Tonga 2019

   July 2019

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Nuku'alofa

Friday July 19th 2019

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While I was on the far side of the planet, I wanted to visit a Pacific island. Pitcairn is my ultimate aim there. But this time, I didn't have time for the five-day journey from Mangareva, nor even the two or three days I'd need to get from New Zealand to Mangareva. So I had to content myself with less remote places.

I was also tempted to go back to Vanuatu. My week there in 2014 was awesome and it is definitely one of the most spectacular places I've ever been. But, there is a whole world of islands out there and I decided I needed to see a new one.

Flight prices were then the deciding factor. Tonga was the most reasonable, so to Tonga I went. I started my trip with a couple of days in Nuku'alofa.

My main idea for my week in the country was to try and get to either the Ha'apai or the Vava'u islands, both of which sounded awesome and little-visited. But it turned out that both were tantalisingly out of reach. Ha'apai flights were totally booked up, and no boats were scheduled. Vava'u is visited by a weekly ferry, but trying to determine when that left proved impossible. I asked first at the tourist information office. "Ah..", they said, sheepishly. "Best to ask at the port about that." They said they could phone the ferry people but they rarely picked up. Their best guess was that the ferry might leave on Monday or Tuesday. Neither would work for me as I was flying back to New Zealand on the Thursday night.

So I went to the port. I found a desk in there with a person at it, and I asked them. "Oh, you'll need to ask over there," they said, pointing at an empty desk on the other side of the room. I went over there and waited, but nobody appeared.

I decided that other islands were a lost cause, and I'd have to stay on Tongatapu.

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Ha'atafu

Saturday July 20th 2019

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If I was going to have to stay on Tongatapu, I didn't want to stay in Nuku'alofa. I found my way to a group of beach huts at Ha'atafu, on the northwestern tip of the island, and stayed there.

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Deserted shores

Saturday July 20th 2019

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I thought that this might be quite a busy time for Tonga tourism, in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter. But out at Ha'atafu, at least, it was very quiet. There were a few other people staying where I was staying, but the beautiful beach was generally completely deserted. So I spent quite a bit of time there, just watching the waves rolling in and thinking that the South Pacific is a pretty fantastic part of the world.

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Ha'atafu sunset

Saturday July 20th 2019

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Out on the west of the island, I got fantastic sunsets each night when it was clear.

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Night on the beach

Saturday July 20th 2019

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In four years living in Chile, I got to see the fantastic southern skies all the time, from the best place on Earth for astronomy. Nowadays I'm not in the southern hemisphere so often. So I love the chances I get to see the southern skies. Tonga is not as privileged a location for astronomy as the Atacama Desert, but there's not a lot of light pollution. So I did astrophotography on the beach when the weather was good.

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Storms

Sunday July 21st 2019

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It rained heavily for two days. Internet connectivity on Tonga is limited and very expensive, and although the place I was staying claimed to have wifi, it never worked. So I just caught up with the world a couple of times over coffee in Nuku'alofa. While it rained, I just stayed out at Ha'atafu, in my hut by the sea, listening to the rain beating down, and enjoying the seclusion.

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After the rain

Monday July 22nd 2019

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After a couple of days the storm passed. The weather turned beautiful once again, and I emerged from seclusion to do a bit more tourism while I was in Tonga.

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Moons of Jupiter

Tuesday July 23rd 2019

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Jupiter was high in the evening skies while I was travelling. I took photographs to see its moons moving from night to night. Here, Io is on one side, Europa and Ganymede the other. Callisto is hidden from view behind the planet.

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Zodiacal light

Tuesday July 23rd 2019

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After sunset, when the daylight has faded away, there is still light in the sky. The zodiacal light comes from sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the solar system.

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Milky Way over Ha'atafu

Tuesday July 23rd 2019

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The centre of the Milky Way is always spectacular to see. It's a minor tragedy that most of the world's population live in places where they can't ever see it.

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Whale watching

Wednesday July 24th 2019

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The waters north of Tongatapu see heavy humpback whale traffic. The whales spend the summer in Antarctica, and come here for the winter to breed. They pass Australia on the way, and I'd seen them there in 2014. Here in Tonga, boat trips also offer the chance to snorkel in the water with the whales.

So I headed out from Tongatapu early one morning. We motored north for about an hour, until we were out of sight of land. For a while all was quiet. We were early in the season, and there was a possibility that we wouldn't see any whales. But then, a group appeared. We all leapt into the water to swim.

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Splashing

Wednesday July 24th 2019

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I really don't know how ethical it is to swim with whales. I've seen evidence that tour boats cause changes in the whales' behaviour, making them dive for longer and spend more time separated from their calves. But on the other hand, some of the whales we saw unmistakably came over to look at us. Passing a way away from us, they changed course, turned around, and came over. If we were bothersome or troubling to them, I feel like they wouldn't have done that.

The whales didn't breach while we were out there. But a couple of times they did some loud fin-slapping. I wondered if that was a sign of irritation, but from what I've read it seems it's just a general form of whale communication, unlikely to have been directed at us.

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Rolling

Wednesday July 24th 2019

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The seas were really alive with whales. We would encounter a group, swim in groups, then get back on board and feel like it might all be over, only for another group to appear not long after. We encountered eight groups in a couple of hours out at sea.

What astonished me was how fast they travel. Each group was gone in minutes, giving us a bare passing glance before disappearing into the blue.

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Mother and calf

Wednesday July 24th 2019

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The groups were all twos and threes. A couple of them were mothers with calves. They approached very close to our boat. We were just moving about aimlessly, and when we saw whales, the crew would turn the engine off straight away, so again, it made me think that we must be a curiosity and not an irritation to the whales, otherwise they would surely just not come close.

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Tropical skies

Wednesday July 24th 2019

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The whale watching was pretty epic. After that, I just had one more day on Tonga. On my final evening, the skies were clear again, and I did more astrophotography.

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