15 March 2013

Walking to an Island

Living in the South Pacific, one would expect to have white sand beaches a stone's throw away at all times, and to be a regular feature of the underwater local landscape. However, Tongatapu is a fairly rocky island with high barrier reefs, and the nice local beaches require that you either jump into a car or a boat to go find. That is, all but one...

Restaurant service on the beach, 10 minutes from downtown

Pangaimotu is a lovely, low, sandy atoll right off of the North coast of Tongatapu with a view of downtown Nuku'alofa. The island is privately owned and features a bar and restaurant that caters to yachts, tourists, and locals looking for a beach conveniently close to town. 10-minute T$30 boat trips from the ferry terminal service the island hourly every day of the week, which is arguably the easier method for getting there, but there's another road less traveled.

What makes Pangaimotu unique is that there's another way to reach it: the island is part of a chain of small islands fanning out from the entrance to the lagoon, with the deep water of the harbor on one side, and tidal flats on the other stretching all the way back to the mainland. When the tide is low, it's a short 40 minute walk through sea grass, sand mounts, and edible seaweed with a short wade through knee-deep sand-bottomed water at the beginning and end. One ends up walking up onto the beach just a two-minute walk away from the restaurant. When you're ready to go back to the mainland, just grab the water taxi back to town.

In order to do the walk, check a tide chart and make sure that you're doing the walk while the tide is lower. The walk can be done during the middle tide periods, but it becomes a lot more difficult walking though waist-deep water instead of ankle-deep, so I would recommend to pay attention to the tides.

Almost to Pangaimotu
To get to the starting point, take a five-minute taxi ride out to the eastern end of Vuna Rd. to the fishing village of Pa Tangata. At the end of the road, walk over the rock seawall and wade across the shallow channel from the lagoon. During low tide, the water is about knee level, so very easy to traverse.

Island hopping...or walking
After crossing the channel at Pa Tangata, it's an easy 30-40 minute walk across the tide flats in an arc around to Pangaimotu, the island farthest to the left in the chain. Depending on which day you go, you can see people out on the tide flat collecting seafood and seaweed. I would definitely recommend bringing a camera and sunscreen. I've done the walk in flip-flops/jandals/thongs, but it's easier` in sandals that strap onto your foot like Tevas, Chacos, or Keens, to keep the water from sucking them off your feet. If you're so inclined, the walk can be done barefoot, just watch your step for the last 10 minutes not to step on the dark red and black spiky starfish (they're large and easy to avoid).

Like many places in Tonga, you have to make your own fun on Pangaimotu, but the setting makes it so easy! A soft sand beach wraps around the whole island, with sections easily wide enough to play sports on the beach. Unlike most of the beaches on the main island, the water gets deep enough to to allow boats to approach the island and dock on one side. Further up the beach, shallow water that's calm in almost all weather offers a safe place for swimmers and children to enjoy themselves. Huts on the beach provide shelter for swimmers to take a break or eat fish and chips from the restaurant. There's a pool table and dart board inside, and a table tennis and volleyball court behind the restaurant, offering plenty of activities outside of the water. Just ask at the bar for the balls, darts, or paddles for these games.

The most prominent feature of the Pangaimotu is the prow of a ship sticking up out of the water about  25 meters off shore from the restaurant. I don't know how old it is, but it makes an exciting diving platform over water that is just deep enough to dive into. Two ledges on the side of the boat form higher and lower diving platforms for different comfort levels. It's slippery getting up the first meter, a rope makes the climb easier, and the dry metal is easy to climb higher up. On colder days, the warm metal of the ship is a nice place to warm up from the water, and gives a good view of the restaurant and rest of the island. It's also fun to snorkel around the ship as it hosts a large number of fish, including the occasional small shark (nothing to be afraid of).

If you're looking for a nice beach close to downtown Nuku'alofa where you can get decent food and beer, have a nice swim or snorkel, and just relax, check out Pangaimotu. I wouldn't want to make it a regular part of my weekly schedule, but its definitely a nice treat on the weekends.

On our way back from one of our outings to Pangaimotu, a kid started to throw a temper tantrum because she didn't want to leave the island yet. To a certain extent, I can empathise with her because while it's always nice to get home, it's hard leaving such a nice beach. When you're finally ready to go back to the mainland, the water taxi leaves every hour to half hour in the later afternoon.

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