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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

Reservoir of dogs

Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.

Chaos reigns in the Talamahu market

Flying into Tongatapu was like dropping into a cauldron of meteorological mayhem. The plane bucked and skidded on the wind gusts, and the airstrip, from 800 meters up, looked more like a storm drain than a viable landing zone. On this, the largest and most populated of Tonga’s 170 islands, sinister forces were brewing.

“It’s the last month of the cyclone season—the most dangerous month,” said the bicycle rental man later that morning, as he counted out my wad of tatty two pa’anga notes and handed me the keys to his last mountain bike.

The Kingdom of Tonga, a mere sprinkle of islands, islets and atolls, lies smack in the middle of the South Pacific’s notorious cyclone belt. Its track record for withstanding “acts of God” is a tale of woe and misfortune. Cyclone Kina devastated the nation’s four major island groups a decade ago, carving swaths through vanilla and copra plantations, turning roads to rivers and crushing reefs and houses with Herculean force.

Now, on particularly dirty days, villagers tote industrial-strength umbrellas and wear sombrero-like hats woven from coconut palms to lessen the risk of being flattened by a torrential downpour.


Market place
In Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s sleepy commercial hub, getting my hands on a sturdy touring bike was a relatively straightforward and cheap undertaking. Freewheeling on the island’s lonely highways in March, however, is not an activity encouraged by the tourist office. “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice half-day island tour in our air-conditioned mini-bus?” a concerned hostess asked from behind her information booth.

Cycling thorough Tonga’s roads allows tourists to take in the local sites

Her concern was justified; Tongatapu’s roads, I discovered, are fraught with the perils of paradise. Not just cyclone-strength headwinds and cloud bursts, but falling coconuts, stray pigs, packs of bad-tempered dogs, and maverick mini-bus drivers can also prove life-threatening to cyclists.

I set out at sunrise, passing Nuku’alofa’s hectic Talamahu market with its shoppers caught up in a feverish buying and selling spree of the nation’s only stable currency: root potatoes. Huge ladies presided over vast piles of green bananas, kumara (sweet potato), taro leaves and bulging baskets of braised chestnuts, while across the street village elders surveyed the chaos from the shade of a huge banyan tree.

I headed onto the Vaha’akolo highway and across the island towards the village of Houma, home of the Mapu’a Vaca blowholes, or “chief’s whistles,” which curl along its craggy, palm-fringed coastline. On stormy days, as ocean swells roll in and buffet the coral ledges, the terrific crashing sounds and shuddering of earth underfoot can be felt and heard long before arrival. The big photo opportunity comes as jets of spray, some up to 50m high, are forced up through crevices in the coral and into the air.

And up ahead I saw that, beyond Houma and its blowholes, a storm was brewing.


Wild in the streets
Deviating onto Liku Road, I rode north towards Ha’atafu Beach and the site of the first landing by English missionaries, in 1797. The highway became more buttock-busting with every potholed mile. Save for the brightly painted billboards that welcome and farewell travelers, it was impossible to tell exactly where each village began and ended.

My first encounter with Tonga’s dogs was at Vaotu’u, a tiny village 11km north of Houma, where a pack of toothy mongrels pursued me all the way to its dusty outskirts. From then on, and to the amusement of locals, I rode at top speed through villages with my legs hoisted high above the handlebars.

Tonga’s 20,000-odd dogs are an increasing problem for travelers, though one not considered serious enough by local authorities to warrant a pest control program.

One tourist—a Californian surfer—who was attacked in Nuku’alofa one night, displayed five neat teeth marks across his lower leg. Another English woman showed off the scars from an attack that put her in hospital for seven days. “After dark, Tonga’s streets belong to the dogs,” she warned.

Often told is the story of an elderly Danish tourist who, keen to check out the Nuku’alofa nightlife, spent the night barefoot, fending his way from nightclub to nightclub with his loafers loaded with an arsenal of coral rocks.

By late afternoon, the storm I had seen from the blowholes finally burst across the island, soaking the coconut and taro plantations and sending villagers scuttling for the shelter of mango trees and shop fronts. The spectacle of a sodden, mud-splattered palangi (foreigner) pedaling the pock-marked backroads was a sight not wholly understood by a population used to keeping the big wet at bay.

Cycling across Tongatapu, as the tourist office will kindly point out, is a dirty business. But despite the odd bump and bruise and unruly pack of local hounds, it sure beats taking the bus.


Getting there
Tonga is roughly two and a half hours by plane north-east of New Zealand and one and a half hours south-east of Fiji. Air Pacific flies from Narita to Tonga via Fiji weekly, see for flight info and bookings.

Where to stay
Winnie’s Guest House (tel/fax: 676 + 25215) has beds for T$30 including breakfast. Centrally located in Nuku'alofa and with bicycles to rent.

Visit in May to October for warm and dry days and cool nights. November to April tends to be hot and humid.

Rental bicycles are available on Tongatapu and the other major islands for around T$10-15 per day. The Friendly Islands Kayak Company (tel: 70173), on the neighboring island of Vava’u, also runs mountain bike tours. Watch out for dogs, cows and pigs—the usual cycling obstacles in Tonga.

Photo credit: Simon Rowe