I’ve no idea how to say “mad, crazy fools” in Tongan, but it’s written all over the faces of the locals staring at us across the water.
Dozens of them – men, women, boys and girls in colourful school uniforms, toddlers and even babies – cruise by us in the brightly painted wooden fishing boats which are taking them from their remote outlying settlements to Neiafu, the main commercial township on the Vava’u Islands of Tonga.
The deep rumble of a man’s voice, speaking Tongan and laughing as he talks, is carried to us on the sea breeze, quickly followed by more good-natured laughter. They all grin and wave at us while obviously failing to understand why we’d want to paddle when there are motors around.
My sister-in-law Jo and I are decked out in life jackets, grasping wooden paddles and seated in a beautifully carved outrigger canoe. Behind is the outrigger’s owner Bruce Haig. At the helm and seated at the front is the not-insignificant naked back of local Tongan Arnie Saimone.
The sight of us paddling rhythmically and going somewhere is jolly entertaining to the locals.
“They probably cannot figure out why you’d come all the way to Vava’u to have a holiday and then do all this work,” Arnie calls back to us. “Tongans have been getting about in canoes for generations, but paddling is not something they do just for fun.”
To tourists, though, a company called Outriggers in Paradise is perfectly logical, an idyllic concept and definitely a lot of fun.
Launched two summer seasons ago, Outriggers in Paradise is an adventure-tourism business designed to give Bruce Haig and his wife Julianne Bell a “simplified lifestyle”.
“We were working long hours in Australia and had only been married a couple of years,” Julianne explained. “We love the ocean, Bruce is passionate about outrigger paddling and was very involved with dragon-boat racing, and I just love to swim in the ocean.”
They made a list of all the island nations that appealed and Tonga ended up the top of the list. They sold their home in Australia, along with most of their belongings, and returned to their newfound South Pacific paradise in June 2007.
Their tours are run between July and November, coinciding with the arrival of humpback whales from Antarctica to the warm waters of Vava’u Islands to mate or give birth.
Outriggers in Paradise offer day or overnight excursions, which involve dossing down in sleeping bags on a beach with the stars and moon as the bedroom ceiling.
Couples can choose the honeymooners’ option in which a guide sets up a camp for them on a secluded island and leaves them there overnight.
Our canoe glided between deserted islands, hidden coves and caves. We went ashore on tropical beaches where it felt almost eerie to be making the first footprints in the white, silky sand. Arnie’s footprints are huge – which is very handy, because fresh coconut milk is on the beverage section of the menu for lunch – and that means someone has to get the milk-filled coconuts down from nature’s lofty plantations.
Arnie’s feet were made for it. He disappears into the crunchy undergrowth behind the beach. Several minutes later, the unmistakable “thwump” of milk-laden coconuts can be heard landing on the forest floor.
He and Bruce deftly splice them open with lethal-looking machetes and hand one each to Jo and me. We sit on the sand, supping the rich, sweet milk, while Bruce finishes our fresh summer-salad lunches. Swimming in the bay – a myriad of tropical fish around our legs – is our relaxing, after-lunch pastime.
Eventually, we’re back in the outrigger and heading home to Neiafu – however, not before experiencing the highlight of our day – the Swallow Cave.
Paddling into the cave is a little like entering a watery, towering cathedral. The ocean floor is so far below us, it is barely visible, but the sunlight coming through the cave entrance illuminates the water bright blue and schools of brightly coloured tropical fish. Jo and I gently edge out of our seats and plop into the deep water, snorkelling to the cave opening and out into the daylight before climbing back onboard.
It’s day’s end in the islands, so as we paddle to the mainland, all those little coloured water taxis are passing by us again and the smiling Tongan faces – still looking bemused – give us the nod, as if to say: “Great! You mad, crazy tourists made it back safely.”