The Kingdom of Tonga and “Highland Chief” – passenger no. 1

Day 3,270 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).

Tonga is a fascinating country

panoEvery country in the world is potentially the best country. There isn’t a country in the world which isn’t the best to someone. And which ever country you visit, you are a guest. As a guest I hope you will always strive to be polite and at your best behaviour.

Last week’s entry: TIME TRAVEL on “Papuan Chief” – passenger no. 1 (reaching Tonga)

“What is the best country in the world?” It is an incredibly meaningless and highly generic question. I once heard my friend Gunnar Garfors argue that the question really is meant as a tip for the one who is asking. And before you can answer what the best country for that person might be, you would have to know something about them. Within Once Upon A Saga the way has always been to look for the positive, the interesting, the unique, and never the negative. Something which I believe the world is in great need of in these sensational times of ours. It would not be hard to do the opposite and look for the negative. Every country has a piece of plastic floating in the wind. Corruption is a huge problem across the world. Greed and a general lack of empathy is never very far away. Incompetence and laziness are also easy to point out. The best country in the world? Is the best country supposed to be the lesser of many evils? For most people, I would imagine their “favourite country” is the one in which they have collected the most positive experiences. A great deal of times I have been asked what I think of Tonga. I have always replied: it is a beautiful country, the people are kind, the food is good, the history is interesting.


The Kingdom of Denmark and the Kingdom of Tonga both share the red/white colors in our flags. The palace is seen in the back. Ross.DK is seen up front :)

Did I remember to tell you that as the good ship Papuan Chief was making its way toward Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga's 169 islands, I sighted whales shooting out of the ocean and crashing back in again under their powerful weight. Tongan waters are a breeding ground for humpback whales, which make their way to the warm waters every year from the Arctic. It is a popular attraction to go swimming with these gentle giants. Or…it used to be ahead of the pandemic. The pandemic has been such a destructive force to tourism all around the world. As I shared in more detail within last week’s entry, Tonga was struck by a terrifying volcanic eruption followed by a destructive tsunami, back in mid-January this year. Tonga is constantly subjected to volcanic activity but scientists had detected anomalies back in December 2021 so people were warned. Having spoken to many about their personal experiences I found it particularly interesting how several described the three bangs from the eruption as almost painfully deafening. Nuku’alofa is after all 70km (43mi) away from the volcano. The reality of things is however that neither the eruption nor the tsunami have done the most damage to Tonga over the past years. The lack of tourism during the pandemic and the seasonal storms have definitely set their mark on the country.


My ride for a day.

Thanks to the extra donations I received on my arrival to Tonga I was able to rent a car for a day and drive around Tongatapu. It is a great way to explore and get a good understanding of where I am. The car rental was TOP 80.00 (USD 35) for 24 hrs and then I had to fill the tank which didn’t amount to much as I only drove 106km (66mi) and rarely made it above 40kph (25mph). The road conditions often did not allow for more than that. I left Nuku’alofa and drove out to Foui which is almost as far you can go to the west on Tongatapu. Then I turned left and followed the coastal road southeast as far as it took me. I stopped several times along the way to take photos or to see some of the locations I had interest in: Tsunami Rock, Mapa’a Vaea Blowholes, Anahula Cave, Ha’amonga a’Maui Trilithon, Paepae o Tele’a, and the Captain Cook Landing Site. Early in the day I saw a sign to White Sands Beach Resort and took a turn there hoping to find myself a cup of coffee. As I drove down the road which led straight to the beach, I saw well maintained fields on both sides of the road. But as I reached the end of the road there was no beach resort. There was a bit of mangled debris and not much else. I checked my phone and found the resort on google maps. It looked really nice and had some splendid recommendations in the user comments. Then I searched for the resort on the internet and found that it had been swept away in seconds during the tsunami.


Presumably the aftermath of what the January 2022 tsunami did to this shipping container.


Tsunami Rock. It could be a rock the demigod Maui threw at a rooster which was annoying him. It could also be a piece of the nearby reef which broke off during a powerful tsunami a few thousand years ago (WATCH VIDEO).


Anahula Cave


Ha’amonga a’Maui Trilithon. Possibly built by King Tu'itatui in the 13th century to honor his two sons. Each upright stone weighs 40 tons. It may also have been built by the demigod Maui (WATCH VIDEO).

Everyone I met during my daytrip around the island were super sweet, kind and helpful. Pretty much all the shops were run by Chinese and had more or less the same articles for sale. There was a lot of farmlands which seemed to be put into good use. When the volcanic eruption covered everything in a thick layer of ash some saw it as a curse while other saw it as a blessing. Some crops apparently did better than others and for some the mineral rich ash was a good thing. I stopped at another beach resort hoping to find lunch. But all the activity there was related to renovations and getting the place open for tourism. This resort was untouched by the tsunami but had no doubt been harmed by the 2.5-year shutdown. One of the most common questions I have been met with in Tonga has been: “are you going to Vava’u?” And the answer has been "no" although it definitely sounds like a reason to return. Vava’u is an island quite far from Tongatapu island. While Tonga is made up by relatively small islands the country actually covers an area of the Pacific Ocean equivalent to the size of Japan. And on a side note, the Tu’i Tonga Empire at one point ruled (according to some) as much as 2/3 of the Pacific Ocean. There is definitely something more to explore!


The circle of life. Makes for good entertainment when you want to relax.

I had the rental car most of Friday and delivered it back Saturday morning. The kind lady at the rental place gave me a ride back to Toni’s Guesthouse. We had some pretty heavy rain that Saturday and I for the most part stayed indoor. Rain is good in Tonga as it fills up the water tanks. Most fresh water in Tonga is sourced through rainwater harvesting. It was somewhat of a problem when the volcanic ash came down and mixed with people’s freshwater. My initial thought was that it must still have been drinkable? But I read that there were small glasslike crystals in the ash which could cause long-term damage if you drank the water. Someone however told me that that was just an initial worry, and that once the ash had settled in the water tanks, it was fine to drink. Anyway, I filled my water bottle straight from the rainwater running off the roof. It tasted great.


The former location of White Sands Beach Resort. Gone in seconds.

Sunday is its own thing in Tonga! I had been invited to go to church which everyone told me would be a wonderful experience. The singing is apparently magnificent. I was up early Sunday morning waiting to be collected. I had asked which clothes I should wear and was told that I would be given the clothes I needed to wear. Extra interesting. I was also told I should be ready at 09:30am. Unfortunately nobody came for me and I was left sitting on the porch at Toni’s Guesthouse from where I could hear the beautiful singing from 2-3 nearby churches. It later turned out that the guy who was supposed to bring me had been at the hospital with three of his four children. The flu was going around in Nuku’alofa and it had been too much for the young ones whom had been hospitalized. Thankfully they were alright. I missed out on the church but not the lunch which follows. My neighbour at Toni’s Guesthouse was an old man from Vava’u. His name was Uhila Topou and he had come for the planning of a funeral. We had talked a few times over the days and his daughter (in her twenties) had now joined him at the guesthouse. Uhila means “light”. When Uhila’s daughter returned from church she soon after brought us some food. Then some more food. And then some more food!! Yup – lack of food was not an issue. Among the many things on the table I was particularly fond of the Lu Moa (baked coconut chicken). And I couldn’t help muse over how the Tongan word for chicken (moa) in New Zealand is the name for a now extinct 3m (10ft) tall flightless bird.


Delicious Lu Moa. Wrapped in taro leaves.

I did a bit more exploring during Monday. But the day was mostly spent getting confirmation on whether I was joining Swire Shipping’s good ship Highland Chief or not. Understandably Swire’s management have a lot on their plate and it is kind of them to accommodate Once Upon A Saga. I was still waiting for confirmation to hear that everything was okay. It is simply not straight forward to join a container ship within the Pacific during a global pandemic. Yes – the pandemic is still ongoing, albeit one must admit, some places more than others. A hundred years ago you would simply walk up to a ship and negotiate with the captain. These days we needed clearance from Swire Shipping management in Singapore, from the captain of the ship, from the Ministry of Health, Immigration, Customs, and Port Authorities in Tonga, and from a number of authorities in New Caledonia as well. My goodness…but the good news is that you don’t need to hear about all of that in detail. You can just smile knowing the fact that it once more all worked out.


Talking to Mr Kitione Mokosini about the importance of the Red Cross.

On Tuesday morning my second appointment was with Vaiola Hospital where PCR tests are done between 09:00am-midday. My first appointment was with Mr Kitione Mokosini who some call “Mr media” in Tonga. Kitione has been in the media business since 1973 which is nothing short of impressive. We met for a few beers and a delicious burger the night before. Kitione wanted to prepare the interview with me ahead of time. He had brought Hans with him who is a Dane that has been living in Tonga for the past 25 years. The three of us had a lovely evening. The interview started at 09:00am and was all about the Red Cross. The interview had been organized by the Tongan Red Cross Society and Kitione had done his homework. We spoke for about an hour about the importance of the Red Cross and got around the flooding in Pakistan, the war in Ukraine, and naturally the Red Cross’s importance in Tonga. It was a really nice interview and after it was done, I raced to the hospital, got tested and was told it would be a few hours before I had the result.


The local market in downtown Nuku'alofa.

The stress was building up within my body. The agent had told me Highland Chief was due to depart at 8pm. I have never tested positive for COVID-19 but there are plenty of stories like that and most of them end with that time the test eventually came back positive. Was the result going to be positive or negative? If I tested positive then I would not be able to join the ship and I would have to wait three weeks for the next ship to arrive. I would definitely then be on my way with the ferry to Vava’u hoping to swim with whales and making the best of the situation. But my number one priority is getting home asap which does not involve any form of delay. I spent some of the waiting time working out of Friends Café in downtown Nuku'alofa. And I took a few minutes to browse around at the nearby local market. I have admired the local attire of Tongan’s since I arrived. In a time where most of us look the same (including most Tongan’s) it is always nice to see traditional attire. The Ta’ovala is a woven mat which is wrapped around the waist. The Kiekie is worn by women and looks like a woven belt with stands hanging down all along its side. At the market I found a lot of this and took it all in as I walked up and down the many isles. When I eventually grew too impatient (especially as both agent and captain were requesting my test results) I began walking towards the hospital. And after 45min I had reached it without receiving the much awaited call. I found my way to the person in charge of the test results and she very politely explained they had done many tests that day and that the lab was busy. Four hours had now passed. But then the kind lady suddenly recognized me as "the man her government had invited to arrive by ship". That seemed really random but helpful in the situation. Five minutes later I had my printout: negative. Thank goodness.


Swire Shipping's good ship Highland Chief on the move.

I was onboard around 6:30am and was welcomed by Captain Wen Bao Sheng from China. I was given the passenger cabin which was identical to the one I had stayed in onboard Papuan Chief eight days earlier. And the accommodation of the Highland Chief looked identical to that of both Papuan Chief and Vanuatu Chief which I had joined from Fiji to Samoa. So, it felt a lot more familiar coming onboard than what it otherwise does. A nice feeling of familiarity I might add after years and years of constant change. The sun was setting about the time I joined. Swire’s agent in Nuku’alofa had picked up my passport earlier in the day and ensured my exit stamp. I saw the sky turn violet and then dark as we departed the “Friendly Islands”. Thank you and farewell.


The entire crew of Highland Chief!! 23 men including me. And one woman. Seven nationalities: Chinese, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Ukrainian, Tuvaluan, Fijian, and one Dane.

And back onboard yet another container ship I was “home”. A great sense of familiarity in a project which has involved 199 countries and several territories. Africa is the worlds most diverse continent with 54 countries and thousands of languages. That speaks volumes when you consider the diversity of Asia from the Arab nations of the Middle East, across incredible India, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, all of China, most of Russia, South East Asia etc. Yeah – and Papua New Guinea might just be the worlds most diverse country. I have seen and experienced an incredible amount of change over the past (almost) nine years and familiarity is good to have now and again. Onboard I can do laundry, take warm showers, eat three good meals a day, build up a good sleep rhythm, work out, watch movies, listen to podcasts, read books, and the rate of insects drop to about 0%. Low budget accommodation on tropical islands seems to come with a lot of ants, cockroaches, spiders, millipedes, and the ocassional centipedes. At sea I sometimes spot a lazy ant onboard one of the ships and there are at times fruit flies. But nothing in the big picture. The ships are airconditioned and Captain Wen Bao Sheng and his brave crew made sure I felt welcome onboard.


Captain Wen Bao Sheng and 3rd officer Kathlene Lapidez Ganancial on the bridge during the safety drill.

It was a short voyage and I only spent three nights onboard. We had a safety drill while I was onboard but all I had to do was report to the bridge. Easy peasy for me. I could have put on safety shoes, a boilersuit, a hardhat and joined the drill as an observer. But I’ve seen my fair share and, on the bridge, I could enjoy the view and sip tea.


Time to kick back for a few hours.

On my last night onboard, we had a BBQ. It wasn’t particularly for me but the timing was good. Most ships aim at having a BBQ once a month when weather and conditions permit for it. Highland Chief had not had a BBQ for 1.5 months so everyone was looking forward to it. The grill was fired up, the music came out, meat, fish, and shrimp were on the table and it was time to kick back. I believe I’ve mentioned many times before that seafarers work far more hours than the average worker. So, it is only fair they get to enjoy life once in a while. Especially during these dreadful times when they cannot be afforded shore leave (due to the potential spread of the pandemic).


Great crew!! Thanks for all the kindness onboard :)

The good ship continued her way to New Caledonia through the night. We retarded the clock 1 hour twice on the voyage between Tonga and New Caledonia. The two-hour difference meant that I woke up long before my alarm went off. I looked out the porthole and saw land. Yet another French territory. I think I haven’t seen one since the Caribbean? Swire’s good ship Arkadia leaves New Caledonia in about three weeks. There are no ferries, cruise ships, and I’ve been told no yachts to Vanuatu from New Caledonia. Silly as Vanuatu is really close all things considered. This is what makes a journey to every country without flying so hard. Ferries are disappearing while flight tickets are abundant. Because New caledonia is a territory, we continue to be left with four countries within this project. But this is a territory I have never been to before. And as such I notch slightly up the list as one of the worlds most travelled people.


Land in sight. Entering Canal Woodin. Beautiful.

The agent picked me up at 1:30pm. I said farewell to the Captain and anyone nearby. Then I walked down the gangway and the agent, Ms Weiting, drove me to the border police. My goodness I haven’t had to speak any French for quite some time. I’m definitely rusty. Nice to be back in a place where the electrical outlets look like the ones back home and people drive on the RIGHT side of the road. I’ve become so accustomed to people driving on the left side that I’ll likely get run over here. Noumea is also the most modern infrastructure I’ve seen since leaving New Zealand. Interesting as it’s just another rock in the Pacific Ocean. Possibly the best rock in the world if you ask the right person ;)




I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross DK / Geoop

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Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - still four countries from home.

"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

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