So I was off to Tonga for at least a year as an Agriculture Advisor volunteer with Australian Volunteers International. It didn’t quite work out that way.
With a lift from Astrid from Mossman down to Cairns on Saturday, and the offer of dinner bed and breakfast from Val for that night, I was ready and raring to go for my Sunday afternoon flight out of Cairns on the 1st March.
Val dropped me and my bike box at the airport after lunch so I had plenty of time to work through the check in, which I hadn’t been able to do online. I was quite worried about the bike, and estimated $150 to $450 excess baggage fee depending on how it was assessed. The lady at the check in counter was very helpful in rearranging my bags so that I had 3 carry on bags weighing in at the maximum of 14 kg, my pack and bike combined weight came to 35 kg, so 12 kg over the limit which cost me $240. I just had 3 carryon bags: my laptop, Bike pannier and a carry sac, to manage through all the detectors.
A ridiculous flight plan took me down to Melbourne then back up to Fiji before south again to Tonga, with a total travel time of 18 hours, but with no overnight stop I was at least able to check my bike and bag right through to Tonga. Check in at Melb decided that my Allen key set in the carryon bike pannier was too dangerous to carry, apparently no tools are permitted, despite only blades and points being identified as such. Then Fiji decided that my toothpaste tube was too big to be allowed through after a thorough grilling as to how healthy I was, including being shot in the forehead with their temperature gun. I am sure they do it just to assert their power. We finally landed in Nukuálofa on time at 11am after very little sleep on the plane. My bike failed to arrive, so an hour after landing and once all passengers and luggage had been passed through quarantine and customs, Dave from AVI stuck his head around the door to see what had happened to me. We filled in a lost property form and left around 12:30. Back to his office, a 45 minute drive, to collect Salote and off to lunch before dropping me at my motel at 3 to recover. I slept for a couple of hours before cooking up some noodles for dinner and collapsing again.
I felt pretty good in the morning, with Salote coming to collect me and start all the small tasks. Drivers licence, meeting my boss Minoru Nishi, house hunting for permanent stay, shopping, checking Air Fiji for the bike (it eventually arrived on Friday, and they called us!). This took all week, deciding on Thursday to move in at Tuna’s Lodge, a km east of town. For T$500, A$350 a month, this had a first floor room with ensuite, access to a shared kitchen down below and one other AVI resident, Mike, also working for Nishi at the farm as a mechanic. He has a Nishi car and will drive me to and fro, or give me the car if needed. I’ll also take it over when he leaves in 3 weeks.
His Honda turns out to be a very Tongan car, abandoned by one of the senior Nishi clan when it started having problems. Using a litre of oil a week, passenger window stuck down, key often jamming in the ignition, front left wheel and suspension feels like its about to drop off. Its ok, but you wouldn’t want to drive it much in Aus. There are no parts available for repairs, or they would cost more than another car to get. So it’ll just grind to a halt one day and be dumped.
I was taken out to lunch by AVI every day in the first week, checking out several restaurants around the town before being cast adrift on Friday after collecting the bike. I did find another set of Allen Keys for $10 TOP so I was able to put the bike back together for a lap of the block and down to Seaview for Friday drinks with a dozen or so other volunteers. I am rarely finding cider on the menu, although I tried the local beer and decided it was undrinkable. Green coconuts became the drink of choice with most meals.
I took the bike out again on Saturday for a 20 km ride, 6km to the eastern tip of the peninsula the capital Nukuálofa sits on, then back along the esplanade to town. Potholed roads don’t worry the bike so much as the cars, so back tracks are a good way to go. The main roads are quite narrow, so watching the traffic coming up behind is absolutely necessary. They are mostly polite and slow, so it is easier than in Aus. I had to be careful to not dodge a pothole into a car, and then it became dodging puddles across the road after some days of heavy rain.
Traffic mostly potters along at 30-40 kph, and in the city slower than that. Peak hour in the morning with traffic coming into town is bumper to bumper at around 25 kph, and it is normal for them to give way to cars cutting in or across at every opportunity. No traffic lights anywhere, but many roundabouts where give way to the right is obeyed scrupulously. The main road in had a couple of kms of red witches hats set out by police every morning and evening to mark out a third lane, so 2 in and 1 out in the morning, swapped in the evening. Once past that when going out to the farm in the morning we can often speed up to a frightening speed of 70kph, but rarely for long before a farm truck or tractor is bumbling along again.
I started work for real on Monday 9th March after some meals with Minoru and chats about what I could be doing. He is very preoccupied with a new factory under construction for grinding dried breadfruit into flour on one side and processing watermelon for frozen juice on the other. I suggested including soursop into that juice production and he became very excited as he knows the flavour of the juice. Both products are slated for export, while he continues to grow pumpkin, onions and potatoes also for local sale and export. Production from his farmland has been very poor, so a major part of my role is to figure out how to get his production figures up sufficiently for the farm to be self-supporting. At the moment it is propped up by his other businesses, a quarry and a retail Agriculture Store. On Monday the builders were pouring a slab for one quarter of the new factory floor while still removing soil and prepping the site for the final quarter. Blockwork had started by Friday and that was all up over head height by Wednesday 18th. Roof trusses will be started this week also.
The Nishi farm manager is called Tevita, who had been a senior mechanic before being promoted this year into his farm supervisor role, including workshop supervision. He’s feeling a bit worried as his experience doesn’t really qualify him for the farming part, so he’s delighted to learn from me. He showed me the chemistry set for soil tests, which can measure all relevant elements, and then worked through many of the tests with me, so he can do it himself. I calculated what needed to be added to achieve a harvest of 50 tonnes per hectare, assuming that to be a reasonable middleish figure. They then told me that last year the yield was 3 tonnes per hectare, so they were a little shocked at what they should be achieving.
So that’s been my job for my week or so, collecting soil samples, testing for pH, N,P and K and other minor nutrients if needed. Then hunting on line for crop needs and comparing that to the actual soil availability before recommending action and amounts of fertilizers to spread. Then explaining all this to Minoru and his staff so it can be enacted when the time comes. Minoru is also right into technology to support the farm actions and finances with a program called AgWorld, allowing all data to be entered on site with reports coming up as info is collated. It is really very like the SES work program, similarly operating on ipads in the field and laptops in the office. I am booked into a webinar next week to learn a bit more about how to run it as I’m running by the seat of my pants at the moment.
Another aspect of this job is to support and advise farmers who grow crops for Nishi to buy and export, to help them improve the quality and quantity of their production and make sure it complies with the set standards. Many of them speak fair English, so as long as I keep my language simple, we can communicate adequately. I only managed to go along to one farmers meeting, which was unenlightening as it was mostly conducted in Tongan. Minoru occasionally made side remarks to me.
Nishi would also like to convert to Organic Growing , or at least sustainable production. Minoru recognises that the heavy use of chemicals is killing his soils but to move away completely is unrealistic at the moment. So I’m weighing up their use of Roundup on a dozen paddocks of 2 Ha each and trying to figure out ways to not use it. Not to mention his use of Triple super and Urea as the main fertilizers. Backyards become trivial by comparison. Green cover crops, especially Mucuna, seem to work well , but you can hardly plant pumpkin or onions into waist high mucuna. We can slash it and maybe disc or rotary hoe it and plant after that, but weed control is still an issue. Several paddocks have coconut trees still surviving and a much richer soil because of them. Mulch and shade really contribute to the organic levels in the soil, so we actually found some earthworms under the coconuts, whereas there were none to be found in the rest of the farm. Use of mycorrhizal fungi will also help with the P levels, but most of the tests I’ve done and on line references I have found tell me that the P levels here are ok.
A typical day gets me up by 6 am for breakfast with Mike to leave with him for work by 7. We arrive at 7:30 as the workers arrive and settle in to their boiled bananas for breakfast. They probably wouldn’t arrive on time without it. Mike is just finishing his year with AVI and is due to fly home in 2 weeks, so he’s buzzing around completing projects. His main drama seems to be the wait for parts and big repairs done in NZ and then the shipping back in containers. We start winding up by 5:30, cooking a good meal for a dog pack of 5 pups and 3 adults who live in the workshop. Only one is a pet, coming up for pats and scratches, the rest are touch shy and duck away if a hand comes close. Even the pups. Their dinner consists of a whole packet of rice, a packet of noodles and a can or two of cheapest mackeral. About 5 litres in volume, spread out on the concrete footpath straight out of the cooking pot. That slows the dogs down as it’s too hot to touch. We head off for home by around 6 and drop in at a restaurant for dinner on the way. Mike has his routines and sticks to them, so each night is a different place. I would probably not eat out as much, but it works for now and after a 12 hour day, I’m too buggered to do much else. I am missing my afternoon naps!
There is a wide range of restaurants around the town, ranging from the street-side BBQ grill specializing in lamb flaps to classy hotel restaurants with white starched serviettes and table service. There are also several ice cream parlours, fish and chip takeaways and western style coffee shops, with good lunch offerings. But none of these are open on Sundays, with our only option for dinner being the fancy hotel. There is a wide range of frozen meats in the supermarkets, all expensive and imported, with a couple of local butcheries selling the local pork and beef. Chicken is the favourite meat, with 5 kg frozen boxes available everywhere. The Tongan word for chicken is Moa, so I have to wonder about how that came about, or if their chickens just shrank over time.
The bad news arrived on Tuesday 17th with DFAT deciding that all volunteers were to be returned to Australia asap. So my 12 months has come down to 2 weeks thanks to the covid19 threat. We will all be supported for 3 months on $3500 a month and may be returned to our projects once the fuss is over. Minoru is beside himself at losing me so soon after getting things rolling. He is signing off on a $10M project for farmers support which may include a paid role for me if I want it. House and car included, although the car is probably a 1.5 tonne truck to be more useful on farm. I just have to wait till covid 19 is over, so there may be a job even if the ausvol falls through.
My plane ticket arrived on Thursday 19th, flying me out on Tuesday 24th at 6 am to Sydney, then Cairns. So now it’s just a matter of coping till then.
Minoru has invited both Mike and I out for dinner on Thursday as a goodbye and thank you.
The volunteers organised a day trip to Fafa Island, an offshore resort for Sunday so Mike and I decided to go along. The rain and wind to start the day looked unpromising and several other volunteers opted out, but the rain stopped as we waited for the boat. Lunch on the island was included, and we walked a 1 km walking track around the conservation area. Some of the rare Shining Red parrots came to check us out as we passed their feeding station.
With the lunch we unfortunately discovered that they had a rather strong cider in stock. The label said 5% but I suspect it was somewhere more like 12%.
The afternoon passed in an alcoholic haze, before the boat out at 4, then a farm staff meeting to sit through. Yawn.
As the covid19 crisis deepened, Tonga decided to block all flights in and out from the 21st, so our planned departure on the 24th didn’t happen, so work just continued, testing soils on the farm and the orchard block. The tests pretty much confirmed a farm wide lack of available soil nitrogen. Even the nitrogen fixing Mucuna when I went to check had no N in the soil and no nodules for fixing on the roots. No inoculant had been applied to the seeds, so the plants were further depleting the available N. Minoru was initially shocked, then delighted at having an explanation.
The flight eventuated as a charter with special government permission to arrive empty on the Wednesday 25th. It was originally planned to go to Sydney via Fiji, but when Fiji banned all flights, we finished up flying direct to Brisbane, with an overnight stay at the Ibis hotel at the airport.
I then had a commercial flight to Cairns on Thursday morning. Both flights were only about ¼ full with no middle seats occupied in the banks of three abreast. Even leaving the plane, everyone maintained the 1.5m separation rule. No crowding the aisles to get out even when the seat belts sign went off. Most people just waited their turn in their seats.
The Ibis hotel restaurant was operating but only with takeaway food, that had to be eaten in your room. So you would order and take your number to a vacant table and sit there until a waiter delivered your box. Pizza for dinner and a box of stuff for the free breakfast; 3 ham and cheese mini croissants, I think, with yoghurt and an orange.
Jeremy and Merran from Cape Trib brought my troopy down to meet me at the airport, then drove home together while I followed, collecting my walking gear from Riflebird on the way. I settled in for my two weeks of isolation in Cabin 4 at Cape Trib Farm, with a few odd jobs to fill in time. At least I can wander a bit on the property.