Tavi – the Kingdom of Tonga's legendary Ascetic
Tom (Tomasi) Riddle
© Thomas A Riddle, 2010
was late 1974 and I was a fresh-out-of-university Peace Corps Volunteer
who had been sent to the Kingdom of Tonga to teach English and science when I first
started hearing stories about a Scandinavian intellectual living in
Tonga who was, depending on who was talking, a yogi, Thor Hyerdal, Robinson
Curosoe, or Tarzan. His name was Tavi, “the builder” from
an ancient Tongan myth.
In those first days in Tonga I learned that Tavi was a Dane who had
been given a Tongan passport, that he had lived in Tonga for more than
twenty years, that he was about fifty years old, and that he lived alone
on a remote part of the distant island of Tafahi. The director of the
Peace Corps told me that Tavi had been adopted into the Tongan Royal
family and that he frequently consulted with the Queen. But there were
more than just facts connected with this man—he was a legend.
Almost everyone I met knew him or at least knew of him.
A Tongan man who had sailed to New Zealand with Tavi told me how the
boat that he and Tavi were traveling on had become lost at sea. In desperation
the captain asked Tavi for help. Tavi lay down on the deck and closed
his eyes—when Tavi stood up he pointed the way and they found
Another man told me that Tavi was an ascetic of Biblical quality, a
virtual John the Baptist. Tavi, he said, slept naked on a rock and ate
only papaya (papaw in Australia). A neighbor told me that the three
smartest men in Tonga were the King of Tonga, who was the first Tongan
to receive a university degree, Futa Helu, the founder of the only university
in Tonga, and Tavi.
His myth seemed to follow me. When I lived in the village of Ha'ate'iho,
on the main island of Tongatapu, I went to the church that Tavi had built;
on my way from the village into the city of Nuku'alofa I rode past the Princess’s
palace that Tavi had helped construct. When I moved to the island of
‘Eua, I discovered that I was living next to the sawmill that
Tavi had engineered.
I made enquiries about how to meet him, but I was told that he had no
schedule—he drifted around Tonga and the South Pacific as he pleased.
I was sure that being a lowly Peace Corps worker my chances of meeting
Tonga's virtually deified eccentric beach hermit were remote indeed.
Then in November of 1975 the Peace Corps decided to transfer me to one
of the most remote islands in Tonga, Niuatoputapu, the island that neighbored
Tavi’s home on Tafahi. No one from the Peace Corps had been to
Niuatoputapu for longer than anyone could remember so the director of
the Peace Corps suggested that I meet Tavi to learn more about Niuatoputapu.
That sounded like a good idea.
In those days going to Niuatoputapu was about like walking unassisted
up Mount Everest in that once people learned that you were serious about
going there they treated you differently. The Peace Corps doctor gave
me an extra pair of glasses, others volunteered to help me procure provisions.
I was going to be, I was told, one of the most remote Peace Corps Volunteers
in the world. I was going to a place where there was no airport or electricity
and where, at best, the boat came once a month. Because of all this
a friend of a friend arranged for me to meet Tavi at a mutual friend's
house for dinner.
When I arrived everyone had already drank a few bottles of beer, everyone,
except for Tavi who was sitting on a couch calmly sewing a very thin
shirt. He stood up when I walked in and we shook hands. These weren't
the hands of a beachcomber. They were delicate, well cared for hands
with a yellow tint that I later learned was caused by an excess of vitamin
A from all the papaya he ate. His eyes were sky blue and could easily
become piercing as if he felt that by looking at you intently enough
he could understand you better. He was of medium height, had long graying
hair and a full beard, both of which, I would later learn hadn't been
cut for years. His features were Scandinavian and one might even say
that he was handsome. His was a gentle, even a wise face. He was thin,
bordering on emaciation, but he held himself erect and had the smile
of a young man. He wore only an old, well-mended lava-lava around his
I immediately felt comfortable. With an air of non-attached humility
he went back to his sewing. Presently though he finished sewing his
shirt, put it on and said, “This shirt hasn't long to go. The seams
are beginning to fall apart evenly throughout, but I've had it for a
good many years and its only function now is to keep the sun off me
around town.” It is illegal to be outside without a shirt on everywhere in
Tonga except where Tavi lived, the Niuas.
I told him that I was going up to Niuatoputapu. He informed me that
life was good up there and then began telling his standard stories about
his life in Tonga. He told of years alone on the island of Hunga Tonga
and how he wound up in Tafahi. “The old Havea,” Havea being
the late noble of Ha'ate'iho whose church Tavi had built, “set
me up in Hunga and would send a boat up there to bring me down here
when somebody wanted me. But when Havea died I lost my transportation
and had to find a new place to live. I chose Tafahi because I knew it
had excellent soil, a good climate, and because I could get there simply
by riding the copra boats to Niuatoputapu and then taking a local boat
Through the rest of the evening Tavi told more of his stock stories that
were interesting, but I was anxious about life on remote Niua and wanted
to know more about it. Tavi told me to relax and went on with his stories.
I left feeling that perhaps he had spent too much time alone on his
'asi mai 'a e motu.
'The island has appeared.' Niuatoputapu,
and Tafahi, looked almost like one island when I first saw
them in 1976. Tafahi is about five miles from Niuatoputapu.
house on Niuatoputapu.
the beach in Niuatoputapu.
in Niuatoputapu in 1976.
in Niuatoputapu and found, after I had learned to relax, that life there
was as good as Tavi had described. It is a beautiful island with long
white unlittered beaches and well-kept villages. I was somewhat of
a novelty and treated so well that I gained fifteen pounds (seven kilograms)
in one school year.
Tavi's myth was very much alive on Niuatoputapu. He had blasted an opening
in the island’s reef so that the bigger boats could use the wharf
and he had helped build the Catholic school in Hihifo. In spite of this
one of the chiefs told me that Tavi was not following God's wishes.
“God gave him intelligence,” he told me, “but he doesn't
use it. Instead he lives like an uncivilized man on that beach.”
some people what Tavi did on his beach. “He is writing a book.” “He prays.” “He is thinking.” To the people of Niuatoputapu,
Tavi was the subject of endless curiosity to the point that his beach
had become a tourist attraction for Niuatoputapu people visiting Tafahi.
“Tomasi,” one man said, “I was on
Tafahi and walked around to where Tavi lives. He lives like an animal.”
I too was
curious. Tafahi is a volcanic ash cone that shoots straight out of the
ocean to a summit of 550 meters (1800 feet) and looms down on flat Niuatoputapu
which is 8 kilometers (five miles) away. Often I would stare at Tafahi,
watching the clouds move around the summit of the island, and wonder
what Tavi was doing, but by the time November came and the school year
was almost over, I still had not heard anything from him. Then one day
he appeared unannounced at my school with his bedroll and basket. I put him and
his things in my one-room Tongan fale (coconut-leaf house) and went
back to teaching.
“Did you get my message?” he asked when I had finished teaching.”
Tavi explained that he had sent a message over asking if he could stay
with me while waiting for the boat to take him down to Tongatapu. I
had never received the message. “They told me that they had talked
to you and that everything was all right,” he told me.
I told him that indeed everything was all right—he was welcome
to stay with me as long as he wanted. He went on, “This is the
thing about life in Tonga: you can't really be sure of anything. You
just have to do the best you can, forget about it, and hope that everything
works out okay.”
He was the perfect house guest. I would go to school in the morning,
leaving him sitting on the nail crate that I used for a chair. When I came
home in the afternoon I would find him in the same position on the nail
crate still reading his book. I asked him how he could concentrate for
so long. “I've been reading a book on alternative energy sources,” he said. “It is quite interesting and if something really interests
you there is never a problem of concentrating on it, is there?”
“You see,” he went on, “if you live simply you can do
what interests you and that is the important thing, hum?”
We became friends. We were both vegetarians, preferred the simple life,
and enjoyed our bachelorhood. Additionally we both liked the Chinese
philosopher Chuang-tzu and the Indian thinker Krishnamurti.
Tavi told me how he had come to Tonga. He had grown up in Nazi-occupied
Denmark during World War II. By the time he graduated from university
in Denmark with a degree in civil engineering he had reached two conclusions
that, he informed me, had not since changed: Denmark was too cold and
Western civilization was sinking. Tavi reasoned that life was so bad
in the West that he would be better off dead. To that end, he had resolved to commit suicide if he
did not find a situation to his liking before his thirtieth birthday.
What to do? He decided that he might find a place where life was worth
living in the South Pacific and very possibly in the Kingdom of Tonga.
He read that Tonga had land laws that would prevent Western domination
and a sovereign that could be talked to rather than the impersonality
of a democracy. The only thing left to do was to get there.
Step one was going to the United States and getting a job as a civil
engineer in San Francisco where he helped build one of the city’s
famous tunnels. In the U.S. he saved enough money to buy a small sailboat.
Once he had the boat, he and another man sailed it through Polynesia
to Tahiti. From Tahiti, Tavi continued on alone to Tonga, and this was
before the invention of automatic steering. He docked in Tonga in 1951.
In those days, before yachts turned the oceans into a huge trailer park,
it was a big event for a little boat to sail to Tonga so a few days
after he arrived he met the late Queen Salote and the future King Tafa'ahau,
who at that time was known as Tungi. Soon Tavi found a job with the
Ministry of Works, met the noble Havea, and then, just before Tavi turned
30, he retired to the uninhabited island of Hunga Tonga, a place that
was suitable to his nature. He decided against suicide.
In 2006, Tavi's Danish biographer, Leif Møller gave me this picture of Tavi. This must be Tavi's hut on Hunga.
His tools in Hunga consisted of a spoon that he used to eat wild papaya
and a stainless steel bush knife that he used to hack open sprouted
coconuts. He had a small garden, but most of his food came from foraging.
Tavi stayed with me in my hut on Niuatoputapu for five days. Besides the stories, he gave me some
pointers on Tongan cooking—how to find the sweetest breadfruit, how
to get the correct ratio of proteins to carbohydrates, and what foods
to combine to create a complete protein. Then, all too soon, the copra
boat sailed for Tongatapu with Tavi on it. He could travel for free
in Tonga and throughout the South Pacific in payment for work he had
done for the head of the shipping line.
year ended in Niuatoputapu and I followed Tavi to Tongatapu on the next
boat. By this time I had grown comfortable enough in Tonga to want to
extend my two-year contract with the Peace Corps for a third year. In
1977 I taught school in the capital city of Nuku'alofa and at least
initially saw very little of Tavi. He spent only a few weeks in Nuku'alofa
and then I heard he had gone to the
University of Auckland in New Zealand to visit two anthropologists he had met in Niuatoputapu, Garth Rogers and Wendy Pond. Nevertheless he was back in Tonga by March—the
time when New Zealand and even the southern islands of Tonga were getting
too cold for him. He headed straight from Nuku'alofa for the warmer climate of Tafahi.
boat shelters on the beach in Tafahi. With a population of
just 200 people most families on Tafahi owned a boat.
In August of that year I had a chance to return to Niuatoputapu and
Tafahi to record some of the oral history
of those islands for a university in Tonga. Two days after my arrival
in Niua I found myself on Tafahi living with Tavi's friend Paulo Faka'osi,
who, at twenty-five, was a year younger than I was. Paulo had become
friends with Tavi when Paulo was sixteen and Tavi had just come to Tafahi.
The Queen of Tonga, Mata’aho, had asked Tavi for a favor—would
he send her some of the creeper called fue that grew on the
cliffs of Tafahi. Tavi asked the young men of the island for help. Was
there, he asked, anyone willing to scramble down the cliff side and
collect the fue. Only one person volunteered, Paulo. After that they had became
good friends and for a while they had lived together on Tavi's beach.
After that Tavi helped Paulo find work overseas. Returning to Tonga,
Paulo married ‘Eleni and became a father, all before his 20th birthday.
Now, even with his family to take care of, Paulo was happy to bring
Tavi food on Wednesdays and to feed him food cooked in an earth oven
on Sundays. Their arrangement had worked out well: Tavi had helped Paulo
build his concrete block house and Tavi had helped Tafahi build the
I was tremendously excited, when, on my first Wednesday in Tafahi, Paulo
asked me to help him carry Tavi's food to him. We walked up to Paulo's
garden, dug enough of the staple Tongan root crop, taro, to fill a coconut
leaf basket, picked some taro leaves, and filled another basket with
papaya. From there we hiked to the other side of the island to where
Tavi lived. I felt as if I were going to visit Thoreau at Walden Pond
as we walked on the path toward the lookout point of Vakameiniua and
then climbed down to Tamatama, the beach where Tavi lived.
Suddenly we burst through the dense undergrowth onto the beach and there
was Tavi under the coconut trees perched stark naked on a rock husking
a coconut. He was happy but not surprised to see us. “The first
thing I want to do,” he began addressing me, “is to thank
you for sending me the newspaper articles about the earthquake in Tongatapu
earlier this year. I found them very reassuring.”
I had sent him news of the earthquake and a picture of the church he
had built in Ha'ate'iho.
Although it looked ramshackle Tavi assured me that his hut
on the beach in Tafahi was sturdily built and did not leak.
He explained that it was thief-proof: after years of having
nothing stolen he had proven that there was nothing there
that a thief would want to steal.
and ‘Eleni in their Sunday best in front of their house in
Tafahi. Tavi was also in his “Sunday best.”
tower had fallen
down. Tavi went on, “I knew that something like that might happen
so I built it so that the bell would fall away from the church, which
We talked for a few minutes more and then Tavi buried the taro in the
sand to preserve it and placed the papaya on an elevated board so that
the rats would not get to it. I looked around. Tavi did not sleep on
a rock, but his hut consisted of just a lean-too roof over the crotch
of two rocks. There wasn't enough room inside to stand up, but there
was a narrow bed made from sticks and a board that could be placed across
the width of the house to give Tavi a place to sit down . In essence
then, his hut was a pup tent made out of coconut leaves placed between
two rocks. Between the house and the beach was a neat line of coconut
trees that Tavi had planted. Just downwind from the house was an open
fireplace and a patch of sand that I later learned was his unenclosed
On that day Paulo and I were walking around the island so we did not
stay for lunch. We told Tavi that we would see him again on Sunday in
the village. Indeed, every Sunday Tavi went to the village to have a
woman wash his hair in water from a rain catchment tank, to eat lunch,
and well, even though he would never admit it, to see other human beings.
He felt that if he left his beach early in the morning and returned
in the late afternoon the journey was not too hot. He usually had his
noon meal on Sunday with Paulo's father.
On Sunday afternoon I met Tavi at Paulo's house; we talked about my work and gossiped about
Tafahi life. I discovered
that even though
Tavi professed to have no interest in the village and claimed that he
only went to the hot dusty village because he had to wash his hair,
he knew by name most of the people in the village had a story or two
about many of them.
The Tafahi people had a few things to say about Tavi as well. Paulo
considered Tavi to be his second father. Vaka, the chief of Tafahi,
told me that Tavi honored the island by staying there. One woman was
trying to organize a movement to make Tavi stop going naked on his beach;
she feared that the innocent young maidens of the village would not
maintain their purity of thought if they saw Tavi in the raw. The fact
of the matter was that Tavi rarely ventured forth from his coconut grove
to the hot sunny beach, which itself was quite remote. Most of the people
of Tafahi, however, viewed Tavi with typical Tongan curiosity and tolerance;
they couldn't understand the man but they were willing to let him live
as he pleased.
By my second Sunday in Tafahi I had finished most of my recording work.
I hinted to Tavi that I would like to stay with him on his beach for
a few days. He silently mulled that over for a minute before telling
me that his house was too small for company but that I was welcome to
sleep in the cave behind his house. I told him that I'd sleep under
the coconut trees and we agreed that I'd come with Paulo the following
On Wednesday it took Paulo less than an hour to build me a small coconut
leaf shelter on the beach. He went home before noon.
I helped Tavi string up a piece of wire that would thereafter function
as his radio’s antenna. After that we both read our books, and
promptly went to sleep when it got dark, about seven in the evening.
(Tavi couldn't be bothered to have a lantern.)
By seven fifteen the next morning, just after listening to the morning
news from Samoa on his radio which, thanks to me, now worked much better,
Tavi was up and out of his house and, as always, naked. “How did
you sleep,” he asked.
“Okay,” I said, “And you?”
“Last night,” he began as if I had just asked him a very serious
question, “I was able to hear the eight o'clock news very clearly.
It brought a little excitement into the night. I fell asleep shortly
thereafter and woke up only once to put on another layer of tapa cloth.
On the whole it was a very pleasant sleep.”
It was time for breakfast. We began by husking two coconuts—a green
one whose milk we would drink and a mature brown coconut whose meat
we would shortly eat. The coconut husks were put to use as well. I was
instructed to put the moist soft green husk near the open latrine where
it would later be put to good use. The husk of the mature coconut was
set aside to provide kindling to heat up lunch. We then each picked a papaya
off the rat-proof board, and, with me carrying the husked mature coconut,
walked out to the beach, which he said was always clean and pleasant
in the early morning. Breakfast then consisted of half of the ripe coconut,
a papaya and, back at Tavi's house, half the juice of the green coconut
with three heaping teaspoons of skim milk powder added. “It's a
hardy breakfast,” Tavi concluded. “It keeps me going quite
nicely until noon.”
After breakfast he brought out his tapa cloth, sleeping mat, and bed
sheet, to air them out. A bit later he rolled them back up saying, “Jesus
told the sick man to roll up his bed and go home and that's what I do
every morning. You know, there are a lot of pleasures in life, and a
lot of pleasures that can easily slip away from you, but one of most
pleasant things in life that almost no one can take away from you is
the pleasure of a good night's sleep. I have found that if I sleep well
at night the tensions of the day don't seem to build up so much.”
This led him into a story about his old friend Havea, the Tongan chief
on the main island of Tongatapu. Tavi explained that Havea was one of
the few men able to combine the best of Tongan and Western cultures.
“He was a good man,” Tavi concluded, “and he tried hard
to do what was best for Tonga. But what killed Havea was this: he got
frustrated and those frustrations kept building up inside him until
they killed him.”
“That's what is happening to many people throughout the world,”
“Well you see, I wouldn't know about that,” Tavi said, “as
so many of my life experiences have been here in Tonga.”
Putting his bed in his house, he asked me to tell him when it was 11:30.
At 11:30 we made lunch. I grated what was left of breakfast's ripe coconut
while Tavi peeled the taro and prepared the taro leaves. Everything
was then put into a pot, into which was poured what was left of breakfast's
green coconut. The pot was then placed over a fire of small sticks and
mature coconut husk. Tavi tilted the pot so that nothing would spill
out of the small hole in one side. Besides the hole, the pot was in
badly dented. On the whole it looked like something that Captain Cook
might have discarded in the early 18th century. I finally remarked to
Tavi on the sad condition of the pot.
“Oh no,” he said, “it is the prefect pot. Don't you see?
If it was any better someone would steal it.”
He was right.
When the food was cooked we took it out to the beach, sat in the shade
of a large black rock, and ate lunch.
The grated coconut and the coconut milk sweetened the taro and the leaves.
I told him how good it tasted. “Oh yes,” Tavi said, “I
have had this almost everyday now for twenty-four years and I never
get tired of it.”
I asked him what he was doing in his hut and learned that he was reviewing
his notes from an anthropology course he had taken at the University
of Auckland. He went back to his work after lunch, asking me to tell
him when it was 5:30.
At 5:30 I remembered to tell him the time and he promptly came out to
bathe in the sea. I asked him if he wanted to use my soap. “No
thank you,” he said, “I have found that the salt water has
sufficient cleansing agents.” He then instructed me to choose a
tide pool that suited my fancy and to scrub up with some dry coconut
I did as Tavi had told me and then stood there naked and shivering.
Tavi had a solution, “You will find that if you walk to that rock
over there, by the time you get back here you will be perfectly dry
and if you brush the salt off with some dry coconut husk you will feel
as clean as a baby.”
I did as Tavi told me. He was right again.
For dinner we finished the rest of the food we had prepared at lunch.
It still tasted good.
with Tavi at Tamatama for three more days. Then together we packed our
belongings and left the peaceful beach. Tavi was going to return to
Tongatapu to repair the church he had built in Ha'ate'iho and I was
going to Niua Fo'ou to continue my work of recording the oral traditions
of Tonga's most northern islands. Our paths didn't cross again for thirteen
Tonga in December of the next year, 1978, went to India to study yoga
and meditation, spent four years working in the refugee camps of Southeast
Asia and doing more meditation, checked out Japan for a few months,
and then managed, partially thanks to Tavi's encouragement, to pick
up a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Hawaii which
is just on the other side of the Polynesian triangle from Tonga. After
I graduated in 1989 I decided to return to Tonga to teach anthropology in Tonga’s only university, ‘Atenisi.
All the while Tavi and I had been sending letters back and forth. He
had made his annual trip to Tafahi for a few more years. He dedicated
one year to reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, “How many
of the ideas expressed there I found to be what I thought my very own!”
he wrote. He kept traveling around Tonga, did some engineering work
for the Tongan Royal family in Tongatapu, took a cargo boat to Hawaii,
and made a couple trips to New Zealand. On one of those trips to New
Zealand, in the late 80s, he had had a heart attack—he was walking
up a hill in Auckland when things went black. The King's personal physician
told Tavi that if he wanted to live more than another year he would
have to undergo heart surgery; Tavi thought about it for a day and then
announced that he wouldn't do it— he wasn't as interested in living
a long life, as he was interested in living a good life.
So he returned to Tonga with his damaged heart and decided to take up
permanent residence on the island of 'Eua, which was just a three-hour
boat ride from the main island of Tongatapu. On 'Eua, which was at best
a half-hour jeep ride, a 15-minute plane ride, and then another half-hour
drive by car from the nearest hospital, he felt he could endure the
winter in the King of Tonga's summer palace, which was near the lowland
leeward coast. He felt, however, that the so-called summer palace, was
in fact too hot for the summer. He would therefore, he decided, spend
the summer months on the cooler summit of the island. He had made provision
for his burial at sea, but he seemed to have better things to do than
That year, 1990, I visited Tavi on 'Eua three times. On my first visit, soon after I arrived in Tonga, I found that he
was still the great host—insisting on doing the cooking, glad
to see me, and still the great talker. As host he was even willing to
help me to finish a bottle of Sherry that a friend had told me to carry
with me when I visited him. He wanted to tell me everything, “We
have so very much to talk about. Let's not waste time. Perhaps we should
make a list of things to talk about?” He had claimed that the heart
attack had reduced his mental ability, but I found him to be just the
same, even if he was now wearing clothes. He still enjoyed the same
Chinese and Indian philosophers that he always had, but now he said
his interest had expanded to include universal laws. One of these laws
was Murphy's Law that to Tavi meant, “Everything that can go wrong
will go wrong in ways that you don't expect. ” “Murphy was
right,” Tavi said beginning a story, “He was especially right
for Tonga. Take Tafahi for example. When I first went there you couldn't
find a fly in the village, and why? Because there was nothing for the
flies to eat. When nature called, people found a quiet place to do their
business and a pig would instantly devour it. Then the health workers
came to improve the sanitary conditions of the village. They told the
villagers to build latrines. But how can you build a good latrine on
an island that is mostly volcanic rock? Nevertheless, the Tafahi people
didn't want to appear uncivilized so they built them, and after a few
more years they actually started using them. And what happened? The
flies found an unending feast in the human excrement that was in
the shallow pits that pigs couldn’t find and now the flies and the
diseases they carry are everywhere.”
Another of his recently acquired laws was the law of gravity that he
explained to me after I volunteered to sweep the floor, “Wait a
minute, just a minute, just a second,” Tavi said in a voice that
one might use to gently prevent a child from putting his finger in an
electric light socket, “Now look here: I believe in the law of
gravity which is always true except for one-100,000th of a second every
15 billion years which we don't have to worry much about. With gravity
being what it is—everything will fall toward the biggest mass,
in this case the center of the earth— it is far better just to leave
that dust where it is and let the law of gravity keep it right there
on the floor rather than creating even more dust by trying to sweep
it up. My slippers keep my feet clean, so let's not argue with nature,
shall we?” With the law of gravity on his side I knew that there
was no use in arguing with him. I couldn't help but wonder though what
a different world it would be if everyone gave the law of gravity the
The King's summer palace, where Tavi was staying, was just a few hundred
yards away from the premier agricultural school of Tonga, Hango. The
Westerners who worked at the school had come to adore Tavi. They would
stop by occasionally to bring him his mail or just to see how he was
doing and he would give them nutritional or philosophical advice, consolation,
or stories about life in old Tonga. Tavi had, after all, assisted Elizabeth
Bott, in writing Tongan Society at the Time of Captain Cook's Visits.
It seems that old Havea, who had adopted Tavi as his son, had told Tavi
all the old legends and the history of the nobility and the Tongan Royal
family and as always Tavi hadn't forgotten a thing.
Tavi was very aware that he could have a heart attack and die at any
second and that it was his own wits and discipline that kept him
alive. One of life's great pleasures for him was still a good night's
sleep. Nowadays that pleasure would end for him at about 6:45 every
morning at which time he would take his pulse. Gently then he would
turn on the radio, having still not opened his eyes, and listen to the
morning news from Australia followed by the news from England at 8 o'clock.
Finally at about 8:30 he would open his eyes, not to get out of bed,
but just to look around. He would then feel the air to try to determine
how cold it was, after all, the temperature would determine how many
layers of clothing to put on. (It rarely gets below 60 degrees in Tonga.)
He reasoned that not enough clothing could make his body cold, which
could result in heart palpitations, which could produce too much oxygen
in the brain and then a stroke, and death right there. Anyway, at 9:15
Tavi would get out of bed and crack open a sprouted coconut that one
of his neighbors had brought him.
His diet hadn't changed much. Now though he included in it a range of
vitamins that included large quantities of vitamin C (he had become
a disciple of Dr. Linus Pauling) and spirulina, a type of algae that
was, he explained, rich in B vitamins.
on the way to visit his neighbors on 'Eua.
rarely left the King's summer palace, which was really just a cottage
that the Queen has deemed proper to let Tavi have one room of. Late
one afternoon though he decided that he would like to walk up to the
island’s agricultural school, Hango. He carried his umbrella to
keep the sun off and ventured forth. Although the terrain was almost
perfectly flat he wanted to stop every few yards to take his pulse.
When he was certain that his heartbeat was steady, we would continue.
Tavi had definitely taken an extreme stand on his health, but it was
working: a doctor who had examined him at the time of his heart attack
said he was sure that Tavi was going to die any day and that was two
years ago! At the school, the director's wife, being Australian, served
us Milo and biscuits and the former hermit from Hunga and Tafahi was
as social as a fly in a bar.
Later I asked him if his view of humanity had changed over the years.
My question, as always, brought forth another story. “You see,
when I first went to Hunga I really wanted to be alone, to be left completely
alone, to get away from the human race and once I went most of a year
without seeing or speaking to anyone,” he began. Then one day a
ship floundered on Hunga. It was only eighty or so miles (130 kilometers)
from the main island of Tongatapu to the Ha'apai group of islands. Hunga
Tonga was the first of those islands from Tongatapu so when the boat
full of Ha'apai people bound for Tongatapu saw that their ship was in
trouble they somehow maneuvered themselves over to Hunga rather than
risk the rest of the trip. They landed on Hunga and asked Tavi to help
them. Being both an engineer and a great sailor they had asked the right
man. Tavi took his entire supply of dental floss aboard ship and after
a few days had their sail functioning again. He then volunteered to
captain their ship back to the main island of the Ha'apai group. Everyone
thought that was a great idea, so that's what he did. As soon as they
reached the main island the hero to everyone on board, Tavi, told them
that their ship was not seaworthy and that they had better find another
way to get to Tongatapu. Everyone agreed with him so Tavi was very surprised
when that night they all secretly re-boarded the ship and set sail for
Tonga, without him. Their clandestine departure had left Tavi far from home
so he decided to make an unplanned visit to the main island of Tongatapu
on a regular inner-island boat. When the Ha’apai people whom he
had saved learned that he was on Tongatapu they gave him an immense
feast and celebrated his name around Tonga. All of this gave Tavi food
for thought: he, after careful deliberation, decided that perhaps humanity
wasn't so bad after all. Or at least it wasn’t so bad in limited
quantities. Thus inspired, Tavi somehow arranged to bring a few young
Tongan men to Hunga whom he then tutored. One of his students went on to
become a famous boat captain in Tonga. In those years Tavi was an avid
sun-bather. “Every day I would stretch out on the beach and have
one of my students read out loud to me Freud’s “The
Interpretation of Dreams.” To Tavi those were some of the
happiest days of his life.
Tavi again just after my first term as a university lecturer was ending.
It was summer in Tonga so he had moved to the highest and possibly the
coolest point of the island of 'Eua and was staying in another one of the King's
residences, Mahina Hopo, or Moon Rising. The house at Mahina Hopo was
known as “the castle” by the locals. It had been built by
a German Baron only a few years previously on a cliff some 300 dramatic
feet above the ocean—from there one could look up and down the
coast and see the waves crashing on the windward reef far below. The
castle had been abandoned by the Baron after his wife developed skin
cancer. After that the Tongans had looted absolutely everything
of value from the castle with the exception of the two worthless toilets which, just for fun, the vandals had broken off of their foundations.
Tavi had put a board over one of the toilets and was using it as a chair when I visited him.
At this time my personal life in Tonga was in dire straights. I had
fallen in love with a woman who was apparently just learning the joy
of sex and her joy was such that she wanted to enjoy it with as many
people as possible. I told the story to Tavi and he was understanding.
He had by chance met the woman when she had visited the island the year
before and he wanted to very seriously tell me something about her that
he thought might change my life. He hesitated for a long moment before
speaking, “It is a situation that I would get myself out of immediately
and I don't see any way that you can come out of it in a positive way.
I have talked to several people about her and we have concluded that
she is” He paused for another moment, “promiscuous.”
He said promiscuous with the same tone of voice that others might say,
“carrying the HIV-AIDS virus.”
“That may be true,” I pleaded, “but after dull, boring
graduate school to be with a woman again—I can't help it, it's
“Not wonderful!” Tavi interrupted, still serious and thinking
of my betterment, “Heaven! It is heaven on earth to have a woman
beside you in bed rubbing your shoulders, stroking your hair. I know
it is. I know it very well.” He then launched into a long story
about a Tongan woman whom he had met near Hunga when he had first come
to Tonga. Although they had never consummated their relationship, their
affair had been, according to Tavi, second only to Romeo and Juliet
in passion and feelings. They had considered marriage and were virtually
on the way to the altar when Tavi realized that her family would never
let him live in peace if he married her, so he told her mother that
there would not be a wedding.
“So what happened to the girl?”
“She married a government official and as far as I know she has
lived a good life.”
“So there was a happy ending?” I said, hoping the same for
“Happy? Let's not say happy. Let's say that it ended in such a
way that I felt completely at peace with myself for having done the
right thing, the honorable thing, and the thing that I felt I had no
choice but to do.”
That settled, he asked me to help him find a place to commit suicide.
Living there alone in the abandoned castle with the nearest person more
than a kilometer away, he felt that if he had another heart attack it
might be a week before anyone would know it. Rather than linger in pain
after another stroke he had decided that he would take a dive off one of
the cliffs. The problem was finding a cliff that would give him an uninterrupted
free fall to the rocks below—he didn't want to become stuck on
a nearby rock or hang suspended in a tree. So together we walked out
to the seaside cliffs. He stood at the edge of a few cliffs and I scrambled
around and part way down to the bottom to see which cliff had the best
potential to provide a lengthy free fall. After an hour or so we found
a suitable spot and marked it with a rock.
With my duties to him finished and my being the better off for his wise
counsel, I spent the rest of my holiday practicing the meditation I
had learned in India and Southeast Asia years before, with Tavi silently
providing me with food.
visit to 'Eua to see Tavi was just before I left Tonga at the end of
1990. By this time he was living back in the King's summer palace near
the agricultural school. We both knew that it would probably be the
last time for us to meet. I gave him my short wave radio and rigged
up another antenna for him.
He said that he had a present for me as well and that he would give
it to me later that night.
Through the course of the visit I gave him a full report on my personal
life, which had sorted itself out. As always he was full of advice and
sympathy. “You know,” he said, “a woman has never made
a fool wise, but many women have made a wise man foolish.” I had
come to know what he meant very well.
By this visit I had gotten to know his routine pretty well. Dinner was
always the same. I had initially brought some fancy soybean meat loaf
and then canned peanut-burgers with me, but Tavi said that they gave
him indigestion so we ate our standard taro with taro leaves cooked
with coconut. When he stayed here, in the palace, (and it was always
“the palace” instead of the poorly built and horribly maintained
cottage which it really was,) he had a luxury that the “castle”
lacked: electricity. The electricity gave him light at night and powered
a refrigerator that functioned to keep the taro leaves a little fresher
than they otherwise might have been, but his diet had stayed exactly
Now that we had electricity we would postpone dinner until 8 o'clock
or so, which gave us time to have a long glass of sherry between darkness
and dinner that always took place in silence so that we could listen to
the news on the radio.
Dinner was in the bedroom. It was warmer there and afterwards
Tavi could, after brushing his teeth, get straight into bed.
After dinner on our last evening together he remembered his gift to
me. He opened up his trunk (the box that I had built to store my things
in when I went to Niuatoputapu 13 years before) and after considerable
shuffling brought out a cloth purse that he handed to me. I opened it.
Inside was a piece of gold.
“I did some work for the shipping line a few years ago and used
that money to buy a piece of gold, thinking that if things ever became
really severe I could use it as a final reserve, but now I can't imagine
that I'll ever need it, but you might. So why don't you take it?”
I didn't know what to say. I looked at it: it was quite pretty like
a piece of gaily wrapped bubble gum. It was cold though and when I tossed
it up in the air it was heavier than anything I had ever handled before.
I held it under the light to read what was written on it: “The
Perth Mint West Australia 1 oz fine.”
Naturally, I've kept the gold that Tavi gave me..
I thanked him for it and said that I would treasure it. To me it was
the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for decency. I was extremely honored.
I was going to take the plane back to the main island the next morning
which meant that I'd leave the palace at 7
a.m. Tavi was certain that he would not have ended one of the most pleasant
things in life by that early hour. So rather than risk me waking him
up in the morning and thus possibly giving him a fatal heart attack,
he wanted to say good-bye now. We had said good-bye many times before.
Part of his charm was his great sincerity and when he said good-bye
he always made me feel that later he would be a little lonely as if
something would be missing. We shook hands. Clearly and forever, his
were not the hands of a beachcomber or of a Polynesian idler, but of
a man whom I had been very fortunate in meeting and in getting to know.
I felt a little teary, but then somehow teased him about his impending
death, “Well,” I said, “if you make the trip to the other
shore before we meet again I hope that it is a pleasant journey.”
He didn't understand my teasing. “Other shore?” he said, “I'm going
to stay here in 'Eua.”
“No,” I said, “I mean if your thumper stops, I hope that
it goes smoothly.”
“Oh that,” he said with a laugh, “well, you never know,
you might be making that trip before I do.”
“Yes, you never know.”
So I left him there on 'Eua, in the palace, and did not see him again.
Tavi returned to Denmark in 1991 or
2. He died on April 11, 1995. The official version of his death is that he had a heart attack. The unofficial version is that when the doctors told him that he would have to have his legs amputated, he took an overdose of medication and committed suicide. In other words, in his own way, he found the spot on the cliff in 'Eua that together he and I had marked and rather than linger, he used his wits to leap into eternity. Peace be with you, Tavi.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Now, in 2010, I’m older than Tavi was when I first met him. These days I still buy my shirts with two front pockets, the way he advised me to do, “after all, shirts are basically a way to hang tools effectively from your body.” Unfortunately though, I don’t live quite as simply as Tavi did, but more than one person has told me that I own fewer possessions than anyone they know. They didn’t have the good fortune to know Tavi.
I was sorry to see Tavi leave the world, but now, by writing this, like any son, I'm hoping to keep my father’s