As I approached nearly three years living in New Zealand, it was time enough for me to make my first trip to one of the many neighbouring Pacific islands located just a couple of hours flight time from AKL
. Earlier this year, I picked up the travel section of the New Zealand Herald and was enchanted by an article describing the author’s experience of swimming with humpback whales off the coast of the Vava’u island group in Tonga. I knew then that Tonga would be my next holiday destination.
Not being as popular a tourist destination as its Pacific cousins of Fiji, Samoa and The Cook Islands, it was clear that flight options to Tonga were more limited. I would also need to take a domestic flight once landed from the main island of Tongatapu to Vava’u where most of the whale tours originated.
I booked to fly with Air New Zealand from AKL
to Fuaʻamotu International Airport – Tonga’s main airport. I found out that Real Tonga were the sole option, aside from a day-long ferry journey, to get to Vava’u. With no other option, I booked an expensive (nearly as expensive as the AKL
-TBU return sectors) return flight with Real Tongan Airlines.
Drama begins to unfold
Drama began to unfold in the weeks leading up to my trip, with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) engaging in a diplomatic spat with Tongan authorities regarding a single MA60 aircraft gifted from the Chinese government to their Tongan counterparts, who on-leased the aircraft to Real Tongan Airlines for domestic operations. The NZ
authorities suspended all tourism aid to Tonga and issued an official media advisory warning NZ
citizens about the patchy safety record of the aircraft and its past record. This escalated with tit-for-tat remarks from both sides, and with the Chinese diplomats even weighing in. This wasn’t the build up to the holiday I had hoped for, and friends of mine who would also fly on the MA60 started to question whether we should fly with them at all. Holiday time arrived and we decided to throw caution to the wind and we decided to experience the MA60 in all its glory, which Real Tonga had dedicated to the Tongatapu-Vava’u route due to its increased capacity over the rest of the fleet. Some news coverage of the issue:
After an uneventful sector to TBU with Air NZ
, and a wonderful first two days in Tonga, I was due to fly to Vava’u the next morning at 11.30am. I happened to chat to an Australian couple the night before who had flown to/from Vava’u the previous week. They advised that there was no 11.30am flight and showed me a picture they had taken on their return flight the previous day of a whiteboard outlining the week’s flight schedule, which had an 8am and 1pm flights displayed. They also advised that the airline were known for changing the flight times without warning. I contacted the airline later that day, and, sure enough, I had been moved to the 8am flight without even an email notification. Sweet.
I rocked up to Nuku’alofa’s domestic airport, located adjacent to the international airport.
I found the one and only check-in desk, where the check-in agent and other airline employees gathered around the desk. There were no computers, with hand-written boarding cards and a lot of paperwork being worked on by the check-in agent.
After checking in my bag, I received my hand-written boarding pass and hung out outside the terminal (there was no departures lounge). I walked around the side of the terminal and spotted the source of the earlier international spat.
As excited as I was to be boarding a rare MA60, the safety questions around the aircraft had given me some doubts about whether I should actually get onboard. Throwing caution to the wind, and knowing swimming with humpback whales awaited me on the other side, I boarded and took my seat. I wasn’t encouraged by the flat-looking tyres or the ‘Cut here in case of emergency’ markings on the side of the aircraft.
Every normal sized person, plus the many tall Tongan locals, had to bend over inside the aircraft due to the surprisingly low ceiling.
I took my seat in the 5th row from the front, and was impressed by the great leg room – probably the best I’ve had for a non emergency row seat.
The Chinese pilot taxied to the runway, and shut down and re-started each engine before beginning the take-off roll. Noisy as anything, the MA60’s short-field performance was on display as we quickly took to the air and climbed into the blue Tongan sky. We reached cruising altitude and the two FAs began the in-flight service, which consisted of a choice between water, water and water. I chose a tasty little water and enjoyed the view from the window as we passed over Tonga’s beautiful island groups.
I also took the time to enjoy the entertaining MA60 safety card. I was upset I couldn’t use my Gameboy in flight
The flight time of 50 minutes past quickly, and we began our preparation for landing. The descent into Vava’u was uneventful and smooth and we touched down on the 1,705m runway. The beauty of airports this small is the short taxi length and speed of disembarking.
Not to mention the quick arrival of our baggage through the window
I spent two nights in Vava’u enjoying the friendly local hospitality, good food, amazing scenery and snorkeling with two majestic humpback whales.
My return flight was uneventful, aside from a one hour delay and some turbulence, and a harried-looking check-in agent trying to resolve some overweight baggage issues with his smartphone calculator. I arrived into TBU and breathed a sigh of relief that the slightly dramatic build up was the only dramatic part of the experience!
If you ever get the chance, drop into The Kingdom of Tonga - a beautiful country.[Edited 2013-09-01 02:03:14]
[Edited 2013-09-01 02:04:21]