Tonga in pictures

Travel in a time of coronavirus
I started this blog as a celebration of travel and our crazy, fabulous planet, but with Covid-19 closing borders for months, if not years, any new adventures are on hold. In the meantime I’ll be delving into my diaries and dusting off old photos like these, taken on a basic pocket camera in Tonga in 2009.

The thing that first drew me to Tonga was its system of government.

That’s probably weird, I know, but I’d been to democracies, autocracies, the odd theocracy, republics and plenty of constitutional monarchies, but I’d never visited an absolute monarchy.

Things have moved on since I visited but back then the King still held total power. That was a rare thing in the early 21st century so I thought I’d better hurry up and check out this royal-ruled archipelago of more than 160 islands scattered over 800km of the South Pacific.

(It turned out I was right. In 2010 Tonga took its first formal steps towards becoming a constitutional monarchy.)

Anyway, I found there was a lot more to Tonga than a curious political system. Each of its three main island groups — sprawling Tongatapu, the low-lying atolls of the Ha’apai Group and the raised coral islands of the Vava’u Group — is completely different in character.

The Ha’apai islands are the stand-out if you’re looking for the tropical idyll of palm-fringed beaches while Vava’u is the place to go for sailing and wildlife experiences like whale watching. Tongatapu is not immediately appealing but it does have a swag of ancient monuments, making it a kind of Stonehenge of the South Pacific.

Everywhere you’ll see why Captain Cook called Tonga the Friendly Isles. The pace of life is slow and, outside the capital Nuku’alofa, it’s still based around growing root crops, fishing and family. A bonus is that mass tourism has yet to reach Tonga. You won’t find any Club Med-style resorts here.

Another curious fact about Tonga: It’s the only Pacific nation that never lost its sovereignty to a foreign power.

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