The Natural Beauty of Tongatapu Island, Tonga

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Looking at Tongatapu Island from the water, showing the flat topography with the capital Nuku’alofa in the foreground. Photo: Nicole Anderson.

By Nicole Anderson

Part of the Kingdom of Tonga, the island of Tongatapu (pop. 70,000) is also home to the nation’s capital, Nuku’alofa. It is one of 40 inhabited islands of the total 176 Tongan islands located in the South Pacific.

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Image credit: image – digirev.us

 

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Image credit: Destination World.

 

Given its geographical position at 20° 00’S and 175°00W, Tonga is actually the very first country in the world to see the dawn every day.

This island of Tongatapu is indeed a very beautiful place in the Pacific. Tonga itself is quite unique compared to other island nations. It dates back to the arrival of the Polynesians 3,500 years ago and today it is the world’s only remaining Polynesian monarchy.

The monarchy itself is said to be one of the most important elements of Tongan culture and Tonga is the only South Pacific country never to have been colonized by a foreign power.

 

 

Tongatapu: A beautiful historic treasure trove

The island of Tongatapu is just 257 square kilometers (99.2 square miles) in size. The topography of the island is very flat as it is built of coral limestone. Tongatapu is literally covered with thick fertile soil consisting of volcanic ash from volcanos found on neighboring islands.

This has resulted in the island having lush, beautifully thick green vegetation, contrasting so well with the blue hues of the South Pacific Ocean.

 

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Palm trees all throughout the island. Photo: Nicole Anderson.

 

The following are the main highlights of our exploring Tongatapu island:

 

Haʻamonga ʻa Maui

Haʻamonga ʻa Maui (Burden of Maui) is a stone trilithon located on the north of the island and near the village of Niutōua, in the Heketā district.

 

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James and I with Haʻamonga ʻa Maui in the background. Photo: A friendly local.

 

This stone trilithon has been referred to as the ‘Polynesian Stonehenge’. The trilithon is constructed from three coral limestone slabs, and is up to 5.2 metres (17 ft) high, 1.4 m wide, and 5.8 m long. The weight of the visible part of each upright stone is approximately 30–40 tons!

There are two theories as to how this structure came about. The first was that it was built at the beginning of the 13th century under the 11th Tuʻi Tonga Tuʻitātui (king) and the high chief Loʻau, most likely as a gateway to a royal compound at Heketā. The second theory is that it was constructed by the deified ancestor Maui in the 6th century, most likely as an astronomical observatory. In Tongan tradition, the Haʻamonga is believed to have been made by the god Maui, as the stones would be too huge for mortals to handle.

 

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James standing up against the coral limestone trilithon to appreciate the scale of it. Photo: Nicole Anderson.

 

In the same way we don’t know the means by which the Moai were transported and positioned (or why) on Easter Island, no one knows for certain the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui’s origin or purpose.

 

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Explanatory sign at the site. Photo: James Visser.

 

While Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plains in the UK may have been an archaeo-astronomical observatory, as claimed by Gerald Hawkins in 1963, the king of Tonga Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV stated something similar in 1967. The king offered a theory that the Haʻamonga had an astronomical significance telling the position of sunrise at solstices and equinoxes. This theory was also supported by the research of Tongan historian Tevita Fale. According to Tevita Fale, there is a V-shaped mark on top of the lintel that aligns with the rising of the sun during the solstices and equinoxes. All very interesting theories providing plenty of food for thought.

 

Maka Fa’akinanga

There is also a large stone slab known as “Maka Fa’akinanga” about 100 metres from the trilithon, which served as the King’s throne. It is said that the King sat here alertly to ward off assassination attempts on his life. The stone has an evident indentation of a large head, shoulders and back.

 

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Maka Fa’akinanga. Photo: James Visser.

 

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Explanatory sign for the Maka Fa’akinanga. Photo: James Visser.

 

Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha

These Royal Tombs have also been referred to as the pyramids of Tonga, although obviously nowhere near the size or scale of those found on the Giza plateau in Egypt. Lapaha itself is a village of about 2,200 people, also found in the district of Hahake in the eastern part of the island.

Lapaha close to the town of Mu’a is the place where an estimated 22 ancient royal tombs (or langis) are situated, spread over an estimated 400 x 500 square metres of land.

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One of the Ancient Royal Tombs of Lapaha with a bicycle in front for scale. Photo by Nicole Anderson.

 

 

The langis are platforms of earth with a stepped pyramid effect supported by stone slabs as surrounding walls. It is said that the construction of these massive tombs was a way to demonstrate the spiritual and political power of the Tu’i Tonga. These tombs and the rituals that surround the burial of the descendants of the Tu’i Tongas in the same tombs are still a living part of the Tongan culture to this day. It is believed also that Tu’i Tongas constructed these tombs as a symbol of their respect for the Heavenly Fathers that became Kings of Tonga.

 

 

The vaults and the construction were an enormous and highly engineering feat that the people of Tonga achieved at a time the Tongan empire was at its peak. The corners of the slabs used to construct the tombs were very well and neatly joined as if the hard coral slabs of rocks were like pieces of timber and there was little evidence of mechanical tools available at that time.

Here is a video that I found on YouTube on the Tombs:

 

 

By contrast, here is a modern cemetery fairly closeby:

 

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Modern day, non-royal cemetery. Photo: James Visser.

 

And a shot of where Tongan Royalty has been buried in more recent generations:

 

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Tongan Royal Cemetery. Photo: James Visser.

 

The landing site of Captain Cook

The famous Captain James Cook’s time in Tonga is commemorated by a plaque at the site of his landing on Tongatapu Island in 1777. At this point it is said that he rested under a great banyan tree before journeying to the (then) capital, Mu’a, to see the King. The banyan tree of yesteryear is no longer there, however a younger tree, said to be a descendant of the original, stands at the site. The name of the tree, Malumalu ‘o Fulilangi, means “shading under the sky”.

 

The commemorative plaque reads:

‘Here stood formerly the great banyan “Malumalu ‘o Fulilangi” or Captain Cook’s tree under the branches of which the celebrated navigator came ashore on his way to visit Pau, the Tu’i Tonga (sacred king of Tonga) on the occasion of the ‘Inasi (presentation of the first fruits) in the year 1777.’

The site was recently overhauled and interpretive signage was put up, and you can see a small souvenir and craft shop has been established. Visitors can now gaze out into the lagoon from a cement platform and imagine Cook’s ships sailing into the waterway more than 230 years ago.

 

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Looking out over the lagoon where Captain Cook once sailed to land on Tongatapu. Photo: Nicole Anderson.

 

Looking out over the lagoon to other parts of Tongatapu island with the palm trees swaying to a gentle breeze amidst the lush greenery, looked and felt pretty great. You could understand why many people would regard the island as a paradise.

 

Other things you can do while on Tongatapu Island

There are so many activities you can do while exploring Tongatapu island including:

Check out the Royal Palace (from the outside) which is located right on the waterfront just to the side of where cruise ships dock.

 

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James and I outside the entrance to the Royal Palace. Photo: Friendly local.

 

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Royal Palace from the side with hibiscus bushes dividing the property boundary. Photo: Nicole Anderson.
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Sign outside the Royal Palace. Photo: James Visser.

 

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The front garden of the Royal Palace looks out to sea and directly off to the side is the cruise ship docking area. Photo: Nicole Anderson.

 

Shop for island souvenirs such as their arts and craft comprising bone carvings, tapa products, wood carvings and weaved baskets.

 

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One of many stalls offering local handicrafts for sale. This one was set up at the waterfront, close to the cruise ship. Photo Nicole Anderson.

 

Explore the capital Nuku’alofa.

 

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Downtown Nuku’alofa. Photo: James Visser.

 

You can also:

Visit the Blowholes

Go Kiteboarding, surfing, diving, snorkelling, kayaking, swimming with the whales (June to November with the Humpbacks), sailing, fishing, birdwatching or take tours across the island and the country.

Explore further by visiting other islands within the Tongan group by boats or plane.

 

Culture

The great explorer Captain James Cook named Tonga the ‘Friendly Islands’ during his voyages in the South Pacific. Today, it is easy to see why he did this as I found the Tongan people to be an extremely welcoming, friendly and humble.

I learned that Tongan society is guided by 4 core values, which are;

  1. Fefaka’apa’apa’aki (mutual respect);
  2. Feveitokai’aki (sharing, cooperating and fulfilment of mutual obligations);
  3. Lototoo (humility and generosity); and
  4. Tauhi vaha’a (loyalty and commitment).

Family is regarded as the central unit in Tongan life. Older people command the most respect and each member of a family knows their role. These values were certainly extremely evident, even from the perspective of a visitor that just came across so strongly. I found them to be a warm and caring people who really love and respect their Royal family.

 

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Signs and respectful images of the Royal Family are found in many places across Tonga. Photo: James Visser

 

Tonga is also a nation entwined with Christianity. As the guide book I was given states: ‘Sundays are devoted to church, family and rest. Beautiful clear harmonies, the ringing of church bells and the rhythmic beat of the Lali (wooden drums) are all familiar sounds drifting on the tropical breezes. From the days of the early missionaries until modern times, Christianity has been a vital and influential aspect of Tongan life, second only to the respect for family.’

 

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One of many churches on the island. Photo: James Visser.

 

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Another church within the capital of Nuku’alofa. Photo: Nicole Anderson.

 

While my time in Tonga was relatively short, the people, the beautiful Tongatapu Island and its very interesting history made me so glad I visited.

 

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128 thoughts on “The Natural Beauty of Tongatapu Island, Tonga

  • April 29, 2019 at 12:44 am
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    A friend of mine just visited this place and yes, both of you have similar thoughts about it. I can’t wait to experience it too!

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  • April 28, 2019 at 3:51 am
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    What an amazing glimpse into the culture! Thank you for this fascinating expose.

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  • April 26, 2019 at 12:10 pm
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    I’ve been to Stonehenge, so the Polynesian Stonehenge intrigues me. I had never even thought about this as a travel destination before reading your post. The pictures and descriptions sound like a fabulous place to visit. It’s definitely going on my travel bucket list!

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    • April 29, 2019 at 12:14 am
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      Thanks so much Erica. While it may not be the size of Stonehenge, it still offers a great deal of fascination around why and how it was constructed. I do hope you get to check it out for yourself and cross this off your bucket list.

      Reply
  • April 26, 2019 at 11:46 am
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    I had a friend who visited Tonga who also had such great things to say. Bucket list trip for sure!

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  • April 26, 2019 at 2:24 am
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    What an interesting place to visit! I always wonder about the people who set the monoliths and other rock structures in place so many years ago. What were their lives like? Why did they place them that way? We probably will never know.

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    • April 29, 2019 at 12:09 am
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      The evidence to properly answer those questions is unfortunately not around at this stage Tracy. Indeed we might never know for sure but only guess accordingly to the available information we have at hand. Still, it is interesting to speculate on the various theories.

      Reply
  • April 26, 2019 at 1:57 am
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    Well, this is a refreshing change from the sea, sand and sun type of post you usually see for places in this part of the world. They have such a rich heritage – the only remaining Polynesian monarchy, and never colonised. It looks like such a peaceful place with beauty at every turn. Would be a very interesting place to visit.

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    • April 29, 2019 at 12:07 am
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      Absolutely Tessa! While they do have the beautiful sea, sun and sand, there is a lot more depth to the wonderful people there. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

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  • April 25, 2019 at 11:19 am
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    What a fantastic write up! Tonga sounds like it is very rich in history and looks like a beautiful place to visit. I really liked how you added in the maps for a better idea of where it is exactly located.

    Great post!

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  • April 25, 2019 at 8:52 am
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    Reading your account of the trip to Tongatapu island, made me feel as if I am on an exotic trip, sharing a unique experience. I am taking the four core values defining their culture. I appreciate the focus being on community building and trust.

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  • April 25, 2019 at 4:09 am
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    Wow! The church will all the stairs looks exhausting but I bet it was a beauty on the inside.

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  • April 24, 2019 at 9:06 pm
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    I really enjoy reading about history and culture. Thank you for your great post all about Tonga – one to add to the travel bucket list! ?

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  • April 24, 2019 at 9:00 pm
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    It’s good to always find posts like this, very nice of you to have explained this place in detail. Makes it easier for someone to know what they expect and to look forward to the future planning of their own trips.

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  • April 24, 2019 at 5:25 pm
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    I am not familiar at all with any of these islands in a specific way. They have never peaked my interest in visiting there until now. Your photos and tour through the island has made this most intriguing. I would love to see the “Polynesian Stonehenge” as well as the other places you went. I really enjoy sites of historical significance, too.

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    • April 24, 2019 at 11:49 pm
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      Thank you so much Melody. Hopefully, Tonga is now a place on your radar to visit at some point in the future. It is all so much better if you can see it in person. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Reply
  • April 24, 2019 at 5:09 pm
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    I am contemplating visiting Tonga sometime this year and I’m confident your guide will come in handy. Thanks for sharing.

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  • April 24, 2019 at 3:46 pm
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    To be honest I had not come across this place. It must have been such a thrilling experience. What a lovely place to spend a holiday. Loved knowing the history of the place.

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  • April 24, 2019 at 2:51 pm
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    Now I am checking if my passport allows me to visit this island. I think it is also a must-visit and learn from their heritage. This looks peaceful and far from any issues.

    Reply