Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tonga - 'Eua - Day 2

I was quite unhappy about having to wake up early two days in a row while on vacation. Waking up at 6:00am, I quickly gathered my stuff and was out the door and into the taxi, the same one that took us from the airport, by 6:15. We checked in and waited for the flight at the airport, which was delayed, once again, this time due to winds that are too gusty. We passed the time chatting, and helped some other bored passengers straighten the pictures hanging crookedly on the walls. Luckily, the pilot deemed it safe to take off at around 8:00am, so we piled into the full flight. As the lucky man who got the co-pilot's seat got in, the pilot warned him not to bang his knees against the flight controls. After some quick safety instructions and a warning that take-off is going to be loud, we taxied to the runway and took off with no delay. Our aircraft, a Britten-Norman Islander, was quite bumpy in the gusty wind. Although its paint was chipping off, its body had numerous rusty spots, and there were numerous warnings on the control panel for low fuel and for the navigation system being out of date, the upbeat, easy-going British pilot made me feel quite safe.

As we lifted off, we could see 'Eua Island in the distance right away. After all, the seven minute flight across twenty kilometres of ocean is one of the shortest regularly scheduled flights in the world. Before I knew it, we were crossing over the shores of 'Eua Island and lining up with the runway. Even from the air, I could see that the runway at 'Eua Kaufana Airport was in poor shape. The unsealed coral runway looked as if it had many potholes, and parts of it appeared washed out. As we made a final bank towards the runway, the plane shuddered as it got caught in a gust of wind, which definitely caught my attention. I tightened my seatbelt to prepare for a rough landing, which the pilot warned us about before take-off. As it turns out, our pilot also realised that the runway was not in good shape, as he chose to land the aircraft on the strip of grass beside the runway instead. We were quite lucky, and our landing proved to be quite smooth in the co-operating weather conditions.

After a having our luggage wheeled to us on a derelict wood trolley and a phone call, we were on our way to Taina's Place in a van. We stopped briefly on the way at a farm, then on the road, where some people and some kids jumped in. As it turns out, they were all family members who help out around Taina's Place. When I arrived, Taina informed me that she already gave away my bed and that they were all out of rooms for the night. However, she can let me sleep in a bed in the "office" section of the common room for 20 pa'anga, which I gladly agreed to. I relaxed for a bit and chatted with the other Australian volunteers and the Peace Corps volunteer. I also met the guy who's house it was that I stayed in last night. After a while, everyone decided to go on the three hour hiking tour, which me, along with a couple from Hong Kong and an older American man who has travelled to over 150 countries and published a few books, have committed to. As we were waiting for the hike tour to start, the people who came by ferry yesterday said it was quite a trip. Apparently, the two and a half hour ferry ride turned into over five hours as the seas were extremely rough. The boat was tipping from side to side, causing everything on deck to slide from one side of the boat to the other. Even the people who said they have never been motion sick before said they were all throwing up. By the end, everyone was soaked from the rain, and glad to be alive as a few of the large waves they hit made them fear that the boat may capsize. Although I am glad that I traded that for an eight minute flight, I felt that I may have missed out on another adventurous experience and story!

At 10:00am, everyone piled into a few vehicles and we were dropped off at a large grassy field surrounded by trees. Apparently, this was the largest group they had taken for a hiking tour, so we were assigned three guides to keep an eye on us. As we started off into the bush, one of our guides, Taina's daughter, who I believe is also named Taina, pointed out to us some guava trees and picked some for us to eat. As it turns out, these are pretty common, and a few of the travellers, especially David the American travel writer and photographer, ate them throughout the hike.

The first stop was a huge banyan tree. The tree, growing on the side of a wide sinkhole, was enormous! The roots formed a forest of interconnecting branches that one could walk through and explore. We spent some minutes exploring the root system of this tree and taking photos. Most people, including me, have never seen anything like this and were quite amazed. The tree itself it very tall, supporting various ferns and other plants in addition to its own leaves high up in the rainforest canopy.

Trudging through trails serving farmland, with the occasional horses or cows tied to a tree, we came to the next point of interest, Matalanga 'A Maui, also known as the Smoky Cave. Matalanga 'A Maui was a dramatic depression in the earth. Following a steep slope down a bit leads to a sudden vertical drop. Standing on the edge of this drop, none of us could see the bottom. On one side, there was a stream, turning into a waterfall plummeting into the black abyss below. The other walls of the sink hole were covered with ferns and other tropical plants. As the water cascades into the depths, one could also see a white mist gently wafting out of the hole, dissipating near the top. Although it is technically possible to use the vines to climb to the bottom of the hole with some skill, we did not have the time to do so. Taina also told us of a tale of how an American man fell into the hole a few years ago after being lost in the forest with his brother and trying to find their way home in the dark. His brother managed to make it to Taina's Place, where she called for help, but when they found the man who fell down the hole, he was dead.

As we continued on, it became more and more muddy as the rain started up again. We passed through huge patches of mimosa, the plant that folds its leaves when touched. Although it was quite pretty to see, this is in fact an invasive species from South America. Eventually, we entered the main rainforest area of 'Eua National Park, where I immediately slipped and ended up with my right pant leg completely covered in mud. It turned out it didn't matter much anyway, as by the end of the trip, I was fully covered in mud halfway up to my knees, and I had to wash my pants and shoes to make sure they got past Biosecurity New Zealand anyway. This turned out to be quite a gruelling hike. Due to the category four cyclone that passed through Tonga just a week and a half prior, there were numerous downed trees. Finding the path was difficult enough, but now it was compounded by the problem of climbing over and under the numerous tree trunks and branches in the way. What was supposed to be a three hour walk turned into a five to six hour hike. As we gained altitude, we travelled through a variety of different rainforest landscapes. We heard many birds around us, but saw few. We were especially on the lookout for rare parrot that can be found only in the rainforests of 'Eua.

After getting lost a few times and retracing our steps (I can't imagine how we would have found our way without the guides!), we reached a clearing where a wood platform was built. Stepping out onto the platform, we were treated to a view of the rounded and vegetated cliffs of 'Eua island towering over rainforest covered in vines leading up to a beach being pounded by the rough surf. White-tailed tavake birds were gliding amongst the treetops below. Although we were quite high up, we were still not at the tallest point of 'Eua island, Te 'Emoa. From time to time, a break in the forest canopy would allow us to catch glimpses of the cliffs above us leading to the peak. We took this opportunity to take our bags off to cool down in the strong breeze and take a snack. I had grabbed a bunch of bananas hanging in the yard (a large bunch of probably over a hundred bananas cut from one of the numerous banana trees of her property) from Taina's place, and had a few of them. Remembering that I was in Tonga, I offered some to the others, but no one else wanted any. After another short walk, we came to another viewing platform with similar expansive views over the cliffs, rainforests, and the Pacific Ocean.

Continuing onwards, we stopped at Ana Kuma, The Rat's Cave. Once again, it pays to have a guide with you when exploring the rainforests of 'Eua. Ana Kuma was nothing more than just a small hole between some rocks by the base of a tree. However, climbing into it reveals a dark passage filled with some stalactites and stalagmites. Making your way towards the light at the end of the tunnel reveals an expansive view over the forests and coasts of 'Eua. There is a ledge that one could carefully climb down onto, but seeing that we were already well behind schedule, we decided to just get a quick look and continue on. As someone put it, Rat's Cave is probably named that because you feel like a rat when entering and exiting the cave.

After another long hike, we reached a small pool in the forest. The pool is made of a concrete barrier built at the bottom of some small streams and waterfalls. The water was murky, which was undoubtedly due to the recent heavy rains. A traveller who has been here before remarked that last time he was here, the water was perfectly clear, very inviting on a hot and humid day. The area around the pools were also in a terrible state, filled with many fallen and rotting trees, no doubt from the recent cyclone. After sitting for a rest, some people decided to head back, with a few intrepid folks determined to go on to the last point of interest, only a short walk from here. Not much was said about the last point of interest other than we'll like it - in retrospect, perhaps Taina and the other guides could have done a better job of selling the attraction!

After carefully crossing the concrete barrier and walking up some muddy trails strewn with fallen trees, we reached what were were looking for. It was a huge banyan tree. I was wildly impressed with the first banyan tree, but this one was much bigger! Not only that, but it was growing out the side of another sink hole, which was really the entrance to a subterranean cave system. Following a steep path, we descended to the bottom of the sink hole, and climbing through the roots of the tree, we arrived at the cave entrance. It was spectacular! The tree towered above us, visible through large holes in the rock between the rock bridges above. The cave, with large stalactites, stalagmites, and a small river or pool of water was visible, although it was not possible to see too far into the cave, even with a torch. The natural beauty of the place reminded me of the Hometree in the recent hit movie Avatar, and someone even pointed out that the Hometree in Avatar was called Eywa, which sounds just like 'Eua!

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this place as much as I would have, as I really needed to go to the bathroom. This is the second time this has happened this year - I needed to go to the toilet really badly after a walk longer than five hours - I hope that this is just a phase and doesn't continue to ruin my longer hikes! I was very glad when we started to head back. If I wasn't in such discomfort, I would have climbed up the roots of the tree out of the sink hole as a few others decided to do. Just as I was about to give up and run into the bushes with some toilet paper, which I always carry when travelling, we reached a series of fenced-in fields. After some more walking, a truck suddenly showed up, and following the guides, we jumped in. There were fishing nets in the truck, and the truck stank of old fish. One of the volunteers remarked that they don't know how they do it, but everything seems to just work out in Tonga. After what seemed like a torturous long drive, we finally arrived at Taina's Place, when I dropped off my bag on the patio and went to the bathroom. When I got back, I had a bowl of curry chicken soup and two purple kumalas waiting for me - I didn't see any for anyone else, so I wondered why I was getting this special treatment - probably due to me having to sleep in the lounge that night. Taina also brought in some fresh macadamia nuts, still with the fleshy fruit around it, collected from a tree on her property for everyone to try.

After washing my shoes and pants, I spent the rest of the evening resting and chatting, sometimes just sitting there and letting my mind blank while listening to the wind and the rain. For dinner, there was a miscommunication, as they forgot to make some for me even though I told them I would like them to make me dinner (I think they even told me that they would give me the dinner for free due to me not having a bed in a dorm, but I suppose that might have been an actual misunderstanding). Luckily, they found a bit of extra food for me. David and a Danish guy who told me about the tensions between Tongans and the Chinese in Tonga, donated some of their dinner to me. After the volunteers played some board games and amused themselves with trashy magazines, the lounge cleared out. Positioning the mosquito coils, I went to sleep at just before midnight, wrapping myself up in the blankets to protect myself from the vicious mosquitoes in Tonga. I didn't have too much to worry about for the night, as apparently, only the daytime mosquitoes carry dengue, which supposedly most of the volunteers who have stayed for over a year has contracted at some point.

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