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There are places that form a pivot point in your life.  Where surprising things happen; where challenges test you and change you; and where you leave your mark on that place as surely as it leaves its mark on you. Nearly 50 years ago Tonga was one of those places for Mani.

So when we were looking at the itinerary of this cruise across the Pacific and around Sth America and back, and saw that Nuku’alofa was first stop, it seemed like fate was nudging him back there.

Forty-eight years after Mani built the hospital for the King –  would anything remain apart from memories?

So we sail in.  There is the Palace – with the large green lawn in front where the King hosted Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Princess Anne to the feast to celebrate Tonga’s graduation from being a British protectorate.

Queen Salote had negotiated Tonga’s change of status before she died in 1965.   Britain gave King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, who succeeded his mother, 10 million pounds sterling, half of which he used to have the hospital built in Nuku’alofa.  Fisher and Paykel got the contract – and Mani got the job.  He, his wife Margaret and young Heidi and Esther had already been there for more than 6 months by the time of the ceremonials. The hospital was 90 percent completed by the time he was sitting on the lawn just over from the Queen – and while Mani was being fed by a young Tongan woman, the Queen had to eat with her own fingers. The penalty of being too tapu, I guess.

By then, the King had become very fond of Mani’s spaghetti bolognaise, which he would eat with a fork while the two of them enjoyed watching the nobles struggle to eat spaghetti the customary fingers way.

So now, we get off the Sea Princess onto a new wharf.  The old one is still there, collapsing into the water.

That’s where the huge steam boiler for the hospital was landed – 48 years before, and three kilometres from the hospital site around the lagoon at Haveluloto. There was no means to transport it.

Mani, Margaret, Esther and Heidi in front of Ha’amonga ‘a Maui

So – ancient engineering techniques came back. Just as for the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui (the burden of Maui)  coconut palms became rollers, and the pushing and pulling began.  Then there were replacement palm trees all along that road.  Now there’s not a one.

There are at least two versions of how the 40 tonne stones of Ha’amonga ‘a Maui  got there. According to legend, the demigod Maui went to ‘Uvea (present day Wallis Island), nearly 1,000 km away, and brought the stones back to Tonga in his canoe.  Mani didn’t have that option with the boiler.

The more likely story is that in the early 1400s, Tu’itatui, the 11th king of the long-lasting Tu’i Tonga dynasty built this giant archway to encourage his two sons to cooperate. The standing stones represent one son each: Lafa is east and Talaihaapepe is west; the horizontal beam on top binds them together. Strength in unity.

The original boiler, sidelined, but still there.

We look for an older local who might know of people Mani remembered. Yes, but they’re dead now.   He chooses a young taxi driver for us, and off we set along that once-familiar road.  Not much is recognisable now.

Then we’re at the hospital. We already knew there was a new one built, with Japanese money this time. Our driver Tala navigates around the back and finds the Engineer’s office.

Chief Engineer Fetele had worked at the hospital from the start of his career, so he’d known the old systems which had been replaced over time – and he immediately says that he and his team had been wondering how some of the original work had been done.

How HAD Mani done the in situ welding under the pipes along the underground ditches when the heat from the welding torches would shatter a mirror you put down to see what you were doing underneath?  “Aha” responds our inventive one “you make a puddle of water underneath to give you a shatter-proof reflection!”


A blind-welded pipe sees daylight again

More original relics



And so the conversation goes for quite some time until Fetele has to go to a meeting, declaring that he feels re-energised and inspired by what he’d learned.

Back into the taxi, and around the road to where the young Zust family had lived.  The huge mango tree is still there, even larger, but the house gates are shut and no-one is around, so no joy there.

Perhaps over the road where the family lived from whom Mani would borrow the horse and two-wheel cart for family outings? Those Sunday drives had been the cause of some notoriety. Tongans are strict about Sundays.   But the Zust family was special, working for the King, so they were waved by.   There used to be two girls living there who would play with Esther and Heidi and go out on the picnics. Could one of them perhaps have taken over the house?

There are three generations in residence there, and much excited and fragmented attempts at conversation with Tala the taxi-driver translating. He is fully engaged in the mission by now. But no – probably the older woman there was not one of the girls, because she had no recollection about a family of palangi living over the road, and if she’d been the playmate of a couple of young New Zealand girls, that would surely be unforgettable.

No worries. Smiles and hugs and photos all round, and a little more exploring of the neighbourhood. The concrete block plant that made the blocks for the hospital is still there, but the Copra Board plant behind the house was gone – there is no longer a copra industry.  It used to be that a family could make enough Pa’anga from collecting coconuts to pay the school fees.  Now it seems the money comes from the family members working in NZ. Tonga’s main industry is the export of its labour.

New buildings line the streets, replacing those destroyed in the riots in 2006. The anger over the Chinese businesses and contractors continues – the rebuild is largely being done with imported Chinese labour instead of training the locals. The income and profit goes straight out of the country again.  One wonders … but a fleeting visit and a few conversations doesn’t really entitle one to an opinion.

Back then, the old King had been adamant that the hospital would be built with Tongan labour.  That created a few challenges for a young Swiss German engineer from a very different working culture – but an occasional rallying speech from the top of the boiler platform reminding them that they were building the place for their families, would work miracles.

Back into town through familiar yet unfamiliar roads, a very sweaty wander round the market, and back to the wharf again.  Mani and Margaret had left from there with some other notables for a private evening’s entertainment, conversation and dancing on the yacht Britannia during those celebrations 48 years before.  That was the night Mani danced with the Queen of England, and Margaret with Prince Phillip. His soft spot for her continues. “A very knowledgeable and intelligent woman – and a great sense of humour”. We wonder again if it is too late to take up the invitation of afternoon tea at the Palace. Probably, (sigh).

And so it goes.  Mani’s curiosity is satisfied.  Some bits of the original work remain:  in a way it’s nice that there hasn’t been a great demolition and tidy-up.  The current generation of engineers have learned a little about the history of the work they continue.  And there’s that sense of completion about having been part of something that really mattered at the time.

Farewell, again, from Tonga.