TIME TRAVEL on “Papuan Chief” – passenger no. 1 (reaching Tonga)
Day 3,263 since October 10th 2013: 199 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
Reaching the Kingdom of Tonga
Recipe for reaching Tonga from Samoa (without flying) in September 2022: gather some high-ranking government support, add bilateral government collaboration, test negative for COVID-19, gain access to a containership, cross your fingers.
Last week’s entry: Samoa in 4 words: God, Family, Food, and Rugby
It was the Hon. Leatinu’u Wayne So’oialo who drove me to the port. He and his wonderful family had taken exceptionally good care of me from the moment I reached Samoa, and now he was bringing me to she ship I would leave on. Door to door service. Kindness and generosity I shall never forget. At the port I was met by Talaia Mika from Talamua Online and Gutu Faasau from the Samoa Observer for my final thoughts on Samoa after my 17-day visit. I only had kind words to share.
The legendary Hon. Leatinu’u Wayne So’oialo!!
A quick selfie with the lovely Talaia Mika.
Then I boarded the good ship Papuan Chief. I signed my name into the logbook and my bags were disinfected before I was brought inside. This became the 31st time I would hitch a ride onboard a container ship (wild!) and the 4th vessel within Swire’s fleet. I’m grateful to all the shipping companies which have assisted. Especially the ones which have assisted in the face of COVID-19 restrictions. Swire Shipping has a special place in my heart. Their tan coloured uniforms, their no plastic bottle policy, their attentions to safety, the good atmosphere onboard their ships, and how easy they have always made it for me to come onboard. Back in the 60s and 70s it would have been very common to hitch a ride onboard a container ship. It gradually got less mainstream and for most people it is now impossible – especially during this age of COVID-19 restrictions. Restrictions which many don’t understand because they live in a bubble in a part of the world which has moved on. Keep in mind that vaccines were not equally distributed and that the healthcare system of every nation isn’t always as strong as desired.
Yum! Good food onboard. Three meals a day :)
The omicron variant proved nearly impossible to control. When it broke out most countries abandoned their 0-case tolerance policies. It has also proven hard for the shipping industry to keep the virus at bay. But the shipping industry has done really well! To get onboard a ship you must first test negative for COVID-19 (PCR test – not rapid test). That has been the general rule for all the shipping companies I know of. What happens when you come onboard depends on company policy. Sometimes temperatures have been taken twice daily. Sometimes it has been a requirement to wear a mask and self-distance for a period. In nearly every case I have found that the seafarers are not permitted to leave the ship until the day they return home. That means no shore leave. The ship essentially becomes home for as long as the contract runs, which can sometimes be 8-10 months. In most cases I have also found that everyone onboard has their own cabin. All of this helps to limit the transmission of a virus. Yes, the industry has done well. But what happens when the virus makes its way onboard a ship anyway?
Well, different companies have different models. Sometimes the infected seafarer is isolated and taken off duty. Sometimes the entire ship ends up being quarantined for several weeks before it can call the next port. And sometimes company policy is to disembark the infected seafarer at the first available port and have a replacement flown in. Swire Shipping has an excellent reputation within the business. And it is a reputation which has been earned. When I joined Papuan Chief, I was escorted to my cabin where I was handed Swire Shipping’s Outbreak Management Plan section 13, which covers Crew Change Protocols. I read it carefully. It covered every element from leaving home, transit, transportation, hotels, flights, joining the ship, while onboard, vaccination policy etc. I was told that I wasn’t restricted to my cabin but that I had to limit physical contact as much as possible. And that I did.
The Captain made an announcement commemorating the late Queen Elizabeth II's death and the rise of King Charles III. I hold respect for the monarchy and am a supporter of the Danish Royal House which is led by Queen Margrethe II (my queen) who celebrates 50 years on the throne this year, and is now Europe's longest serving current head of state, and the only current queen regnant.
By the very few crewmembers I interacted with I could sense that it was yet another great crew. Swire Shipping is batting four of four ships with good atmosphere onboard. That cannot be a coincidence. Papuan Chief looked very familiar to me. In fact, it was nearly identical to Vanuatu Chief which had brought us to Samoa. Papuan Chief is however a smaller vessel but the accommodation seemed to be the same size. The ships messman was a lovely Fijian who axed (asked) me if I wanted my meals served to the cabin or if I wanted a specific time when I could dine alone in the galley? I could tell he was smiling behind his mask. If I was going to dine alone in the galley then I might as well have my meals served in my cabin – so I opted for that. I went up on the bridge a few times to refill my water bottle and I went out on deck a few times. I was on E deck just below the bridge. The crossing only took four days so I didn’t mind self-isolating, reading books, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and coordinating my arrival to Tonga. Swire Shipping offers 1GB wifi internet per week to its crew and I have had my own account and login since joining Suva Chief from Hong Kong to Australia earlier this year. It is not the fastest internet but it does what it has to. It is pretty good for sending text messages.
Look how the mountains of American Samoa rise from the ocean!
Time travel is real!! The date line runs between Samoa and American Samoa which made things a bit weird. Let me explain. I woke up Thursday morning in Apia, Samoa. I joined Papuan Chief around 3pm. We departed Apia around 8pm and I went to sleep around 10pm. Nothing strange about any of that. I slept through the night while we travelled 76nm (141km/86mi). The sun came up and I got out of bed at 07:15am. I looked out the porthole and could see land as we had reached Pago Pago in American Samoa. But strangely it was Thursday morning?!? In Apia I had been 11hrs ahead of ultra-wifey who’s back home in Denmark. But in Pago Pago I was suddenly 13hrs behind her? While it seems utterly strange to experience two Thursdays in a row there is no real mystery. Ships travel across time zones all the time and adjust the clocks 1hr one way or the other. But when you cross the international dateline then you are crossing the 24hr line and adjust the clock 24hrs. With 24hrs in a day the day has to start and end somewhere as the sun goes up and down. And the sun of course doesn’t do that at all. You could technically travel under the sun for an entire day if you wanted to.
Trying to understand how I had two Thursdays...
We stayed two nights in Pago Pago where we were all tested for COVID-19 on arrival. Everyone onboard had to walk down the gangway and to a container next to the ship where health authorities tested us. The crew consisted of 17 men and 3 women. We all tested negative. Pago Pago looked beautiful! Dramatically mountainous and I spotted a few peaks and ridges which were calling for me. Unfortunately, there was no shore leave. I did however get permission to walk down the gangway once more to meet with my friend Zach who lives in Pago Pago. It was the first time we got to meet. Due to the circumstances we both wore masks, didn’t shake hands, and sat 2m (6ft) apart. But it was still good to meet him. Zach has been instrumental in the positive forward momentum of the Saga lately. And he showed up with a box full of goodies for the crew and a local simcard for me. It was nice to chat for a bit but our time was limited and I soon had to return to the ship again. Unfortunately, the simcard did not work on my phone (different network) but I handed the box full of sweets to the galley and trust they were welcomed by the crew. Captain Dias Pelanda did everything he could to make me feel welcome onboard. We spoke on the phone several times and he apologized for the outbreak management onboard. He had nothing to apologize for. I had 5-star treatment onboard! Interestingly The Captain was from Sri Lanka and the Chief Mate was from Ukraine, exactly as it had been the case on Vanuatu Chief three weeks earlier.
Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai island, the Kingdom of Tonga.
We reached Nuku’alofa around 6pm the day after leaving Pago Pago. This time we had lost an entire day as the clock went from midday Saturday September 10th to midday Sunday September 11th in less than a second. Monday afternoon we could start to see some of Tonga’s outer islands. I’m deeply fascinated by some of them. Lofi’a is a flattish looking volcanic island which has a lake in its centre so it looks like a donut from above. And right next to Lofi’a you have a tiny island called Kao which rises an amazing 1.033m (3.389ft) into the sky! We also came past Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai island which had the powerful volcanic eruption on January 15th 2022. The islands looked peaceful and it was hard to imagine that it was the scene of the largest recorded eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. But it was. And it was fascinating to see the island with my own eyes. I planned to leave the ship the next morning and get a fresh start. I do not like arriving to a new location after nightfall. The Fijian messman brought me my dinner at 6pm and I had a booking for a guesthouse the following day. But suddenly I was informed that I had to leave the ship or else the stevedores would not begin cargo operations!? What a surprise!! I absolutely cannot be a delay to any ship so I packed my bags asap and left the ship.
Before I rushed off the ship, Captain Dias Pelanda called upon anyone who had time to come for a group photo. I'm happy we got some of the crew :)
It was dark outside and I could see several vehicles parked on the wharf along with a team of stevedores hanging around in their PPE. As I came down the gangway, I walked towards the one who looked most authoritative. He seemed friendly and pointed me over to another guy. It was the authorities which had come to ensure I had a proper entry into the Kingdom of Tonga. Customs and Immigration was present and so was a representative from the Health Ministry. I was asked to fill out a form and then my passport was stamped. I was officially in. But what now? Swire Shipping’s agent was there to take care of me. A jolly fellow named Pilar who drove me straight to his office which was nearby.
Pilar and I at the office in Nuku'alofa.
Pilar had to take care of some paperwork and I got to log on to the office wifi for a few minutes. Then Pilar helped me call Toni’s Guesthouse where I had my booking for the following day. We got a hold of Toni’s wife Leni who said it was okay if I needed to arrive that night, one day ahead of my booking. Then Pilar gave me a small tour of Nuku’alofa as we drove toward Toni’s Guesthouse. We made a stop at an ATM on the way so I could get some local coin. At the guesthouse I met 79-year-old Toni and his wife Leni. We had to “break” into a room because they had lost the keys. So late at night, I found myself unscrewing a slide lock from a door in the outskirts of Nuku’alofa within the Kingdom of Tonga. Once we managed to “break” into the room, Leni could clean and put some fresh bed lining on. And then I was all set up for my first night in country no. 199.
This fellow showed up on the wall while I was sitting on my bed. It is a harmless spider - but a big one! And it slowly made its way closer, and closer to my pillow. What would you do? The pleasures of being on tropical islands...
This dominant raintree sits at the bustling centre of Nuku'alofa, the capitol of the Kingdom of Tonga.
The next morning I headed into town with Toni and Leni. Their first ride into town is complimentary and a bit of a tour where Toni explained something about must buildings we passed. I had forgotten my GPS transmitter on the ship and was hoping to retrieve it before Papuan Chief departed. Toni’s Guesthouse is kind of in an urban forest some 8km (5mi) from the port. Once in town I got in touch with Pilar who got me on the phone with the Captain and 15 minutes later I had my GPS. I then proceeded on foot to the Digicel building. Moving about on foot in Nuku’alofa isn’t very common and I certainly felt the heat and humidity. But it is a good way to see a new place. After standing in line for a while I reached the counter, requested a simcard and some data, and ten minutes later I was all set up. I then went exploring (on foot) and took some 30-40 photos. There’s plenty to see in Nuku’alofa which is the largest city and the capital of Tonga.
You can see the Royal Palace in the back.
On my second full day I went to meet with the Tongan Red Cross Society. I had dropped by the day before and left my number. My team had actually reached out to the Tonga Red Cross long before I left Samoa – but the person coordinating was in the field. I had therefore received a call and been invited for a meeting at 10am with Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau who’s been a part of the movement for 22 years. After a brief meeting I was told to come back again the next day at 10am. I then proceeded to look for the Tonga National Museum which on google maps was located where the New Zealand High Commission in reality was. A bit confusing so I asked an employee across the street at Friend’s Café & Tourist Centre for directions and was told that the national museum was opposite Vaiola Hospital some way out of town. On my way there I spotted a sign reading “Tonga National Museum” but there wasn’t an obvious entry anywhere?
No luck so far...
Eventually I found it but it was closed (in spite of what the opening hours read) and I was told by some random, but friendly, guy to come back the next day. I continued to walk in the heat until I reached Vaiola Hospital as I thought the national museum might still be out there. But a friendly woman opposite the hospital told me that the directions were wrong and confirmed that the place I had found earlier was in fact the national museum. I then popped in at Vaiola Hospital to hear about their PCR testing. I was required to get one done between day 3 and 5 after arriving to Tonga. Tests were done between 09:00am and midday and it was already well into the afternoon. Alrighty then.
In the studio with the friendly Saane. My beautiful lei was given to me by Heta at Kele'a Voice :)
Later that day I was invited to join Saane Polutele at the studio of Kele’a Voice (radio). We had met the day before at Friend’s Café and talked about the Saga and how she had been introduced to it by her cousins. At the studio we had a nice chat about the Saga and particularly the budget and where the money came from. Is USD 20 per day a lot or a humble budget? How much has been spent since I left home? Am I brave to venture into every country? And many other things. I must admit that on my first day in Tonga, as I stood by the sea and watched my safe haven of the good ship Papuan Chief sail into the horizon, I did feel slightly marooned. But I have been met with nothing but kindness and genuine curiosity wherever I have gone. It has been impossible to walk down a street without ending up in a random conversation: “where are you from?”, “where are you going?”, “what do you think of Tonga?”
PCR test: I was asked to sit for a few minutes, then asked for ID, then asked for contact details, then told to take my mask off and received a nasal swab. Done.
The following day, yesterday, I got up at 07:15am (which is my new thing) and got ready to start the day. At 09:00am I was getting my PCR tests done at Vailoa Hospital, at 10:00am I was meeting Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau, then I would drop by at the national museum, and finish the day by writing the Friday Blog. It was super easy getting the PCR test done and the healthcare worker was very friendly (are you beginning to see a pattern here?). I was at the Red Cross at 10:00am but the Secretary General wasn’t. So, I had a nice chat with the logistics and disaster management ladies until he arrived. It is harrowing to hear about the eruption, the tsunami which followed, the layer of ash which covered everything, and the fear of it not being over yet. Now, almost eight months later, there are still many who live in fear that this isn’t over and that Tonga isn’t safe.
The Red Cross has done a great job responding to the most vulnerable families and now the recovery phase is in full swing. But the work is thought to take at least two years. Around 10% of Tonga’s 100,000 beating hearts were affected directly by the tsunami and the ash. Fishing boats were destroyed, crops were destroyed, homes were destroyed, vehicles were destroyed, livelihoods were destroyed. It all seemed to happen all at once. Earlier this year, on Saturday January 15th, most people were mentally preparing for Sunday which is a special day in Tonga. In the late afternoon a loud sound was followed by a giant white mushroom which could be seen in Nuku’alofa, 70km (43mi) away from the volcano. The eruption column rose 58km (36mi) into the mesosphere!! NASA determined that the eruption was hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima!! Terrifying!!! Fortunately, there were remarkably few casualties and injuries. But the long-lasting damage, psychologically as well as physically, continues to haunt the small tropical nation today. And the Red Cross is busy handing out cash voucher assistance, tools, and any support available to get the Tongans back on their feet. Secretary General Sione Taumoefolau showed up around 10:35am and after another brief meeting we agreed that I should come back again Monday :)
Apparently the traditional tapestries (in centre) are being replaced by imported traditional grave stones. Family is very important for Tongans. Many graves were unfortunately washed open and bones were scattered during the tsunami in January.
I went on to grab some lunch from Yummie Treats and got a sub for lunch and one to eat later for dinner. Then I headed back to Toni’s guesthouse. I’ve rented a car for Friday. I hope to explore some of the sights (or all of them). There’s plenty of stuff to see: blow holes, caves, scenic lookouts, beaches, interesting rock formations, historical sights, and it will be interesting to see something else than Nuku’alofa. Nuku’alofa is cool enough with several nice cafés and a safe and friendly vibe. But I’m hoping to join Swire’s good ship Highland Chief which is arriving on Tuesday. Highland Chief is heading to New Caledonia from where we can connect with another ship to Vanuatu if all goes well. There is nothing about the logistics and bureaucracy of this project which is easy and I have been deadly tired of it for a VERY LONG TIME. But this isn’t one of those entries. This is an entry in which I extend my gratitude to the government authorities in Samoa and in Tonga, to Swire Shipping’s seafarers and management, and to the many, many friendly people I have met in the streets of Nuku’alofa. And it is an entry where I share with you, that Tonga used to be the centre of a maritime empire which dominated the region. Think: “Roman Empire in the Pacific”. Very impressive indeed. And Tonga is furthermore the only country within the Pacific which was never colonized. Yeah, there is something about the Kingdom of Tonga…
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - finally four countries from home.
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Once Upon A Saga