Jean Jack takes the first steps in what she hopes is sustainable, environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible climbing development in the South Pacific nation of Tonga
Climbing up into an ocean of limestone from under the rainforest’s canopy I snatch glimpses of arcing coastline and the blue Pacific Ocean. With burning forearms I choose quickly from amongst the abundant holds on the scalloped rock. The route, named Tala, is a line I had picked out the previous year during our exploratory trip – it is a sweeping natural weakness, with a steeper finale blazed by a white streak that reminded me of the island’s white-tailed tropicbird, the tala, which often rode the coast winds here. Due to my limited bolting experience, when we had rapped and bolted the line the previous day I had given it little inspection nor had I tested the climbing movement. Now, venturing upwards, I felt exposed and worried about the integrity of holds. Below me my belayer Tony had no such qualms and encouraged me to take on the white headwall. I needn’t have second guessed the rock quality, it’s hammer-ringing hard and has required very little, if any, cleaning – this place is a route developer’s dream. Up the white streak I went.
Rumours about the potential for climbing in the South Pacific nation of Tonga had floated around my circle for years. Those rumours eventually led to a Google search that put us in contact with an American climber named Jason Schneider, who’d lived on Eua (pronounced ‘aye-wah’). He confirmed that the rock on the island was high quality was ripe for development. So, in 2016 my husband Greg and I took a gamble and, with the excuse of an overdue honeymoon, booked flights for a two-week recce.
Four friends who thought we might be onto something decided to join us. All were most welcome, bringing sought after skills to the table. Greg’s enthusiastic best man Nathan Duxfield had professional rope access expertise – and miles of static. Tony Burnell, a seasoned route developer, would ensure bolting queries could be answered, Brett Williams an Australian film maker offered to document our exploits and would be accompanied by a highly useful drone scout, and Alisa Woodruff, a climbing friend from past trips abroad, was keen to explore a new and exotic climbing destination. The group had several pub rendezvous and Skype meetings speculating on rock quality, the best locations and the possible scope, but also as to how climbing in Tonga might be done in an environmentally sustainable manner and provide benefit to local communities. Bolting hardware was another major talking point, our group being well aware of the bolt and anchor corrosion in the tropics. A bit more intel gathering and some fundraising, and the trip took on the air of an expedition.
After arriving in the capital of Tongatapu, the airline Real Tonga flew us to the neighbouring island of Eua in under eight minutes. Once landed, we discovered the street scenes of Eua were not of the glossy brochure type but rather revealed the realities of an isolated South Pacific nation, where rattling cars make their way along potholed roads fringed with wind-battered frangipani and orange trees. The classic coconut palm beaches can be found, however, most of the coastline has a remote feel, where large ocean swells erupt dramatically against the shallow reefs. Nearly 5000 locals inhabit the rustic homes that are typically surrounded by shrub fencing that somewhat defends gardens from roaming pigs. Village, church and family are central to the way of life on Eua and visitors often join their hosts on various outings. Dropping children off at school, picking up fresh vegetables for the night’s meal on the way back from the crag or attending intriguing high school talent quests all became part of a day on the island.
Tonga has a formal hierarchical social structure and it was important we met with the right people to discuss our climbing development proposal. Inquiries to the Eua tourist association, online introductions through mutual friends and now also our host’s recommendations identified appropriate local contacts. During the first few days our meetings took place either over coffee or the garden fence. Given contacts were unfamiliar with sport climbing, initial conversations entailed describing the sport and laid out a request to explore Eua in search of suitable climbing locations. We shared a vision of rock climbing as another tourism drawcard for the island, which already markets itself as the nation’s adventure capital. Eua’s rugged topography offers the most extensive and diverse hiking trails in the kingdom – not to mention opportunities to swim with humpback whales, explore deep caves, dive through submerged caverns or walk amongst wild horses.
The locals could see the vision of a climbing future. When asked what he thought climbing could mean for Eua, Litani Tafua from Ovava Tree Lodge, one of the local resorts, said, ‘I think it would mean a lot to the local community in many ways! We will be expecting more visitors to the Island and more opportunity for young strong youths to seek for jobs in the climbing industry! [It’s a] good way to attract more tourist to the Island!’
We visited promising climbing locations with site custodians and identified sensitive areas to avoid, such as drinking water sources and infrastructure. Permission from the King’s office was required as much of the apparently better rock was located within the royal estate, including the very promising looking Fangatave Beach on the island’s northeastern tip. Thankfully our request to scope and establish some pilot routes across the island, including at Fangatave, was eventually granted.
When we first approached the main wall of Fangatave Beach, I pushed the final clutching branches of tree palms aside feeling like Indiana Jones and realised we had discovered the mineral wealth we were searching for. Sixty metres of featured, clean and slightly-overhung limestone filled my upward gaze. This wall was to become the first to be developed. We dubbed it Whale Wall after a humpback whale performed an almighty bellyflop just offshore. While others had busily set the initial lines I spent several days rapping down various parts of the huge wall scoping the rock, photographing my companions and meeting the numerous seabirds that soar about the cliffs. The steepness of the 60m high wall meant regular threads were needed to keep myself close to the rock.
The Fangatave crag sits slightly up from its namesake beach, its base a user-friendly setting that can be reached after an intriguing approach. When building the track to the crag we ensured access to the beach below so parties could enjoy lunch by the rock pools or cool off with a post-climb swim. The cliff features climbing that is pumpy and fun on well-featured, compact limestone, with the rock offering everything from wildly overhung tufa terrain to more technical vertical climbing. Amongst the best of the first routes are the constantly overhung and are enjoyable jug hauls of Tala (21) and Three Boys (20) while Dreadnaughty (23) ascends an extensive tangle of tufa.
A climber arriving in Eua today will find ten two-pitch routes at Fangatave, ranging from grade 17 to 24 and we expect the rock here will largely yield more easy-to-moderate grade routes. The development of a user-friendly beginner’s wall will be a key next step. This would provide better climbs for beginners who might struggle with the steeper walls and represent an opportunity to introduce interested Tongans to the sport. Typically the locals think rock climbing, kaka maka in Tongan, is a crazy sport, and their eyes widen at the suggestion that they might like to give it a go. However, I sense that many of the island’s youth may find a real passion for the sport, which would suit their somewhat bold and yet playful demeanours.
Cliffs further south on the island will provide much more challenging lines, particularly the dramatic Bowl of Cliffs where numerous walls of clean rock up to 70m await the eager drills of future parties. Extensive further route development is being planned for the coming year, and discussions with locals are ongoing to determine how best this is done. To prevent corrosion in this tropical, coastal environment, all routes must be equipped with titanium glue-in ring bolts. Those already placed were sourced from China’s ‘titanium valley’ and tested to 12 kN with a load cell in New Zealand with no visible effects.
Over the last couple of months we have developed a website to provide up-to-date information on climbing in Tonga, including a route guide and a code of conduct that describes some of the local sensitivities climbers need to be aware of. As part of the access agreement with the King’s office, a registration system is being trialled with climbers required to read and sign a liability waiver as well as pay a one-off fee to access the routes at Fangatave Beach. Funds will go towards land management costs and are a small way of acknowledging the privilege it is to climb upon the ‘Royal rock’ of Eua. And it is indeed royal rock.
For the driest months from June to the end of September expect temperatures between 17-26 degrees. Often a sea breeze makes it possible to climb comfortably in the sun.
Website & News
Visit the Facebook page and website for up to date information and climbing news. Any persons interested in helping with route development can use email email@example.com; Facebook Page: Tropical Rock – Eua Is, Tonga (Hotlink ‘Tropical Rock – Eua Is, Tonga’ to https://www.facebook.com/groups/986159234811952/); Website: www.tonganrock.org
Some general information on Eua and Tonga can be found at the Tongan tourism website here:
We just launched a crowdfunding initiative to raise money for titanium bolts. If you want to contribute to development of Eua go here.
Aussie filmmaker Brett Williams has made a film documenting the early development on Eua, get your psych on by seeing it here.