My flight from Tongatapu to ‘Eua was the longest of my life.
Which is funny, because it was six minutes in duration.
Okay, so it only felt like the longest flight of my life. In reality, it’s one of the shortest you can experience. While Real Tonga claims it as the world’s shortest flight, there’s several other that rank higher up the list. Most notably, the flight from Westray to Papa Westray in Scotland takes just 53 seconds to fly a distance of 1.7 miles.
But back to Tonga.
I wasn’t entirely convinced our aircraft wasn’t a simple canoe with wings attached. To get in, you had to climb through a door, slide into one of four seats and sit in single file as you waited for your pilot to arrive. There wasn’t even an aisle, as the seats stretched from one side of the airplane to the other.
“Alright, guys?” our pilot asked with a cheeky grin plastered across his face. “I’ll be ya pilot today. Should be a good flight, nice and quick. Don’t worry about turning off your phones — it’s all good. Flight time should be around six or seven minutes and the weather in ‘Eua looks beautiful. Sit back, relax, and I’ll have you there in no time at all.”
He turned back around, wound down his window, and dangled his arm outside in the sunshine.
My eyes widened. This pilot was the definition of casual and I wasn’t sure if I was full of glee or horror.
“Alright guys, here we go,” he called back to us as the engine began to roar.
As the volume ramped up, I felt my eardrums start pulsating and my seat began to wobble. Oh god.
I conquered my fear of flying several years ago, so it was unnerving to suddenly be experiencing these long-forgotten feelings of dread. As we took to the sky and swerved sharply to the right, I bit down on my lip and started to count down from 360.
We shot through a bumpy layer of clouds and I squeezed my eyes shut.
230… 229… 228… 227
Groan… rattle… swerve… ping, the plane taunted at me.
When we touched down, I breathed the longest, loudest, heaviest, and whimperiest sigh of relief ever recorded in modern history.
I unfurled my sweaty fingers, peeled my back from the damp leather seat behind me, and stretched. As I staggered off the plane and into the humid ‘Eua air, I could feel my tension fading. Against the odds, I had made it to ‘Eua.
Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Lauren.
No — I don’t mean I thought I was going to die on the plane, but that up until an hour ago, I didn’t know if I actually had a ticket for the flight.
I mentioned in my Tonga travel guide that Real Tonga is the worst airline I’ve experienced, and this flight provides a perfect example of its incompetence.
When I booked my flight from Tongatapu to ‘Eua, my world turned silent. My inbox remained void of booking confirmations despite the money being taken from my bank account, and I tried calling and emailing to find out what was happening. When all methods of communication went unanswered, I didn’t know what to do.
In the end, I risked it and made plans for ‘Eua.
I had no proof I had a ticket on the flight aside from a screenshot of an amount being taken from my bank account, but I also didn’t want to buy a second ticket.
It turned out sometimes Real Tonga just doesn’t send your confirmation and I’d had a seat all along.
I pulled my backpack from the hold of the plane — yes, really — then trudged across the tarmac to the terminal. And by terminal, I mean shed. The building consisted of one tiny office with a desk, two chairs, a printer, and some luggage scales, and it was currently closed.
I walked around the outskirts of the concrete building and made my way to the car park. When I spotted somebody waving at me from their car, I breathed yet another sigh of relief and got straight in.
Fortunately, it was Taki — the owner of my accommodation — rather than a complete stranger, and he warmly welcomed me to his island home.
‘Eua is often referred to as the Forgotten Island. Despite being just 25 miles from Tongatapu, very few travellers make the effort to journey there. It offers little in terms of tourist infrastructure — just four guesthouses, two of which are good — but the lack of visitors is exactly what makes it so special.
We pulled up outside the Hideaway and I was shown to my room. It was a basic cabin in the tropics, with a fan and hot water shower, and a seat beside my window from where I could watch the ocean. Outside there were sun loungers to relax on, and a small dirt path led down to the beach.
There was also a kickass deck to hang out on.
From June until October, you can sit right here and watch pods of humpback whales make their annual voyage from Antarctica to Tonga to give birth. ‘Eua is one of the best spots in Tonga to swim with these cetaceans (no, you used a thesaurus to find another word for whale). There are only two operators on the island, so you won’t be batting with tourists on the water, the prices are far more affordable than in Ha’apai and Vava’u, and the whales congregate in higher numbers around ‘Eua.
While I was there, in low season, the ocean may have been void of — ahem — rorquals, but I was content to spend my time writing in my journal, drinking Tongan tea (hot water stuffed full of lemon leaves and lemongrass), and chatting to the owner about life on a tiny island barely anyone has heard of. “Everybody knows everybody’s business,” Taki said with an eye roll, sharing that the island has a population of just 5,000.
His guesthouse, the Hideaway, opened back in 2003, when the internet had yet to make its way to ‘Eua. Without his knowledge, his place was featured in a guidebook and suddenly Taki began receiving handwritten letters from Europeans, enquiring about availability. I loved hearing about how he would have to send a letter back to them to confirm their reservations!
Eventually, our conversation turned to my time in ‘Eua, and I asked which tour he recommended to get an overview of the best parts of the island.
“Hmmm,” he thought about it for a second. “There’s only you so…”
There was just one other person staying at the Hideaway while I was there, and not many tours were running because of this. It was a disappointment, although I understand it’s tough for staff to justify putting on a kava ceremony for like, just me.
Taki mulled it over then put together an itinerary for a half-day spent exploring the southern reaches of ‘Eua. I had read online this was one of the prettiest areas of ‘Eua, so already knew I was going to have a fantastic time.
The following morning, we passed pregnant dogs and wandering pigs as we drove through the local villages and farms.
“Unemployment is a problem in ‘Eua,” Taki told me. “I mean, what jobs are there here? It’s a small island and not many tourists come.”
“I get that,” I said.
“So, this land we’re driving through — the government gives every Tongan man eight acres of land to grow what they want with it, as well as an allotment to build their home. The government can’t afford to give people unemployment benefits, so instead, they give everyone land. That way, you can grow enough to eat, build a house, and afford to live.”
“And you can’t sell your land, either. You can only lease it out. It’s illegal for foreigners to buy land in Tonga.”
“Even better. And you grow anything you want on it?”
“As long as it’s legal,” he said with a grin. “There are no secrets on ‘Eua.”
We parked up and Taki motioned for me to walk down a small dirt track while he lit a cigarette.
It was on this walk that I noticed how different Tongatapu and ‘Eua were. Unlike the main island, ‘Eua was rugged and windswept, mountainous and blanketed in rainforest. Being here felt like exploring Ireland rather than a tropical island in the South Pacific.
It’s the oldest island in Tonga by a long stretch, and at 40 million years old, one of the oldest of the entire South Pacific. It’s perched on the edge of the Tongan Trench — the second-deepest trench in the world after the Mariana. As I peered out into the churning ocean below, I couldn’t get my head around the 10.8 kilometres it would take to reach the seafloor — this trench is deep enough to comfortably fit Mount Everest and its lowly 8.8 kilometres inside.
As Taki caught up with me, I opened my mouth to ask about the options for hiking, then promptly closed it again.
In front of me were two rather large horses.
Well, large if you’re only 5’2”.
I stopped in my tracks and blinked. “Um…”
“You’re lucky,” Taki said. “It normally takes a while to find them and I’ve never seen the entire herd before.”
I looked to where he was pointing and spotted a dozen horses meandering through the bushes.
“Who do they belong to?”
He shrugged. “Nobody.”
I raised an eyebrow. “They’re wild?”
“Yeah. I think a local might own them, but they don’t do anything with them. They live here and fend for themselves. Been here for years.”
As tempted as I was to reach out and stroke one, I also didn’t want to lose a limb, so opted to gracefully lurch past instead.
The wind whipped around us as we left the shelter of nearby bushes and approached the rock gardens at the Laku Fa’anga Cliffs. As I snapped photos of towers of limestone and the fossils contained within them, Taki told me about the Tongan legend associated with this site.
Supposedly, there was once a family of seven who made their home along the southern coast of ‘Eua. It was a lonely life, and thee only food they had to subsist on was fa fruit, which isn’t all that tasty to begin with.
As time passed and the family made their way through their fa supply, the parents began to grow concerned about running out of food. They didn’t want to have to see their children starve to death, so instead sacrificed themselves to extend the life of their food supply. The parents jumped to their deaths from the 200-metre-high cliff.
Eventually, the children ran out of food altogether and decided to take matters into their own hands. Rather than starve to death, they followed their parents, and leapt to the ocean below.
These days, if you stand by the cliff’s edge and scan the churning waters, you might get lucky and spot a family of seven turtles swimming past.
I know. It almost sounded believable until everyone was suddenly reincarnated as sealife.
As we stood on the clifftop and I made very deliberate movements to ensure I wouldn’t slip and come back in my next life as a turtle, Taki scanned the water for several minutes.
“There!” he said, pointing at a large wave. “There’s one!”
I peered over the edge, blinking away tears as my hair whipped across my face and into my eyes.
“You see it?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s small.”
I took a photo and planned to zoom in on it later to spot the turtle.
Spoiler: still can’t see it.
I tiptoed backwards from the water with carefully placed feet, then shuddered once I felt safe enough to let it out. It’s not that I’m scared of heights, but more that I’m afraid of what my legs might do if I don’t put all of my energy into deliberately moving them through space and time.
We left the crashing sounds of the ocean and ventured past more rocks embossed with the fossils of coral, the twittering of nearby birds providing us with a relaxing soundtrack as we walked in comfortable silence.
I burst out laughing when I spotted an overly-enthusiastic sign directing us away from the path and into the rainforest.
“A big surprise with two exclamation marks,” I giggled, pointing up at it. “How could I possibly ignore a sign like that?”
“Fortunately, you don’t have to,” Taki said, pointing up a steep dirt track. “It’s that way.”
I took the lead and crashed through the trees and bushes, tripping over the roots of mangroves, and keeping the sharpest of eyes out for Tongan giant spiders.
I knew I shouldn’t have googled “spiders in Tonga” the night before.
Taki called out for me to stop after five minutes of trekking, and held something out for me to look at.
“Local guava,” he announced, showing me its pink flesh. “Here — I’ll cut it into smaller chunks. You’ve gotta try it.”
We cheers-ed our guava quarters and I eagerly took a bite. I usually don’t like the taste of guava, but I can never resist trying local versions of foods I hate when I travel.
Up until I left the U.K., I would have sworn to you that mango was the most revolting flavour on the planet. And then I went to Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, I discovered that mangoes were the best fruit on the planet, and it switched up my opinion of them. Now, whenever I get the opportunity to try food I don’t typically enjoy, I’m always up for having my mind changed.
And this? This was the best guava I’ve ever had. Sweet, juicy, and sharp, it looked and tasted like no other I’ve eaten before. I wondered if Taki would offer me the remaining quarter that he was holding.
He put it straight in his mouth instead. I can’t blame him — I would have done exactly the same.
I turned back around and continued to traipse upwards until I reached a small clearing and what looked like a viewing platform. In front of me stretched an impressive sight.
Unfortunately, I was shooting straight into the sun, so my photos are average at best, but trust me when I say this was breathtaking to witness.
The Polynesian god Maui can be found throughout the Pacific, from Hawai’i to New Zealand, and he pops up in Tongan mythology, too.
The legend associated with this natural archway starts with Maui being a lazy ass and taking a nap in the middle of the day. His mum yelled at him to get up and hoe the kava plantation already, and he reacted by angrily whacking the ground to the point where he caused an earthquake.
His mother grabbed his hoe in a frustrated rage and threw it across the island, where it embedded itself into the cliff, causing the archway I was now standing in front of.
After taking 425 overexposed photos, we began to make our way back to the car, chatting about tourism in ‘Eua and wondering how we can convince more people to visit.
As we walked, we tripped over tufts of grass and ducked beneath low-hanging branches until Taki suddenly reached out to me.
“Look over there!”
Ahead of us, the wild horses were on the move. The two of us stopped and stood in silence, watching as they paused at a nearby pond for a drink.
“They’ve come to say goodbye,” I said, wishing I could sit and watch them roam the island for the rest of the afternoon.
It felt like the perfect way to round off my time in ‘Eua, but little did I know, there was one final surprise in store for me.
That evening, I sat in the Hideaway’s restaurant and spoke with Claude, a local man who was just as fascinated with my life as I was with his. My favourite story: the time he visited Alaska and was so unprepared for the cold that he found himself in a restaurant bathroom, frantically wrapping toilet paper around his legs to try to keep them warm.
My ‘ota ika arrived, and Claude pointed at it. “Local dish. Very nice. You like?”
I nodded. “I love it. I have it at least once a day.”
“Have you eaten our pork? At a feast?”
“Nope. Not yet. I’d love to, but it’s low season, so none of the guesthouses are putting their Sunday feasts on for guests. I don’t know where I’ll be able to get any.”
“You have to try it before you go.”
“I hope I can.”
Ten minutes later, a sweaty middle-aged man arrived at the door, laden with plastic bags.
“You’re here!” Claude grinned and rushed to greet him. “Lauren, look!”
I turned to face them.
“This is my friend. He has the pork for you. Leftovers from his Sunday feast. Now you can try our delicious pig!”
“You didn’t have to do that,” I told him, gobsmacked by his generosity. I’d been in Tonga for three days and already felt so welcome and taken care of.
Even if the pork did put me in hospital the following morning.
But that’s a story for another blog post.
A Note on Cyclone Gita
On the 12th February 2018, less than two weeks after I left Tonga, Cyclone Gita swept across the South Pacific and tore through the southern islands in Tonga. ‘Eua bore the brunt of it and it’s estimated that as many as 75% of the homes on the island were destroyed.
Specifically, the Hideaway had the roofs torn from its buildings, and the cabins were seriously devastated by the storm. You can see photos of the damage here, with some of them showing the damage sustained by the building pictured above. It’s a strange and eerie feeling to see the room I slept in such a terrible state, but I know that pales in comparison to what Taki and his staff are going through. And then there was a god damn pandemic.
The Hideaway remains closed for now, but they plan to reopen when the pandemic begins to subside. I highly recommend going and helping support them if you’re planning a trip to Tonga.
Essential Information for Visiting ‘Eua
‘Eua is one of the lesser-visited islands in Tonga, and that means accommodation options are limited. There are only four guesthouses on the entire island, and only two of them have great reviews. None are listed on any online booking websites, so you’ll need to email or call in order to make a reservation.
I opted to stay at The Hideaway based on the excellent reviews, and I’m so glad I did. The restaurant was great, the owners were fun to chat to, the views were lovely, and there were so many activities on offer. The only downside was the lack of Wi-Fi that other reviewers claimed it to have. Other than that, I was super-happy with my stay.
If you’re a hiker, it’s worth looking at Taina’s Place. It’s located further inland in the rainforest and there are plenty of hikes you can do from there.
There are two ways to get to ‘Eua. I wanted the novelty of taking one of the shortest flights in the world and paid 107.5 TOP (48 USD) for the terror. Alternatively, you can grab the ferry, which is more affordable at 25 TOP (11 USD) and takes 2.5 hours over rough seas.
Aim to spend 2-4 days on ‘Eua. There isn’t a huge amount of things to do in ‘Eua, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. If you’re not there during whale-watching season and aren’t a big hiker, a couple of days will be enough. Take a 4×4 tour of the entire island, visit a beach or two, then fly back out.
If you’re big on walking, four days would be the perfect amount of time to spend on the island. You can see the main attractions on the island, hike to the best viewpoints, check out a ceremony at a church, and maybe even participate in a kava ceremony.
If the whales are in town and you want to swim with them without the crowds of tourists, you should aim to spend five or six days exploring what the island has to offer.
No matter how long you spend in ‘Eua, though, I’m fairly certain you’ll be wishing for longer when it comes time to leave. I know I did.
And not just because I had explosive diarrhoea, a plane to catch, and no Imodium in my backpack.