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Tonga

Photo by Kris Madden

"The Friendly Isles"

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Very little has changed since Captain Cook proclaimed Tonga ‘The Friendly Isles’ more than 200 years ago. With more than 170 islands (only around 40 inhabited) scattered across 740,000 sq. km of ocean, the Kingdom of Tonga has just about everything you could desire in a South Pacific paradise. Visitors can get active with diving and whale watching; explore coral atolls fringed with white sand beaches; swim in warm turquoise lagoons teeming with tropical fish; trek through rainforest to heritage sites – or simply do nothing at all. The only Pacific nation never to have been colonised, here, history, culture and traditions are still an important part of daily life.

The Kingdom of Tonga is a unique Polynesian Kingdom ruled as it has been for centuries by its royal family. It’s made up of four major island groups: Tongatapu and ‘Eua in the south; Ha’apai group in the centre and Vava’u group in the north.

Each island group has its own character. Starting in the south, Tongatapu is the main island, and Nuku’alofa, its capital and centre of government and culture.

The seven-minute flight to the rarely visited island of ‘Eua is said to be the shortest commercial flight in the world. This is the place to go for true wild adventure.

The islands of Ha’apai are paradise on a budget. Largely undeveloped, you may feel like you have the whole place to yourself.

Vava’u, in the north, is the place for whale watching; and remote Robinson Crusoe-type islands. Tonga is one of only three places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales.

Visitors from most countries do not need a visa to enter Tonga for a period of 30 days.


When To Go

Tonga is a year round destination with a tropical climate.

How Much Time To Spend

Tonga is a remote Kingdom so if you’re planning to visit it’s worth spending at least two to three weeks to take in the main island groups of Tongatapu, Ha’apai and Vava’u.

High and Low Season

Jun–Oct (Southern Hemisphere winter and spring) is peak season with stable weather and warm seas.
November to April (summer) is low season, with higher humidity and frequent tropical storms.

Weather and Climate

Tonga has a tropical climate. Temperatures are warm all year round and range from 25-35°C.
The months of April to August are cooler, dry and less humid. November to April is generally considered summer and humidity tends to be higher at this time, along with frequent tropical rains. From May to October the climate is generally milder and drier.

Events and Holidays

Sundays
Tonga is a deeply religious country and Sunday in Tonga is celebrated as a strict Sabbath, enshrined in the country’s constitution. No trade is allowed on Sunday, and businesses and shops are closed by law allowing Tongan families spend the day attending church for a relaxed day of worship and feasting. Even sports activities are not permitted, even in rugby-mad Tonga. You may find a few tourist restaurants open, but not much else.

Major events
Tonga is not exactly known for major events, but one that is celebrated throughout the Kingdom is the Heilala Festival, held in late June-early July. The week long festival celebrates the King of Tonga’s birthday, as well as the flowering of the heilala, Tonga’s national flower, with parades, parties and various musical events. A highlight is the Miss Heilala Beauty Pageant, where the best contestant is crowned Miss Heilala and becomes the face and representative for the Kingdom.

National Holidays include:

January (1st): New Year’s Day
March/April: Good Friday and Easter Monday
April (25th): Anzac Day
June (4th): Emancipation Day
July: Official Birthday of HM King Tupou VI (birthday of the reigning monarch)
September: Birthday of HRH Crown Prince (birthday of the heir to the Crown)
November (4th): Constitution Day
December (5th): Tupou Day
December (25th): Christmas Day
December (26th): Boxing Day

Banks, post offices and most services will be closed on National Public Holidays.

Time Zone

Tonga’s time zone is UTC/GMT 13 hours
Tonga does not have daylight saving time.
To check the local time in Tonga, click here

What To Pack and Wear

You’ll definitely need your swimmers. Other than that, a sarong, T-shirts and light clothing are all that are needed. It’s a good idea to take any medications that you need as the islands are primitive and supplies are limited.

What it Costs

Tonga is essentially a cash society, and although credit cards are accepted in some places, visitors should make sure they have sufficient funds to pay for services.

ATMs

If you get money from an ATM, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash out” when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.

Credit Cards

Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.

Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.

Other costs:

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and chemist shops (pharmacies/drugstores) will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.

 

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in local currency TOP.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-70 per person
$$$ => Tickets $70 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $200 for a double
$$ => Rooms $201-300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $301 for a double

Eat
$ => Up to $20 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $21-35 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $36 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $21-$50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $51 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

 

See also “Getting Around”.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to Tonga goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical —Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to Tonga. Scuba divers should also ensure they have the appropriate insurance.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

The paʻanga is the currency of Tonga. The paʻanga is subdivided into 100 seniti. It is controlled by the National Reserve Bank of Tonga.

 

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

Cash is king in Tonga. Be sure to take plenty with you, especially if travelling to Ha’apai and ‘Eua which are ATM-free.
There are a few ATMs in Tongatapu and Vava’u, but it’s best to change money at the airport on arrival to be safe.
Major currencies can be changed at local banks, however you’ll probably be waiting in a lengthy queue.
Credit cards are accepted at some tourist facilities but often attract high transaction fees. Visa and MasterCard are the most common.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is not expected or common in Tonga, but is always appreciated as a reward for good service.

Transportation

Fua’amotu International Airport is Tonga’s main international airport located on the main island of Tongatapu, about 20 kilometres from the capital, Nuku’alofa. Tongatapu’s domestic airport is located alongside Fua’amotu International Airport for flights to Ha’apai, Vava’u and ‘Eua.

Getting There

Only three airlines fly into Tonga: Air New Zealand, Fiji Airways and Virgin Australia.

Air New Zealand
From USA: There are daily flights from Los Angeles to Auckland connecting to Tonga five times a week.
From UK/Europe: Daily flights from London to Auckland via Los Angeles, alternatively connecting flights via Hong Kong to Auckland connecting to Tonga five times per week.
From Australia to Tonga: Daily flights to and from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Tonga.
From New Zealand to Tonga: Five flights per week to Tonga.

Virgin Australia
From Australia to Tonga: Two flights per week from Sydney to Tonga.
From New Zealand to Tonga: Two flights per week from Auckland to Tonga.

Fiji Airways
From Australia to Tonga: Two flights per week from both Brisbane and Sydney to Nadi with connecting flights to Tonga.
From USA to Fiji: Three flights a week from LA and Honolulu to Fiji.
From Fiji to Tonga: Four flights per week to Tonga.

Getting Around

Air
The Kingdom’s national domestic airline is REAL Tonga, which has daily flights (except Sundays) to the major island groups. Timetables change frequently, so make sure to check and reconfirm all flights.

Ferry
Most of the island groups are serviced by inter-island ferries, mainly used by the Tongan people as an affordable means of transport. Visitors to Tonga can also travel on these ferries, but as they also carry cargo and livestock, they’re not for the squeamish.

Bus
Like the ferries, bus services are mainly used by locals, and can be difficult to navigate. They are really only available on the main island of Tongatapu. Local taxis are a better bet.

Taxis
There are many taxis throughout Tonga with the majority based in Tongatapu. Taxis are often unmarked and are identified by the letter T at the beginning of the number plate. Taxis are not metered and it is important to always agree on the fare before getting in. An acceptable fare from the International Airport to downtown Nuku’alofa would be $30 and short trips around the capital $5-$6. Taxis can also be hired for a half or full day for sightseeing. Forget about Uber.

Car hire
Rental cars can be hired in the capital, Nuku’alofa, but be forewarned, many of the roads are off-track. A Tongan visitor driver’s license can be obtained from the Ministry of Transport in Nuku‘alofa and is required for all drivers in Tonga. Tongan’s drive on the left hand side of the road and the speed limits are generally low compared with Europe or the USA.

Tours
Tourism in Tonga is still relatively undeveloped, so private tours operated by local operators are the best way to get around.

Background

Top Attractions

Royal Palace
The ornate white Royal Palace looks over the sea in Nuku’alofa. The 1867-built palace is still the official home of Tonga’s royalty. Visitors cannot enter the grounds but the palace can easily be viewed from outside. The nearby Royal Tombs have been the burial place of Tongan Royalty since 1893.

Ha’amonga Trilithon
Referred to as ‘The Stonehenge of the South Pacific, the Ha’amonga archaeological site is believed to have been made by the demigod Maui, as the stones would be too huge for mortals to handle. However they got here, they have been there since the 13th century and they are huge.

Swim with whales
Every year from July-October humpback whales make their long migration from Antarctica to breed and give birth in the warm Tongan waters. Tonga is one of the only places in the world where it is legal to swim with humpback whales, and it’s truly the wildlife experience of a lifetime.

Learn about kava culture
Join a local guide and learn about traditional Tongan culture, including the ceremony of kava drinking. Not everyone goes back for a second helping of this pungent, murky liquid, but drinking it at least once is an essential experience for visitors to Tonga. Make sure not to drink too many!

Join in a Tongan festival
The Heilala Festival, held annually in June-July, and named after Tonga’s national flower, celebrates His Majesty’s Birthday, and showcases Tongan beauty, culture and values. The Miss Heilala Beauty Pageant celebrates the authentic beauty of young Tongan women, with the winner becoming the face and representative of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Outside the main island of Tongatapu, Tonga’s island groups have much to offer all types of travellers; from those looking for an authentic eco-adventure, to luxury resorts, where the only footsteps you might see in the sand are your own. The easiest access to these islands is via domestic flights.

Vava’u Islands
Tiny islands, deserted beaches and shimmering lagoons, the northern Vava’u island group is known as the adventure hub of Tonga. Along with a worldwide reputation as a yachting playground, other adventures include scuba diving, kayaking, game fishing, and swimming with whales. Or just flop and drop on an island resort.

Ha’apai Islands
Uncrowded, unhurried and undiscovered, the scattered islands, atolls, reefs and shoals of the central island group of Ha’apai are an undeniably authentic slice of Polynesia. Looming volcanic islands and pristine coral atolls provide a superb tropical backdrop for more adventurous travellers. Here, you’ll instantly slow right down to ‘island time’.

‘Eua
There’s not much on the island of ‘Eua, but the tiny islands’ combination of breathtaking beauty and rugged landscapes make it the perfect destination for travellers in search of adventure. Geographically, ‘Eua is the Kingdom’s oldest island. Covered in lush rainforest, it’s home to the country’s best hiking and bird-watching

Culture

At the Tongan National Cultural Centre in Nuku’alofa you can experience a traditional Taumafa ceremony, participate in a Tongan feast and be entertained by the staff as they bring the traditions, history and hospitality of the Friendly islands to life. www.tonganationalcentre.com

Nuku’alofa’s Talamahu market on Salote Road is a proudly local affair, where everything from tui oil to woven kia-kia’s to the freshest fruit on earth is sold, all locally grown and made. It’s best to get there early when the market opens. Pick up a papaya plucked straight from the tree; or sample one of the vast varieties of sweet bananas. Fresh coconuts and noni fruit are everywhere. If you can’t make it to Talamahu, you can still get a chance to sample Nuku’alofa’s amazing produce by ambling down Vuna Road, toward the fish market. Along the way, you’ll find vendors selling a variety of produce. Tongan stamps are also collectors’ items; complete sets are available at the post office.

Tongans wear mats known as the ‘ta’ovala’ around the waist as a respectful form of dress in the Kingdom. The custom originated in ancient times when men returning from long sea voyages would cut the mast sails of their canoes and cover their naked bodies before appearing before their chief.

Etiquette

Tonga is a very conservative nation, especially when it comes to dress. It’s illegal to appear in public without a shirt, and it’s not acceptable to wear revealing clothing such as brief shorts or skirts, or bikinis in public, or when swimming at public beaches. Tongans usually swim fully clothed.

Tipping is not expected in Tonga, but is always appreciated as a reward for good service.

Cuisine

In Tonga food is how all food should be: harvested fresh, cooked fresh and enjoyed fresh. Succulent meat and seafood are local specialties available on every restaurant menu, including ‘ota ika’ (fish marinated in lemon and coconut cream) and ‘lu pulu’ (beef and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves).

For a true taste of Tongan culture, feasts play a major role. Up to 30 different dishes may be served on a ‘pola’, a long tray of plaited coconut fronds and typically includes suckling pig, crayfish, chicken, octopus, and vegetables cooked in an ‘umu’, or underground oven. The feast is always accompanied by singing and dancing and kava drinking, male Tongans drink of choice.

It’s worth noting that most Tongan restaurants are closed on Sundays, with international hotels and resorts being the exception.

Our top picks

Waterfront Lodge& Café
Vuna Road, Ma’ufanga,
Nuku’alofa
The Waterfront Lodge is packed with character and is arguably the most popular restaurant in Nuku’alofa. Centrally located downtown, it boasts beautiful views over the sea, and provides easy access to ferry terminals and local markets.The café features a large selection of seafood, homemade pasta, meat and delicious desserts. www.tongawaterfrontlodge.com

Friends Café
Taufa’ahau Road, opposite the Post Office
Nuku’alofa
Friends Café is an institution in Nuku’alofa, and has been a meeting place for travellers and locals since 1999. Serving some of the best coffee in town, the café is open for breakfast and light snacks until 10 pm. There is also a tour desk, souvenir shop, and Internet access.
www.friendstonga.com

Eat like a local

Most Tongans are subsistence farmers, existing on a diet of pork, chicken, fish and fresh root vegetables. Traditional Tongan dishes include crayfish and fish, octopus, suckling pig, and tropical fruits. Some of the most well liked and mouth-watering are devilled clams; ‘feke’, consisting of squid or grilled octopus in coconut sauce; lobster, meat and onions marinated in coconut milk and baked in taro leaves; and ‘ota’ – raw fish marinated in lemon juice. The ‘umu’ or underground oven also features in traditional Tongan cooking.

Religion

Religion plays an important role in everyday Tongan life. On Sundays, churches of all denominations located on almost every street corner, glow with soaring harmonies. Visitors are welcome to join in the services. The sound of the Tongan voices raising the roof is a spectacle not to be missed.

It is important to note that all businesses are closed on Sundays in respect to the Sabbath, including most cafes and bars. Restaurants in tourist resorts and international hotels will still be open. Bars in Nuku’alofa can get rowdy and boisterous on a Friday night.

Language

Tongan is the official language of the Kingdom, although English is widely spoken.

Recommended Reading

Popular Tonga Books

Tales of the Tikongs
by Epeli Hauʻofa, 1988

The Journals
by James Cook published 1954

Lords of the Pacific
by Grant Hyde

An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean
by William Mariner published 1979

Island Kingdom: Tonga Ancient & ModernIsland Kingdom: Tonga Ancient & Modern
by I.C. Campbell

Ravenstone
by Deborah Cannon  published 2008

Love in the South Seas
by Bengt Danielsson

The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
by Paul Theroux

Hunt For The Southern Continent
by James Cook

Minerva Reef
by Olaf Ruhen published 1963

The Tongan: A South Pacific Adventure
by Dieter Dyck

A History of the Pacific Islands by I.C. Campbell
published 1989

Pacific Journeys
by Peter Hendrie (Photography)

KakalaKakala
by Konai Helu Thaman published 1993

A Farm in the South Pacific Sea
by Jan Walker published 2011

In Search of the Friendly Islands
by Kalafi Moala published 2009

Voyages
by Cathy A. Small  published 1997

American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps
by Philip Weiss  published 2004

Friendly and Feejee Islands: A Missionary Visit to Various Stations in the South Seas, 1847 (1850)
by Walter Lawry  published 2008

Tapa In Tonga
by Wendy Arbeit
published 1995

Becoming Tongan: An Ethnography of Childhood
by Helen Morton published 1996

Ten Years in South-Central Polynesia: Being Reminiscences of a Personal Mission to the Friendly Islands and Their Dependencies
by Thomas G. West  published 2007

The Art Of Tonga= Ko E Ngaahi’aati’o Tonga
by Keith St. published 1997

Po Fananga: Folk tales of TongaPo Fananga: Folk tales of Tonga
by Tupou Posesi Fanua published 1982

Shirley Baker and the King of Tonga (The Pasifika Library)
by Noel Rutherford

Kinship to Kingship: Gender Hierarchy and State Formation in the Tongan Islands
by Christine Ward Gailey published 1987

Friendly Island: A Tale Of Tonga
by Patricia Ledyard

Tongan Society At The Time Of Captain Cook’s Visits: Discussions With Her Majesty The Queen Salote Tupou (Polynesian Society, Wellington// Memoirs)Tongan Society At The Time Of Captain Cook’s Visits: Discussions With Her Majesty The Queen Salote Tupou (Polynesian Society, Wellington// Memoirs)
by Elizabeth Bott

Savage Island: An Account Of A Sojourn In Niue And Tonga
by Basil Thomson published 2009

Tonga Pictorial: A Tapestry Of Pride = Kupesi ʻo Tonga: Ko e Makatuʻunga ʻo e LaukauTonga Pictorial: A Tapestry Of Pride = Kupesi ʻo Tonga: Ko e Makatuʻunga ʻo e Laukau
by Donna Gerstle

Early Tonga As the Explorers Saw It, 1616-1810
by Edwin N. Ferdon published 1988

Missions in the Tonga and Feejee Islands, as Described in the Journals of REV. Walter Lawry. Revised by Daniel P. Kidder.
by Walter Lawry  published 2006

Tongans Overseas: Between Two Shores
by Helen Morton Lee published 2003

Church And State In Tonga: The Wesleyan Methodist Missionaries And Political Development, 1822 1875
by Sione Lātūkefu published 1974

Moon Handbooks South Pacific
by David Stanley published 1985

Art

Tongan arts and handicrafts are made using techniques passed down through generations. Local artisan markets provide the opportunity to pick up an authentic wood carving, finely woven basket, or any number of beautiful keepsakes. The signature Tongan item is tapa, a decorative bark cloth painted with traditional symbols and designs, which can be bought from most villages.

Visit Nuku‘alofa’s main produce and craft markets, or explore the Langafonua Gallery and Handicraft and The Women’s Handicraft centres downtown, for a great array of Tongan handicraft specialities. The Tongan National Centre also showcases excellent examples of traditional craft.

Retail stores sell casual beach-wear, silk screen prints, and hand-painted clothes, and unique Tongan jewellery. The Leiola store is also good for a spot of duty-free shopping, or to pick up a coveted Tongan rugby jersey.

Our top picks

Langafonua Gallery and Handicrafts Centre
Taufa’ahau Road
Nuku’alofa
The Langafonua Gallery and Handicrafts Centre is located in the heart of Nuku’alofa, and stocks the best range of traditional Tongan handicrafts and fine arts including a range of unique handmade items such as traditional tapa cloth and tapa crafts, woven crafts, Tongan jewellery, baskets, and high quality wood carvings. www.madeintonga.com/langafonua

Blue Banana Studios
Kanokupolu Western Side
Nuku’alofa
Blue Banana Studios is the home of a family of artists directly on the beach at Kanokupolu. The shop features a range of Tongan-made screen-printed T-shirts, gift cards, prints, paintings and clothing, with Tongan inspired designs; as well as unique silver, gold, and black pearl jewellery, sculptured by family members. www.bluebananastudios.com/shop

Art of Tonga
Fund Management Building, Taufa’ahau Road
Nuku’alofa
Don’t let the size of this shop fool you, as it is one of the best places to pick up excellent carvings at reasonable prices. The quality of wares they sell is very good and you’ll be assured that you are purchasing a genuine article.

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