Ocean Dream / Red Dirt Road

Humpback calf Vava'u

Gathering ammo for articles in Vava’u was spectacularly fruitful. Unlike in Tongatapu, the main island, people were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to promote the region. As a result I was hosted on a fantastic array of different activities. On day 3 I found myself in a go-cart whizzing around the mainland and on day 4 I was out on the waves of the open sea in a boat all day.

The carting was very novel – the very rough terrain in places really epitomised ‘off-roading’. There was also a surprising amount of variety in terms of the terrain/flora/fauna. Up on the north coast, the rich brown/red mud and luscious greens transformed to sweeping yellow fields dotted with pandan trees. I’ll do a ‘photo story’ to try and recreate the impression of the trip:

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First stop: beach at the north east of the main island

First stop: beach at the north east of the main island

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Flying fox den with a view

Flying fox den with a view

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Picked up a straggler in the cart

Picked up a straggler in the cart

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The following day, the excursion couldn’t have been a bigger contrast from that adrenaline filled mud-fest. A reasonably small motor boat, with me, the crew and three underwater photographers on, headed out of the bay, out through the islands to the open sea. We spent from 8am-4pm getting sea sick on the waves, spotting the odd breech or the odd fin but getting frustrated as all of the whales where moving. Tonga is renowned for providing perfect conditions for whales to hang around in. As a result you get many mothers with their calves sitting around in the warm water. If the whales are moving, however, there’s not much you can do about it as they’re far faster than you could ever be!

On our way back in we eventually saw an out spurt of water belonging to a resting mother and we jumped in the water with our snorkels on. The mother was very relaxed and sleepy and dozed away whilst her calf came to play with us near the surface – it was within a couple of metres of us! Every now and then the sleepy mother would rise up to breath and perhaps move along a little, still with her eyes shut! My favourite moment was swimming along side both of them, almost at arms length whilst they slowly moved along. We were in there for over an hour but it certainly eclipsed all of the morning’s sickness and frustration!

My pathetic little underwater camera did not fare well, particularly with the excitement of the situation, but I’ve fiddled around with a couple of the photos a little to try and reclaim a semblance of a whale from them! With any luck, the underwater photographer who got a shot of me with the whales with come through with his promise to send me the picture! I’ll include a low-quality version of his shot of the calf as well – Daniel Norwood photography, is where to go if anyone wants to look further into him.

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As usual, i've failed to get a full whale in but here you can get an idea of what it was like to swim along-side!

As usual, i’ve failed to get a full whale in but here you can get an idea of what it was like to swim along-side!

The mum with her eyes shut!

The mum with her eyes shut!

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Fantastic wooden whale at the crafts shop in town

Fantastic wooden whale at the crafts shop in town

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Angels With Dirty Faces

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“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
 – Winston Churchill

I love the way that all the livestock just wanders freely around the Island here. Pigs with their piglets and Chickens followed by clouds of little chicks are everywhere you look. Even the church had a shifty-looking pig lurking about in the garden in front.

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Neiafu, the main town, is pretty easy to navigate around given that it’s just a small line of bars/cafés/the odd shop along the harbour. On my second morning here I was whisked up by one of the couples who’ve set up business just out of town. They run a totally organic and waste free farm where they grow vanilla and coconuts to export to Japan and Australia. I loved hearing the processes by which they re-use any potential waste products: Coconut husks are used as ‘compost’ around the base of the vanilla plants or shredded to form a base for the mushroom farm they’re trying to set up. The shells are burnt to make charcoal, the heat of which is used to extract salt from seawater to cure the pig meat with. Any waste from pigs/chickens is given to the mud crabs in the mangroves which they catch to sell in town. The pig excretions are used to create a kind of ‘bio fuel’ and so on!

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Some kids playing in the gorgeous red dirt!

Some kids playing in the gorgeous red dirt!

The vanilla trade in Tonga used to be one of its main exports – the couple running the farm are trying to rebuild it again.

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When the sun goes down all sorts of crazy things start to happen. On the first night, some of the locals were putting on a traditional dance show. They cover themselves in coconut oil as the customary way of showing appreciation for a dance is sticking a dollar or two to the dancers body! Very strange!!

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This only got more hilarious the next night: Wednesday evening, the ‘Bounty Bar’ host ‘Faka’Lati’ night. Just a note on the language here: pretty much everything sounds either made up or offensive. The word for beautiful is ‘Faka’Ofa’Ofa’…pronounced…well…much like something crass you could say to someone who’s annoying you. To say cheers you say ofa atu, meaning ‘I love you’. Faka means ‘like’ so Faka’Lati translates as ‘like a lady’. On Faka’lati night at the Bounty Bar, the transvestites around town (a surprisingly high proportion of the population) have some fun, dress up and dance on stage for the crowds. Again, the tipping took the form of sticking notes on the performers but here they had no oil on so the notes needed to be tucked in anywhere…much like a strip bar! They particularly liked to pick on the uncomfortable looking men who’d been dragged there by their friends/girlfriends -Very funny.

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Sunny Side Up

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As soon as I sorted out somewhere to stay – things immediately began to get easier. Having a place to come back to with a bed is seriously underrated. Showers are still cold but it’s a definite improvement!

Day 1 in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga, and straight to work! I’ve been gathering together a network of contacts here to provide info/details/photos for articles. Lots of people are keen to promote Vava’u, particularly on the ‘off season’ so I’ve been hosted on many different tours and excursions. The first was a sailing trip with a lovely couple called Denis and Donna (or Donis and Denna, as I kept accidentally saying). They took me out of the harbour into the beautiful array of little islands that make up the ‘Vava’u’ region.

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The Islands all have hilarious names. Donna and Denis have just leased one called Malafakalava. Nuku Island was my favourite spot. Just look at the colour of the water! I couldn’t resist bothering the clown fish again when I headed out with the snorkel…

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Find Nemo!

Find Nemo!

Playing about with the colours a little

Playing about with the colours a little

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There are also the most incredibly caves dotted about the place. Swallows cave is famous for the clarity of the water for diving. It’s also got a huge series of swallows nests dotted like bats all over the roof, hence the name.

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The perfect introduction to Vava’u – enough to lift anyone’s moods!

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Kingdom Of Comfort

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To say that things went downhill after the previous post would be an understatement. Don’t be misled by my photographs – pictures tend to reflect the highlights! It would have been pretty unusual for me to have been ill, homeless and hungry and then whacking out a camera to take a photo of the patch of street.

The volunteer organisation I was with in Fiji are essentially a scam. The Brit I’d been sharing a room with rightfully complained about the bed bugs which were steadily chomping into our skin each night. As a result we were moved out of our home. I was very sad to leave the lovely family we had been staying with – they were pretty much the only positive aspect of life in Suva. The family were quite torn up about the episode too, deciding not to host volunteers in the future as they’d had the house fumigated previously but it was too difficult to get rid of the pesky bed bugs.

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'Bimbo' the family cat. I tried to tastefully explain the concept of what bimbo means in England which they all found very amusing.

‘Bimbo’ the family cat. I tried to tastefully explain the concept of what bimbo means in England which they all found very amusing.

My roommate and I were moved to a small double bed in a hostel which seemed more like a mental institution, aptly fitting my current state of mind at the time. We were then told by the organisers that they would be wondering around the village to try and find us somewhere to stay… needless to say – we were both horrified at the idea of setting up camp with a random Fijian family that had never hosted foreigners before etc etc. Meanwhile other volunteers were having money regularly stolen from them in their homestays…

I by no means had it the worst – my roommate had paid (a significant chunk of money) to do sports coaching. On arrival into Fiji she was told that it was school holidays so she’d be handing out fliers at the museum. Another girl was supposed to be helping disabled children in a school. Instead she was put into the leprosy ward to help bathe the patients and was asked to stitch up open wounds! Far from having a place to wind down after the challenging working days we all have ‘accommodation’ that pushes the word ‘basic’ to its limits.

My work at the Fiji Times started out extremely shakily – but I decided not to put up with sitting around being told I just needed to wait around all day. I ended up getting out to report on a few stories but to be honest they were boring as sin – making their way into the business section of the paper. Although I’ve had five articles published – the style of the paper is pretty shoddy in my view so I’m not particularly proud of them. My writing is by no means of a high quality but it was edited to have sentences beginning with ‘and’ and ‘because’…I thought that was frowned upon?!

The experience helped me to fairly firmly establish that I’m not interested in working in a news room. Horrific events and deaths are ‘stories’ to be probed into and dissected. If a girl is raped or killed the reaction is ‘great – let’s get someone round to the family, someone to the police and someone round to the hospital to try get something out of her’. The writing itself requires absolutely no creativity – being stripped of anything other than raw facts in their simplest form.

In my semi-homeless state after being moved out, I arrived at the magazine where I’d transferred my internship to. I jumped upon the offer to ship me out to Tonga for a series of articles – partly because I relished the opportunity to do some serious travel writing but also partly because I desperately needed an escape clause to get out of the situation I was in. The organisation had my passport in the process of getting a working VISA, so for one horrible moment I thought they were simply going to not let me leave the country…eventually we managed to sort it out though.

However – out of the frying pan…

I arrived into Tonga to end up wondering around for several hours with my luggage as every hotel seemed to be fully booked. It’s scary enough arriving into a new place (especially in a developing country) with no knowledge of where you are, how to get around, what the people are like etc. I eventually managed to sort a place to stay for the night but by this stage I had a horrible stomach bug and was feeling very sorry for myself.

I collapsed for a while but had to pick myself up the next day to head out around the island in order to get material for the articles. It was a truly beautiful place – perhaps I can post a draft version of my article once I get it sorted but for now I’ll let the photos talk for themselves. I’m now in a different part of Tonga but more on that later!

Natural land bridge on the south coast

Natural land bridge on the south coast

Kids waiting outside the church in their 'ta‘ovala' - short mat tried around the waist - traditional church-wear!

Kids waiting outside the church in their ‘ta‘ovala’ – short mat tried around the waist – traditional church-wear!

The ta‘ovala for women are longer.

The ta‘ovala for women are longer.

Lots of red and white houses dotted about the villages to match the flag! There's also been a recent coronation so there are bunting-esque decorations all over the place

Lots of red and white houses dotted about the villages to match the flag! There’s also been a recent coronation so there are bunting-esque decorations all over the place

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My Tongan taxi-driver!

My Tongan taxi-driver!

The most spectacular part of the island, in my view, were the miles of blowholes stretching down the south west coast!

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More of the same idyllic beaches!

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