Photo: Without saddle or stirrups, an elderly man carries the day’s crop home on horseback on Niuatoputapu Island
This is a summary of our week in Niuatoputapu to give you a sense of our cruising life.
(20th September): Leave Neiafu at 5:30 pm
: Mostly downwind sailing on just jib.
: mostly sunny and breezy
Motor last five hours to arrive with the sun high in the sky and approach pass into Niuatoputapu lagoon at 11 am.
Carefully follow GPS waypoints provided by a cruising-guide into the lagoon entrance-channel, noting that our electronic-chart is about 0.5 nm off to the east.
Anchor near three other boats, protected by reef to the north and west and by the island, with its central ridge 146 m (479 feet) high, to the east and south.
Rush to inflate dinghy, mount outboard, and load folded bicycles.
Zip to shore, assemble bicycles, ride 4 km from Falehau to Hihifo to discover that the cruising-guide's map is well out-of-date and the office that we seek to check-in before the weekend is almost half-way back to Falehau.
Randall on the island's main road between Falehau and Hihifo
Check-in by simply handing over paper from Neiafu Customs.
Briefly meet cruisers from two of the other boats.
Take long naps.
Government offices on Niuatoputapu: (R to L) Police station, Bank, Customs and Immigration office
: mostly sunny and breezy
Visit other cruising boats to ask about best snorkeling sites - SV Rouser is just leaving for Fiji but we invite the crews of SVs Florence and Levana for sundowners.
Take dinghy out through main pass and drift west along the edge of the fringing reef for 90 minutes as the water temperature of 80°F or 27°C is pretty comfortable. Interesting topography and fish, including three species new to us: oriental sweetlips, smalltooth jobfish, and fourline wrasse.
Tidy-up the boat and prepare some appetizers.
Enjoy the company of Amy and Matt (Florence), Jenny and Sasha (Levana) for the evening, exchanging their enthusiastic information about Samoa for our observations on the rest of Tonga and New Zealand.
: overcast with some dark clouds and stiff breeze
Join the other cruisers at the wharf and walk to the nearby small Wesleyan Church where we enjoy rousing singing with beautiful harmonies from the congregation of about 50 adults and 20 children. Everything is in Tongan so the long prayers, readings, and sermon are a mystery but we do get the gist of the roll-call and announcement of the size of the donation that is subsequently made (usually carried up front by the children). Everyone is dressed in their best (including us) and afterwards we are greeted by the minister before everyone quickly disperses. Randall harbors a slight disappointment at not being invited to a Sunday feast...
Inside the modest temporary church (a new one is being constructed nearby)
In the afternoon we take our dinghies to Hakautuutuu Island (in the northwest corner of the bay). Over-washed by the 2009 tsunami, the trees have regrown and there is a small sand beach on the lee side but otherwise the island is surrounded by an extensive rubble of dead coral.
Seen from Niuatoputapu, Hakautuutuu Island is framed by the volcanic cone of Tafahi Island, 5 nm to the north
: raining much of the day with stiff breeze
Stay onboard Tregoning all day.
Organize my fish-species spreadsheet and underwater photos. Make pita bread.
When visiting Hakautuutuu Island, dark clouds gathered over our dinghies and Niuatoputapu
: mostly sunny and light breeze
Take bicycles to shore and explore an inland road which takes us past the construction-site of the new hospital that is being built at a higher elevation than the existing health clinic in Falehau.
Randall cycles on an inland road through part of Falehau Village
In Hihifo, we ask at the Tonga Communications Company why we cannot get the internet on our cellphone despite having paid for 2 GB of data in Vava'u. When told there is NO DATA SERVICE in Niuatoputapu, we complain that the Vava'u office did not tell us this, after various long phone calls our data plan is cancelled and our money credited to make phone calls...a few people in the US get unexpected calls from us.
Randall peers into the freshwater spring
Cycle past the King's relatively modest residence to a freshwater spring. Alison accidentally drops her sunglasses in the spring but luckily she has brought her swimsuit so she takes a refreshing dip to rescue them. No-one else is around to be shocked by her typical-American, one-piece bathing suit (immodest by Tonga standards) but as we leave we meet a women, with her young son and a small, new puppy on their way to enjoy the spring.
Heading to the spring for a dip with tiny, sleepy puppy in her left hand
Cycle out to the airport, which is used just once a week, on the southwest side of the island. Admiring the grass runway and rustic "departure lounge" under a tree, we see a white-tailed tropicbird and Pacific pigeon, and are very surprised to see a barn owl in flight.
Randall rests in the rustic "departure lounge" at the airport terminal
Completing the circumnavigation of the island, we ride along the bumpy dirt road on the south side of the central ridge noticing the small plots of taro, bananas, manioc, papaya, and pandanus scattered throughout the coconut trees.
Banana plants under the coconut palms on the southern loop-road
: rain, clouds, and some strong gusts all day
After a disturbed night with some strong wind gusts of at least 27 knots, we stay onboard Tregoning all day.
SVs Levana and Florence head south to Vava'u leaving us alone in the anchorage.
I update my bird species spreadsheet, organize more underwater photos, and write a blog update to post via single-sideband radio (since we have no internet).
Late in the afternoon, although the anchor is holding well, we feel uncomfortable about how close we will be to the shoreline reef when the wind backs to the north, so we move to the center of the otherwise empty anchorage.
With wind gusts reaching at least 31 knots later that night, we are very relieved that we moved.
: windy but sunny intervals although thunder rumbles in the distance at night
Ride bicycles to Customs and Immigration Office to get our exit papers and have our passports stamped in anticipation of leaving Tonga the next day.
Alison with the Customs and Immigration Officer for Niuatoputapu
On the way back to Falehau, we ride the inland road which takes us through the parts of the village that were resettled further uphill after the 2009 tsunami.
Niuatoputapu has many signs for tsunami evacuation routes to safe locations at higher elevations. It was probably a coincidence that this sign was in front of an elevated building
A typical thatched "shed" in a Niuatoputapu village
After wondering what the thatched "sheds" were for in the villages, we notice ladies inside one and are invited inside. These cool, shady buildings are workshops for weaving mats from dried pandanus leaves. The mats, which often have quite elaborate designs, are made for floor-coverings, to wear on formal occasions, and for export and sale.
Women weaving a large pandanus mat in the thatched workshop
Return to Tregoning, stow bikes, secure outboard, and raise the dinghy. I make lentil lasagna and oatmeal-raisin bars for our two-night passage to Samoa.
: Showers and winds swing around from north to west, south and east
Make final preparations to leave Tonga.
Exit lagoon pass with good light around noon.
Empty holding-tank when well away from the islands then make freshwater while running the engine.
Plan to motor-sail east while winds are light so that we can turn north and sail the following day when winds are forecast to strengthen from the southeast...at least, that is what we hope will happen...
Our closing thoughts on Tonga
We really enjoyed our 15-week stay in Tonga. The only things that I can remember that we missed were: seeing the King in Tongatapu and a trip to 'Eua Island; visiting Nomuka and Nomuka Iki Islands and snorkeling in the pass north of Foa in the Ha'apai Group; snorkeling into Mariner's Cave in Vava'u; and making an expedition 100 km west of Niuatoputapu to the island of Niuafo'ou to see the rare Tongan megapode birds which lay their eggs to incubate in volcanically warmed soil. That is a pretty short list and the amazing number of other cool things that we did get to see and do in Tonga vastly outweigh these omissions.
We loved the friendly, easy-going, ready-to-laugh people and admired their relatively independent history. Although occasionally frustrating, their apparent nonchalance about tourism has kept the islands relatively free of internationally owned luxury resorts and high-pressure hustling for tours, taxis, and "good deals" of souvenirs.
The nation may have struggles ahead: as it tries to blend more democracy with its monarchy; in seeking to sustain an economy that is so dependent on remittances and international aid; as it balances waste disposal (especially imported plastics) and marine harvesting with the protection of natural resource; and with the population movements that are forced by global climate change and rising sea-levels. However, most people seem to be very proud of their country and of their Polynesian heritage so we hope that this South Pacific nation will long be able to hold a comfortable and sustainable position in the world's economy, politics, and environment.