During our second year in Australia we had the opportunity to fulfil a lifetime dream. When Vaughn and I lived in South Africa we paid an annual pilgrimage to the Cape coast each September to watch the southern right whales. Every year between July and November, whales come into Walker Bay to breed. Cows bring their calves in so close to the shore one could almost touch them, if that were allowed. We used to walk along the rugged shoreline until we found a whale or two playing in the shallows, then sit and watch until they swam away.
When we came across an advert for a holiday in Tonga where you could swim in the water with whales, we booked straight away.
Even before we arrived at the Whaleswim destination, the Tonga we saw was a another new experience. We flew into the airport at Tongatapu, where any thoughts of buying lunch were a Western World fantasy. There were none of the duty-free shops or fast food outlets that we were used to. Just some plastic chairs and an empty coca cola machine.
As we came out of the International airport locals approached us offering taxi transfers to the domestic airport, trips to town and full island tours. Vaughn seemed to be accepting an offer, but I clearly retained some of my South African mistrust, as I didn’t feel comfortable and was sure we were going to be ripped off or abandoned somewhere in the jungle.
At the domestic terminal our tickets were not available so we accepted the offer of a ride into town, sceptical though I was. It would be an adventure. Better than sitting in the airport for five hours on hard plastic chairs.
We passed a large building that we were told was the king’s palace. On the opposite side of the road, discreetly shielded by a clump of trees, was the house of the old queen. At intervals beside the road we saw colourful graveyards consisting of three or four mounds of sand topped with flowers, garlands and banners.
We drove through the thousands of coconut palms we had seen from the air. From above it looked like neat allotments, rectangular and separate. From the ground it seemed haphazard, the random scatterings of nature. Our driver told us the plants between the palms produced tapioca.
Fortunately his taxi had good brakes, because the road was owned by fat lactating sows, followed by piglets the size of rabbits. Dogs of undetermined genealogy roamed freely.
We reached the town where the majority of buildings had been flattened during the previous year’s coup. The remaining shops contained half-empty shelves. We stopped for a cool drink, but there was no bottled water, no fruit juice, nor any sort of sugar-free soda. We later heard that diabetes is a big problem in Tonga.
From the town we drove out through roads of increasing rural appearance. My apprehension grew in direct proportion to the decrease in the width of the road. Strangely, the sight of a trampoline in someone’s garden seemed reassuring. The comfort of the familiar.
We stopped under a tree where our gaze was directed upwards to about a hundred flying foxes or fruit bats hanging like Halloween decorations. Without thinking I put my hands to my neck as a Dracula-like shape flew over my head.
From there we drove to the Blow Holes. All along the shore the thundering crashes of waves echoed as fountains of spume erupted through the tight holes in the rocks. The air was full of a power that was almost physical. I could have stayed longer, absorbing energy from the ocean, but it was necessary to return to the airport.
Although there was no sign of either our tickets or a voucher, we were eventually told we could board. Every passenger was weighed with their baggage, and the total weight called out loudly for all to hear, while the pilot made some basic calculations. There were a couple of very large Tongan gentlemen present, so my eighty kilograms seemed modest.
The twelve-seater plane was loaded although there were only six of us on board, plus the two pilots. The safety drill was so casual that several people looked surreptitiously under their seats to check if they had life jackets. For a deafening hour we bounced through the clouds until with a roar and a screech we made a perfect landing in Neiafu.
We ran through the rain into the tiny terminal building, where we were relieved to find someone waiting to meet us. Into a taxi and on to a boat we piled our paraphernalia, smiling to ourselves at how our children would be amused that we had as usual, brought the rain with us on holiday. The sea was choppy and I was sitting dangerously close to a stack of two hundred and forty eggs.
It took over an hour to reach our island resort, but we arrived without mishap and were shown to our gloriously unsophisticated fale. The resort had been built, mostly from local materials, in an area hand-cleared of dense jungle. Our cabin or fale was made of wood with walls of woven palm leaves.
After a cursory wash in the open-air shower we went to explore. The island was totally wind and solar-powered, hence the stipulation that no hair-dryers were allowed. We found the four windmills whizzing round furiously in the strong wind.
As darkness fell, we weaved our way up to the bar and restaurant where we met members of the previous Whaleswim group.
After a meal of delicious fresh tuna, as good as any meal you could get in Melbourne, we retired early. Considering the noise of the elements, and pillows that felt like bags stuffed with tennis balls, we slept well, excitedly anticipating getting up close and personal with whales the next day.