A Cruise In The Islands: Tonga, Samoa, Fiji
The run from Auckland to Tonga, in ordinary circumstances, takes four and a half days. The course is north-east, and the distance between the two places is 1100 miles. About half-way of this distance the vessel crosses longitude 180deg., passing from the Eastern to the Western Hemisphere. The Tonga or Friendly Islands extend from 173°52′ to 176°10′ west longitude, and from 18deg. to 22deg. south latitude. They consist of three groups : Tongatabu, Haapai, and Vavau, the most southerly being Tongatabu, and the others stretching north-east in the order named. In the Tongan Archipelago there are, great and small, about a hundred islands, many of these, however, being mere coral banks, giving roothold to a few palms. The first land sighted after leaving New Zealand is an outlier of the group, called Pylstaart—an island lying some distance south of Tongatabu, and rising 700 feet above sea-level. It is said that in 1871 a vessel touched at this island-rock and carried off some Natives who were living there to South America. Since then the Natives have been withdrawn from the island and placed out of harm's way on the island of Eua, which is the most southerly of the larger islands, and to the left of which the steamer passes as she approaches Tongatabu. Eua was at one time leased as a sheep run, but the tenant found it unsuitable, and now rears his flocks in the more congenial climate of New Zealand. Some eight hours or so from Pylstaart the low-lying outline of Tongatabu is sighted.
There are two entrances to the harbour of Nukualofa, the capital of Tonga—one from the north, the other from the east. By whatever approach the steamer enters, the page 2 points of interest are much the same—the intricate sinuosities of the coral reef, marked by the foam of the surf, and by the brilliant variegation of colour in the shoal water; the unusual contour of the low-lying coral islands, with their beaches of yellow sand, or fringe of dashing breakers; and the novel character of the vegetation, indicated in the distance by the feathery heads of the coco-nut palms silhouetted against the sky. No doubt those who have never before left Australia or New Zealand may easily have met with scenery equal in beauty to anything they are likely to find in these islands, and infinitely grander; but, except in pictures, they will not have seen anything quite like Tonga, which has all the charm of novelty. Nukualofa, seen from the approaching steamer, is a strikingly pretty little town, white, bright, and cheerful, with ample open spaces, green and restful to the eye. The visitor who sees it for the first time, cannot fail to be impressed with the unusual character of its streets and roads—grassy lawns, bordered or dotted with such trees as we coax into flower in our hothouses—dracaenas, crotons, and other plants of brilliant foliage, and shrubs bearing odd fruits or loaded with blossoms rich in colour and in fragrance. The most pestilent weed in Tonga is one of the marvels of the vegetable world. In some places, near the tomb of the late king for instance, it covers and chokes the sward; but in wilder and more shady places it forms a low undergrowth. It has delicately cut foliage like a fern, and is starred over with little fluffy balls of pink blossom. Brush its leaves ever so lightly, and they shrivel up as with a blight; and if you walk where it forms a turf, your footsteps are marked by the shrinking of its foliage. Its apparent blight, however, lasts only for a few minutes, and then it slowly expands and rises again to its erect position. As the chill of evening falls, it folds its little leaves and goes to sleep, opening them again to the first warmth of the morning sun. This is the sensitive plant (Mimosa sensitiva).
The visitor's programme in Tonga must, of course, depend on the length of time at his disposal. On the round trip his stay at each port will vary from one to three days.page break page 3
Should the steamer reach Nukualofa in the afternoon, the few remaining hours of daylight may be profitably spent in strolling about the town and seeing something of Native life. The Tongans are an exceedingly handsome race—tall, upright, and graceful in carriage; and they are courteous and hospitable to strangers, glad to receive them into their houses, and ready with a kava-bowl of welcome.
Kava-drinking in the various islands is a universal institution of the highest antiquity. At a small social gathering of two or three persons, or at a grand palaver of tribes, the kava-bowl is equally indispensable. In its raw form kava (the root of the Piper methysticum) looks like the dried root of any ordinary tree. After the guests are assembled, the first step in the preparation of the drink is to pound this root on a hard, flat stone; and the tap-tap of the kava stone, a sound so characteristic of a Tongan village, is an invitation to those who hear it to join the drinking circle. Until comparatively recent times the root was ground by mastication; but this practice has become obsolete, though some affirm that the quality of the beverage suffers in consequence. When the root has been sufficiently pounded it is thrown into the kava-bowl, a large basin formed from a single piece of wood, and resting on wooden feet, generally four in number, but sometimes as many as six or eight. Whilst the kava-maker, usually a young and pretty daughter of the house, works the pounded root with her hands, another girl brings water in a coconut vessel, and pours it over the mass, which is thoroughly kneaded till the whole virtue of the kava has been ex-pressed into the water. The next thing is to strain from the bowl the larger floating particles of the root; which graceful operation—admirably fitted to display the pretty hands of the operator—is performed with a bundle of fibre prepared from the bark of the yellow hibiscus. When the liquid is sufficiently strained, it is taken up, a little at a time, in the strainer, as in a sponge, pressed into a coconut drinking-cup, and passed round to the men present, who squat in a semicircle, smoking or talking. It is a grave solecism to sip the kava; the cup must be drained page 4 at a draught, and then it is proper to spin it back, teetotum fashion, across the floor towards the girl who presides at the bowl. At the more ceremonious kava-drinkings the cup is presented to the guests in a strict order of precedence, a special master of ceremonies calling out the order to be observed. Kava, taken in moderation, is a wholesome and refreshing drink, and of singular virtue in allaying thirst. Though not perhaps agreeable to the unaccustomed palate, it is not nauseous; resembling, as much as anything, in appearance and taste, a decoction of ground ginger. Frequently during the ceremony of kava-drinking, the best singers discourse music—monotonous ditties, sung with the sad solemnity of Gregorian chants, and accompanied by pretty rhythmical motions of the hands and arms.
A really good kava-bowl is a curio difficult to obtain. In course of time, the frequent brewings coat the inside of the bowl with a beautiful opalescent enamel; and a bowl with a good natural varnish of this kind is a much-valued family possession, not readily sold for money.
Of the public buildings in Nukualofa those which most challenge attention are the King's Palace, and the King's Church, standing side by side within the same inclosure at the end of the wharf. The Palace is an ostentatious balconied building, suggestive not so much of royalty as of successful trade. The church is a handsome wooden structure, and is beautifully fitted up inside with various New Zealand woods, the carvings on the pulpit and royal dais being exceedingly pretty. The tomb of the late Prince Wellington stands near the church; and the "langi," erected to the memory of the late King George, will be found further up, at the back of the town, near the Wesleyan college for girls.
Tongatabu is an island of coral formation, and therefore presents no heights from which extensive views can be obtained. But there are numerous long and pretty drives which are more or less possible, according to the time the vessel stays at Nukualofa. What will most interest the greater number of visitors is the novel character of the page 6 vegetation, and the glimpses of Native life and manners. Of these, a drive of a few hours will suffice to give the visitor a fair idea. A favourite drive is that to Houma, a Native town about eight miles from Nukualofa, the way lying through coco-nut plantations and Native villages. The town of Houma is itself of interest, being still surrounded by the earthworks of the old fighting days. And then there are the "blow-holes" through which, as the great combers roll in from the Pacific and break upon the reef, vast columns of water rise in fountains, to fall in magnificent showers of spray. A somewhat longer ride is that to Mua, some twelve miles distant from Nukualofa, where may be seen the wonderful and mysterious tombs of the old Tongan kings. These tombs, or "langis," as they are called, are evidence of a power of mechanical contrivance quite beyond the present generation of Tongans. A langi is a four-square inclosure, some 50 by 80 feet in extent, inclosed by two tiers of large coral-blocks, laid end to end, accurately squared, and fitting closely together. A corner block in one of these langis, which lies a little way in the bush to the left of the road as one drives from Nukualofa, measures, roughly, 21 feet by 5 feet by 4 feet; and probably there are other blocks as large, or larger. The interior space of a langi is a broad platform covered thick with fragments of coral brought from the beach, and now, from the neglect of years, overgrown with trees and ferns. Local authorities agree in considering these wonderful erections to be the tombs of ancient Tongan kings, though to the ignorant eye they look like places of defence.
On a fine day, with a cool sea-breeze blowing, the twelve miles' ride to Mua, through the village of Bea, will be found most interesting and delightful. The grassy road winds through avenues of lovely trees. Lofty palms incline their graceful trunks at various angles and with various curves, whilst the young cocos, not yet at the fruit-bearing age, wave their enormous fronds in the wind—most graceful of all the trees that grow. Next to the palm, and its rival in grace il not in grandeur, is the page 7 banana, plantations of which are interspersed among the groves of coco-nut trees. Hedges of citron trees line the lanes through which you drive; and orange trees dangle their fruits overhead as you pass beneath their branches: whilst many strange nuts and fruits attract and perplex the attention. Nor is colour wanting, though it is not perhaps so plentiful as one expects in a tropic wilderness. The yellow hibiscus, with the rich claret stain in the depth of its golden chalice, is a miracle of beauty—a more queenly flower, perhaps, even than the magnificent crimson variety. Stretching from tree to tree, and binding stem to stem with its luxuriant vines, the convolvulus grows rampant, expanding to the sunshine a lovely bell the colour of the sky: whilst every spot not appropriated by some other plant is filled with the handsome foliage and crimson flower of the Indian shot. The scarlet pods of the chilli are thick by the way side, and occasionally one sees a patch of sugar cane, of dalo, or of yams, or the bursting pods of a group of cotton trees. Occasionally the road opens upon a native village; and amongst human haunts nothing more picturesque, more peaceable, or more beautiful can be seen than a Tongan village as it presents itself for the first time to the attention of a passer-by : a park-like space, with a short, soft sward, dotted with forest trees, which are knotted and gnarled by age into the shapes beloved of artists; and here and there a pretty reed-built oval hut, half revealed, half concealed amongst its citron and orange trees—lighted up with the scarlet glow of a pomegranate, and perfumed with the heavy fragrance of white gardenias. And the Native life is in harmony with the beauty of the village. In one door-way you see a child standing open-eyed and unabashed—in yuris naturalibus. At another two women beating out the tappa, making music by the rhythm of their strokes—like blacksmiths at a forge—whilst a little boy with his mallet skilfully introduces his little tap-tap and changes the beat into triple time. On the open space in front of another hut is spread a roll of tappa, which Tongan artists are painting with page 8 varied geometrical patterns; whilst the other members of the family, old and young, are sprawling round in various attitudes, absorbing the sunshine and enjoying life.
Near to Mua, and within a mile of the langis are limestone caves, with a subterranean river, and a lake of fresh water of some extent and depth.
Another object of interest well worth a visit is the Haamunga, or Trilithon, like the langis a mysterious relic of an older civilisation in Tonga. The Trilithon consists of two enormous upright blocks of stone, set like the jambs of a doorway, with another huge block laid across the top and curiously morticed into the two uprights. How these blocks were brought to the spot they now occupy, and what purpose they originally served, cannot now be even conjectured. The Trilithon lies near the town of Kologa, on the eastern passage, and about sixteen miles from Nukualofa, from which it may be visited either on horseback or by boat. The trip to the Trilithon will, however, be a full day's work, and visitors ought to start early in the morning, with a reliable guide, if they wish to accomplish the journey without undue pressure.
If the steamer enters or leaves by the eastern passage it must pass close to the town of Kologa, and, as there is deep water close to the shore, a delay of half-an-hour would enable passengers to visit the Trilithon.
It is always possible, with a little management, at Nukualofa to arrange for the hire of riding horses or traps, but it will require arrangement, and visitors must not expect to find fully equipped livery stables where they can procure horses at a minute's notice.
Lefuka, as regards formation, vegetation, and Native life, is a repetition of Tongatabu on a smaller scale. The view of the beach-combers, as they break over the reef on the eastern side of the island, is very impressive; and by passing over the shoal water of the reef in a boat, interesting glimpses may be obtained of the coral gardens below, with their teeming population of brilliantly coloured fishes. A visit may be paid to the old Wesleyan Mission-house, where a courteous welcome is given to visitors by the venerable missionary and his wife.
It was at the north-west point of Lefuka, on the 29th of November, 1806, that the Port au Prince came to anchor, for the last time, in seven fathoms of water. Three days after, the ship was seized by the Natives and most of the crew massacred. Amongst the few saved was William Mariner, who, becoming a favourite with the king, Finau, lived for some years amongst the Natives like one of themselves, learned their language, familiarised himself with their customs, and on his return to England supplied material for a history of Tonga, which is, in its way, a classic. After being looted by the Natives the Port au Prince was hauled in close to the shore and burned; and relics of the unfortunate vessel possibly remain still to be discovered at the north end of the island.
A run of eight hours brings the steamer to Vavau, the most northerly of the Tongan group. These islands are of volcanic origin, and consequently entirely page 10 different in appearance from Haapai and Tongatabu. The entrance to Vavau is surpassingly beautiful, resembling more the passage of an inland sound than the approach to an island of the South Seas. After passing the outlying islands, the shore, for some miles, is a succession of bold cliffs, wooded headlands, receding bays, and glistening beaches, with here and there open grassy plots, dotted with trees like an English shrubbery. Occasionally a Native hut or village may be seen nestling comfortably among the bananas and palm trees on low lying spits of land, or on green lawns sloping to the water's edge. Wherever the eye wanders the foreground is feathered with waving coco-nut trees, whilst the background to this fairy scene is a bold ridge of hills, whose curiously terraced forms are only in part concealed by their dense vegetation.
The port of Vavau is completely landlocked, and as the water is deep the harbourage for vessels of all sizes is one of the finest in the world. The town of Neiafu, ideally perfect in situation—lying, as it does, on a green slope and plateau above the harbour—is really an orange grove, over which are scattered the Native houses and churches. The houses of the white population are placed mostly on the slope that overhangs the harbour, and the whole is backed by the wooded hill of Olopeka, from which, by an easy ascent of not more than twenty minutes, a fine view may be obtained of the harbour and its shores.
If the steamer stays long enough at Vavau, visitors ought to make the ascent of Talau—a volcanic hill about an hour's walk from the port. The road lies by an easy and shady track through the bush, and cannot be mistaken. It is only the last hundred feet of the climb that offers the slightest difficulty; and, when the top is reached, a view is disclosed which, for extent and beauty, cannot easily be equalled—a limitless landscape of palmy islands and peninsulas, blue winding bays and sounds, white beaches, and foaming reefs : there are no bounds to the view except distance. The descent from Talau may be made by an interesting fissure in the mountain. This page 11 track is, however, a little difficult to negotiate, and those unused to scrambling had better not attempt it.
To those who make a prolonged stay in Vavau, many other interesting excursions are possible, on foot or on horseback. The ride to. Tafoa and the Liku may be done in six hours, and horses are easily procurable. Tafoa is the highest summit in the Vavau group, and commands an extensive view. From Tafoa, a short ride brings one to the Liku, on the weather side of the island, where it is possible to ride for fifteen miles on a good road, along the edge of precipices varying in height from two to six hundred feet.
No one ought to leave Vavau without visiting a cave that lies three or four miles down the harbour. This may be done by boat from Vavau, but usually steamers, in going out, if the weather is suitable, delay long enough to allow passengers to row into the cave. On entering by the comparatively narrow cleft that forms the doorway, yon find yourself in the soft cathedral light of a natural hall of noble dimensions. Buttressed columns rise from floor to vault, and divide the cave into shadowy alcoves. Through its floor of liquid sapphire flash strange iridescent reflections of the sunshine without, and the chequered gleams from the water cover the green walls with a quivering network of light. Look down into the shadow of the boat, and you may see—as distinctly as if it lay embedded in crystal—a merman's garden of grotesque and curious coral growths; whilst aloft, in the dusk of the groined roof, swallows are flitting in and out among their "procreant cradles." There are, no doubt, many caves in the world vaster and more curious than this, but there can be few more beautiful; and in mere gratitude for so much beauty visitors should do what they can to prevent its disfiguration by vandals, who paint on its walls names and dates in letters a foot long.
A spacious cave
Whose only portal was the keyless wave,
A hollow archway by the sun unseen,
Save through the billows' glassy veil of green,
In some transparent ocean holiday,
When all the finny people are at play—
But Byron takes the liberty of shifting the cave from Vavau to Toobonai.