MALO E LELEI (Hello in Tongan) To the island of Niuatoputapu
19 July 2019 | Niuatoputapu, Tonga
Sharon Lockhart & Ian Steele
Following our arrival a week ago, we have been exploring this island of nearly 700 people with our "tour guide," a local policeman Palavi [whom Ian met earlier whilst arranging customs clearances) and his pregnant wife and daughter in their spacious van (there are no rental cars, bikes, scooters or taxis anywhere on the island, so we are very grateful for their generosity and time).
We pass through the first village, Falehau, located adjacent to the wharf, facing the harbor where Wheytogo is anchored offshore, the only tourist yacht present for the first few days. The front yards are teeming with horses, pigs and piglets of all sizes and colors, frenetically grazing the grass, often difficult to distinguish from the many neighborhood dogs. About a mile down the paved beach road we enter the second village, Vapaio, with more homes, schools and churches being decorated in preparation for the annual visit from the King of Tonga, a major festival event to which we have been invited. Finally, we enter the third village, Hihifo, which is the governing center of the small island. We then see the all -important bank (to obtain Tongan dollars, called pa-angas), the sim card/internet center, customs and immigration office, and a single tiny 'grocery store' with only a few dry goods- each small building without identifying signs and resembling local homes.
Next, we are shown the areas of destruction in the villages which were devastated by the tsunami in September, 2009. Nine local residents lost their lives, including the father and a niece and nephew of our policeman guide. Hundreds more were left homeless as their homes were swept away without warning when the tsunami swept inland in three separate waves, the largest measuring 46ft [14 mtr] on that devastating early Sunday morning, just 20 minutes after a major 8.1 earthquake had struck near Samoa to the north.
The small hospital and the govt buildings along with coastal homes were destroyed and the tiny airstrip was densely littered with rocks and boulders carried in by the sea, rendering it unusable to transport out the many injured. Over the next few days a large group of surviving villagers manually removed the debris piece by piece from the runway so that the injured could be evacuated by air ambulance to hospitals in Nukualofa, the capital city of Tonga, located 370 miles [600km] away in the southernmost group of Tongan islands. The NZ Navy anchored inside the reef providing early hospital and food kitchen support until temporary facilities could be established.
The recovery from this disaster is still in progress, however within days of the destruction, the Tongan govt, financially supported by the World Bank and governments of NZ, Australia, Canada and the US began rebuilding. The destroyed homes and schools of the Hihifo and Vapaio villages were re-built further inland from the beaches, along with a new hospital and medical staff accommodations. Tsunami warning signs and escape routes are now posted in numerous locations.
Leaving that somber history behind, we then drove through the "bush," dense rain forests filled with coconut palms, banana trees, massive mango trees, as well as papayas, guavas, taro fields and dense vegetation, then headed for a walk on the deserted beaches on the other side of the island.
After a visit to the policeman's extended family homes where we picked dozens of fresh limes, papayas, and husked coconuts and drank the refreshing water, our "three hour tour" was over and we headed back to the wharf, where we filled our dinghy with our fruitful bounty, including a huge whole stalk of fresh-picked bananas, and headed back across the harbor to Wheytogo, amazed once again at the friendliness and generosity of these island people.