Seven Days in Ha'apai, Tonga

I've often thought that visiting the Kingdom of Tonga is like taking a step back in time. If that's true, than visiting the Ha'apai Island chain is like taking a LEAP back in time. The Ha'apai group of islands is located between the main island group of Tongatapu and the Vava'u Island group where I live. A visit to Ha'apai provides a glimpse as to what life in Tonga was probably like before Tongatapu became an Urban area and Vava'u a tourist destination.

Landing at the airport is your first clue that you are about to have a different experience. The runway stretches the entire width of the island and from the air; you can't help but wonder if the runway is really long enough to land the plane or if you will end up in the ocean. As we touched down, I noticed that the main road crosses the runway. Cars, and there are not a lot of them on Ha'apai, just sit at the edge of the runway until the plane has landed and then drive across to get to the other side. There is a gate to keep someone from driving across when a plane is on its final approach, but closing it means someone has to walk there to close it. It was closed when we landed but I'm guessing it is sometimes left open and is up to the alert pilots to make sure there are no cars on the runway before they commit the aircraft to land.

The main village on Ha'apai is called "Pangai". Notice I didn't say city. It's not big enough to really even be considered a town. There are two banks, the Tonga Development Bank where I work and Westpac Bank of Tonga, along with a few stores, a police station and one restaurant called Mariner's Café.

I came to Ha'apai on Bank business. I never really expected that I would be taking business trips in the Peace Corps, at least not via a plane, but that is what I did. My job for the week was to help conduct some workshops for small business owners and also to do some staff training for the employees of the branch.

The bank is without question the most modern building in Ha'apai. It looks like any Western bank with a big lobby and teller stations. In the back is a large conference room and two bedrooms. I opted not to stay at the bank, giving up the comfortable looking double beds to stay with my friends Scot and Karen.

I pretty much worked all week, seeing Scot and Karen in the morning and then again in the evening after work. Friday after work, Scot, Karen and I headed over to Sami's house to celebrate her birthday. Sami is getting ready to finish her Peace Corps service and it's the first chance I've had to spend time with her.

We were joined by Phil, a volunteer from my group and several Japanese volunteers. We made Tacos and finished the last of the tomatoes I've brought from Vava'u. Fresh veggies just don't exist in Ha'apai.

Biking in Ha'apai

Saturday we headed out for a short bike ride to the southern end of the main island of Ha'apai. It's a nice spot where on a clear day you can see many of the other islands. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear and we could only see three other islands from the point. Still we had a nice time hanging out on the beach.

The weather wasn't great and the bike I was riding was too small for my 6'3" frame so we headed back to Phil's house and spent the rest of the afternoon sipping wine and talking. Sunday everything shuts down in Tonga and Ha'apai is no exception. It was a nice lazy day.

Air Tonga Confusion

Getting out of Ha'apai on Monday was a true Tonga experience. The kind of thing that makes no sense but you just accept it for what it is. I was at the Peace Corps office in Ha'apai around Noon when my phone rang and a Tongan woman from Airlines Tonga starts the conversation by asking "Is this Steve?" I say "Io", which is yes. She then asks me if I'm still going to Vava'u today. I tell her yes, and she tells me that my 3pm flight has been cancelled and I now have to be at the airport by 12:30pm to fly to Tongatapu, which is in the opposite direction of Vava'u. After landing there, we'll be taken to Vava'u. I say ok and immediately call the bank to see about getting a ride. I walk back to Scot and Karen's house, jump into the waiting bank car and head off to the airport and arrive by 12:20pm or so. I then sit at the airport for about 45 minutes before anyone comes to check in the flight.

While I'm waiting, I'm joined by David, who manages all of the Peace Corps business volunteers in Tonga, including me. He tells me he was bumped off an earlier Airlines Tonga flight at 8:30am when it cancelled. We then wait until just before 2pm to take off for Tongatapu. We land and there are four people on the plane going to Vava'u. We remain in our seats and the flight boards. We soon realize there are more people getting on the small 15 seat plane than there are seats. The last four people have no place to sit. A Tongan comes on board and says the Vava'u passengers who came from Ha'apai have to get off the plane and take the next flight, which is at 5pm, about 2 ½ hours away.

After we get off the plane, they unload all of the baggage they have just put on the plane and ask us to pick out our bags, then they reload the bags and everyone except for the four people who were bumped fly away to Vava'u. David, who speaks fluent Tongan asks the guy why we got bumped instead of someone else and is told that Ha'apai never called and told them that four passengers were going to Vava'u. You would think that since we had already been bumped and sent to a different city, we would have priority. It just doesn't work that way in Tonga.

The airport is very small and I don't really want to sit around, so I jump in a cab and head to Fua'amotu, which is the village near where the airport is located. I lived there when I first came to Tonga and decide to surprise my home stay family. I get out of the cab after seeing the door to their house is open and see the Grandmother of the family. She is the only one home, but I soon see a neighbor I know and chat with her for a while. It's a much better way to pass the time.

The grandmother becomes very concerned that I'm going to walk back to the airport and starts trying to find me a ride. This 80 plus year old woman is walking door to door to try to find someone with a car. I finally convince her in my broken Tongan that I'm going to walk. As I'm walking, up drives Tau and his son Tevita, my home stay family. He is surprised to see me since he thinks I'm in Vava'u, but I jump in the truck and we visit on the way back to the airport. I wait a while longer and finally the plane comes back from Vava'u and we are on our way.
I'll be returning to Ha'apai in October, again on bank business. However, my friends Scot and Karen won't be there. Peace Corps is transferring them to new jobs in Tongatapu. That's pretty unusual, but Scot's host organization never delivered on what it had promised Peace Corps. Scot and Karen are both actually very excited about the move because they both are now going to be in jobs that better suit their past experience.

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  1. Really enjoy your posts. Was planning on a two week trip to Tonga in August, but have delayed that trip because of the coronation and going to Fiji instead. However, would like to read your views/experience regarding the coronation/preparation for the coronation and how it will affect/is affecting the common people, eg, fulfilling cultural obligations etc

  2. Hi Tom:
    Thanks for your comment. Sorry you won't make it to Tonga, but I am planning to attend the coronation and will certainly be writing about it.

    Perhaps because I live in Vava'u, I haven't heard that much about the coronation yet. However, that is probably not the case in Nuku'alofa.

    Happy Travels,

  3. Hi Steve, here is what is happening at the coronation. I will be there and hope I can catch up with you and Scott from Ha'apai.

    "The Coronation is a once in a lifetime event and a huge event not only in Tonga but also around the world. And just like in England and in Tonga you would have to be 60 or 50 years old to remember the last coronation."


    The Coronation of Tonga’s monarch, HM King George V will be marked by five days of coronation celebrations in Nuku’alofa, July 29-August 3 this year.

    Wednesday July 30

    Taumafakava or a Royal Kava Ceremony at Pangai Lahi followed by fireworks.

    Thursday July 31

    Royal Luncheon will be held followed by a Government Reception

    Dinner hosted by HRH Crown Prince Tupouto’a Lavaka.

    Friday, August 1

    Coronation Ceremony in the morning, will be held at The venue of the Coronation which will be the Saione Church of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Kolomotu’a.

    Coronation Ball will follow later that night for invited guests only

    Charity Concert, a Block Party and fireworks is planned for downtown Nuku'alofa.

    The following dignitaries will be attending the King of Tong’s coronation on August 1st.

    • President George Bush
    • Duke and Duchess of Gloucester
    • Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan
    • Norwegian Royal Family
    • Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn
    • Bhutan Royal Family
    • Prince Rainier of Monaco
    • Prince Albert of Monaco
    • King Tuheitia, the Maori King of NZ

    The Dutch royal family will be represented by the Netherlands ambassador to the Kingdom of Tonga.

    Ministry of Tourism prepared to attract tourists for coronation

    Unconfirmed reports are that Elton John, Mick Jagger, Elle Macpherson and Sean Connery are on the guest list.

    According to New Zealand newspapers, the coronation will feature three balls: one for "very, very important people", one for "very important people", and one for everyone else. There will also be a fireworks display, a military parade, traditional dancing, a rugby match and an open-air concert.

    In the lead up to the Coronation, the King is holding a small birthday bash on Friday 9th of May by hiring the Starlight String Quartet and an Opera Singer from New Zealand. All funds raised will be donated to the Childrens Cancer Foundation. The King is a huge fan of opera music and has a tremendous appreciation of fine European art, history and music.,25197,23691145-5016490,00.html

    Tonga Coronation