the first time we’d had to put theory into action. In the event of a cyclone, there is the possibility of some damage to infrastructure and short term loss of communications/utilities so generally we are expected to have about a week’s supply of non-perishable food and water, adequate gas supplies for the house, as well as essentials like batteries, matches/lighters, toilet paper in case of being unable to leave the house for a few days. The good thing is you usually have fair warning for a cyclone, unlike other natural disasters, (especially with a weather attentive guy like Dave as your in-country manager!)

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Cyclone rations…

So Thursday morning Ben set off to get us some extra non-perishable food supplies and I rode in to work… The attitude at work on the dry morning of a predicted cyclone hit was very different to the one where it was pouring with rain! It was cheerful greetings and business as usual and so we took off to a Division meeting at the research farm, about a 30-minute drive from Nuku’alofa in an area with sketchy phone reception! This had me a little worried, as at least in the office I had internet access and could receive updates on the storm, as well as being just 10 minutes from home if I needed to get back! However my colleagues didn’t seem phased, and since they had all been through this before I figured I would be ok… I texted Ben to let me know of any important updates by text and hoped that my phone would have a bar or two of reception to receive it!

The meeting only lasted 1 hour (the last one I went to was 3 hours long…) before it was prematurely aborted as it was noted the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to fall again. We all loaded into the minibus and made our way slowly back through the wet and crowded streets to head office. The roads were chockers at about 11am, and the skies were dark and ominous. The radio was announcing cyclone warnings and updates in Tongan and then in English, interspersed with jaunty island tunes. They announced Zena was now a category 3 storm, schools and the wharf had been declared closed. The average windspeed was around 110km/hr, with momentary gusts of up to 155km/hr. There was a sense of nervous anticipation in the air.

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Ominous sky and whipping winds on Vuna Road

One of my colleagues Snowden interrupted the radio reporting by telling Miho and I, “See, this is why you need to eat Tongan food- it makes you happy because you won’t blow away in the hurricane!” Everyone had a good laugh at that, quote of the week!

When we got back to head office, no-one wanted to let Miho and I ride home, and we were first to get lifts with Enaki with our bikes in the back of the ute. Everyone was looking out for the nervous palangis! Enaki loaded up the bikes and was saturated before we even left. He dropped us and our wheels off and then headed back to the office to take other staff members who didn’t have a lift home.

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Driving home before the storm

Back at Casa de Pili (as our house is now known), everyone was home and battening down the hatches. We were closing the many louvered windows in the living areas that hadn’t been shut since Ben and I moved in (and noticing at the same time they were pretty dirty and we should probably clean them!). We had all our gadgets and lights charging, as the power was meant to be cut around 2pm. The radio was playing the customary island tunes (obviously it was cyclone update break time).

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The downpour continues

I caught up on Dave’s latest email update which had us expecting Zena around 3pm, though she was moving fast (around 55km/hr, the last storm had been more like 30km/hr) so it was hoped she’d pass quickly. Time to sit tight and wait!

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Ahhh Zena!

At about 1pm I was making lunch in the kitchen and we had decided to open the windows back up because the rain and wind had died down and it was getting really humid inside. I was looking out the window and I could see Champ lazing on the lawn in a patch of sunlight that was pushing through the clouds. I thought, how weird, this must be the old ‘calm before the storm’. But not long after that, the radio announced that the cyclone was weakening and was no longer looking like it was going to hit Tongatapu!

It was a little bit of an anticlimax after all that hype that we weren’t going to get to ride out the storm, though of course it is much better that the island was spared, as even a category 3 cyclone could have done some damage. The worst we have to deal with is several backstreets with yards turned into swamps and probably a heightened population of mosquitoes in the next few weeks!

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Backyard lake in Nuku’alofa

Ben and I spent the afternoon of our ‘storm day’ napping. We got a little more rain during the afternoon, but it was super calm compared to the morning. When I woke up from my nap, I had received an email from SmartTraveller alerting me that Cyclone Zena was currently affecting Tonga and we should monitor the media and follow the advice of local authorities. At the exact same time, Dave had sent an email giving us the all clear – Zena had weakened to a category 1 and was passing to the south of us! Thanks SmartTraveller…

To wrap up our exhilarating day, that evening we enjoyed some of our cyclone rations with Naomi and Matt and ended the day with a ‘Piano-off’, where the goal was to take it in turns play a song from your collection featuring the piano. The trick was you weren’t allowed to listen to it beforehand and you only got 2 tries (though Matt introduced cheating to the game and soon everyone was pre-listening…)

It was a very strange week overall, being on stand-by the whole time with all of the anticipation and preparation turning into a lazy afternoon at home! Hopefully with the excitement of the title of this blog post and the underwhelming ending, you have all felt the same slight disappointment as we did when Zena stood us up :-p But luckily for Tonga, for about the 6th time this season I am told, the Kingdom has again escaped a direct hit from a cyclone. Hopefully they can keep up their record!

 

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Easter Escape to ‘Eua

Everybody loves a long weekend. And I think most people would agree, Easter is one of the best, being a whole four days long! Tonga being a largely Christian nation celebrates Easter, so Ben and I decided to take advantage of the super long weekend for our first getaway to another island.

‘Eua is the second largest island in Tonga, and the closest to Tongatapu (with the exception of the tiny inner islands just off the coast of Tongatapu). To get to ‘Eua from Tongatapu, you can either take the world’s shortest commercial flight (around 7 minutes) or you can take a ferry (around 3 hours). We chose to take the ferry for this trip since we had some time (and it is also about half the price so it suits our volunteer budget!).

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There are two ferries that run between Nuku’alofa and ‘Eua, the MV ‘Onemato and the MV Alaimoana. Our volunteer program recommends the ‘Onemato, so we decided to play by the rules and take that one. The tricky thing about the ferries is no-one really seems to know the schedules. We managed to reach someone at the ‘Onemato office by phone and found out there were no ferries on Good Friday or Easter Monday, and as per usual, they do not run on Sunday either (mandatory day of rest), so I decided to take a day of leave so we could catch the ferry on Thursday and avoid being stuck with a standard 3-day long weekend (what a tragedy). The ferry was returning 5am on Tuesday, so theoretically I would make it back to Nuku’alofa in time for work…

You don’t make bookings for the ferry, you just rock up on the day and get your ticket at the wharf. Simple in theory except for the fact that you don’t know when the ferry is leaving. We looked online and asked around and found a variety of departure times ranging from 10am to 12.30pm, so we thought, let’s get there at 9.30am and hopefully that means we won’t miss it. So we jumped on our bikes with our backpacks stuffed to the brim and a bag full of food in my basket, and with a short detour past the bakery for our weekend’s supply of hot cross buns, we got to the wharf right on 9.30. We parked up at what looked to be a waiting area where people sat on metal benches under a tin roof and saw the ‘Onemato hadn’t left yet, so next up was finding tickets.

It took a little while loitering around near the boat to find someone who worked for the ferry but eventually I found a lady with a book who looked official and found out where the office was located (once it was pointed out it was pretty obvious, but it was behind the boat, so we couldn’t see it from where we were sitting!) So I finally got our tickets (23 pa’anga each, and 5 pa’anga for each bike), we loaded our bikes onto the ferry, and then… we waited.

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Oh… there it is…

The MV Alaimoana was on a neighbouring wharf and we saw it leave a bit after 10.30am, but we then also understood why the program doesn’t recommend us to take it! It is a pretty small boat, and was loaded up with stuff, including a couple of cars which seemed pretty ambitious. An hour later when we were still waiting however, Ben was starting to wish we had taken it anyway! We ended up leaving about 12.30pm and we were already sick of sitting down, but took up a spot in the open air at the top of the ferry. It was quite cool up there and I ended up wearing my rain jacket as it was the only long-sleeved item I’d brought with me! The first half hour of our trip was accompanied by a prayer and then announcements in Tongan blasted from a loudspeaker right next to us. We were starting to think it might go for the whole 3 hours when finally it stopped and we could hear ourselves think!

The ferry ride was pretty smooth for the first hour, the waters sheltered by reef and the inner islands, but after that we hit some decent swell. You actually have to cross the Tonga trench to get from Tongatapu to ‘Eua- apparently the second deepest ocean trench in the world. The weather was quite windy and we went through patches of rain, but luckily we had sat in the middle of the ferry and not at the edges as they copped the brunt of it! The roof was made of tarps weighted down by ropes and the water tended to pool at the edges and pour off even after the rain had stopped. We had one hairy part where we had been hitting waves head on for couple of minutes, feeling the impact and the resounding THUMP to the body of the ferry before careening down the wave, when we hit a huge wave with an even bigger THUMP and all the engines cut. I looked around and saw we were still in sight of the eastern side of Tongatapu, and it did run through my mind that maybe I could swim there if we were stranded… but before I mentally started checking off which of my possessions I would surely have to sacrifice, the engines started up with a shudder and we were off again!

The rest of the journey was not so eventful, though I did feel the need to hang on to my seat at times because we were rolling around on such big waves, but the engines held up all the way to ‘Eua. Phew! When we got off the ferry, we had to find our way to our accommodation at Taina’s Place toward the south of the island. We got off to a cracking start when we had to walk our bikes up the first hill because we couldn’t make it with all our luggage! (We haven’t ridden a hill for a month as Tongatapu is really flat for the record…) And just our luck, school had just finished so the street was swarming with high school kids who would grin and wave and yell ‘Bye!’ to the crazy palangis who thought riding bikes was a good idea. There is one main road in ‘Eua which runs down the Western side of the island, unfortunately for us it was ascending the majority of the way to Taina’s. The humidity was thick because of the recent rain and I’m sure I looked a treat with sweat pouring down my face trying to muster a smile and a cheery ‘Bye!’ when we passed anyone.

It was almost 5pm when we finally made it to Taina’s, and despite sitting down for three quarters of the day we were pretty ruined! Taina’s Place is the only accommodation in ‘Eua which isn’t on the beach, but it is surrounded by beautiful gardens in the rainforest. It is also the only accommodation with a self-catering option which was appealing as we didn’t really want to buy all our meals for 5 days. The rooms were basic, but comfortable and the shared bathrooms were all kept very clean.

Taina’s is a family run guesthouse and has the feel of a homestay. You share all the common spaces with the family who were all very friendly and welcoming. We often played cards with the girls in the evenings after dinner. There are also 12 dogs (no joke), as well as a male cat named Rose (after the character in Titanic).

‘Eua is not nearly as developed as Tongatapu. Outside of the main town area where the wharf is, there are no markets or banks, so you rely on the little village falekoloas (corner stores) for supplies. These are not usually open on public holidays or Sundays so we had brought a stash of food from the main island with us to see us through the weekend, and were glad we did. The main supplies at these stores are sweet biscuits, chips, instant noodles and staples like water, milk, butter, eggs (when in stock!). Our stash included some vital Easter goodies too- no Easter eggs available in Tonga, but we got a block of NZ Cadbury chocolate as well as some Tim Tams that were made in Indonesia to compensate (these ended up being quite underwhelming, but the Cadbury was good!).

‘Eua only has a population of 5000 spread through about 10 villages. There is no real nightlife or restaurants here, the only ‘eateries’ are at the guesthouses, all the locals just eat at home. It is fairly quiet and there is a slow pace to life so it’s the perfect place for a relaxing retreat, but with plenty of outdoors activities if you’re keen to explore. The roads are pretty quiet and mostly sealed, so it’s nice for cycling, and you can also use the clear space for activities like pumping up your bike tyres and having snack breaks…

On our first day we decided to hit the beach as the weather was looking improved after 2 weeks of rain! Taina’s Place has a great map originally produced by a Peace Corps volunteer as well as a bunch of detailed directions for various walks which were super useful for self-guided exploring (their website has an interactive map which shows several of the sights). We first rode to Ha’aluma Beach on the south coast of the island, it was a short walk from where we parked our bikes on the main road down a hill to the beach. You were meant to be able to see areas where large slabs of reef rock had been cut to make royal tombs thousands of years ago, but we couldn’t figure out where this was (perhaps the tide was wrong). We did see some cool coral fossils in the rock though…

You were also meant to be able to snorkel at this beach, but again, don’t think we were there at the best tide, or perhaps not in a good spot, as we did attempt it but it was quite difficult in about a foot of water! It was still a cool beach, with some great blowholes where the ocean hit the reef. A couple of German girls who were staying at Taina’s had walked down to the same beach accompanied by 2 of the dogs, Simba and Sarabi. The dogs made sure we didn’t feel left out and came to hang with us for a while too…

We then went to check out Fangalahi Beach on the west coast. We rode most of the way and then parked our bikes up before a massive dirt hill that I was sure to stack on. We did take a wrong turn at one point which sent us out of our way for 10 minutes to a dead end, but eventually we found the right track and followed the overgrown path and then goats trail through the jungle down to the beach. This beach was truly very isolated, we were the only people there.

Again it was meant to be good for snorkelling but we may have misjudged the tides as we were creative snorkelling in a foot of water once more, though this time we did see some cool things like sea urchins and a nudibranch.

We ended our Good Friday with pizza night at the ‘Ovava Tree Lodge in town, one of the other accommodation options and also the home of ‘Eua’s dive operator Deep Blue Diving. We thought there might be a few people we could chat to over a beer, but other than us there were only 2 others there! It is still off season I guess… As soon as we arrived they had a pizza ready and served us right away. We had caught a cab and originally arranged a lift home at 10.30pm, but luckily we got his number so we could ask him to come back at 8.30pm instead! We enjoyed too much pizza (which was tasty albeit with some interesting toppings like canned ham, mixed frozen veg and seafood extender) accompanied by some crazy sweet and heavily artificially coloured Tongan cordial, then retired to Taina’s to watch a movie on Ben’s laptop (a nightly event over Easter!)

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Tongan style meat lovers pizza at ‘Ovava 

Our next day’s adventure was a guided tour with Mathew from Taina’s Place around a loop in the centre of the island to the east coast. We left accompanied by the standard Pacific Island hiking tool (machete) plus an entourage of 3 dogs, Toby, Simba and Sarabi. First stop was the big ‘ovava (banyan) tree #2. It certainly was impressive, and Mathew showed us how easy it was to climb (“Just like steps!”) in his Tongan climbing boots (thongs). He scaled the tree in about 30 seconds and then strolled down the back of a big branch back to ground level as if it was easier than walking on the ground.

We then saw the “Smoking Cave”, ‘Ana ‘Ahu, a huge sinkhole which usually has a waterfall running into it, so it gets its name from the mist that appears to be coming out of the cave. It was not “smoking” on our visit, but still quite an impressive sight! Our walk was peppered with sightings of edible plants- a clove tree, galangal, snacks of fresh fruit picked from the wild fruit trees (guava, banana, orange), and at one point, drinking water from a vine (Mathew told us the Tongan name for it is Tarzan vine, but I’m not so sure that’s an official botanical name…)

We then visited Rat’s Cave (so named because it looks like a rat’s hole, not because there are any rats there), which we climbed down into and had magical views over ‘Eua National Park and Lokupō Beach on the East coast. (Fun fact: ‘Eua National Park is home to the largest remaining patch of virgin rainforest in Tonga.)

We got some more great views over the coast and forest from a lookout a little further along the trail. There is a guided hike that goes down to Lokupō Beach, but it is straight down a steep slope through thick jungle and then back up again, so we didn’t attempt that one this visit!

Our next stop was Makalea Cave, which involved scaling down a wet and slippery rock face which I almost chickened out of. I didn’t feel my sandals were grippy enough, so I ended up doing some barefoot rock climbing because Ben had already gone in and of course I get massive FOMO and didn’t want to wait at the top while he had all the fun!

Once we were down the initial vertical climb, it was a lot easier. There were some cool formations inside the cave, including one that looked like a soft serve ice-cream hanging from the roof (my personal favourite).

On Easter Sunday, we decided to take the obligatory day of rest. Ben hadn’t been to a Tongan Church service yet, so we went with 2 of the girls from Taina’s, Christine and her friend Helala, to their local church, a little wooden hall in the village of Ha’atu’a with an old rusted oxygen tank as a church bell. There was a small congregation of about 25-30, so I was wondering what the singing would be like, but what the group lacked in numbers they certainly made up for in volume! It is always amazing to hear the multi-part harmonies that everyone just knows. The rest of the day was spent napping (as is traditional in Tonga) and watching movies.

On our last full day in ‘Eua, we rode our bikes down to the south-eastern point and did a walk up the coast from there. There are quite a few wild horses in this area, we kept our distance but they were quite cool to see. We passed several “rock gardens” which were pieces of ancient coral reefs pushed up onto land by volcanic activity, and got some pretty spectacular views of the cliffs on ‘Eua’s east coast along the way.

There was a side track up to a lookout where you could view the “Natural Archway”, with a peculiar direction sign and a ridiculously difficult to open gate (where you had to prise a pole out of 2 loops of barbed wire), but it was worth the short struggle and almost stabbing of the hands in the end, and the platform did still look like it was being used…

The walk to the archway was through some amazing mangrove type forest, the root systems of the pandanus were incredible. The story about the creation of the archway is that an ancient Polynesian God called Maui threw his spear from the centre of ‘Eua to this spot on the south-eastern coast, and then he pulled it out to make the archway. The sign didn’t tell us why, just how. Anyway, it was a beautiful spot to watch the tumultuous ocean crash into ‘Eua’s rocky shore.

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The natural archway

We ate our lunch in a cool and shady cave, one much easier to get into than Makalea! The last stop on the walk was meant to be a freshwater stream but at the end of the trail we reached a pretty steep rock face which we would have to climb to get to the source of the stream so we decided to call it a day and head home. It was an early night for us, with the 5am ferry back to Nuku’alofa the next morning.

A 4.15am start on our bikes got us to the wharf at 4.40am, just in time to scamper onto the ferry, rack up our bikes and get a seat up top. It was packed, because there had been no services Sunday or Monday. I don’t know what time people arrived to pick up prime lying locations on the deck and benches!

The weather was fine and it was a much easier ride back than on the way, half an hour quicker too. We got home at 7.30 and picked up breakfast from the bakery before I headed home to change and get to work! All in all, a great break and recommended destination for visitors to Tonga who like a bit of trekking. We hope to get back again later in the year to explore the northern part of the island as well as do some diving, so I’ll keep you posted!

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Sunrise from the ‘Onemato

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