Fabled as the descendants of the sky god Tangaloa, Tonga’s royal family is known for extravagance. The late King Tupou V would take distinguished guests to the skies in a regal-red 1960 Beechcraft Super g18 light aircraft, where they could survey his isolated Pacific archipelago. Regarded as an Anglophile, he also acquired two vintage British taxis for his motorcade, noting how their wide doors allowed him to make a swift exit when carrying his sword. By contrast King Tupou VI – the unlikely successor who ascended to the throne in 2012 after his brother died without a legitimate child heir – has shunned pomp.
“He is more down to earth and more open to the public, mainly because he never dreamt he would be a monarch,” says Malakai Koloamatangi, an associate professor from Massey University in Auckland. Tupou VI has been known to take a seat in economy on flights with commercial carriers such as Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand, and is no stranger to the regular ferry services that navigate Tonga’s many inhabited islands. His day-to-day vehicle is relatively low-key too: a grey Toyota Land Cruiser, into which he squashes with his burly bodyguards.
Such an unaffected monarch couldn’t have arrived at a better time for Tonga as the democratisation initiated by his brother rolls on. Tupou VI has been pivotal in steering this transition, which involves increasing the number of elected representatives in parliament and reducing how many royal appointees sit in the chamber. At the same time he has managed to remain a powerful cultural leader for a population that is struggling with a range of challenges, from unemployment to surges in both obesity rates and sea levels.
ATR 72-600, Fiji Airways
For royal international visits the king uses commercial airlines and when the weather is good he hops on Fiji Airways’ ATR 72-600 to visit the island of Vava‘u.
MV ‘Otuanga’ofa ferry
To reach Tonga’s inhabited islands Tupou VI is known to catch the MV ‘Otuanga’ofa, a passenger-and-cargo ferry that was donated by the Japanese government after the previous ship sank in 2009, killing 74 people.
Toyota Land Cruiser Prado
This hardy four-wheel drive is a practical choice for the king to tackle Tongatapu’s mountainous terrain and navigate roads made of bitumen, gravel and dirt.
1949 Humber Pullman limousine
A prized possession of the Tongan royal family and used at the coronation of both Tupou IV and Tupou V, this gem is one of only seven landaulet-bodied versions of a car originally designed for the UK’s King George VI.
The island nation of Kiribati has always focused diplomatic energy on maintaining relationships with its Pacific neighbours. But as rising sea levels threaten to submerge this string of atolls, the country has started looking for expert help in the Middle East.
The UAE recently funded a solar-power plant in Kiribati and Qatar’s UN ambassador has officially opened diplomatic relations. Significantly, Kiribati’s government has also met a group of UAE technicians who are experts at building artificial islands. The reason? To work out how to create a landmass to accommodate Kiribatians if their country is lost to the ocean.
The Australian state of Queensland has never been an easy place to govern, mainly because of its size. With landmass of roughly seven times that of the UK and coastline that stretches almost 7,000km, it presents a daily challenge for state legislators in Brisbane. Debate about splitting the state into two more manageable regions has dragged on for decades but the pro-division camp is gaining ground.
A group of politicians in the state’s north now believes that their region is economically strong enough to sustain “North Queensland”. With a handful of federal ministers offering support, they are hoping to force a referendum on the issue.
In his latest book, Pacific: The Ocean of the Future, Simon Winchester explores the history and political significance of the world’s largest body of water.
What makes the Pacific the ocean of the future?
The two most important axes of trade are between the west coast of the US and cities such as Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai. The future of the world is going to be decided in the ocean between these points.
What do you mean by saying Australia is “overwhelmingly non-Pacific”?
The identity of Australia is hard to pin down. Is it still an extension of Europe? It should be most focused on Beijing, Jakarta and other Pacific capitals. However, for every three steps Australia takes towards being a Pacific nation it takes two steps backwards.
Is China’s growing Pacific influence a military threat?
They as much claim to the Pacific as anyone; they aren’t harming anybody. They’ll exert trade muscle and that’s fine; may the best power win.