How not to find a hill fort on 'Eua Island
We crossed from Tongatapu today. After leaving an hour or so late, as Tongan tradition dictates, the little ferry-boat dipped and edged through a series of channels in the reef, or reefs, that protect Nuku’alofa from the open ocean. I shared a handrail on the unsteady front deck with a queasy-looking billy goat and a sprightly medical student from New Jersey named Dan. The goat maintained a truculent silence while Dan told me, in that controlled rush of words peculiar to Americans, how much he preferred the Pacific Ocean, with its thousand variations on blue, to the permanently grey tones of the Atlantic seaboard. Half a dozen islands are distributed across the reef at roughly equal distances from each other, and at a roughly equal distance from the teak wood spires of Nuku’alofa’s waterfront. As we listed and churned out of reef complex and into the Tongatapu Channel, the water changed from a light to a very dark shade of blue, like the sky near the end of a clear summer day. Dan leaned a long way over the handrail, as flying fish flashed from the big waves like reflected sunbeams. I was trying to get a photo of the horizon, where the island of ‘Eua was, I believed, about to surface, when the front of the ferry reared and dropped, and I found myself kneeling in a puddle of foam, staring into the billy goat’s unamused eyes. It seemed time to retreat to a calmer, more populous part of the ferry.
Knowing how predictably I become seasick, Skyler had saved me a seat beside one of the sliding windows in the covered part of the ship. Like half a dozen other passengers, I soon had my knees on my seat and my neck out my window. As I looked up and down the row of miserable faces hanging over the heaving blue water, I couldn’t help but think of condemned men waiting for the fall of guillotines. I burped, and then belched, and then spat involuntarily, but I was determined not to be the first condemned man to vomit. Let it be a Tongan, not a palangi who has already made himself conspicuous with his bald sunburnt head, and his soggy clothes, and his notebook and camera. Hold on! Hold on another minute! My thoughts were interrupted when a middle-aged Tongan in a particularly lurid Hawaiian T short made a long, deep noise in the back of his throat, then pulled his head and shoulders back slightly, then jerked a long way forward, so that he seemed momentarily like he might be about to fall out of his window, then barked a great load of green liquid down into the Tongatapu Channel. As if on cue, the rest of us began to empty our stomachs.
Afterward, I rested my head on the window sill. My empty stomach felt vast, my hands and legs shook, and sweat kept my T shirt sodden. “Look at the horizon. Keep your eye on the line of the horizon” Skyler whispered. I did as I was told, willing ‘Eua to rise out of the east. I willed the light blue haze of the island’s highland to distinguish itself from the dark blue haze of the sea, willed the cliffs on the northeast coast into declaring themselves, willed the villages and plantations of the lowland into confirming their existence. I squinted, trying to make out individual coconut trees, trying to sight the coral bell tower of the Free Wesleyan Church in the port village of ‘Ohonua. Every detail obliterated a little more distance, and promised the relief of dry land. Taki was waiting for us on the seawall that also serves as 'Ohonua's wharf and public carpark. He threw our bags onto the back of his ute with a flick of one of his massive forearms. Spike Milligan said that the best cure for seasickness is a lie-down under a tree, but I found sliding about on the back of Taki's ute, as the vehicle moved repetitively from pothole to ungravelled road-edge, to be almost as efficacious. By the time we arrived at the Hideaway, the little hostel Taki runs a few kilometres south of 'Ohonua, I was ready to eat two pieces of fried chicken, a mango the size and colour of a rockmelon, and a bottle of Maka beer.
Taki spent a decade in the urban outback of western Sydney's, mixing concrete amid the ruins of building sites, before coming home to 'Eua to set up a different sort of business. His operation was called the Hideaway Resort, until a group of irritated American guests, who had apparently been expecting a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and a nightclub, queried the description. After doing some quick research in a dictionary and on the internet Taki happily dropped the word Resort. His is a determinedly small-scale, informal operation, which employs only locals, and offers its guests activities like guided tramps in the 'Euan highlands and weaving and kava sessions in the island's villages.
The Hideaway consists of a dozen cabins arranged on a low ridge fifty metres or so from the narrow finging reef that protects 'Eua from the Pacific. The cabins are complemented by a kitchen-house, and by a rooved but unwalled communal space over which plastic chairs and tables are scattered. A path of crushed coral descends from the edge of this space through regenerating coastal forest to the reef's mutilated statues and roughly-scooped basins. Edward Gifford's 1929 book Tongan Society contains the only published information on 'Eua's forts. Gifford's volume is relentlessly descriptive and unashamedly untechnical, in the style of an amateur local history or an explorer's journal. Gifford's research was sponsored by Hawaii's Bishop Museum, and he does seem to have done a lot of listening as travelled about the two hundred or so islands of the Kingdom of Tonga. Quoting from scores of legends and songs, he tells his readers about subjects as obscurely fascinating as the traditional place of albinos in Tongan society, the consumption of rats by Tongan children, and the proper way of manufacturing a wizard's staff in the Ha'apai Islands.
In the course of a rambling discussion of ‘Feuds in Eua Island’, Gifford describes five forts which were constructed here. Loma was built in the south of the island, on a piece of flat land; like Teeveka, which stood further north, it was prompted by the civil wars which weakened Tongan society in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Gifford names three older forts, including a site named after the 'Euan warrior Tuutaki. According to the story Gifford relays, Tuutaki established his fort at the edge of a sheer cliff in 'Eua's highland; the site gave him views of the entire island, but it also made him vulnerable to the perfidy of his wife, who one day attempted to push him to his death. Tuutaki and his wife wrestled on the earthworks of their home, before both going over the edge of the cliff. She died conventionally enough on some distant rocks; he had the misfortune to be impaled through the anus on a coconut palm.
Taki knows all about the story Gifford tells. "I was named after Tuutaki" he explained, as he handed me another Maka. "It wasn't all bad, his death. A bunch of Fijian warriors were approaching in their canoe, when they saw Tuutaki sitting on his palm, with this fierce expression on his face. They thought he was still alive, and they were so scared that they turned around and went home!" Gifford gives only a vague location for Tuutaki's fort; I ask Taki if he knows the spot. "We didn't realise exactly where it was until a group of people came here a few years ago. They were crossing the Pacific, looking for possible World Heritage sites. They spotted Tuutaki immediately, beside one of our four wheel drive tracks. After they'd pointed the fort out it was obvious - there are terraces and other earthworks on the western side of the ridge that runs along the top of the highland, and there's a sheer drop to the east. A pretty impregnable position. I'll get Sifa to take you guys up there in the four-wheel drive."
I don’t pretend to be an archaeologist, but I want to photograph the old fort, so that friends like Edward Ashby can concoct some tentative interpretations of the site. Edward is trying to decide where to work on his PhD in archaeology, and I’ve been lobbying vigorously on ‘Eua’s behalf.
I am astounded by the ability of archaeologists to take the most fragmentary or despoiled objects - shells from an eroded midden, a split digging stick, a shard from a cooking pot smashed millenia ago - and make epic and technical narratives out of them. I become immoderately excited when I read Patrick Vinton Kirch, whose book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms is perhaps the greatest epic of modern Pacific archaeology, arguing for the abolition of the distinction between history and prehistory, because the lack of written sources which used to doom an era to prehistory can nowadays be compensated for by patient excavation and interpretation. The strata of the earth have become enormous books. Sometimes excavation is unnecessary: reading Simon Best's marvellously-titled 1993 essay 'At the Halls of the Mountain Kings' I'm impressed by how much he has learned about the hill forts of Sava'i, Upolu and Fiji without ever apparently picking up a spade. Wandering over earthworks with his surveying gear, making notes on the angles of ditches and the elevation of crumbling stone walls, Best is able to reach an extraordinary number of conclusions about the sociology and ideology of the fort-builders. Large elevated platforms remember kings or high chiefs, and complicated ceremonies where tribute was given and ancestors sated. Walls recall wars. History has been written on the landscape.
Is it not a pity that 'Eua's hill forts seem to have gone unstudied by archaeologists? Tonga was a very important part of the ancient Pacific, a maritime chiefdom - some of us, of course, prefer the more evocative but less accurate word 'empire' - which raided and traded with places as distant as Malaita in the northwest, the Cooks in the east, and - it now seems, if some petroglyphs excavated by a recent storm on the Ha'apai island of Foa are to believed - Hawa'ii in the far northeast. The empire's capital may have been at Tongatapu, but the flat, fertile terrain and high population of that island mean that many of its archaeological sites have been effaced by the plough and the bulldozer. There have of course been successful digs for Lapita pottery - Skyler and I spotted a few fragments, frail yet precise white lines on an invincibly hard orange ground, under glass in a corner of one of the vast, gloomy, almost empty Japanese-built fale of the Tongan National Centre on the southern edge of Nuku'alofa - but most of the island's forts have vanished. Indigenous 'Euans are culturally and genealogically almost indistinguishable from the people of Tongatapu: what secrets might their forts tell, on behalf of Tongatapu, and therefore on behalf of the whole Tongan empire and, perhaps, on behalf of the whole of Polynesia?
'Eua lies only twenty kilometres from the southeastern corner of Tongatapu, the flagship of the fleet of islands that comprised the Tongan Empire, and which nowadays make up the Kingdom of Tonga, and yet it feels like a distant outlier. 'Eua is more than a third of the size of Tongatapu, but it has only about a twentieth of that island's population. 'Eua lacks more than a few hundred metres of paved road, and its grass airstrip is too short and - I suspect - too bumpy for any craft much larger than a DC 10. Tourists are counted in the dozens rather than in the hundreds or thousands. The island's ferries are so small that goods are very expensive to import. It costs five hundred dollars, for instance, to bring a car across the Tongatapu Channel. 'Eua has been neglected by modern scholars, as well as by tourists and transport planners. The island's rainforest is the largest in Tonga, but it has hardly been explored by botanists. The thousands of caves and sinkholes have yet to interest speleologists, and, as I keep complaining, archaeologists have been similarly unmotivated by the island's earthworks and ruins.
But palangi were not always so uninterested in this island. I've been sitting in our cabin reading a series of documents - captains' logbooks, sailors' memoirs, and the occasional fusty monograph by a gentleman scholar - which report on 'Eua in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Sated, langurous mosquitoes and huge tawny moths fly into the bare bulb that hangs above my head, so that it sways slightly and flickers, like the flame of a candle.
I detect a sense of bewilderment, and perhaps also frustration, in both the rough prose of the seamen and the awkwardly abstract sentences of the men of learning who followed them. For sailor and for scholar, 'Eua seems to have been a strangely recalcitrant place, a source of contradiction and mystery.
When he visited 'Ea-oo-we' in the Resolution in 1773, James Cook disagreed with his crew about some of the island's most basic characteristics. Astronomer William Wales, whose chirpy diary acts as a sort of counterpoint to Cook's often solemn prose, was moderately impressed with 'Euan women, praising their 'regular and soft features' but describing them as 'rather too fat to be considered beauties anywhere but in Holland'. Wales needed no qualifications, though, when he considered the 'Euan landscape. The island was 'wholly laid out in Plantations' which contained 'some of the richest Productions of Nature', he wrote. Cook's journal insisted, though, that only a small portion of the island was under cultivation. Where Wales saw fields of taro and yam and coconuts, Cook saw rainforest. How could the captain and the astronomer have differed over such an apparently straightforward matter?
Cook left 'Eua after a couple of days because he couldn't find fresh water, yet the island is one of the few parts of Tonga blessed with streams. One of these streams emerges from the highland and flows into the sea at 'Ohonua, a short walk from the spot where Cook and his crew landed in 1773. How could such a resource have gone unnoticed by the thirsty Britons?
In the 1920s J Edward Hoffmeister composed a long report on the geology of 'Eua for Bishop Museum. Hoffmeister spends the first chapter of his tract attempting to divide the island into 'physiographic provinces'. He begins sensibly, by proposing a couple of provinces which correspond with the lowland of 'Eua's western coast and its central highland, but he soon becomes preoccupied by the gross weight of data he has collected during his time on the island. As Hoffmeister looks over his notes and observes new ridges, ravines, and depressions, 'Eua's 'physiographic provinces' proliferate. Even when describing very modest spaces, like the 'province' that is the island's 'central valley', Hoffmeister adds an anxious qualification to each of his assertions, so that the area under discussion seems to grow steadily in size:
Most of the valley bottom is covered in dense brush and trees. Here and there, however, open, grass-covered spots appear. Its surface is in general rather flat or slightly undulating except for the steep-sided ravine, about 60 feet deep, made by the stream, which runs parallel to the ridge in a northward direction before it turns westward towards 'Ohonua...
Is there, I wonder, something about this island which is inimical to accurate measurement and description, some peculiar self-protective quality that keeps palangi explorers and taxonomists at bay? 23.11
We headed up into the highland today. When we visited 'Eua last January, Taki's tour operator, a quiet, pious man named Sifa, drove us to the base of the highland, and left us beside a track. Because it rained last week and the tracks have turned to mud, Taki insisted we let Sifa drive us all the way into the hills today. 'Eua is a four-wheel driver's dream: even its roads seem like off-road tracks, and the tracks that ascend the highland turn brusquely onto cliff-faces and through small streams. Yet it sometimes seemed harder travelling into the highland in an SUV than it had on foot. Branches and vines lunged at our vehicle from the track's narrowing edges, thumping and scratching at our doors and windows and crashing onto and off the bonnet, so that I began to imagine that we were accelerating through the middle of an enraged and fearless mob. Occasionally the forest fell away for a moment, and unexpectedly bright sunlight played in the network of cracks that covered a corner of Sifa's windscreen like a spider's web.
Weeds and later small shrubs began to appear in the middle of the road, on the strip of green that the tyres of SUVs and Land Rovers never touch. The crucifix which hung from the dashboard shook wildly, but Sifa looked half-asleep, as he twisted the steering wheel this way and that, and eased the gears up and down. When the track levelled out he parked abruptly in a pool of mud and gestured towards a deep blue tear in the green of the forest.
Skyler had been sitting in the back of the SUV with two young Swedish men. One of them had introduced himself as a horse trader; the other explained that he made his money playing poker on the internet. Back at the Hideaway, both had had the bemused, vaguely worried look of peasant extras in a Bergman film, but they soon proved themselves fearless, running to the brink of the two hundred foot cliff which marks the end of 'Eua's highland, and crawling with Sifa over the edge, down into a limestone indent called Rats Cave. Skyler and I declined to join them, explaining disingenuously that we wanted to use all our time to photograph the view of 'Eua's uninhabited, rainforested eastern lowland.
"Fifteen minutes to the fort" Sifa told me, after he and the Swedes had crawled up from their grotto and we'd all climbed back into the SUV. Only a couple of minutes down the increasingly rutted, increasingly muddy track, though, the vehicle sunk to a silent halt. Sifa restarted the engine and worked at his gears; we accelerated downwards, deeper into mud. Along with the Swedes, who seemed to be enjoying themselves, I abandoned my seat and pushed the SUV backwards a few metres, to a piece of cleared ground where Sifa could execute a fifteen or sixteen point turn.
Back at the Hideaway, Taki was disappointed to hear I didn't visit the fort raised by his namesake; he says that he intends to head up that way tomorrow, to do some work on the track, and that he'll show me the site himself.
On our first night at the Hideaway, Skyler and I enjoyed lying awake listening to the surf at the end of the path of crushed coral. The sound of the waves testing the sea wall is somehow at once ferocious and cosy, wild and reassuring. Perhaps it is the metronomic regularity of the surf, or the incontrovertible fact of the fifty foot wide reef, which removes some of the menace from the water's roar. A couple of nights ago, though, we woke up and heard surf on the cabin's roof, as well as on the distant reef wall. After a few seconds we realised we were listening to rain, and that a tsunami was not about to bring the cabin down. I put on some clothes, and wandered out to the communal area near the Hideaway cookhouse. Taki was still up, lighting a cigarette and talking Tongan politics with a Japanese couple. "Just a storm" he said, half-turning in my direction. "Apparently there's a cyclone building out past the Tongan trench somewhere. Phones are down. Radio's down. Internet's down." "The internet's always down" I pointed out. "Well, we only worry about these storms after a couple of days. Want a beer?"
It has now been raining for a couple of days, and both the 'Eua highland to our east and the Tongatapu Channel on the other side of the reef have become vague, conjectural things, obscured by layers of humid mist. The rain is falling so hard that I can't even hear the surf on the reef anymore. When I lean on the rough railing which runs outside our row of cabins I feel like I'm leaning on the bow-rail of a ship: a small ship, which has lost its engine, and has started to drift through thick oceanic fog. The ferries which service 'Eua are tied up at Queen Salote wahrf in Nuku'alofa, and flights into the airport have been cancelled. The Swedes have missed their planes out of Tonga, because they haven't been able to get back across the channel to the big airport at Fua'motu. The phones are still down, so that they can't even book new journeys.
In the communal dining area guests have been trying to keep their morale up, playing games of poker and five hundred for handfuls of shells, drinking bottles of Maka, and arguing in a good-natured, haphazard way. I'm habitually grumpy about Western visitors to the Pacific, but I must admit to being impressed by the clientele Taki has attracted to the Hideaway. Besides the two Swedes and Dan, the economics graduate turned medical student from Springsteen country, we have an Aussie oil rig worker with an interest in Middle East politics; his girlfriend, who has spent most of her holiday reading Boethius' The Consolations of Philosophy; an Aussie student working as an intern at Tonga's Ministry of Land; the Japanese couple Taki was talking to the other night, who are over here for a couple of years teaching Tongan schoolkids how to use abacuses; a Lufthansa pilot and Austrian air hostess who have visited every nation on earth, except Nauru, Afghanistan, and "certain equatorial African states"; and Taki's stepfather, a quiet, decorous man who will, if he is in the right mood, talk about his ancestors in the Fakaongo, the group of dissidents exiled to Fiji in the late 1880s for opposing King Tupou I's plan to split Tonga's hegemonic Wesleyan church from its British parent body.
This afternoon has seen a series of boozy arguments about geopolitics in the dining area. The oilman brought out his copy of the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens and began to talk about the Middle East, being careful to differentiate his views from those of George Bush's favourite ex-Marxist. The Lufthansa pilot fretted about the 'hysteria' that post-9/11 laws and procedures had brought to his industry, but then lowered his stock by criticising Germany's Turkish population for its refusal to 'assimilate'. When discussion turned to China's charm offensive in the Pacific Taki felt obliged to express his distrust of the government in Beijing. "We just don't know them" he said, pulling another beer from the fridge. "They're not like the Kiwis and the Aussies. We don't play sport with them. They're just money."
I abstained from the political discussion after discovering that Dan had a passion for large and difficult modernist and postmodernist novels. We talked about Faulkner, Bolanos, De Lillo, and Pynchon, before he revealed that his "favourite novel of all time" is the late David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a two thousand page vision of twenty-third America which comes complete with two hundred pages of footnotes. "The footnotes are essential" Dan warned me, after I'd promised to read the book. "They explain how tennis becomes our national game, and how Canada conquers the United States." I've heard Wallace condemned as the ultimate postmodernist novelist, and heard the charge that nobody besides PhD students in English Departments had read Infinite Jest. Dan, though, reads for love, not grades. "A friend of mine wanted to go to Pomona Collge, just to study under Wallace" he said, "but Wallace committed suicide before he could get there."
It's not only palangi I've been talking to: I made it out through the rain yesterday to do an interview with one of the oldest and wisest men on 'Eua, a leader of the group of Niuafo'ou who were evacuated from their island in Tonga's far north after a massive eruption in 1946 and who later established themselves here. He and his family invited Skyler and me to a service at the Catholic church in the Niuafo'ou village of Angaha. Papist rituals have always puzzled me, and they were doubly incomprehensible wrapped up in the Tongan language and Niuafo'ou tradition. With the rain still falling, I think that I will have to abandon all attempts to reach Tuutaki, or any of 'Eua's other hill forts.
I am finishing these notes on the boat back to Tongatapu. Because we left before dawn, and yet after the last vestiges of the storm, the sea is calm, and I have been able to forsake a window seat without fear. Yesterday, as the storm began to lose interest in 'Eua, I decided to take a walk down the western coast of the island. I was wandering along the reef, stepping between and around the deep pools, complete with fish as bright and delicate and skittish as butterflies, that survive in coral gashes and craters even at low tide. A few kids from Tufuvei, an indigenous 'Euan village five minutes' bike ride from the Hideaway, were jumping into a channel that cut thirty or forty feet into the reef, bringing the blue-black water of the ocean close to the sand of an empty beach. Half a dozen men stood on a raised rock tablet above the channel, swinging machetes longer than their forearms, as they lopped coconuts off palms that extended at improbable angles from a small cliff at one end of the beach. One of the harvesters chatted with me as he worked, explaining that he'd lived for thirteen years in South Auckland, up the road from my old school. Heads piled up at his feet; one of them rolled into the channel, where a group of giggling boys competed for it. I carried on down the reef, enjoying the thinning drizzle as though it were sunshine. Around a bend in the coast, near a set of coral pillars that resembled fossilised tree stumps, a chunk of beachrock sat in the middle of a rectangular, smooth-sided depression. The sight reminded me of the beachrock quarry I'd seen on Fa'fa, the reef island near Nuku'alofa where Skyler and I stopped briefly during our first visit to Tonga, and which we passed again on the ferry to 'Eua. As I mentioned earlier in these notes, that quarry supplied stone for the monumental tombs - Tongans call them langi - built for Kings and their families at the country's ancient capital of Mu'a. With their tiered layers of rectangular, carefully dressed beachrock, the langi of Mu'a are spectacular enough to remind some visitors to Tonga of the jungle pyramids of the Mayans.
Tongatapu lacks good building materials, so the beachrock which is found on many other Tongan islands was imported by the tomb-builders at Mu'a. Some of the rock may have travelled further: a Tongan story holds that some of the largest stones were harvested in 'Uvea, far to Tongatapu's west. The story claims that the 'Uvean blocks were moved by magic, but the stone wharf at Mu'a, and the moat which enabled small boats to carry stones from a spot near the wharf to burial sites further inland, suggest more conventional methods.
Tongans still take rock from their beaches - it is used on paths, and in seawalls - but quarriers nowadays leave different marks: they hammer at the rock and collect fragments, where their ancestors dug into it with stone tools and prised out whole slabs, leaving deep, smooth basins. Does the photograph I have attached to these notes show an old quarry on 'Eua's southwestern coast? Did some of the famous stones which stand at Mu'a come from this island? I'll be delighted if I have been able to come away from 'Eua with a photo of at least one archaeological site!