The best flight in the world is surely over the Tongan archipelagos of Vava’u and Ha’apai, streaking across the bright blue skies with glorious views below.
We’ve been on the road for three months now and taken 15 flights and counting. Ever since we first left continental Australia there’s been some breathtaking aerial views from our windows across the Pacific thousands of feet below.
In general, we have reserved air travel for international journeys, using inter-island ferries instead for domestic trips. However, we were short of time in Tonga and weren’t prepared to spend 24 hours or more travelling between the island groups.
We also had just a few days left of the whale-watching season after which the majestic humpbacks would migrate south to the colder Antarctic waters. Luckily, almost unique to Tonga, air fares between the southern main island of Tongatapu and the northern Vava’u island group are not much more expensive than the ferry crossings.
Our plane was tiny! A twin-engine Jetstream 32 turbo-prop with room for only 19 passengers at most. There were just nine of us aboard when we flew. Kia and I were in seats 1A and 1B: right behind the pilots. And when I say right behind, I mean right behind. There’s no post-9/11 paranoia here – an open cockpit meant we could literally reach out and touch the pilots if we wanted.
No cabin crew either. The co-pilot gave us the briefest of safety briefings, essentially pointing out that if there was an emergency we should help our fellow passengers to exit the aircraft and hope for the best. Being in a small plane actually made me feel a lot safer than on larger, longer flights and cruising at just over 7,000 as opposed to 36,000 feet was more reassuring. Besides, once airborne, we were too awestruck by the views below to concern ourselves with safety.
Tonga is made up of 176 islands and from the air every single one looked like an island paradise: more beautiful and alluring than the last. I won’t launch into a flowery soliloquy to describe the landscape – just watch the video above.
The distance of 300 kilometres is usually covered in little more than an hour when flown directly. Our plane took a short detour to the isolated Ha’apai island group to drop off a couple of passengers en route. During the brief stopover we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs while the pilots supervised the unloading and redistribution of the luggage, making sure the balance of the small plane was maintained. During this time, Kia had the plane completely to herself! An eerie yet enviable experience!
Shortly afterwards we were airborne once more, streaking across the bright blue skies with glorious views stretching out below. When we landed in Vava’u, I caught the pilot’s eye and asked, “Do you ever get used to this?”
He beamed at me like a schoolboy. “Never.”