Tonga: Bikes and Botanical Gardens

We have a full day to explore Vava’u on our bikes, so decide to cycle out as far as we can to make the most of it. The Botanical Gardens are at the furthest east end of the mainland and seem like the only real thing to do today.

We’ve been sooooo lucky with the weather so far but today, it’s finally happened. It starts raining while we’re cycling. Any time I’m going downhill the water kicks up and I can’t even see. Our clothes are soaked and heavy, and we’re covered in mud splatter. By the time we reach the gardens the rain has stopped but we are in serious need of a place to sit and enjoy a hot drink.

The gate is locked. It’s like 12 noon on a Tuesday, HOW can the botanical gardens be closed? They’re plants. Let me in. Please.

I can’t handle the idea of biking all the way back to town just yet, or even another 100m honestly. Chesney notices the gate isn’t actually locked, but the chain is just wrapped through the fence to make it look locked and to hold the gate in place. He is usually the most law abiding citizen – once told me we shouldn’t bring our outside drinks into another fast food restaurant. He suggests we let ourselves in and opens the gate. There’s no Do Not Enter or Closed sign. The gate wasn’t even really locked. If we get in trouble we can always play the lost Palangi card.

We wander around the lush, empty garden trails which look extra striking after all the rain. We have a couple close encounters with these giant spiders that hang at eye level and are about the size of my palm. They’re all over the place.

We can hear the ocean and follow one of the more narrow and overgrown trails down towards the waves. I pick up a stick to wave in front of me to avoid spiders, which is effective until my arm gets tired and I put it down for ONE second, and walk into a web.

Aragog goes scurrying off into a tree, and I shout, pulling the webs off me and regretting every life decision I’ve ever made that brought me to this point. Not too far away we can hear some people, and I’m worried my cry for spider-help has blown our cover. We keep walking towards the beach and see some buildings where the voices must have been coming from. We almost turn around before we see it…. another entrance to the botanical gardens. Unlocked and open. Oh.

We read that you can only enter if you book a guided tour in advance, which I think is hilarious on so many levels. When was the last time you visited botanical gardens anywhere and required a guided tour? And this is Tonga. What do you mean book in advance? Where? How?

I’m happy we snuck in and saved ourselves this headache, and some money. Might have been nice to have a spider look-out though.

There’s a beach side bar next to the gardens where we go to get a drink. Our feet and flip flops are so covered in mud we have to go down to the ocean to wash up before we can go inside.

Forget about hot drinks, after that bike ride, the stress of being criminals, and my near death experience, we need beer.

From the beach, the water exists in two distinct stages. Lapping onto the sand it is calm and crystal clear for about half a kilometre out, where by complete contrast a wall of violent waves crash into the bay from the Pacific Ocean. We sit outside with our drinks to take in the epic view.

The owner of the bar sits down at the table next to us and opens a beer for himself as well. He tells us allllllll about his life story; it turns out he actually owns the gardens. He says he got his first 8 acres of land when he was 8 years old, and wanted to turn it into the “Garden of Eden”. Now, some 50 or 60 years later, he has over 100 species of plants living on his 33 acres. He worked as Tonga’s Minister of Agriculture for 18 years and claims to have made Tonga millions of dollars in the pumpkin trade with Japan. He also tells us a story about a young kiwi girl who was stung 35 times by those same angry wasps that got Chesney the other day, and how he cured her with some mashed up tree leaves mixed with water. He’s got stories upon stories upon stories and it’s clear he loves to tell them. He’s one of those people you know has lived a good and full life, and feels entirely content with what they have.

While I feel like I could be entertained by him all afternoon, we have some more exploring to do so we finish our drinks and take a walk down the beach. We hadn’t really planned to swim but the water is too beautiful not to take a quick dip and the rain has stopped for now. At this point I think it goes without saying, but we are of course, the only people on the beach.

Before going home we take a quick spin through another small village on a bridge-connected island next to Ene’io. Lots of pigs and chickens and coconut trees. We also find these sick black crabs with just ONE giant red claw on their right side. It’s comical.

The bike ride home is uncomfortable and makes me wanna die. I’m not fit, guys. I don’t bike. We’ve come so far and I don’t know if I’ll make it home alive. Believe it or not there’s no Uber out here, and while I want to hitch hike back with someone who can throw my bike in their truck, I somehow push through.

We check the map when we have wifi again and figure we’ve ridden just short of FORTY kilometres today. Jesus. I better be skinnier tomorrow.

We treat ourselves to some coconuts with a shot of rum when we return our bikes in town, then go to a restaurant called Mango because it’s been highly recommended to us by Maria, our host, and her neighbour who drove us into town yesterday. I’m sure she’s friends with the owner or something but that’s good enough. It’s right on the water in the harbour which is great but only serves American food. After our long bike today we decide it’s fine to just pig out on pizza here, and catch a taxi home. The same guy who confused me for a celebrity picks us up again. He’s a character.

Maria knows we’re keen to try kava and says she’ll take us to a place where we may be able to try some tonight, but we’re just too shattered from the day. We’ll have to track some down in Tongatapu before we leave.

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