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The Tongan Cowboy


Article contributed by: Friendly Islands Kayak Company

Adventurer, sea kayaker and environmentalist Doug Spence and his partner-wife Sharon discovered the Vava’u Islands in the Kingdom of Tonga while on a sea kayaking expedition several years ago. Today they spend half their time in the island group operating their Friendly Islands Kayak Company - introducing other adventurers to the joys of paddling in this untouched tropical paradise. And this is Doug Spence’s dilemma - how far, in the name of eco-tourism, can he intrude on this remote island with its unsullied beauty and ingenuous South Pacific culture?

Three degrees west of the international date-line I find myself riding the peaks and troughs of half-meter high waves in a double Tofino sea kayak amongst the Vava’u Islands, South Pacific. In the 20 knot wind the bow of the kayak slices the waves, shooting a cooling white spray onto my paddling partner in front of me. Only a few kilometers to the east, the fringing reef, which protects the Vava’u Group, stops waves much higher from entering the island group. I’m looking around to check the group of paddlers, when over the din of the trade wind I hear the distinctive holler of the Tongan cowboy: "Yeee haaaa!" ‘Epeli Lavaki, with his beaming cheek-to-cheek grin displaying a row of white shiny teeth, rides the waves with which he is so familiar.

The facial expression of ‘Epeli’s paddling buddy instantly transforms from one of apprehension to delight when she hears his cowboy call. In challenging conditions such as these, I tend to use comforting lines such as, "... our seaworthy double-kayaks are especially designed for these conditions" and "... these kayaks require no previous kayaking experience and everyone adapts very quickly to the paddling skills required." ‘Epeli’s method of comforting nervous souls seems to work just as well.

Our clients come from all over the world to experience sea kayaking in this tropical Kingdom, and to participate in what is now a buzz-word in the travel industry, namely "eco-tourism." Kiwis, Australians, Canadians, Americans, Europeans and other nationalities come together to form a collage of skin tones, accents, cultures and backgrounds. The Friendly Islands is truly a perfect setting in which to promote cross-cultural contact, cultural sensitivity and environmental responsibility¾ the three main facets of eco-tourism.

In the early afternoon the group sets to work erecting a beach camp where we will spend two nights. Tarps and tents go up, water for a refreshing drink boils of the gas stove, life vests and sprayskirts are slung to dry in the warm trade wind, and fruit and vegetables are hung from trees in mesh bags to air. All the cooking is done on gas stoves. The occasional camp fire is set alight, using coconut fronds and husks, either in the intertidal zone or in an existing ‘umu pit which the Tongans use to cook their underground meals. After a cup of tea, ‘Epeli escorts the group on food detail into an outer island village while explaining, in his perfect English, details of his culture and environment. ‘Epeli, ‘Iloa and Ma’a-our three indigenous guides have lived all their lives in Vava’u¾ diving, fishing and tending their crops. Now they are our link to their culture. Their roles include providing information on Tonga’s environment and culture, arranging cultural events such as feast and kava ceremonies in outer island villages, interpreting their language, obtaining water, supplying fresh fish and coconuts and purchasing fresh produce from the islanders.

The village of Taunga¾ the only one on Taunga Island¾ is clean and simple. The people are friendly and polite and busy themselves in their daily activities. While most of the men of the village are out fishing or tending to the bush, the women weave mats for their fales (houses), beat tapa (the bark of the mulberry tree is ground into a paper like cloth and used for artwork), wash the families clothes by hand and care for the young and old. It’s like a walk back in time. These people are doing as they have done for centuries.

Back at camp Sharon and I prepare one of our international meals while ‘Epeli climbs a coconut tree and cuts open coconuts for his thirsty guests. I quietly contemplate ‘Epeli’s newly found profession as he sets his friends into fits of laughter with his good humour, quick wit and contagious laugh. Ironically two principles of his faith¾ the Ba’hai faith¾ are cultural diversity and environmental responsibility. Where we are camped is very close to a camp site where Paul Theroux camped in his controversial but descriptive book, "The happy Islets of Oceania". In the chapter on sea kayaking in Vava’u Paul describes:

"It was a perfect area for paddling a kayak¾ perhaps the best in the Pacific. There was a surfy side and a safe side to each island¾ the lee shores usually had the beaches; all were secluded, all were lovely. There were no tourists, no signs at all, and no litter¾ no indication that human beings had ever set foot on these outer islands."

Where the Pacific plate slides the Asia-Australia plate, terrific earth pressures slowly force upwards the coral islands of Tonga. These islands are formed on the tops of two parallel ridges. The western ridge, comprising of many dormant and active volcanoes, and the eastern ridge, made up of raised and low coral islands, are separated by the 50 kilometer wide Tofua Trough. The largest of the eastern-ridge islands, Uta Vava’u, rises in three distinct terraces to a height of 213 m. This main island is separated from the 50 odd outer islands by narrow channels and coral reefs.

The day after our camp at Taunga the trade winds subsided to a gentle breeze. After a breakfast of crepes filled with pineapple, papaya and mangoes, and a hot cup of Royal Tongan cowboy coffee, we set out for a day of kayaking and snorkelling at a few of the neighbouring islands. Vava’s’s patchwork of islands affords ample opportunity for exploring caves, skirting rocky shorelines and coral reefs, drifting along shallow turquoise water, picnicking and combing white sand beaches. During the day while paddling on the oily-flat sea we sight brown boobies, frigate birds, noddies, several varieties of terns and a turtle. Kayakers may also encounter porpoises, humpback whales, flying foxes, sea snakes and a variety of birds.

At Fua’motu Island, on the east side, we put on snorkelling gear and plunged into the 25° C water. While ‘Epeli swam ahead with a spear, Sharon and I showed our guests several species of reef fish and some of the marine hazards. Below myriad fish, such as the tiny iridescent blue damsel, the gaily coloured clown and parrot fish darted amongst multi-hued coral pinnacles. Lunch time provided us with barbecued reef fish, a sushi salad and fresh fruit.

I continually check the cultural and environmental impact our presence is having on the area. One evening around the beach campfire I asked ‘Epeli what impact he thought about the issue. After a quiet pause and a few puffs on his rollie cigarette, he explained to me: "As the world is getting smaller with more faster and cheaper modes of travel, the joining of cultures is inevitable. So what better way then to bring all these cultures together and teach them (our clients) to be conscientious visitors rather than tourist invaders. I believe in the eradication of all forms of prejudice including religious, racial, national and sex to name a few and that with cultures coming together, we have to achieve this if we are going to live together as a world race. So it all comes down to respect for each other."

At Ano Beach we arrange an ‘umu feast with Matoto, the town officer of Pangaimotu village. After our group purchased some local handicrafts the Tongans brought the gastronomic delight to us on a pola, a table top made from woven coconut fronds. The whole affair, consisting of roast suckling pig complemented by fresh root vegetables, octopus, reef fish, and tropical fruits such as papaya in coconut milk, was steamed in an underground oven or ‘umu. Following the feast the Tongan men strummed cords on banjoes and guitars and sang in perfect harmony while charming children and friendly women in colourful robes danced their graceful steps.

On the last day of paddling the trades were behind. We launched our kayaks, filled with two large garbage cans to be recycled. As we surfed in the kayaks back to our home base the call from many happy cowboys and cowgirls of "yep, yep, yee-haaa" echoed over the water. The experience of the adventure bonded yet another group of cultures together. Seven people from diverse backgrounds, all with different goals in life and different outlooks. But what they do have in common is having participated in eco-tourism and taking a few special concepts home with them, that of cultural sensitivity and environmental responsibility.

They’ve spent eight days kayaking, snorkelled amongst colourful coral, observed the traditional Tongan way of life, spent their evening on deserted beaches under waving palms and the Southern Cross, and did it all without leaving a trace other than a few footprints in the sand or a pleasant memory. As the Tongan Cowboy says "One planet one people please".