In 1966, Australian traveler Peter Warner stumbled upon ‘Ata, an island that is part of the Tonga archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. There he discovered something remarkable: there were six boys who had been reported missing fifteen months earlier.
The teenagers said they had come by fishing boat from the port of Nuku’alofa, about 160 km south of ‘Ata, because they wanted an adventure. But then the boat was damaged by a storm and they wandered the sea for eight days with nothing to eat or drink, before finding themselves stranded on the deserted island. There they built a hut and survived on a diet of fish, banana and papaya.
It was big news at the time. Australian photographer John Carnemolla traveled to the island to document how the boys had lived there. The story grabbed international headlines, but then fell into obscurity – until Rutger Bregman put it back in the limelight with his book Most people are good.
One of the castaways is now 74 years old and is called Sione Filipe Totau, also known as Mano. In a new episode of our podcast Extreme, that you here on Spotify, he talks about what it was like to survive as a nineteen-year-old boy on the island. The following below is an excerpt from that conversation.
I grew up in Tonga, on Ha’afeva Island. It’s very small – about two miles in a mile – and I realized this when I got into geography and history in school, and saw that Fiji and New Zealand were a lot greater. I always thought, how do I get out of here? I wanted to see the world.
A friend of mine once said, “We are going to Fiji. Would you like to come? ”We didn’t have a boat, but he just wanted to steal it. I decided to join in. After school, we walked on the beach and checked which boats were there. There were a man who put his boat in the same place every day, always around six or seven in the evening, so one day we picked up his boat right after and left.
There were six of us, all between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. One of the boys was an accomplished sailor – his father owned the exact same boat. We hoisted the sail and left the port. There was a strong wind.
Around midnight we could no longer see Nukuʻalofa. The wind was blowing harder and harder and the waves were getting higher and higher. There was a storm and as we hadn’t lowered the sail in time, the gusts of wind blew her off the boat.
The next day there was drizzle. We floated in the middle of the ocean without a sail, trying to collect rainwater in cans we found on board, but otherwise we had no food at all. Some of the boys started to cry, but there was nothing we could do. We had to keep hope, but I was afraid we wouldn’t survive.
So we floated at sea for eight days – until we got to Ata Island. In the morning, we saw it looming in the distance and the wind slowly brought us closer. It wasn’t until late in the evening that we got really close. It was a volcanic island, with high cliffs. We prayed and I said to the others, “I’m going first – don’t get off the boat until I get back.”
I jumped off the boat and swam through the waves. Once on dry land, I saw the whole island spinning around – only it wasn’t because of the island, but because of myself. We had been without food or water for eight days, so everything was going a bit wrong. After catching my breath, I shouted, “I’m here!”
They all made it to land. We said a prayer and just kept crying.
We fell asleep and woke up only when the sun rose the next morning. The first thing we did was try to climb to the top of the island. Along the way, I walked on a branch that was completely wet. I picked it up, broken small pieces and licked it – it was the first liquid I had drunk in a week.
Once at the top, we looked at the cliffs around us. We were still alive. We had solid ground under our feet and that gave us hope.
We tried to make a fire, but we were still very weak. But after looking for crustaceans in the sea and also finding papayas and coconuts, we were able to gradually rub the branches firmly together, making a campfire. Three months had passed by then – it was the first hot meal we had had in ages.
Then we wanted to build a cabin. I myself knew how to weave with coconut leaves, so we made it into a wall. It was successful after two weeks, then we divided the interior space of the house. There was a fireplace in the center and we had beds of banana leaves. We had put everything in a calendar, from how to light the fire and say our prayers to how to take care of the banana leaves. We had to work well together, knowing we wouldn’t get out of here.
I never really liked it because I really wanted to go back to my family. That’s why we decided to build a raft after a month. We cut down tall trees and burnt the branches with fire. But once we got the raft on the water, it floated along the beach a bit, instead of going out to sea with it. We were afraid of never coming home.
I tried not to think about how long we are here. I was hoping something would happen, and if it wasn’t today, it would be tomorrow. It didn’t feel like we had been there for fifteen months.
One day we saw a boat in the distance. The boat was getting closer and closer to the island. Steven was the first to spot it and jumped into the sea to swim. The skipper, Mr Warner, later said that one of his companions said he heard a human voice – after which he himself said it was probably just the birds. But then he saw Steven swimming in the sea. He took a closer look and then saw five long haired naked boys standing on the beach.
This moment was indescribable. Tension screamed through our bodies. We survived and I was finally able to see my family again.
Once home, we celebrated it for three days. First with our families, then with the church, and then with the whole island.
When I think back to that time, I realize that we really learned a lot. Probably more than ever at school. On the island, I have learned to trust you. Now I realize that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like or anything, because when you’re really in trouble you really see what it takes to survive.
This is an excerpt from our podcast Extreme. Listen here free to full interview on Spotify.