Saturday, 14 June 2014

Real Tonga

As in any island country, travel in Tonga is conducted either by boat or by plane. No other choices, unless you have your own personal teleportation machine. Travel by boat is pleasant and, if you don't suffer from sea sickness, can be a great adventure. Unfortunately, it has one major flaw - it's slow. So slow, that if your time in a beautiful island country is limited, wasting it on days spent on ferries makes no sense whatsoever. With that in mind, our choice of transport in Tonga was clear - by air.

The day after arriving in Nuku'alofa, we got up bright and early and our friendly driver brought us back to the airport. This time to the domestic terminal. If you can call it a "terminal", that is. A run down shack in the middle of nowhere. As I've been told, it used to be the old international terminal.

One look at the departure and arrival board and it was clear we were in a different world. Or a different universe altogether.

We were flying on Real Tonga, the umpteenth incarnation of the pseudo-national airline.

Its previous versions all went bankrupt and failed for one reason or another, and with its name changing so fast, it was really hard to keep up. The history of the airline did not inspire confidence. And neither did its fleet of aircraft.

However, on that day we were lucky. Our plane turned out not to be the infamous made in China MA-60. While MA-60s fly without any serious incidents (because small incidents are normal with such substandard aircraft) in many parts of the world (although not in the US and the EU - due to safety issues), the Tongan version was even more hardcore - stripped down of anything not absolutely essential to make the plane as cheap as possible.

But for that experience we had to wait until our return flight. To Vava'u, because that's where we were flying that day, we took off in a tiny Beech 65-B80 Queenair built in 1976. Yep, we flew in an almost 40 year old propeller airplane over the expanse of the South Pacific. Hardcore enough for you? 

We took off from Nuku'alofa in the rain (how's that for excitement, adventure and really wild things?) and landed in Ha'apai under the blistering Polynesian sun. Ha'apai was our stopover on the way to Vava'u. Unlike the domestic terminal in Nuku'alofa, the airport in Ha'apai looked new and clean.

Alas, not for long, a few days later Ha'apai was hit by a devastating typhoon. The island is still recovering from the massive damage. We, however, were extremely lucky and even though the initial impressions were not of the most positive kind, we got to Vava'u in one piece. Along with our checked-in luggage.

Speaking of checked-in luggage… While checking in, not only our bags were weighed by the airline staff, but also our humble persons as well. All passengers had to step on an industrial scale and announce their weight loud and clear to the check-in personnel. Based on that ,we were assigned our seats. I guess when you're flying in a sardine can fit with a propeller, passenger weight distribution is absolutely essential. 

Our flight was delayed and to kill time, I decided to make friends with my fellow passengers.

And when my new friends got tired and wanted to take a nap, I went out to watch the rain.

Yet all that waiting turned out to be totally worth it once we saw the view from above.

Island paradise, indeed.

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