Where the sun King lives

In the second of our South Pacific series, Peter Walker visits Tonga and finds an island of royalist tradition, enchanting songs and just a touch of discomfort along the way

I wasn't going to mention the King. Since almost every journalist who goes to Tonga makes a bee-line for the palace, interviews Tupou IV, and describes his rumbling voice, his immense girth - his waist is Polynesia's best-known natural feature - his droll retention of supreme power, it seemed to me that we knew enough about this monarch.

But there was no getting round him. There we were, at 1.45am in the customs hall at Fua'amotu airport, a dozen of us off the Royal Tongan Airlines flight from Auckland, and all without our luggage. What had come in its place was standing before us, a pyramid of aluminium trunks containing a special feast for the King, ordered from the Australian Army Catering School. Even the army chef who ac-companied this cargo was without his own luggage.

"What about my knives?" he asked me, his eyes starting from his head. "What say the King puts his nose into the kitchen and sees me without me hat?"

The airline staff seemed genuinely bemused at our displeasure. After all, they'd achieved the most important thing - getting the King's dinner on to the ground. And I began to see what Tonga is - not really a country at all, not even a monarchy as such, but a single court that reaches the borders; the nearer you are to the centre, the more you bask in the King's favour, the happier and sunnier your lot. A few palangi (whites) without their baggage really didn't count for much at all.

Tonga was that week in a fever of royalist excitement, but I suppose that it often is. As we left the airport, 20 miles out in the countryside, arches erected for the King's 78th birthday began to loom out of the dark. By the time we reached the capital, Nuku'alofa (the place of love), the arches formed a continuous wooden tunnel: "Happy Birthday To You, Happy Birthday To You, Happy Birthday Dear Majesty, Happy Birthday To You." (Tongan fishing industry). "Long life, wellbeing to Your Worship." (Tonga Telecommunication commission.) "Happy 70th (sic) Birthday - a woman who fears the Lord may be praised."

Nuku'alofa itself is a slipshod, whimsical little town, with Victorian turrets and the whiff of drains in the air. The most notable sight is the palace, with a menagerie of royal tombs - stone griffins, Landseeresque lions - on one side and, on the other, a jumble of huge satellite dishes, keeping the King in touch with the world. The rest of the town is not so up-to-the-minute. We spent our first two days in the smartest hotel, the Dateline, in a dingy twin room. Drunken and melodious singing came from the garden. Soon the phone began to ring incessantly. I answered half-a-dozen times, then went to the front desk and told the staff that, for some reason, all calls to the hotel were being routed through room 112.

"Oh, yes," they agreed, with enthusiasm. That's what happens in 112."

The next day we were taken to see the sights around the mainland. These are varied but not numerous. There are giant blowholes where the ocean's surges explode against cliffs like a row of steam locomotives. There is the Crown Prince's new palace, a low-slung South Fork of great ugliness. We were not allowed to know the cost of this, but, seeing the shanties nearby where commoners live, suspect that it is too high.

A colony of rare fruitbats was the next stop. They hang in a tree over a cemetery, like small demons which have wrapped themselves in stolen black umbrellas. They are said to smell like an unwashed armpit and to be very delicious baked, but in Tonga they are sacred and may not be eaten. We inspected the Heketa Trilithon, a gigantic stone gate, like a portion of Stonehenge wafted to the South Seas but which, in fact, was built by the 11th king in the 13th century, perhaps to determine the winter solstice, perhaps to mark the power of a Tongan empire that stretched to Fiji and Samoa.

From there, we went to an island called Faf'a. There are a lot of places round the Pacific called Faa'a or Fafa or Faf'a, which seems appropriate given the immense distances to and within Polynesia. This particular Faf'a means "the curse uttered after one has lost a war", and it is what one expects a Pacific island to be... circular, palmy, surrounded by an atoll and crystalline lagoon.

Faf'a is German-run and ecologically sound: "Our hot water is heated by the solar system," we were informed. The food is good, the Tongan staff statuesque, the bungalows or fales are elegant, the other guests satisfyingly mysterious - Russian scriptwriters who hid their papers if you went too near their table; a television starlet of middle years with a startled toyboy in her grip; a High Com-missioner looking amusedly down his nose at the rest of us. The isle is small and full of snores: every living soul falls asleep in the afternoon.

Back on the mainland we moved to another hotel on the outskirts of town. This was run by Italians, who, despite the palms and lagoon, have reproduced the atmosphere of a gloomy hotel in, say, Calabria. The Italian community in Tonga is itself an enigma. There is an air of secrecy about them, and rumours of trouble between different factions. Why are they all here anyway? Who are those 50-year-old tough guys with Brooklyn accents and gold chains? Had we stumbled into the alternate hideout, unknown even to the FBI?

Their relationship with the Tongans is also fraught as if neither race can work out who are supposed to be the passionate and musical ones; they end up staring at each other and falling into a kind of despond. "Tongans - they're all mad," one Italian told me. Of course, they are not - but there is something baffling in the atmosphere.

At this hotel we befriended Susana, a tall, beautiful Tongan maid with eyelids drooping over an ironic black gaze. Tongans don't give a hoot about customer service. They'll let you carry your luggage to your room, then plant themselves on your bed and pour out their woes.

"You look sad, Susana."

"I'm not very sad. My boyfriend's dead. He died last year. But I don't care. Because you are here."

That night, most of the population was going to the finals of the Miss Heilala contest, which selects the most accomplished and beautiful girl on the island. As we left the hotel, there, all alone in the shadows like Cinderella, was Susana mopping out the bar by the pool.

"Why aren't you going to Miss Heilala, Susana? I bet you'd win."

"Oh, no. You're tricking me."

"No."

"Are you going to Lily Nightclub later?" she asked, after a pause.

"I don't know. Are you going?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I've never been there."

"Why?"

"I don't like it there."

"How do you know if you've never been there?"

"Because Chinese people are there."

"Don't you like Chinese?"

"Oh no."

And so on.

Conversation with Susana, like many things in Nuku'alofa, tended to spiral away in odd directions. The Miss Heilala contest, for instance, was unlike any other beauty show on earth. Each contestant danced in a Javanese style, with the added distinction of dripping with coconut oil, standing in puddles of it, droplets sluicing off fingers. This lubricity is much admired. Each girl was accompanied by a male choir. One group, in black bow ties, stood stiffly in a semicircle round their dancer, Miss Avis Cars, and then, without warning, all abruptly sat down cross-legged on the floor. The sight of an entire choir plus conductor with baton poised, all hitting the ground with a bump, struck me as comical - and yet their singing was infinitely sad and beautiful, like an underwater Gregorian chant.

That was our last night in the country. On mid-ocean islands, planes come and go at ludicrous hours - 2am is a big favourite. So, at midnight, we found ourselves standing outside the hotel with our baggage. The Visitors Bureau, which had organised our trip, had promised to drive us the 20 miles to the airport. Minutes ticked by: 12.30am, 1am, 1.15. No car. Two pigs sauntered out of the bush, then ran squealing at the sight of a palangi and a Samoan muttering curses in the road.

There was no traffic, nor any phone-cab service. A cock crowed somewhere to the east; others responded. My suspicion of the last few days took firmer hold: Tongans do not really want tourists in their country. They say that they do, they may even think that they do, but deep down they cannot be bothered with us. They want only to think about the King and the Crown Prince and the 37 barons who own everything else, and their relations with one another. They gaze at the visitor with deep, sincere eyes but are not really looking. The country has a rare condition - an immunity to tourism, which is what makes it interesting, and uncomfortable.

Finally, an old car with no front doors came scraping along the road. The driver stopped and, roaring with laughter, took us to the airport in exchange for the local currency we had left. We passed groups of young Tongans mooching down the country roads, under the lit-up arches - "wishing you a very happy birthday Dear Your Majesty" - and then, unfarewelled, we flew away under the stars.

Next week: Peter Walker travels to Tahiti

TRAVEL NOTES

Quantas (0345 747767) flies to Auckland then Tonga, return prices, inclusive of Pacific Passes, start from around pounds 1,200. Air New Zealand (0181 846 9595), London to Tonga, costs around pounds 954. Tongan Embassy, 0171 724 5828. Peter Walker flew from Auckland to Tonga on Royal Tongan Airways, and Air New Zealand.

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