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TRAVEL & STUFF

Relax, it's just a hurricane

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Posted March 09, 2012
wind in Tonga
Tonga: More wind than a gut full of beans. (Check bottom for credits)

Most people crave sunshine when they go abroad but sometimes in Tonga you can't beat a bit of wind.


From the average sun-seeker's point of view, March is probably not the best time to visit Tonga given that a) it falls within the cyclone season1 and b) it's the wettest month of the local year.

Admittedly, when my plane touched down at Fua'amotu International Airport on the main island of Tongatapu (Sacred South), the season had already passed its February zenith but that certainly didn't mean the Pacific had run out of puff just yet.

As I was in town on assignment I didn't really have much say in the timing of my visit, although as it turned out I wouldn't have had it any other way.


TEARS FROM HEAVEN
"Be careful on the steps," one of the huge Polynesian air stewards said as I approached the cabin door. "They might be slippy. It's been raining."

And indeed it had been.

The lights of the low wooden terminal building shone like scattered pearls off the runway as a wall of humidity tried to bounce me back into the air-conditioned fuselage.

It was 10pm and the southern stars were hidden behind a blanket of black.

With the no-show of my pre-booked transport, I struck a deal with a chap called Sione to run me into Nuku'alofa, aka Nuku, the Tongan capital, and my once grand seafront hotel on Vanu Road.

As we set off into an all-consuming darkness broken only by the taxi's headlights and the odd wooden bungalow or shop front, so the wind began churning the leaves of the palm trees lining the heavily potholed road.

With Sione observing the national speed limit of 40 km/h (25 mph), it took us a good half an hour to reach our destination, by which time the few spots on the windscreen had become a horizontal deluge.

"Are there any bars open round here?" I asked the receptionist once I'd completed check-in.

"Yes," she said, "but they will be shut now. Because of the weather."

Worse still, my minibar was bare.

So, accompanied by a security guard-cum-translator, I ventured back into the squall raging in off the South Pacific before us.

At the "Chinese shop" next door, as the receptionist had called it, the security guard relayed my order in the local tongue through a sheet of chipboard lashed across the metal bars that in the world of Tongan retail often pass for both shop front and counter.

A hand emerged from behind the board and passed me my shopping one item at a time: a bottle of Fiji Water and a few bottles of Mata Maka, a pretty decent 5% lager "brewed in New Zealand for the Kingdom of Tonga"2.

I never saw the shopkeeper's face.


MORNING WIND
The next day I roused around nine, stirred from my slumber by a thousand screaming banshees trying to kick the f--king window in.

The rain had stopped but the wind had gone ape shit.

Low on clothes and unable to find any signs of an internet connection, I headed back to the lobby.

"There should be an internet cable in your room," said a different receptionist, "but I will have another one brought to you if you can't find it. But the internet might be slow or not working. Because of the wind."

"Will it last long, the wind?" I inquired, eager for a bimble about.

"No. Just today."

"That's good."

"Yes," she said. "There is a hurricane warning for tomorrow."

"What?"

"A hurricane."

"A hurricane? Tomorrow!"

I'd always been led to believe that in this part of the Pacific such Armageddons from above were called cyclones but this was no time to split pubes.

The last time I'd been on a tropical island I had stayed in a hotel in Barbados littered with instructions on what to do in the event of such a cataclysm.

Here I had seen none.

"So what should I do if there is a hurricane?"

"Ah, it is just a warning. It probably won't hit Tonga."

"Yes, but what if it does?"

"Oh, we'll let the guests know."

Great, I thought, wondering whether they would let us know before, during or after it sucked the roof off.

"It's my first hurricane," I said as images from countless scare-u-mentaries flashed before my eyes. "Should I be worried?"

"No," she laughed. "It's not until tomorrow. Did you say you had some laundry?"

"Yes," I said, but not because I'd just soiled my grundies.


OFF TO PUKE
The receptionist's laid-back attitude was far from unique.

In fact, not a single person I spoke to that day or night gave a hoot about any impending hurricane.

For example, wanting to the check out the fantastically named village of Puke a few klicks outside Nuku, I hopped into a cab by Tuimatamoana Harbour and promptly fell into conversation with Daniel, the middle-aged driver.

"It's much windy," he said as we aquaplaned through the pond-like puddles pooled along Taufa'ahau Road, the capital's sleepy main drag.

"I heard there was a hurricane warning," I chirped.

"Yes."

"So are you worried?"

"No. There won't be a hurricane," he laughed, later adding: "We have them every year but they don't hit Tongatapu."

This was comforting to hear but not strictly true.

According to stats published by the Tonga Meteorological Service (TMS), between 1960 and 2006 Tonga was hit by 58 tropical cyclones, which the TMS defines as "a circular system with clockwise rotating 10-minute average wind speeds in excess of 34 knots" (63 km/h).

Of these, 13 were classed as hurricanes with winds of between 64 knots and 100 knots and seven as severe hurricanes with even faster winds3.

Eight of these 13 hurricanes struck Tongatapu, as did two of their bigger brethren.

To give Daniel his dues, though, the last hurricane to hit the island was Cora in 19984.

Besides, he had other things on his mind to think about, viz how exactly do you get to Puke in a taxi?

Pulling into someone's front garden in the middle of nowhere, he summoned the assistance of two twenty-somethings, both of whom could have decked Jonah Lomu with a single punch.

The larger of the two, a man mountain with genuine tribal tattoos across his arms, neck and face, hopped into the passenger seat and proceeded to pilot us through a veritable, if somewhat moist, Eden.

But even though the wind was noticeably weaker away from the coast the month of March was quick to put us in our place when the asphalt ran out.

"We can't go any further," Daniel said. "Too much muddy, mate."

"Ah well, not to worry. I got to see some countryside."

I also got to see something else: a shack more dilapidated than anything I'd seen in India5.

Made of odd bits of corrugated iron, it seemed to be sinking into a sea of rich brown mud.

From the clothes flapping about on the washing line, it was clear that a family called this home.

If a hurricane did hit Tongatapu, I'd maybe lose my laundry.

They'd lose everything.

As Johnny Rotten screamed "cheap holidays in other peoples' misery"6 at me, Daniel threw a U-ee and we headed back to Nuku, sadly dropping off our guide before I could challenge him to a game of mercy.


SPIRIT IN THE SKY
After a torrential downpour that left me holed up in my hotel room for an hour or so (in which time I managed to demolish most of my hurricane rations: some bottles of Maka and a packet of Bongo corn snacks), I trundled into town to neck some booze.

Thanks to the general friendliness of the locals, who were no doubt awed by my ability to describe myself as a papalangi, viz a white honky7, my quiet drink soon turned into an all-night sesh that culminated in an after-hours piss-up with an impossibly huge civil engineer called Jay and an equally gigantic road contractor named Tommy.

When they passed out on Tommy's sheltered veranda around 5.30am, I upped sticks and headed back to the hotel, feeling my way along a stretch of unlit road blacker than a crow's arse in a coal mine.

As I neared the sea so the power of the wind mushroomed until, turning onto Vanu Road, its ferocity hit the button marked frenzy.

The dawn had now broken, the night blown away to unmask a raging ocean bigger than all the land on Earth put together.

And here I was on a tiny speck of coral 2,000 km from the nearest major land mass, being whipped by a swirling orgy of cloud potentially larger than Western Europe as a whole.

Due north lay the Equator, the Tropic of Cancer and ultimately the frigid shores of the Siberian tundra with nothing of any note in between to raise a barrier to this bellicose bastard.

Bowled over by the sheer scale of it all, I made a beeline for my room to plunder the last few of bottles of emergency Maka.

Fully armed, I strode out against the wind to the end of the nearby Yellow Pier, the farthest I could penetrate the Pacific without getting my socks wet.

With the wind roaring like the righteous lion of Judah in my ears, I gazed transfixed, my eyelids blasted open, upon the majestic passage of the largest storm front over the largest seascape I had ever seen.

As the spray whipped my face, I was joined by Eddie the DJ and his cousin, an off-duty copper packing a litre bottle of Tongan whiskey.

"This is the best place in Nuku to come when it's windy," Eddie shouted above the tempest. "Would you like some whiskey?"

And as we toasted Tonga, the power of the Pacific and the sheer thrill of being alive, we watched as eventually the first blue patches of sky broke through the cloud above.

Somewhere in the distance the waves rose to form mountains for ships to climb while the wind flattened many a poor sod's shack.

But right there and right then to sit at the end of that crumbling pier, humbled yet exhilarated, was to sit with Spirit in the very palm of God.

It was truly awesome in its most literal sense.

And the whiskey tasted pretty darn good to boot.


Footnotes

1) Which runs from November to April.

2) The Royal Beer Company, a joint venture between Crown Prince Tupouto'a and Sweden's Pripps Bryggerier (since bought by Carlsberg), used to brew Ikale, Tonga's only domestic beer, until it went tits-up in 2008. By most local accounts, this 5% lager was pretty good.

3) 'Hurricane' is a regional name (used across much of the Atlantic and Caribbean) for a tropical cyclone. As is 'typhoon' (East Asia); 'cordonazo' (Mexico); 'taino' (Haiti); 'baguio' (the Philippines); and 'Jipper's fart' (Cornwall). In Tonga and the South-West Pacific the regional name is the same as the generic, although often shortened to just 'cyclone'.

Based on wind speeds, the TMS categorises tropical cyclones as either gales (34-47 knots); storms (48-63 knots); hurricanes (64-100 knots); or severe hurricanes (more than 100 knots). Below the 34-knot tropical cyclone threshold, the term 'tropical depression' is applied. I strongly recommend a mooch round the TMS website, especially with regard to the dispelling of popular myths concerning the effects of tropical cyclones on buildings and communities.

4) The last severe hurricane to hit Tongatapu was Isaac in March 1982.

5) According to 2011 stats compiled by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tonga has a Gross Domestic Product based on purchasing power parity (GDP (PPP)) of $781m. As such, out of 183 countries listed, Tonga comes in at 180. The IMF, meanwhile, ranks India third with a GDP (PPP) of nearly $4.5tr. The full stats can be downloaded here.

6) Holidays in the Sun (the Sex Pistols), from the 1977 Sex Pistols album Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols.

7) Or foreigner in general. There is some debate surrounding the word's origin but generally it is accepted locally as meaning 'sky piercer', from papa (to pierce) and lagi (sky), in reference to the masts of European sailing ships 'piercing the sky'. The word is now commonly used across much of Polynesia.


Picture credits

Top and thumb: Illustration by Ignatius Rake using original images by Bobby Mikul; Jim Brooks; an unknown NASA astronaut; Pilgrim81 and again; PetterLundkvist; and Tau'olunga.

For licensing information click the above links.




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