Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tonga - Keleti - Day 1

The drive to Keleti was surprisingly long. Even though Keleti Beach, the site of the Keleti International Resort, is only about ten kilometres from the airport, the drive took about half an hour along the narrow unpaved roads. I very much enjoyed the views of fields filled with crops and palm trees along the way, as well as sections along the road where the grass on the sides were towering over the car. Along the way, I chatted with the driver and his kids. I learned that they have family in Sydney and have visited Australia and New Zealand before. This is not at all surprising, as nearly half of Tongans live outside of Tonga. In fact, one of the main sources of income for the Tongan economy are remittances sent home by oversea relatives. Since Tongan culture is so communal, family members living and working overseas apparently have a difficult time saying no when their family at home needs or asks for money.

As we turned down a very narrow gravel road, I could see the ocean pounding the coast with surprisingly huge waves. Soon, Keleti International Resort slowly rolled into view. I was shocked. There was no fancy international hotel or restaurant. There were no multi-storied buildings. It was a simple concrete building, a water cistern outside, and some small shacks (Tongan fales) behind the building on the property. As I was being dropped off, the driver sold me on a ride back to the airport for 15 pa'anga, with me being picked up at 3:00pm. I decided that it would be indeed too far to walk back. The taxi driver immediately started chatting with some of the people who were working there. As it turns out, Keleti International Resort is owned by some of his family members. I found my way into reception and learned about what attractions I could visit in the area.

Seeing that I just got off of a three hour international flight that I had to wake up at 4:30am to catch, I decided that the first order of business would be to head to the beach for a quick visit and rest. Following a path made of roughly strewn concrete blocks under the coconut trees, I arrived at the beach. As I was walking over, I saw a coconut fall from a height of about fifty metres from a tree only a few metres from me. I made a mental note to be alert for falling coconuts if I happen to pass under these trees in the future. As I made my way to the beach amongst the numerous small hermit crabs, I arrived at a small beach cove squeezed between large protrusions of coral rock. It was just me on the beach, and I did not see another soul for the rest of the day during my visits to the beach. Finding a sheltered area, I changed into shorts and jandals for the tropical climate.

The beach was surprisingly active, and the water was churning away. I was actually quite amazed at the layout of the beach. About fifty metres offshore is a long line of reefs stretching along the shore for as far as one could see. These reefs formed a wall of circular terraces rising up to about two metres from the surface of the ocean during low tide. These reefs shouldered the brunt of the pounding from the ocean, creating a relatively sheltered lagoon in the fifty metre wide strip of water between the shore and the reef. The receptionist told me that when the seas are calmer, there are many corals and fish to be seen by snorkelling in this lagoon. Today, however, the lagoon was turbulent. The large waves, reaching what I would estimate to be about eight metres high for the largest ones, crashed into the reef with such force as to shoot solid walls of white spray tens of metres into the air. The reef also formed hundreds of blow holes of varying sizes, and it was fascinating to watch the sequence of dancing "eruptions" as the waves hit the reef. The water washing over the reefs caused the lagoon to become quite turbulent and frothy that day, making swimming in it nearly impossible.

After a good rest, I decided to walk along the beach for a bit. Walking over the jagged coral rocks, I reached another small beach, which I took a quick rest on. From here, there were some wonderful views of very active blow holes in the area, which I enjoyed. I decided not to go farther as the waves were quite intimidating as viewed from the beach. Although the reef was there to protect the beach from the massive waves, I was still uncomfortable seeing such large waves crashing so close. Once in a while, when the waves hit the reef at just the right angle, it created a spurt of water high up in the air, so high that I had to tilt my head up to see the top, even though it was shooting up in the air fifty metres away! What really bothered me was that the coral rocks I had to walk across to reach this beach were wet, with water flowing in small streams from the pools around me. This indicated to me that rogue waves would reach up to where I was walking! I didn't want to get stranded when the tide comes in! With that thought, I headed back to the hotel for a quick walk-around.

As I walked around the hotel grounds, I looked into the fales, simple concrete structures serving as hotel rooms. The staff cleaning the area invited me to go in and see the fales, but I decided that I can see enough just walking around. There was a small pagoda perched on some coral rocks, which offered an expansive view of the ocean. The complex wasn't very large, so I turned back soon. It was still quite early, and I wasn't ready for lunch yet. Luckily, I ran into the receptionist who recommended to me that there are more beaches along the shore, and even though it might look otherwise, it was quite safe for me to walk over the coral rocks between the beaches.

So, it was back to the second beach, where the single trail of footsteps I left in the otherwise pristine sand was still there. This time, I ventured farther finding an additional beach. I was dismayed that I found some rubbish in the area, and even saw some other sets of footprints. Seeing that I have already ventured so far, I though I might as well continue. I crossed the beach and climbed up some coral rocks leading though an area of overhanging rock, forming a half-cave. I was quite intimidated here, as this brought me closer to the large waves breaking just in front of me, and I was afraid of falling rock from above me. Disappointingly, I didn't see any other beaches. I thought maybe there were some more hidden coves, so I continued on for quite some more time. The terrain became more and more difficult, and I eventually found myself in a patch of vegetation, quite overgrown and filled with spider webs. Seeing that I was now sweaty and uncomfortable, I decided to head back to the second beach where I knew I had a speedy get-away just in case the tide rose faster than I had prepared for.

I took a long rest at the second beach, enjoying the sight and the sound of the waves. Soon, it was lunchtime, and I wondered up to the restaurant at the resort for food. Not seeing any real Tongan food on the menu, I ordered fish and chips and a fresh coconut to drink. "Everyone has the fish and chips," remarked the woman taking my order. The outside dining area was very nice, under a roof of thatched leaves overlooking the ocean, reef and lagoon. I chatted with a group of Japanese eating there, who were temporarily living in Tonga, working as architects on a new Chinese-funded hospital under construction. We exchanged contact information as they left since they were planning on visiting Auckland in the next few weeks. As my food arrived, I enjoyed my meal over the view of the waves and doing a bit of studying from my Lonely Planet guidebooks I took out from the library.

Soon, ominous dark clouds loomed over the water, along with streaks of rain heading this way. At first, the rain posed no problem, but as the wind picked up and the rain intensified to an intense downpour, the roof started to leak. Eventually, I was called in to take shelter indoors, in the bar area of the resort where some of the Tongan workers and their families were resting, watching TV and playing pool. After waiting out the rain, I decided to take a walk up the road to see what was there. The Tongan woman who invited me in told me that it was safe to leave my bag on the chair in the bar. Although I heard that due to the communal culture of the Tongans, everything is fair game for "borrowing," I decided that it wouldn't be such a huge problem here as they should be used to catering to foreigners who don't like sharing as much as the Tongans do.

I only made it up to where the driveway met the main road before realising there was really nothing in the area other than some fields, palm trees and breadfruit trees , so I decided to head back to the seaside to wait for my ride there. I was quite impressed by the breadfruit though - they were much larger than I had expected! My driver happened to return just as I started back along the driveway. I decided that I've seen enough of the area already, so I will go to to airport an hour early - at 2:00pm. Maybe there was still time to explore Fua'amotu village after all. I picked up my stuff and headed over to Fua'amotu Airport. As we drove back to the airport, slowing once in a while for my driver to wave to some friends in the fields, my driver told me about how Tongans used to use each part of the coconut tree before the introduction of cheap synthetic alternatives such as plastic. He also explained to me the importance of taro and the attributes of each of the three types of taro grown in Tonga. In addition, he explained to me that being one of eleven taxis licensed to serve the airport was not too bad - some days there are as many as three incoming flights from overseas to the airport, although some days there are no international flights at all!

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