05 September 2012

Running through the ancient capital of Tonga

When I was in high school, it was some perverse joy of US gym teachers to round up the class full of awkward, sweaty teenagers, spend months teaching them how to throw a ball into a hoop or how to hold a hockey stick, and then with no endurance training, let them loose on a track and tell them they will be timed as they stumble their way through a mile. I could barely do it; even two years ago, I could barely run five miles (8 km).

And so it’s a wonderful thing that here in Tonga - where you walk a block to a meeting and when you arrive, you’re greeted with exclamations of “you walked all the way?” - I am proud to say I ran a half-marathon, through the ancient capital of Tonga.

We arrived just after eight at the Ha’amonga, a huge and mysterious trilithon near Niutoua on the East end of the island, to a group of brightly-clad, stretching marathoners. The half-marathon was named the “Officially Unofficial East End Ha’amonga Half Marathon,” and was dreamed up, organized, and run by several friends of ours wanting a challenge. Mark and I trained for about two months beforehand – well, I should say Mark jogged easily alongside me while I trained – but I’d come down with a nasty flu two weeks ago and was still just recovering. But, since this was the first time I felt I could actually run a half-marathon without dying, I had to give it my best; finishing was my goal.

Asa led the pack of runners on his bike so he could time everyone's finish
The route took us in an inverted “u” up and around the east end of the island, and as we jogged along, it struck me how beautiful and old this section of Tongatapu is. We jogged along the coastal road in Navutoka, where, like few other places in Tonga, the town is right on the water, and all the houses, church and primary school face the water across the road. We greeted a group of young men hauling a boat up out of the water, waved to giggling pairs of kids screaming “BYE!!!!!,” and exchanged smiles with grandmothers walking along the way.

Coming up to the water station halfway through
As we jogged around the inner side of our running “u,” we passed through Lapaha, the ancient capital of Tonga. It’s widely believed that Lapaha was an ancient centre of the Lapita peoples 2,000 years ago, and was, fairly recently in 1300 AD, the capital of the Tu’i Tonga dynasty. When the current line of kings starting with King George Tupou I came to power, the capital was shifted to where it is now today, in Nuku’alofa. Part of the modern heritage of that 600-year old reign is the langi, or ancient royal toumbs. There are about 28 of these pyramidal structures placed all around the area; huge hills of stepped earth, held in by smooth slabs of coral rock on each level. To this day, they are very significant – no fences or walls are needed to protect them because of the reverence in which they are still held. Just in the last twenty years, there have been several noble burials in the tombs.

One of the ancient tombs
By the last third of the run my legs were just about ready to fall off, but we jogged in faithfully to the end of the marathon at ‘Anahulu Cave. As far as I know, there is no known history of the cave, but I’m sure there are stories that someone knows. The cave is one of my favourite spots in Tongatapu, not least because you can swim in a freshwater lake inside the cave. The cave's water system is an extension of the entire island's freshwater supply and link to other caves throughout the island. I hobbled in with Asa, after a group had asked the boys from Haveluliku who “run” the cave to turn on the generator for the cave lights. We ducked in to the darkness and waited as our eyes adjusted to the dim bulbs. ‘Anahulu cave isn’t terribly extensive, but it is big – the high ceilings and thick joined stalactite pillars make you feel like you’re in a hall. At the end of the path, we reached the freshwater pool, and I gratefully jumped into the cool, black water, hoping the beast from the Mines of Moria wasn’t waiting for me at the bottom. It’s incredibly refreshing and very surreal.
We all collapsed and ate lunch at the end of the race

It was a great experience – and several firsts! A first for me to do any kind of distance running event, and a first for Asa, who biked the whole way, after not knowing how to ride a bike before he arrived. Mark very patiently and encouragingly ran alongside me the whole 21km (13m), even as we came in last!

Everyone dipped their feet in the ocean next to 'Anahulu Cave at the finish

1 comment:

  1. You have MY admiration. I trained but never could go much beyond 2 miles at a jog.



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