Mandy and the World

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

Easter Escape to ‘Eua

on April 11, 2016

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!).

eua location

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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One response to “Easter Escape to ‘Eua

  1. Keith Hill says:

    What a fantastic long weekend! Had bits of everything. Sounds like you need to go back to work to rest. Also think I learned a new abbreviation – FOMO. Thanks for all of the informative detail, looking forward to the next instalment

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