Alone in the isle seat

Seeking solitude, Ben Stubbs strikes out in a kayak to find a deserted tropical island in Tonga.

I never really understood the saying, "no man is an island"; I always thought that was kind of obvious. Since reading Paul Theroux's book The Happy Isles Of Oceania, though, the urge to find a deserted tropical island fringed by coconut palms has been building.

I take a leaf from Theroux's journey and decide to paddle my way to an island refuge. I sign up for a kayaking trip in the Vava'u archipelago in northern Tonga, a short flight from the capital, Nuku'alofa. Vava'u comprises 34 islands; importantly, only 21 are inhabited.

From the main town of Neiafu we paddle out across the Port of Refuge, a glassy harbour that shelters countless yachts during the high season. I'm here during the monsoon, so an abandoned catamaran is the only witness to our departure.

In front is Epeli, an elder statesman of Vava'u who has paddled these waters his entire life, and seated behind me in the kayak is Geoff, a Canadian retiree here for his honeymoon. We slide past muffin-top islands that dot the landscape while Geoff and I work on our rhythm, clashing paddles only occasionally.

It takes me the best part of two hours to learn to push my paddle through the clear, green water rather than pull, a technique made to look effortless by Epeli as he churns through the channel.

The afternoon is heralded by heavy grey clouds on the horizon. They move quicker than we anticipate, then the sky opens and warm rain pelts down on us. We shelter in Swallows Cave, a high-arched cavern gouged into the side of Muifaitunga Island. Epeli instructs us to paddle 20 metres towards the back wall of the cave to escape the rain. There we notice hundreds of swallows with the same idea, sheltering on the rock face above us.

We dash out during a break in the weather and find the swell rising, knocking us across the waves that roll towards the island of Kapa. Ahead a black cloud is hovering just above the water. We paddle closer and find it's a tightly packed group of terns dive-bombing a school of tuna.

We camp that night on the tip of Kapa, our tents looking out to the perfectly isolated nugget of Nuku. I wonder if this could be the one - my deserted tropical island. Epeli, however, says it's owned by a Tongan family who have a house hidden in the jungle behind the beach. Every Tongan man is given a plot of land by the king when he comes of age. The family across the water was lucky enough to inherit the tropical paradise of Nuku.

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Are there people living alone on the islands around Vava'u? "It's not 'faka Tonga'; it's not the Tongan way," Epeli says. "Our priorities revolve around community and helping one another. The idea of living apart is not something that occurs to most islanders."

After much prodding, Epeli agrees to share some of his survival skills the next morning. As we head towards the island of Ovaka he teaches me improvised fishing. With the fishing line between his teeth, he paddles past the jungles of Sisia and Fimua islands, where the water rattles like chimes as it hits broken coral on the shoreline. In the middle of the channel Epeli's head suddenly yanks back and he grabs the line from his teeth. His kayak bobs and dips as he winds in a slithering long tom, a prehistoric-looking fish well over 50 centimetres long.

With our dinner secured to the kayak we pull into Ovaka to replenish our water supplies from rainwater tanks. At the local school I chat to an American Peace Corps volunteer who says there are about 30 families living on the island with no running water or electricity. He shows us his house excitedly and says we are only the second visitors he has had in the past three months.

The wind is picking up, so we stow our water and attach the spray skirts to our kayaks before saying goodbye. The wind is about 15 knots as we stroke up and into the cresting waves.

After three hours of hard paddling we fall into the lee of an adjacent island and pull ashore on the beach of Euakafa. I slip into the tepid water to stretch my aching shoulders. In the distance I can see the tiny island of Pau. This freckle is where Theroux spent much of his time in Tonga and Epeli knows the villagers nearby who helped the writer when he ran out of supplies.

Parrot fish dart between my feet. Dawn, the bride of my kayaking partner, swims over and we sit quietly in the calm water at dusk.

"This is so relaxing," she remarks. "I'm so relaxed, isn't this beautiful! Aren't you relaxed?"

Suddenly the sunset and each shift of colour has a narrator.

Relative silence prevails, however, once darkness falls and we're cooking our fish on a fire in the sand. We eat it with chunks of fresh pineapple on palm fronds ripped from the canopy above our tents.

Next morning we find the bones of our fish picked clean by a family of stray cats whose ancestors, Epeli says, were dumped on Euakafa many years ago. We set out to explore the island before the sun and humidity become unbearable. While Epeli slashes the foliage in front with his machete, he shows me how to identify a ripe coconut by its shining colour and where to pluck the best papayas along the corridor of trees leading to the ancient coral tomb of Queen Talafaiva. Here the air smells thick and sweet, like freshly cut grass. From this high point we can see across the Vava'u cluster and there's not another soul in sight.

The others content themselves snorkelling through the clown fish and gardens of swaying sea anemones offshore. Epeli and I sit on the beach, split open coconuts and drink. "Tongans need a purpose to get into the water," he says. And with that he grabs his rusted three-prong spear, known as a Hawaiian sling, and offers to teach me how to spearfish in the trench where sharks and rays lurk. He learnt the technique from his father. As a boy he would hold a kerosene lamp and paddle the canoe in the middle of the night while watching his father jump into the inky ocean and catch fish for the family.

Epeli and I swim for more than an hour, gliding with our fins and duck-diving past schools of skip jack tuna and curious trumpet fish. We round a stand of mushroom-shaped coral and Epeli points below, where a white-tipped reef shark is idling. I take the sling, stretch the rubber from my thumb back along the shaft. It quivers in my hand. I am no longer just a snorkeller, I am a hunter. Big fish become prey and rocks and caves are hiding places. I dive deep with my spear poised, hoping to bring in dinner. I return to the beach with only a puffer fish, notorious for being one of the worst fish in the ocean to eat.

That night we camp on the edge of Taunga Island under the shelter of thick-limbed Chinese lantern trees. The others are focused on our umu, a traditional feast of clams, pork, root vegetables and local fish cooked by hot rocks buried in the sand. But I'm distracted by the idea of Pau, that deserted little island just beyond our camp.

I wake early and I feel prepared. I can fish, I have a spear and I know a good coconut when I see it. I push my kayak off the beach and paddle alone through the waves to the shores of Pau. The tide is high and as I struggle to drag the kayak ashore, I'm met by a caravan of hermit crabs escaping the waves.

I sit for a time among the shells on Pau, the coconut trees swaying behind me and the reef looming full of life in front. As I walk along the sandbar I realise I've found my island paradise. There is no one to share the moment and that's when Epeli's phrase, "faka Tonga", returns to me.

I'm back in the kayak, paddling across to our campsite to share my discovery of Theroux's island with the others, understanding that perhaps I'm not an island after all.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Friendly Islands Kayaking Company and the Tonga Visitors Bureau.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Fua'amotu Airport is 21kilometres from Nuku'alofa on the south coast of Tonga's Tongatapu Island. Air New Zealand flies there with an aircraft change in Auckland from $366 from Melbourne and $316 from Sydney. Virgin Blue flies non-stop from Sydney for $270; Melbourne passengers pay from $310 and change aircraft in Sydney. (Fares are one way, excluding tax.) Australians obtain a visa upon arrival for a stay of up to 31days. Chathams Pacific flies from Nuku'alofa to Vava'u.

Paddling there

A five-day Vava'u kayaking trip, beginning in Neiafu, costs $1105, which includes all meals, equipment and guides. Southern Sea Ventures and its Tongan kayaking partners have a range of trips to various island groups. See southernseaventures.com and ficko.com. For more information, see tongaholiday.com.