Driving into Tonga Village under the cloak of darkness was like entering an enchanted secret garden. It was barely 6pm, but already the sun had set and the stars were bright in the black velvet sky. After 2 hours drive north of Thanda Private Game Reserve in far north South Africa, we turned off the main road onto a narrow dusty track hidden in the thick scrub. Bumping along this winding road it was impossible to imagine what lay beyond the darkness – so you can imagine our surprise when we finally pulled up to find a woman with a big smile and a head torch beckoning us toward a path lit by candles and lanterns.
Welcome to Tonga Village, a small cluster of traditional rondles (thatched round houses made from mud brick and grass) nestled in amongst amarulla trees, banana palms and aloe cactus. Overlooking an idyllic lake, this tiny village is a world of its own. With no electricity or running hot water, it’s like stepping back in time where delicious meals are enjoyed with friends beside a crackling fire and lazy days pass slowly in the sunshine with a good book in hand.
This is a place full of peace and tranquility. The sort of place where hot showers are heated by an outside oven and soul food is cooked on an open fire (including fresh bread baked twice daily!). Wander down to the lake and you’ll find women singing as they chase fish into nets in what is an age-old Tongan tradition. Paddle a canoe out through the reeds and you might just find a cheeky hippo munching on juicy lettuce leaves in one of the lakeside veggie patches. Or take a walk down a dirt track and join the local kids in a game of pool – an unlikely pass time in this bushland wilderness.
It’s not hard to see why the Tongans are a peace loving people. They live a simple and happy life centered around a matriarchal family and the land they share with Mother Nature. In fact, in all of South Africa’s tumultuous and colourful history, the Tongans have never fought a war – which is surprising considering that their kingdom stretches all the way from the Mozambique border to the seaside village of St Lucia in Kwa-Zulu Natal. However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. For years the Tongans lived with heartache and unrest. This was brought on when their families were torn apart by the creation of a new international border between South Africa and Mozambique. This new border was established following a land rights discrepancy between the Portuguese and the English. Due to a treaty declaring that these two nations should never go to war, they sought out the French to mediate on the issue. And so a new international border was drawn and the fate of many a Tongan family was decided on.
Our Tongan village began with land and animal conservationist Digs Pascoe, CEO of Space for Elephants Foundation. Ever since he was a young man, Digs would paddle his canoe down through the lake system when it flooded each year, coming to rest on a bank populated by a small Tongan community. After becoming friends with the local tribes-people and proving to them that he respected their land and culture, they offered him a piece of land to build his own hut on. Years on, Digs has worked with the local community to build the village into the place it is today – a special and unique slice of life away from the modern day hustle and bustle of city life.
One evening, after enjoying yet another scrumptious meal and sitting beside the fire laughing with good friends, I looked up at the stars and wondered why life can’t always be this simple. What more does one need other than peace, love and happiness? Yes, I think I must be a Tongan through and through.