Tempests over Tonga: Relax, It’s Just a Hurricane
Downtown Nuku by Pilgrim81.

Date

Nuku'alofa, Tonga: Most people want sunshine when they go abroad but sometimes you just can't beat a spot of wind.
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I was very saddened to hear of the recent events in Tonga: the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and the deaths, destruction and suffering it has caused1. While it has been more than 10 years since I set foot in that South Pacific kingdom, the memories of the place and its people remain fixed in my mind, from the country’s lush tropical foliage and majestic megaliths to the warmth and hospitality of the locals.

Whether showing me around, offering me beer or allowing me to partake in the ritual consumption of kava, a mildly narcotic brew made from the root of the eponymous plant, I found all I encountered to be cheerful and generous of soul. But the thing that struck me most about the local Polynesian population was not their friendliness nor their powerful physiques and mesmerising singing. Rather, it was their thoroughly unflappable attitude to life.

Perhaps this all comes from the consumption of kava. Who knows? But I can honestly state that in my travels only the Lao have come anywhere close to the Tongans in terms of being so remarkably relaxed. And trust me, the Lao are seriously chilled, even if they do like their music ear-splittingly loud.

Cyclone Season in Tonga

From the average sun-seeker’s point of view, March, when I turned up in Tonga back in 2011, is probably not the best time to visit given that it not only falls within the November-to-April cyclone season, but also happens to be the wettest month of the local year. Admittedly, when my plane touched down at Fua’amotu International Airport on the main island of Tongatapu (Sacred South), the cyclone season had already passed its February zenith, but that certainly didn’t mean the Pacific had run out of puff just yet.

“Be careful on the steps,” one of the huge Polynesian air stewards said as I approached the cabin door. “They might be slippy. It’s been raining.”

And indeed it had.

The lights of the low wooden terminal building shone like scattered pearls off the runway as a wall of humidity tried to bounce me back into the air-conditioned fuselage. It was 10 pm and the southern stars were hidden behind a blanket of black.

With the no-show of my pre-booked transport, I struck a deal with a chap called Sione to run me to Nuku’alofa, aka Nuku, the Tongan capital (pictured top), and my once-grand seafront hotel on Vanu Road. As we set off into an all-consuming darkness broken only by the taxi’s headlights, the wind began churning the leaves of the palm trees lining the potholed road. With Sione observing the national speed limit of 40 km/h (25 mph), it took us a good half hour to reach our destination, by which time the few spots on the windscreen had become a horizontal deluge.

“Are there any bars open round here?” I asked the receptionist once I’d completed check in.

“Yes,” she said “but they will be shut now. Because of the weather.”

Worse still, my minibar was bare.

So, accompanied at the receptionist’s behest by a security guard-cum-translator, I ventured back into the squall raging in off the South Pacific before us. At the “Chinese shop” next door, as the receptionist called it, the security guard relayed my order in the local tongue through the chipboard sheeting lashed across the metal bars that in the world of Tongan retail often pass for both shop front and counter.

A hand emerged from behind the boards and passed me my shopping one item at a time: a bottle of Fiji Water and a few bottles of Mata Maka, a pretty decent 5% lager “brewed in New Zealand for the Kingdom of Tonga”, so the label said. I never saw the shopkeeper’s face.

Ha'amonga 'a Maui by Miyasige Tosikazu
Megaliths built to last: The Ha’amonga ‘a Maui trilithon has seen a fair few cyclones in its time. (Check bottom for credit.)

Morning Wind Tonga Style

The next day I roused around nine, stirred from my slumber by a thousand screaming banshees trying to kick the flippin’ window in. The rain had stopped but the wind had clearly gone ape. Low on clothes and unable to find any signs of an Internet connection, I headed back to the lobby. 

“There should be an Internet cable in your room,” said a different female receptionist, “but I will have another one brought to you if you can’t find it. But the Internet might be slow or not working. Because of the wind.”

“Will it last long, the wind?” I inquired, eager for a bimble about town.

“No. Just today.”

“That’s good.”

“Yes,” she said. “There is a hurricane warning for tomorrow.”

“What?!?” I said, my life flashing before me.

“A hurricane,” she repeated calmly.

I’d been led to believe that in this part of the world such Armageddons from above were called cyclones but this was no time for semantics. The last time I’d been on a tropical island I had stayed in a hotel in Barbados littered with instructions on what to do in the event of such a cataclysm. Here I had seen none.

“So, what should I do if there is a hurricane?” I asked still shocked.

“Ah, it is just a warning. It probably won’t hit Tonga.”

“Yes, but what if it does?”

“Oh, we’ll let the guests know.”

Great, I thought, wondering whether they would let us know before, during or after it sucked the roof off.

“It’s my first hurricane,” I said as images from countless news reports and TV scare-u-mentallies filled my vision. “Should I be worried?”

“No,” she laughed. “It’s not until tomorrow. Did you say you had some laundry?”

“Yes,” I said, but not because I’d just soiled my grundies.

Off to Puke in a Tongan Taxi

The receptionist’s laidback attitude was far from unique. In fact, not a single person I spoke to that day or night could give a hoot about any impending hurricane. For example, wanting to the check out the fantastically named village of Puke a few klicks outside Nuku, I hopped into a cab by Tuimatamoana Harbour and promptly fell into conversation with Daniel, the middle-aged driver.

“It’s much windy, mate,” he said with a sort-of-Australian twang as we aquaplaned through the pond-like puddles pooled along Taufa’ahau Road, the capital’s sleepy main drag.

“I heard there was a hurricane warning,” I chipped in.

“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly.

“So, are you worried?”

“No,” he laughed. “There won’t be a hurricane. We have them every year but they don’t hit Tongatapu.”

This was comforting to hear but not strictly true. According to stats published by the Tonga Meteorological Services (TMS), between 1960 and 2006 Tonga was hit by 58 tropical cyclones, which the TMS defines as “a circular system with clockwise rotating 10-minute average wind speeds in excess of 34 knots” (63 km/h). Of these, 13 were classed as hurricanes with winds of between 64 knots and 100 knots and seven as severe hurricanes with even faster winds. Eight of these 13 hurricanes struck Tongatapu, as did two of their bigger brethren2. To give Daniel his dues, though, he did have other things on his mind right then, viz how exactly do you to get to Puke in a taxi?

The Free Church of Tonga by Tony Bowden
The Free Church of Tonga: Not the prettiest of churches but at least it’s windproof. (Check bottom for credit.)

A Helping Hand

Pulling into someone’s front garden in the middle of nowhere, he summoned the assistance of two bare-chested twenty-somethings, both of whom could have decked Jonah Lomu with a single punch. The larger of the two, a man mountain with genuine tribal tattoos across his arms, neck and face, hopped into the passenger seat and proceeded to pilot us through a veritable, if somewhat moist, Eden. But even though the wind was noticeably weaker away from the coast, the month of March was quick to put us in our place when the asphalt ran out and the thick clag swallowed our car down past its rims.

Fortunately, the man mountain was on hand to do what the slick wheels and screaming engine couldn’t. Squelching round to the rear bumper, he promptly pulled us out of the mud with his bare hands as though the taxi were a toy in a sandpit. Tongans, you see, are pretty strong, with many a male arm resembling two watermelons atop of each other. This guy could clearly crack skulls. In fact, I was quite glad I had resisted the urge to give him a nipple cripple earlier or challenge him to a game of mercy.

Of course, I would no doubt have won but it may well have proven a Pyrrhic victory, something I was still pondering when Daniel declared: “We can’t go any further. Too much muddy, mate.”

“Ah well, not to worry,” I said, happy that my jaw still worked. “I got to see some countryside anyway.”

I also got to see something else: a shack more dilapidated than anything I’d seen even in India. Tonga is one of the poorest countries on Earth3 and this dwelling only served to underline that. Made of odd bits of tin and wood, it seemed to be sinking into a sea of rich brown mud. From the clothes flapping about on the washing line, it was clear that a family called this home. If a hurricane did hit Tongatapu, I’d maybe lose my laundry. They’d lose everything.

As Johnny Rotten screamed “cheap holidays in other peoples’ misery” at me, Daniel threw a U-ee and we headed back to Nuku, dropping off our guide before I could offer him an arm wrestle. Maybe next time, yeah?

Blue-Sky Drinking

Thinking it wise to buy supplies, I procured some bottles of Maka and a bag of beautifully branded Bongo corn snacks then returned to my hotel to stash them should local optimism prove misplaced and a hurricane did hit the island. However, on reaching my room, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour forced me to hole up for an hour or so, in which time I managed to neck nearly everything I’d just bought.

Resigned to my fate should the balloon indeed go up, I decided my best option once the rain had stopped was to saunter into town for a couple of brews. However, thanks to the general friendliness of the locals, who were no doubt awed by my ability to describe myself as a papalangi, i.e. a white honky4, my quiet couple soon turned into an all-night sesh with an impossibly huge civil engineer and an equally enormous road contractor out celebrating the signing of a new construction deal.

Whether or not Tonga actually needed any new roads was not something I could insightfully comment on. However, those roads that I had seen were all in dire need of repair. Indeed, even now I find it hard to believed that there could be many places more potholed than Tonga. Forget Spaghetti Junction, think Swiss cheese. Or melted brie in the case of the one to Puke.

Meanwhile, in line with the Hermetic notion of as above, so below, seemingly every other windscreen I encountered was smashed in at least one place from the impact of falling coconuts. Tonga, it would seem, can be pretty tough on traffic. Not that there were many vehicles about when I headed back to town once my hosts had passed out on the latter’s veranda around 5.30 am.

Instead, I found myself distinctly alone as I blindly navigated a series of unlit roads darker than a crow’s crop in a coal mine5. Seriously, Western urbanites take streetlighting for granted, rarely stopping to ponder how dark the world really is when the Sun goes down and the clouds eat the Moon. I literally couldn’t see a thing, relying instead on the pathway of potholes to somehow lead me back to Nuku. But lead me back they did, and as I neared the sea, so the power of the wind mushroomed exponentially until, turning onto Vanu Road, its ferocity hit the button marked frenzy.

Downtown Nuku looking towards Vanu Road by Preetam Rai
Less wind that day: Downtown Nuku looking towards Vanu Road and the sea. (Check bottom for credit.)

Tiny Tonga Whipped by the Wind

By now the dawn had broken, the night blown away to reveal the world’s largest ocean, itself bigger than all the land on Earth combined. And here I was on an speck of coral 2,000 km from the nearest major land mass being whipped remorselessly by a swirling orgy of wind and cloud as large as Western Europe.

Due north lay the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer and ultimately the frigid shores of the Siberian tundra with nothing of any note in between to retard these raging winds. Bowled over by the sheer scale of it all, I made a beeline for my hotel and liberated the last few of bottles of Maka from my fridge. Then I strode out against the gusts to the end of the Yellow Pier, the farthest I could possibly penetrate the Pacific without getting wet.

With the wind roaring like the righteous Lion of Judah in my ears, I gazed transfixed, my eyelids blasted open, upon the majestic passage of the largest storm front over the largest seascape I had ever seen. And as the spray scoured my face, I was joined by a couple of Tongans packing a litre bottle of local whiskey.

“This is the best place to come in Nuku when it’s much windy,” one of them shouted above the raging tempest. “Do you want some whiskey?”

It seemed rude to refuse and as we toasted Tonga, the power of the Pacific and the thrill of being alive, we watched until the first blue patches of sky broke through the clouds. Somewhere in the distance the waves rose to form mountains for ships while the wind flattened some poor sod’s shack. But right there and right then, to sit at the end of that crumbling pier, humbled yet exhilarated, was to sit in the very presence of God.

Buying a sandwich is not awesome.

A video on YouTube is not awesome.

A phone with a tacky new gadget is not awesome.

The power of nature is.

Awesome.

And from southern cyclones to Northern Soul. After all, how can anyone possibly talk about wind without mentioning Rita and the Tiaras? Hold on to your hats. This is a stormer.

Notes

1) In addition to a number of deaths and widespread damage, the eruption has also reportedly led to the country’s first round of Covid bang-ups.

2) ‘Hurricane’ is a regional name (used across much of the Atlantic and Caribbean) for a tropical cyclone. As is ‘typhoon’ (East Asia); ‘cordonazo’ (Mexico); ‘taino’ (Haiti); and ‘baguio’ (the Philippines). In Tonga and the South-West Pacific, the regional name is the same as the generic, although often shortened to just ‘cyclone’.

Definitions vary but the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) identifies five categories of tropical cyclones. The first two, gales and storms, have average wind speeds of 34-47 knots (63-88 km/h) and 48-63 knots, respectively. Meanwhile, the next three are deemed hurricanes and boast average wind speeds of 64-85 knots (Category 3); 86-107 knots (Category 4); and above 107 knots (Category 5). Further (albeit slightly contradictory) information can be found here.

Rather annoyingly, the cyclone stats cited in the article have now disappeared from the TMS website. However, the Ministry of Works’ National Emergency Management Office in Tonga seems to support them, calculating that between 1960 and 2008 more than 60 tropical cyclones hit Tonga, with four of them “severely” affecting the country. Moreover, Cyclone Renee, it states, “severely affected Tongatapu” the year before I was there.

Exactly what to make of all that is a tad confusing, though, as I’ve also read that the last severe hurricane to hit Tongatapu prior to my visit was Isaac in March 1982, a Category 4 tropical cyclone with winds of 92 knots in Nuku. Either way, in February 2018, the island was hit by Gita, which came in at Category 5 and was apparently “the most intense tropical cyclone to impact Tonga since reliable records began“. Anyway, if weather’s what floats your boat, you might want to check this little lot out.

3) According to stats compiled by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tonga had a 2011 Gross Domestic Product based on purchasing power parity (GDP (PPP)) of $781m. As such, out of 183 countries listed that year, it came in at number 180. The IMF, meanwhile, ranked India third with a GDP (PPP) of nearly $4.5tr. A full set of annual stats (from 1999 to 2021) can be accessed here.

4) Papalangi can also mean foreigner in general. There is some debate surrounding the word’s origin but generally it is accepted locally as meaning ‘sky piercer’, from papa (to pierce) and lagi (sky), in reference to the masts of European sailing ships ‘piercing the sky’. The word is now commonly used across much of Polynesia.

5) Actually, crows are some of the few birds that don’t have a crop. Or maybe they’re just too dark to see, eh?

Picture Credits

All pics via Wikimedia Commons as I lost my own Tonga snaps in a catastrophic hard disk failure that taught me the hard way to always back things up. Click the links for respective author and licence info.

From top to bottom: Downtown Nuku by Pilgrim81; Ha’amonga ‘a Maui by Miyasige Tosikazu; the Free Church of Tonga by Tony Bowden; and Downtown Nuku looking towards Vanu Road by Preetam Rai (all images have been altered/edited).

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