Neiafu, ‘Uta Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga:

“This can’t possibly be the way. We’re starting to head downhill. We are supposed to be going uphill.”

We stopped in the middle of the shoulder-high elephant grass, standing on our toes to look around. It did seem a little off kilter.

“Not only that, but this goat path or whatever it is has begun to fade out altogether.”

It was our second attempt to reach the viewpoint at the top of Mt. Talau, the feature attraction of its own National Park.

“Let’s turn around. But I have no idea how we could have missed it again!”

We had managed to find our way to these tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean all the way from our cabin in the woods near Whitehorse, but we couldn’t seem to locate the “easily accessible, you can’t miss it” trail that would lead us to a spectacular view of the main town of Neiafu and the picturesque Port of Refuge.

We shrugged and started walking back. It was our first week in Tonga and we were still adjusting to the heat and humidity of the tropical climate.

Wanting to ensure we would have a great view, we had set off when the sky was clear – so the sun beat down on us from on high. Sweat gathered under our hats; our shirts clung to our backs like wet tissue paper.

A sudden unusual sound from the bush just ahead brought our line to a standstill. No one moved; no one shrieked. There was some snorting, snuffling and rustling of dry leaves and grasses.

We tiptoed forward and, peering to the right, discovered not a goat, but a very large pig and her assortment of curly-tailed piglets. They gave a few surprised grunts and crossed the narrow dirt road in front of us.

And, as luck would have it, looking now to the left we discovered – the trailhead. The old stairs carved into the steep sides, covered with red mud after yesterday’s rain, were discernible a short distance away.

We wasted no time scrambling up, using the rock footholds, various tropical trees and vines, and the thick hand ropes to reach the top. The view was, as we had heard, nothing short of spectacular.

We could see a smattering of the 60-some islands belonging to the Vava’u group, tree-covered smudges against blue water. Along the shorelines, bright stripes of yellow sand below coconut palm fringes revealed numerous beaches.

From this height it was easy to determine where deeper water became shallow as the turquoise colour lightened; a couple of sailboats navigated their way into the harbour between the green and red channel markers. In the far distance the white line of surf indicated the reef where the power of the Pacific Ocean dissipated as its waves crashed onto the coral.

Mt. Talau is a flat-topped mountain, the topic of songs and legends of the cultural history of Tonga. It is said that mischievous night-time spirits from Samoa wanted to cut the top off the mountain because it obstructed their view.

Fortunately, the people of Vava’u witnessed this, and called upon their own tevolo to help. Tafakula, famous for her cunning ways, bent over, lifted her skirts and exposed her buttocks. The Samoan tevolo saw the bright moonlight reflecting off her buttocks and thought the sun was rising.

In their hurry to return home they dropped the top of Mt. Talau into the water. It is now the island of Lotuma.

Wandering across to another point we looked back over the town of Neiafu, which we were just getting to know: the local market of friendly vendors selling their papayas, pineapples, tomatoes and eggplants arranged in neat piles; the waterfront pubs with prime views of local boats and visiting yachts; the winding streets and numerous restaurants.

The sudden appearance of a peka (Tongan flying fox) crossing between clumps of trees told us dusk was falling. These fruit-eating bats, particularly fond of mangoes, are the only mammal native to Tonga – and they are a healthy size!

We slid and bumped our way back down the steep trail, hastening to our favourite watering hole to catch the sunset and listen to the beautiful, melodic music of several local choirs floating out of church and meeting hall windows, drowning out the competing roosters.

Roosters? Hasn’t anyone told them they are supposed to crow at sunrise?

Catherine Millar is a frequent contributor to What’s Up Yukon. She and her husband, barbecue maven Rob Millar, are currently travelling intrepidly in the South Pacific.

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