Tonga: Kingdom of kayaks

It's an exhilarating feeling to launch a sea kayak from the beach and set out to explore a cluster of islands shimmering like a mirage under the tropical sun.

"You can do that in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf Marine Park," I hear you say. Well that's true, but there's something special about the tropics. The sun is constant, the temperature never varies, the sea is tepid and there's that inescapable feeling that you're living a castaway island fantasy.

Certainly, my friend and I feel like intrepid adventurers as we set out from the Tongan Beach Resort on a Friendly Islands Kayaking day trip. The gem-like islands on the horizon provide the perfect setting for my dreams of a South Seas paradise.

As we enter the strait between Utungake and Kapa islands we meet an 18-knot south-easterly cross-wind. We know what we have to do. Focus our attention on the northern headland of Kapa Island, dig deep with our paddles, enjoy the exhilaration of skimming through the waves, and ignore the fine mist of spray enveloping us.

As droplets of water build up on my sunglasses and a pool forms on my spray skirt, I respond with a defiant "Yeee haaaa", yelling at the top of my voice. The wind carries the sound away in an instant. I defy the wind and waves to overwhelm me and my seaworthy kayak. I know in my heart that I won't let them succeed.

Tucking in under the protection of 30m bluffs, we high-five in celebration after overcoming our first nautical challenge. This is the renowned Swallows Cave. The water is still, deep and incredibly clear. Overhead there's a dizzying aerial display of darting, diving and swooping swiftlets. I duck my head instinctively, fearing an avian attack, but the lively birds are harmless.

The cave margins are a dark void, but the main pool offers an amazing light show, as rays of sunlight penetrate the deep blue column of water, illuminating schools of languid fish, seemingly suspended in mid-water. Bright beams of sunlight angle down through the entry slot, painting the surface royal blue, like a tropical version of the Blue Grotto on Italy's Isle of Capri.

The seabed is 20m down but seems far less. I feel the urge to swim down and fraternise with the lazy fish, but at a mere 10m my lungs are screaming in protest and my brain is willing me back to the surface. My admiration for Kiwi world record holder, William Trubridge, soars instantly.

Skirting the palm-fringed shoreline of Kapa Island, we glide through crystal-clear aqua water with a moderate headwind, skimming through the lonely, protected anchorage of Port Maurelle. Explorer Francisco Maurelle moored here in 1781, naming Vava'u's main harbour Port of Refuge.

This exquisite group of Tonga's 50 northern islands lies just to the west of the International Date Line. Life moves at a languid pace here and the secret to a Tongan holiday is to relax into Tonga Time.

As Nuku Atoll looms up ahead on our circumnavigation of Kapa Island, the sheer natural beauty of the 5ha of pure white coral takes me by surprise. It's the most photographed island in the kingdom of Tonga and a favourite of sailors, kayakers and snorkellers.

We see countless species of tropical fish in all colours of the rainbow as well as nudibranchs, anemones, cephalopods and many species of coral.

Amethyst and emerald parrotfish show off their impressive size with hubris and haughtiness. Black and white sergeant majors parade around the coral bommies, while yellow angelfish dart about and then abruptly stop and hover motionless as if bowed in fervent prayer.

Turning the southern point Kapa Island, a familiar feeling of heading for home flows over me.

Fortunately the trade wind is now my friend, favouring our tiny flotilla with a following breeze. Ahead is the Jewel of Vava'u, Mala Island, the perfect cliche for a fantasy island - a place to linger and luxuriate for a week or more. However, we are homeward bound, already looking forward to a hot shower and a Tongan seafood basket for our evening meal.

Nature's exquisite marine-land of Vava'u, with its turquoise waters and endless blue skies will have to wait for our return. One trip to paradise is never enough.


NZ Herald